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It's a Festival in Belfast and Michael Conlan is the Chief Attraction

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  • It's a Festival in Belfast and Michael Conlan is the Chief Attraction

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    By Arne K. Lang

    Since 1988, West Belfast, Northern Ireland, has hosted a summer festival, one of the largest of its kind in Europe. The marquee event of this year’s festival is a professional boxing show. It is being staged in a specially built outdoor arena in a public park. As one might have guessed, the headliner is Michael Conlan who grew up right down the road, so to speak, from where he will be fighting on Saturday.

    Conlan’s signature moment came in the immediate aftermath of his loss to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin in the quarterfinals of the bantamweight competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics. When the decision was announced, Conlan launched an expletive-laced tirade at unnamed Olympic boxing officials and gave a double middle-finger salute to the judges as he exited the ring. The incident was televised and went viral on the Internet.

    Conlan, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist and a 2015 European and World amateur champion, entered the competition as the favorite in his weight class. The decision that went against him was a travesty. At least in the English-speaking world, folks sympathized with Conlan and applauded his gumption.

    Bob Arum was paying attention. Thirty-five days after the incident, Arum inked Conlan to a multi-fight deal. He made his pro debut on March 17, 2017, St. Patrick’s Day, at Madison Square Garden. His Belfast buddy, MMA superstar Conor McGregor, accompanied him into the ring.

    “I believe that Michael Conlan will do for boxing what Conor McGregor did for the UFC,” said Arum, an opinion echoed by Top Rank president Todd duBoef, Arum’s stepson. “We think he is the next big star in boxing in America,’’ said duBoef.

    Conlan is currently 11-0 (6 KOs). However, inside the ropes he has yet to have a highlight reel moment. After watching Conlan push his record to 6-0 with a second- round stoppage of Hungary’s milquetoast David Berna, ringside reporter Thomas Hauser wrote that Conlan’s skills were more suited to the amateur than the professional game. One can build a case that he is Ireland’s best amateur male boxer ever, but there is a nagging suspicion that as a pro he is merely a notch above his older brother Jamie Conlan who retired with a 19-1 record after suffering a bad beating at the hands of Jerwin Ancajas.

    Conlan’s opponent was supposed to be the aforementioned Nikitin. The Russian signed with Top Rank earlier this year and has three pro wins under his belt, all in 6-round fights that lasted the distance. A rematch of their controversial amateur fight imbued the Belfast show with a lot of sizzle but, alas, Nikitin suffered a bicep injury in training and was forced to pull out. Diego Alberto Ruiz, a 25-year-old Argentine, steps in.

    A Conlan-Nikitin rematch needed no storyline; it was already there. The switch to someone else commanded one.

    The narrative adopted by the promoters is that circumstances have forced Conlan to take on a far more dangerous opponent. “I told Top Rank and MTK Global to get me the toughest possible opponent,” said Conlan in a press release. And here’s Michael’s brother Jamie Conlan, the Professional Development Coordinator (whatever that means) for MTK Global, the brand management company that is co-promoting the event: “In some ways, Nikitin was a step back in terms of level and we all know it’s a match-up based on sentimentality. Instead, we’ll now seek a fight that will push Mick up the rankings quicker. It’ll be the hardest fight of his career.”

    Perhaps Diego Alberto Ruiz (21-2, 10 KOs) is a big step up from Vladimir Nikitin. However, it doesn’t bode well for him that this is his first fight outside Argentina.

    Argentina has a vibrant boxing scene and a proud boxing tradition, but the nation of about 42 million is in a bad phase right now. No one has picked up the cudgel left when Argentina’s last great champion, Sergio Martinez, retired in 2014. If you have been betting these last few years on Argentine fighters when they turn up in other countries, you likely have one foot in the poorhouse. Lately, when an Argentine fighter goes on the road he may as well be from West Virginia.

    The switch from Nikitin to Ruiz hasn’t depressed ticket sales. The local organizers have had to add more seats to accommodate a larger-than-expected turnout. The fight will air in North America on ESPN+.

    Other Bouts of Note

    Two local fighters on the card are matched tough. Luke Keeler (16-2-1, 5 KOs) takes a jump up in class when he opposes Luis Arias (18-1-1, 9 KOs) in a 10-round middleweight contest.

    Keeler is actually from Dublin but will be making his fifth straight start in Belfast. Arias, who is from Milwaukee, was outclassed by Daniel Jacobs in a fight that went 12 at the Barclays Center and was then held to a draw by rugged but shopworn Gabriel Rosado, but he was highly touted coming up the ladder. Keeler vs. Arias will be part of the ESPN+ livestream. It goes at 5 p.m ET, 2 p.m. PT.

    Local fan favorite Alfredo Meli (16-0-1, 5 KOs) meets Araik Marutjan (8-0, 2 KOs) in a middleweight go slated for eight rounds. Marutjan, from Germany by way of Armenia, has a strong amateur pedigree and may have a bit too much class for Meli who has a full-time job as an auto mechanic.

    Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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