Michael Conlan provided one of the most enduring images of the 2016 Games, but it not in the manner he had hoped for. The Irish fighter entered Rio as one of the favourites for gold in the red-hot bantamweight division and one of his country’s highest hopes for a medal.
But rather than a gold medal around his neck, it was his middle finger in the air that was screened across the world to provide a symbol of the appalling judging that plagued the Games.
Conlan’s enraged response to his quarter-final defeat to Vladimir Nikitin was the tournament’s most notorious moment. Nikitin was unable to compete in the next round due to the injures sustained in his disputed victory, and AIBA sent home six of their officials in the wake of the decision.
“I’ll never box for AIBA again, they’re cheating b***ards who are paying everybody.
Conlan didn’t limit his outrage to his photogenic gesture. “AIBA are cheats, they’re f***ing cheats, simple as that,” he roared into the RTE cameras after leaving the ring. “I’ll never box for AIBA again, they’re cheating b***ards who are paying everybody. I don’t give a f*** if I’m cursing on TV.
“I was here for Olympic gold, my dream’s been shattered now, and I have a big career ahead of me, and these, they’re known for being cheats and they’ll always been cheats. Amateur boxing stinks, from the core right to the top.”
— Paddy Power (@paddypower) August 16, 2016
Conlan booked his place at the Olympics through the semi-professional World Series of Boxing, where he boasts a 7-3 record, by beating Jose Diaz on points in April 2015. He came to Rio as the number one seed at bantamweight, ahead of Cuban maestro Robeisy Ramirez and American prodigy Shakur Stevenson.
The Olympic gold would have completed a full set of amateur gold medals. Conlan had already won gold at the World and European Championships—where he was named Boxer of the Tournament—in 2015, and at the Commonwealth Games in 2013.
Despite the setback in Rio, Conlan remains an elite talent. His World Championship crown was the first ever won by an Irish male. He took home the title after a points victory over Uzbekistan’s Murodjon Akhmadaliev, despite being sent to the canvas for the first time in his career by a right hook in the third round.
At the London 2012 Games, the Belfast native won a bronze medal at flyweight, losing in the semi-finals Ramirez, who he then followed up to bantamweight.
Conlan can box and bang, on the inside or behind his jab, both on the front foot and the back. He’s blessed with sharp reflexes, excellent punch variety and smooth movement.
The Belfast fighter may be vulnerable to cuts, but has already shown the grit to match his athleticism. With almost 17 years of boxing experience behind him, Conlan is already a seasoned veteran even even while still an amateur.
Boxing is in the blood for Conlan. His elder brother, Jamie, is a 17-0 Commonwealth champion at super flyweight. Their father, John, is a boxing coach and high performance director in the Irish amateur team.
The charismatic 24-year-old has the star-power to match his boxing talent. Conlan was named both the RTE Sport Person of the Year award and Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of the Year for 2015.
Conlan had already declared his intention to turn pro before the Olympics commenced, and confirmed his plans in the immediate aftermath of his shock exit. He certainly won’t be short of suitors. His Irish blood ensures a loyal fan-base both at home and Stateside. The latter seems the more likely location for Conlan to build his professional career. Golden Boy, Mayweather Promotions and Top Rank are all rumoured to be fighting for his signature.
Conlan’s exit from Rio left him with a bitter taste for the amateur code. But his potential for the professional ranks could soon reduce that experience to barely a footnote in a glorious career.