It's not necessary to be Irish to convince Michael Conlan

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day.

Unless you are a fighter. So you always want to be Irish.

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It's a good deal, after all. Freddie Roach – who is actually of French-Canadian descent – will be the first to tell you that he has sold a lot more tickets as "Irish" Freddie Roach.

This is not new either. You may not remember Mushy Callahan, one of the first champions of 140 pounds, but you'll recognize that it's a better war name than Moishe Scheer, since he was born in the Lower East Side of New York.

Boxing is an immigrant sport. So perhaps there is a misguided romanticization at a time when they come from the class of gendarmerie, this holy trinity of whites. Yet we do not dwell on Jewish fighters. Or Italian. But the idea of ​​the Irish fighter persists.

The Irish who fight. Before becoming a football team, they were a famous regiment – commemorated by Joyce Kilmer, himself a poet killed in action.

Perhaps, then, does this speak to something of an ancestor.

Michael Conlan, 27, is barely 10-0, but his third consecutive St. Patrick's Day card at the Garden (yes, even though it's the little Garden) is already in the lead when it's over. he will face Ruben Garcia (25-3-1). You've probably already heard the story: After winning the bronze medal at the London Olympics, he was favored to win gold at Rio. Following an epic decision, Conlan identifies the Olympic judges with his middle finger. tweets to Vladimir Putin. In retrospect, these acts were as profitable as they were profane. Seven months later, Conor McGregor attends his debut at the premiere of his performances at Hulu Theater.

Would everything have fallen into place if it was, for example, from Azerbaijan?

No.

But you do not have to like Conlan because he is Irish. There are other reasons.


What strikes in and around 93 Cavendish Street – a neat and narrow row house, where the Conlan boys have reached the age of maturity – are these fluorescent splashes every two blocks: the murals. Most of them remain as they were during The Troubles – the latest repetition of a secular conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. This neighborhood being a Catholic neighborhood, it was Republicans: hunger striker Bobby Sands, Gibraltar Three, IRA soldiers shot by British special forces and so-called protesters on the cover who refused to wear the costume of common criminals.

Protestant neighborhoods on the other side of the "wall of peace" have their own murals, their own fallen heroes. For a stranger, it is difficult to score points, to know the martyrdom of the murdered, the victims of the wicked. But together, the murals tell a single story: a story of the dead.

While the Good Friday peace agreements were signed in 1998, when Conlon was only 7 years old, the family had already experienced its share of problems. Michael's mother, Teresa, was hit by a rubber bullet. Her husband, John, from Dublin, was regularly summoned for questioning. A barracks of the British Army at the corner of Cavendish and Violet Streets did not let the Conlans feel very protected. What Michael remembers most vividly, though, was the gas bomb.

"Saw someone catch fire," he says. "I probably had about 9 years old."


In addition to murals, Belfast had plenty of boxing facilities. "Within a five-mile radius," says Michael, "there are between 18 and 20 clubs."

Jamie, Conlon's older brother who is also a professional boxer, said, "We are a nation born in the fighting, especially in Northern Ireland.

"A boxing club was a way to express what we felt inside," Jamie said. "You do not understand where you get this aggression – that kind of brutal, animalistic desire to let go of your hands, you do not understand why you're punching."

John Conlan, who was a hunt lover in Dublin and is now the coach of the prestigious Irish national team, had his own idea.

"I do not think we are an aggressive race," he said. "I just think we understand this piece in the ring: this little room, man to man, face to face."

If Jamie had a brave heart, Michael – his youngest five – had something else: innate, unusual, an idea of ​​the distance that was constantly changing in the ring, from calculation to combat. He had a head for that too.

"He knew instantly how to avoid punching," recalls Jamie. "He understood that it was not about who was the hardest, the strongest, the most aggressive … it was about how to twist, how to open yourself mentally, and then I would hit you.

"I remember that Michael had leant his tongue at a child.They were only 10 years old … There was a small crowd, and Michael understood that he had to finish him off, [to] l & # 39; embarrass. … As soon as the guy lost his temper, Michael knew that he had won. The guy tried to give him a whim, and at that moment, Michael was playing with him. You do not see it every day. "

In early adolescence, Conlan was about to assert himself as the best amateur fighter in Ireland. Victories and defeats would eventually rise to 248-14, on his own, and include gold medals at the World Championships, European Championships and Commonwealth Games, not to mention the two Olympic appearances. It was a historical journey that took him from India to Ankara in Azerbaijan, but Belfast suffered most of his losses.

He was not alone. Conlan has come of age with a generation that has exchanged a series of problems, drugs and alcohol.

"When the conflict erupted, there was very little drug in the neighborhood," recalls John. "People were executed very quickly if they were antisocial, but when the conflict ended, it quickly seemed disproportionate … The boys in the club were talking about being on four or five days."

From the age of 13, Michael was taking cocaine, ecstasy and prescription pills. He often worked drunk with vodka and Red Bull. It was a double life, carefully hidden from his parents and Jamie, otherwise they could cause him serious bodily harm.

However, he will not concede that all this has something to do with seeing a man burned. "I just wanted to do what everyone else was doing," he says. "I thought I was missing."

Perhaps it was the drug tests at the Commonwealth Games that brought him to sobriety. Granted, it had something to do with Jamie, who remembers one night when Michael was out with a suspicious delay. A friend saw him drinking and had warned Jamie.

The older brother got into his car, grabbed Michael at the above place and started unloading.

"I gave him a slap – in fact, more than a slap," says Jamie. "I had to do it in front of his friends.To let them know, you can not f — around."

Then he brought his little brother back to Cavendish Street and "beat him up and down the house."


It was not just drugs and alcohol, however. The new millennium was facing other dangers for the children of the North.

In the spring of 2008, teams from Ireland and England were to meet at the Balmoral Hotel in Belfast. Kieran Farrell, a tough and aggressive fighter from Manchester, seemed perfectly suited to Michael's style.

"I was confident that Michael was going out of his box," said John. In this case, Michael did not send his mailbox to Farrell. In fact, he has not fought at all. "He seemed to take the punches voluntarily."

Between rounds, he told his son that he would stop the fight unless Michael started to fight back. For a moment, he did so apathetically. Then he fisted again. Suddenly, the horrified father realized: "Michael wanted to to feel pain. "

Subsequently, Michael considered one of his rare losses and claimed not to worry about it. Still, he cried as he said. It turned out that one of his friends had committed suicide.

"That's how he expressed his grief for the death," said John. "Leaving someone to hit him."


Michael had heard that it had something to do with the drug money: "He did not know how to get out of debt, so the only way he thought he could do it was to kill himself."

If it was not drugs, chances are it's something else. Since 1998, the number of suicide deaths in Northern Ireland has been greater than the number of deaths, murders and bombings perpetrated during The Troubles. Despite all the horrors of that era, says Teresa Conlan, "there was a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and now I think that everything is gone, there is this loneliness. The consequences of what really happened … OK, are you just supposed to be normal now? "

Michael stopped counting the number of friends lost by suicide: "About 10 … 15 … maybe more." Wakes up. Funeral Cemeteries. After a while, he stopped going there. He had already spent enough time in the realm of the dead.

At 17, he returned home with a tattoo: rosary beads and a crucifix around his neck, clearly intended to be seen. It was a religious mark, but it was not political. It was an affirmation of who he was. And where he was going.

His father, recalling how difficult it was for Catholics in Northern Ireland to get a job in the best conditions, was inconsolable. "You have destroyed your body," he says. "You will never find a job."

"I do not need a job," Michael said. "I'm going to be a fighter."


So, what saved Michael Conlan?

The blows of his brother Jamie have certainly helped. And that of Kieran Farrell too.

"The loss helped," Michael says. "The loss has brought me back to reality."

Just like the love of his parents.

The idea that boxing saved him is only partially true. As any fighter knows, no one can really save you except yourself. Apart from that, the best you can do is set a good example.

To this end, Michael remembers the summer of 2012. He could not know what was waiting for him: The Garden, the bad decision of Rio, an American promoter cutting him a check. He had just returned from London, aged 20 and discouraged. The bronze medal seemed to be a big win for everyone except Michael himself. It was not gold, he thought. He then saw something in the car: a splash of color at the corner of Purple and Cavendish Streets, where once stood the British Army barracks.

This is not a perfect likeness. But that's not the question. Here was a fighter, but not a soldier. To the west of Belfast, Michael Conlan was the first mural of this type. In a kingdom of the dead, he was alive, full of ambition and possibility.

There is reason enough to motivate Michael Conlan.

Happy Saint Patrick.