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Michael Conlan is reaching for glory

By Vincent Hogan

In the weeks leading up to London, Michael Conlan took to wearing a blood-red sweatshirt with three words printed in large, white lettering on the chest.

‘Believe The Hype’ it read. Paddy Barnes liked to draw peoples' attention to the message. “See that?” Barnes would smile. “Well, believe it!”

After these Games, the two Belfast boys will head to Ibiza for a break. “Probably be like an old married couple when we get there,” grinned Conlan.

He is a Falls Road child who, in the last year, has forgotten the colour of fear. Conlan qualified for these Games as a teenager at the World Championships and has since breezed through the life of an elite athlete as if stepping in the ring amounts to no more than a leisure pursuit.

Tonight, in the ExCel Arena (8.45 approx), the depth of that confidence will be explored by an African opponent who Billy Walsh describes as “tough and durable”.

They've watched their videos of Ghana's Duke Micah, a bronze medalist at the African Olympic qualifiers who Walsh believes is not as accomplished a boxer as Conlan.

“It’s all about performance,” said Walsh yesterday. “If Michael goes in and performs, I know he’s far better than this guy, but he’s got to go in and perform in that cauldron. It’s been like a scene from ‘Gladiator’ this week. You can hear the crowd baying. As a fighter, that's the kind of thing that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

“It’s very hard to control your emotions. If we can control Michael’s emotions — and he is a very emotional guy — he’ll do really well.”

The Conlan story really belongs in the pages of make-believe. He was beaten by Declan Milligan at last year's Ulster Championships, then promptly announced he was heading for Dublin to win the Irish flyweight title.

What made him say it?

“Reckoned I'd been completely robbed,” he grinned. Not alone did Conlan keep his word by winning the Irish title, he's kept on winning, retaining the crown this year and taking to the international stage with a disarming sense of authority.

“He’s a lovely young lad,” smiled the head coach. “A real nice, gentle lad. But my God he would kill in the ring. He's like a dog with a bone, he will not stop. A huge talent really, he can fight orthodox or southpaw. He's mentally very strong. If Michael has an issue, it's his slow starts. Sometimes that desire to win just tenses him up too much. Look, he's really one for the future, but he could do anything.”

Meanwhile, Darren O'Neill is the first Irish boxer to exit after he was beaten by German’s Stefan Hartel in their middleweight bout 19-12.

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