Michael Conlan one fight away from world title shot in Belfast after Nikitin victory
Michael Conlan has kissed the Blarney Stone, embraced the hyperbole that the Irish Americans savour as much as their Christmas aperitifs and now we are getting to the meat of his professional career.
The victory over Vladimir Nikitin in the early hours of Sunday morning in New York’s Madison Square Garden has surely marked the end of stage one of his professional life that has been shrewdly guided by veteran promoter Bob Arum, the boss of boxing’s number one powerhouse, Top Rank.
The only Irishman to win world gold as an amateur, 2020 is now all about achieving the same status as a professional and that means a substantial step up in class for his return to the ring on March 17 at Madison Square Garden before a planned title fight in Belfast next summer.
Promoter Bob Arum confirmed: "The atmosphere in Belfast the last time Michael fought was amazing and assuming that he comes through a big fight on St Patrick's Day then I would like to see him have a world title fight in Belfast."
Russian Nikitin may have benefited from outside influence at the Rio 2016 Olympics when Conlan was denied victory in their bantamweight quarter-final but he would have to rely on his own powers in the Big Apple and it was evident from the first bell of their 10-rounder that they were not going to be enough for him to dent the Belfast man. Conlan has progressed as a professional and Nikitin has not.
That moment in Rio will forever cause Conlan pain but having lost twice to the Russian as an amateur, he wasn’t going to allow anything to stand in the way of him leaving no doubt who is the superior professional. The build-up may have been largely around talk of revenge but for that to be truly the case the Belfast man would probably have wanted the Rio judges in the ring in MSG.
This was Conlan once more dealing with the high levels of expectation along with showing how he is progressing along the professional learning curve to a point where it is time for a fight that truly shows he is ready for a world title shot. That should come on St Patrick’s Day.
Nikitin’s aggression and heart was never in doubt but as he sought to shift from side to side before steadying himself for assault, Conlan — boxing largely from a southpaw stance — pivoted and demonstrated his superior footwork before landing stabbing jabs and whipping left hands to the body.
With half the fight gone at a good pace, Conlan was dominant and, notably, his engine rarely declined through the 10 rounds. Disciplined in his approach, the Belfast man had only lost the fifth before winning rounds six and seven. Then the bout suddenly found a higher gear — but notably only when Conlan decided that should be the case.
Giving the fans what they craved, he stood in range for longer periods, allowing Nikitin — who was stung by a right hook — to engage and have some success. Conlan also went back to his corner with a nasty cut over his right eye after Nikitin’s head had grazed his eyebrow — a consequence of the entertaining exchanges at close quarters.
After a punch of bravado to the crowd, coach Adam Booth returned him to the clinical path to victory, with all the three judges declaring him a clear victor, 98-92, 99-91, 100-90.
“It was a lot of pressure going into this fight,” Conlan said.
“I feel like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. But it’s nice to get it done.
“I’ve always said I’ve no ill-feeling towards Vladimir. Nothing was personal. I just needed to get that one back.
“That fight could have been very emotional because of what happened and what it caused for me. I just had to remain calm. We worked on that in training camp and it worked.”
The final part of his apprenticeship completed, Conlan can now sense he is just one victory away from a world title opportunity in Belfast, with Falls Park the planned venue.