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CONLAN DREAMS OF JOINING IRELAND’S GREATS

How else could it have been, the occasion being what it was? The boy was bound to come out tight. 

Michael Conlan made his pro debut at the top of a Madison Square Garden card, on St Patrick’s Day, with the worlds most famous combat sports athlete Conor McGregor in his corner, and House of Pain queued up on the sound system to celebrate his victory. Top Rank Promotions and MTK Global couldn’t have heaped more pressure on him if they tried.

A good job he came out with the third round stoppage over the lanky Tim Ibarra, a fellow bantamweight breaking even with a record of 4 wins and 4 losses when he was picked as Conlan’s patsy.

Conlan was eager to justify the attention, swinging his right hand at Ibarra’s head in the opening two sessions, hoping for the spectacular finish but rarely finding the target. Only when he dedicated hooks to the body did he begin to show the clean work expected from a fighter with Commonwealth, European and World Amateur Championships gold medals in his locker.

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He began to drive Ibarra back in the third with two-handed combinations. His eagerness allowed him to be turned against the ropes for one sloppy moment though he regained his position with a quick slip and slide. Referee Benjy Esteves Jr stepped between them as Conlan found Ibarra with both hands in a sustained rush; a quick, tame finish to what former world champion Chris Algieri called while commentating the fight, a ‘workmanlike pro debut,’

It looks like Michael Conlan, who did more for his public profile with a middle finger to the judges in the 2016 Brazil Olympics than in a beautifully decorated amateur career, will have far more focus on him than his super-flyweight brother Jamie, currently promoted by Frank Warren and also managed by MTK Global.

The pair continues the tradition, alongside the above-mentioned Conor McGregor, of the ‘Fighting Irish,’ which leads us to the inevitable examination of past fighters who have carried the green, white and gold flag on their way into battle.

Here are my top five Irish boxers from north and south of the border, in no particular order. If there are some famous names missing from the black-and-white days there is a reason. Apocryphal tales and impressive records are fine, but if I can’t see a fighter fight, I can’t rate him.

Barry McGuigan (32-3, 28KOs)

Rightly recognised as a unifying figure in a period of dire political unrest on the Emerald Isles, the man they called the ‘Clones Cyclone’ was a workhorse of a fighter; strong, determined, insistent.  He avenged a shock points loss to Peter Eubank (brother of the renowned Chris) early in his pro campaign and whirled down the traditional path to a world championship, capturing the British and European featherweight titles before his most celebrated win in 1985. At Loftus Road Stadium in London, McGuigan beat Eusebio Pedroza over fifteen rounds, ending the Panamanian’s impressive title reign of nineteen defences over nine years. A legitimate win over a proper world champion. Hard to come by these days. Unfortunately, the Pedroza result would be coupled with another less desirable one to make up the two fights that would come to define McGuigan’s career. In the third defence of his WBA title Barry melted in the Las Vegas sun, steadily slowing and falling twice in the fifteenth against Steve Cruz at Caeser’s Palace.

A two-year hiatus followed by three wins and a final loss brought a flourishing career to a lacklustre close. He and the other consensus best featherweight Azumah Nelson never got to tangle, but for a brief twelve month period, one could make a real case for McGuigan being the best 126-pound fighter in the world.

Wayne McCullough (27-7, 18KOs)

In just his seventeenth pro fight Wayne ‘The Pocket Rocket’ McCullough’ won the WBC World bantamweight title with a twelve round split decision over Yasuei Yakushiji. He defended his 118-pound belt just twice before a move up in weight and quality of opposition.

Technically adept, he didn’t throw combinations, his fights seemed to consist of one long continuous stream of punches. He never let up the pressure and many an opponent were drowned by the current. Just as impressive was his durability. Daniel Zaragoza, ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed and Eric Morales all got the decision against him but couldn’t make a dent in his chin. He fought Hall-of-Fame level competition and always heard the final bell.

Towards the tail-end, he fought inconsistently. A month or a year could separate his appearances and as countless others have done, he carried on for a few years more than he should have.

McCullough was far more impressive than his final statistics suggest and I would be remiss to overlook him here.

Steve Collins (36-3, 21 KOs)

Seven WBO super middleweight title defences and two wins apiece over the admittedly faded stars Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank elevated Collins from a quality fighter to a hallmark of Irish fighting lore.

Steeled by an American apprenticeship he learned from losses to serious operators like Mike McCallum, Reggie Johnson and Sumbu Kalumbay. By the time he came back across the Atlantic he was ready to clean up and did so emphatically, winning the last fifteen fights of his career before retirement in 1997 as the champion of the world.

Carl Frampton (23-1, 14 KOs)

A contemporary and perhaps controversial choice given ‘The Jackal’ is still fighting and has just come off his first career defeat to Leo Santa Cruz.

For all that, he is a two-weight world champion who up until that majority decision defeat looked a different class to everybody he fought. An extensive amateur career set him up well for the paid ranks and he has pretty much looked unstoppable since his debut in 2009.

He breezed past his perceived closest threat at super-bantamweight in Scott Quigg to unify the IBF and WBA Super titles before stepping up and taking Santa Cruz’s featherweight belt last August, which he then lost in the rematch.

He’s in the middle of what looks to become a lengthy series of fights with the Mexican, the final outcome of which will decide how he is ultimately judged amongst his peers.

A serious threat in Guillermo Rigondeaux lurks nearby but will likely remain untouched. Still, it’s difficult to find an Irish fighter with better credentials as an amateur or pro.

Bernard Dunne (28-2, 15KOs)

Like Frampton, Bernard Dunne won the WBA World super bantamweight title and never defended it, though his title reign was ended involuntarily via a third round KO to Prakorb Udomna in what was to be his final professional outing.

As Steve Collins did he began his journey in America and returned to Ireland fully developed and ready to reap the financial rewards of becoming a wildly popular home fighter.

Dunne’s title reign was fleeting but he reached the mountain top with the kind of attritional effort that becomes bigger with every revisit. He and Ricardo Cordoba went to war at the O2 Arena in Dublin in March 2009. They traded six knockdowns before Dunne finally pulled out the win in the eleventh round, his dream accomplished, his efforts completely spent. He joins McGuigan and McCullough as a supreme talent whose exciting style ensured longevity would elude him.

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