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Our Sporting Lives with Jamie Conlan: I've always been my brother Michael's biggest fan and biggest critic

Jamie Conlan on dramatic night of world title pain, and how he loves guiding brother Michael


All smiles: Michael and Jamie Conlan

All smiles: Michael and Jamie Conlan

On count: Jamie Conlan during defeat to Jerwin Ancajas

On count: Jamie Conlan during defeat to Jerwin Ancajas

�INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

All smiles: Michael and Jamie Conlan

On the morning of November 17, 2017, Jamie Conlan stepped out of a hot bath and his legs gave way. He was an hour away from weighing in for a world title fight taking place just over 24 hours later. It would be the last bout of a drama-filled career.

Conlan had been fighting a debilitating battle with the scales for some time, even when winning the Commonwealth super-flyweight title and moving up the world ladder. Now, ahead of the biggest night of his career in the SSE Arena, the Belfast man had to be carried down the stairs by girlfriend Tracey before dad John scooped him up and took him to the car for a short trip to the weigh-in.

As he reflects on his time as a professional, Conlan deflects any suggestion of praise and admiration for his courage from those who paid to watch him with all the force of one of his favourite left hooks. But, there is no doubting the emotion-filled night as he rose from the canvas as SSE Arena fans willed him to his feet on four occasions having been under a savage assault to the weight-drained body from IBF world super-flyweight champion Jerwin Ancajas.

"I remember feeling the energy from the crowd… I've never looked back at the fight, I had lived it and that was always how I thought about fights. Every time I went down it hurt even more because I couldn't fulfil what the crowd wanted me to do. I probably still don't realise how much I was respected… it was weird because you feel the warmth of the crowd for you and I could hear 'Ole, Ole, Ole!' and 'Stand up for the Ulstermen!' both being sung as the whole crowd got behind me, willing me to get to my feet when I was on the canvas," said Conlan, now managing the career of brother Michael, whose latest bout in Madison Square Garden next week has been cancelled due to coronavirus.

"That was a surreal moment and they were cheering me as I stood in the ring after the fight when I just wanted to leave the ring and crawl into a hole because my dream had been crushed.

"I was just so down. I held it together until I got into the tunnel after the fight and the cameras were off and then I just crumbled… the tears came because the realisation set in that my career was over.

"Making the weight had played a part but I had moments like that before ahead of weighing in - even when I beat Anthony Nelson to win the Commonwealth title. Even having a conversation before that one took all my energy away, took all the air from my lungs, but you make weight, get off the scales and have a drink and tell yourself, 'That was easy'. Every boxer is like that, we delude ourselves in some way or another. Paddy Barnes was the same, I've seen him nearly faint and then after the weigh-in tell people he feels great.

"I believed I was going to beat Ancajas because I had told myself that if I do this and that I can win but in hindsight now I would call myself an idiot for thinking like that.

"I always knew that no matter what I can knock the opponent out but also I was putting myself in danger of being knocked out. I lived on that edge, it was a gun-slinging attitude… it was how I always thought and it was idiotic at times because I didn't live that way in life or in training or sparring, everything was meticulous but it always happened two or three days leading up to the fight.

"I would feel something change and just believed that no matter how tough it got I could out-tough you and drag you to somewhere you had never been. I relied on that more than I should have."

Having weighed in for his championship bouts at 8st 3lb, the 33-year-old sips on his green tea at a comfortable 10st 11lb. Within two years of retirement, Conlan has become a major player in world boxing, guiding brother Michael's career among many others who are connected to the MTK management firm, such as world champion Billy Joe Saunders.

It is with a certain irony that Conlan explains how he never really wanted to go down the path of professional boxing, having enjoyed a fine amateur career which was gilded with four Ulster senior titles. A fifth was on the cards but there would be a twist as Michael had just come onto the senior scene and the two St John Bosco ABC men had made the 2009 flyweight final.

"We had agreed that if we both made the final I would take the title but there was something about watching Michael winning the semi-final that changed my mind. On the way home I told my dad that it had to be Michael and I would step aside. The Commonwealth Games were coming up, I was thinking about his future and I was happy to just retire. My mum was happy for me to finish and my dad had accepted it," said Conlan.

"From a young age I was Michael's biggest supporter and critic. Whenever people came to me and said, 'Are you the boxer?' I'd say, 'No, it's my brother' and I even do it now. Even when I won a fight I wouldn't leave the house because I didn't want people to congratulate me whereas Michael was always the peacock who wanted to show off his feathers.

"I would have a bruised-up face going into school at De La Salle College and people wouldn't know why because they didn't know that I was a boxer.

"I remember at De La Salle I was asked to get a photograph for recognition of winning an Irish title and I sent a friend down to get the picture taken and because I was so quiet they didn't realise that it wasn't me. I take more after my father and Michael takes more after my mother.

"He used to get into trouble but I didn't. I remember a big tall guy, Paul, coming up to me, saying, 'You need to get your brother to stop throwing stones me and calling me names'. The guy was five years older and he said, 'I can't catch him' and I just said, 'Well, if you can't catch him then how am I going to catch him?'

"That was Michael, he seemed to love winding people up. He could be a wee so and so.

"I was done with boxing but John Breen and Eamonn Magee had a chat with me and persuaded me I could make it as a professional, so on the day Michael won his first Ulster senior title after I stepped down I decided to go pro. I was doing a B-Tech in engineering at the time and had a job at Shorts even though I always wanted to be a lawyer."

Having been through memorable duels with Junior Granados, Anthony Nelson and Yader Cardoza when he climbed off the canvas to push through and have his hand raised in triumph, now he engages behind the scenes with the power brokers of world boxing.

"When I retired, I was honest with myself… I had one fight left on my contract and I was offered good money for one last fight but it was never about the money for me. I was finished," he said.

"At the time Matthew Macklin was managing Michael but he got an offer from Sky to do commentary and so it was agreed that I would take over. Macklin said he would spend six months with me, showing me who and why he talked to certain people - getting an insight into the business. It was like an apprenticeship.

"Being in America I learned a lot, it made me realise how cut-throat boxing is in America.

"I was shocked at times at the way they talked about fighters. They would have a façade for the camera but behind the scenes it was different… I quickly understood that this really is a business.

"I had always said to Michael that when he turned pro it starts to lessen as a sport and become more of a business.

"Most managers are subservient to promoters. They'll do what the promoter wants because it gets them the chance to sit ringside at an Anthony Joshua fight or some other big fight, they're willing to sell their fighter short for the needs of the promoter whereas we as managers should be working for the fighter. The fighter is your boss.

"The promoter is also meant to work for the fighter and of course the promoter pays the bills and the wages. You have to work together but you can't have too close a relationship with the promoter. You can have an outside work relationship with the promoter but in terms of a working relationship it needs to be down the line, black and white because if there is a more grey area of a relationship then there comes a conflict of interests.

"It can be scary for me because I'm dealing with my brother's career and I have to be able to meet with him and the family for Sunday dinner, so if I haven't done right by him how can I have dinner with his wife and two kids? That keeps me on the edge. I can't afford to make a mistake…"

But, he accepts, that one blunder did happen on his watch when 12 months ago Michael came out on St Patrick's Day in Madison Square Garden to the tune of Celtic Symphony which had the lyrics of 'Ooh ahh up the RA'. The Michael Conlan brand was damaged, his brother consequently painted in a light that did not reflect his true character.

Conlan explained: "That mistake falls on me. The music was not to have been played. We were to be sent a version without those offensive chants but the email came through with the song and I didn't check it, I just forwarded it on to the guy who plays the music. The text messages came through from our friends on both sides of the community about how disappointed they were and for the next week I had this gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach.

"Michael has a lot of friends from both sides of the community and they knew that wasn't him. I decided that we say nothing and that was wrong, we should have nipped it in the bud.

"That was a learning curve. Neither myself or Michael would want to hurt anybody. We all regret it. Michael was proud to win gold for Northern Ireland just as he was proud to win gold for Ireland.

"It hurt him with the way the picture was painted of him, he didn't want his kids to see him seen that way.

"We hope he has been forgiven because he wants to make everyone proud with his achievements. He has never seen one community being different than the other."

He had expected Michael to take another step along the path to a world featherweight title shot with victory over Colombian Belmar Preciado before the cancellation, while also adding to his growing popularity, which moved to a new level after his most recent victory in December.

The former world amateur champion was on the same show as world title holders Terence Crawford and Teofimo Lopez but was the most watched fighter.

"The numbers don't lie. Michael's figures were incredible on ESPN and that makes my job a lot easier when I'm negotiating for him with his promoter Top Rank," said Conlan. "It's not an easy business, you have to be switched on all the time. It's like playing the highest level of chess with millions of dollars on the table..."

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