Conlan wins pro debut as McGregor steals show with big talk
There was no controversy or middle fingers present for Michael Conlan’s pro debut on Friday. But there was Conor McGregor, the UFC star who led Conlan to the ring and proclaimed afterward he would take over boxing and knock Floyd Mayweather Jr. out.
Conlan, the Irish Olympian who famously flipped off the judges and officials at the Rio Games this summer had a triumphant debut in a raucous, star-crossed St. Patrick’s Day at Madison Square Garden’s Theater. Conlan blitzed Denver’s Tim Ibarra, jumping on him early and pushing him around the ring with shots to the body and anxious haymakers before pinning him on the ropes. Referee Benjy Esteves had little choice but to call off the bout at 59 seconds of the third round before an announced crowd of 5,102, a sellout for the catch-weight bout of 124 pounds.
With McGregor carrying the Irish tricolor flag into the ring and the Garden clad in green, the atmosphere had the feel of a world title bout. It all caused promoter Bob Arum, who signed Conlan in September, to chastise the premium networks for failing to pick up the bout, which instead was shown on UniMas.
“Isn’t that shortsighted?” Arum railed to the media afterward. “There is no network in this country that would pick up this fight. That’s what’s hurting boxing. The narrow-minded thinking, particularly by the premium networks. No vision. No idea what the public would like to see. This fight, this show, with the build-up and the audience was theater, was entertainment. Was it a great fight? Of course not. But it was a really good show. These executives at these premium networks are in a brain-funk where they can’t break out and do things that are innovative.”
Arum went on to criticize the proliferation of pay-per-view shows, which HBO has been guilty in recent years, as a drain on the sport. “And the price was right (for this fight) because I wasn’t going to charge them anything,” Arum said.
Arum was suddenly interrupted by McGregor, who spotted the ESPN.com boxing writer Dan Rafael and slid through the crowd at ringside to address him. “What’s your name buddy? You’re the boxing guy?” Rafael looked up from his computer, speechless. “I’m the boxing guy!” McGregor railed. “Watch me take over boxing. Trust me on that. No one in this boxing game knows what’s coming. I’m going to shock the whole damn world. Look me in the eyes. Twenty-eight years of age. Confident as a mutha-f-, confident, rangy, dangerous with every round. Trust me. I’m going to stop Floyd and you’re all going to eat your words. The whole world is going to eat their words. You’ll hear about it. I’m out of here.”
McGregor stormed off and Rafael turned around to the writers. “I didn’t say anything,” he said to laughter. McGregor is in the midst of his own dalliance with boxing, in talks with Mayweather Jr. for a possible boxing match later this year that would do huge business if it ever happens.
Arum was back in front of the media, saying the plan is for Conlan to fight in Boston on May 12. He also recommended that McGregor face softer opposition, someone like Ibarra (4-5, 1 KO) before he steps into the ring with Mayweather. “You have to understand, it’s a different sport,” Arum said.
Conlan admitted afterward he was a little worked up once the fight began with a sellout crowd behind him and McGregor ringside yelling instructions. “Use the jab,” McGregor hollered as former light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev stood besides him, posing for a selfie. “Keep using the jab.” Conlan switched from orthodox to southpaw and raked Ibarra’s body, who started to break down toward the end of the second round. “I was relaxed coming to the ring,” Conlan told reporters. “You can’t help your emotions when you get in there. You just want to impress and perform. I would give my performance an ‘F’ if I had to give it a score. I didn’t think I performed well but it’s to be expected. Who has a debut like this and has this kind of pressure? Tonight was something I never experienced before and even if I fight for a world title, I have that world title atmosphere for me. So I’m happy with how things went.”
Conlan, a gold-medal favorite, vaulted to prominence after he lost a controversial decision in the Rio Games to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin in the bantamweight quarterfinals. Stung by the outcome, a shirtless Conlan gave the middle finger to the officials who scored the bout and later suggested on social media that Russian President Vladimir Putin had bribed officials.
In the wake of the accusations, AIBA suspended 36 referees and officials at the Rio Games after AIBA decided that a number of boxing decisions weren’t up to standard. Rather than put a damper on his career, Conlan impressed Arum, a fellow self-described arbiter of justice, who signed him in September. The result was Friday’s coronation of excess and fun, punctuated by McGregor’s meteoric appearance.