THERE is a balance to be struck by any fighter whenever they set foot inside the ring and the balance is this: do what you need to do to get the win, but also give fans enough to warrant paying to see you.
For a fighter like Michael Conlan, a hero back home in Ireland, this has always been a tough one to strike, never more so than tonight (August 6) in Belfast, when the featherweight returned to the ring for the first time since being stopped in the 12th round by Leigh Wood in March.
With this balance forever on his mind, he knew that he had to win, just to keep his career alive, and he knew that he also had to exorcise the demons from that loss five months ago. Yet, as well as all that, Conlan would find himself fighting at home, in Belfast, where they come out in droves to see him, and therefore, in addition to winning, he would have been just as keen to send them all home happy having seen an entertaining fight.
To then complicate matters further, Conlan’s reputation has changed somewhat in the past five months, thanks in no small part to the nature of that Wood fight. Considered by many to be the best fight of 2022, Conlan, in playing his part, is no longer seen exclusively as a textbook counterpuncher adept at switching stances and drawing opponents onto well-placed check-hooks in drama-free fights. Instead, on account of him dropping Wood in the first round in March, and sporadically going toe-to-toe with him for the 11 subsequent rounds, Conlan now carries more of a reputation for excitement, and entertainment, and drama.
This certainly helps his marketability and earning potential, but, in the short term – that is, tonight in Belfast – it would serve only to make the balance between sensible boxing and entertaining boxing a tough one for Conlan to nail. Fans, after all, whether fairly or unfairly, may now expect something dramatic whenever Conlan takes to the ring and, indeed, prior to boxing Miguel Marriaga in Belfast there had been talk of a statement being made, or message being sent. To impress, then, the suspicion was that Conlan would have to not only win but look good, perhaps even making a dent in Marriaga, a tough Colombian stopped previously only by Vasyl Lomachenko. He had to do more than just cruise and outpoint him. He had to impress.
Achieving this, of course, would require risks being taken, which, in turn, could leave Conlan vulnerable. He would have to again stay in range of a heavy-handed aggressor and he would have to slowly impose his will on his opponent rather than just rely on his quicker hands and feet banking rounds and moving him closer and closer to the finish line. He would have to go there, to places he had been before, and this time come away with his hand raised.
And tonight, in winning by scores of 99-88, 98-88 and 99-89, that is exactly what Conlan did. Through 10 rounds in Marriaga’s company, he managed to do a bit of everything, with the more interesting moments admittedly arriving late on, when both his confidence was peaking and Marriaga’s ambition was leaving.
Until then, it had been a steady, measured performance from Conlan, one his detractors might call dull or underwhelming, but one his supporters, and those who understood the need for him to operate in this manner, would call clever, or sensible, or necessary. He had shown, in the first half of the fight, much of what made his performance against Wood such a brilliant one for so many of the early rounds: the movement, the setting of traps, the spotting and execution of counter hooks. He also stifled Marriaga more decisively than he was able to do with Wood, never once allowing him to set himself, get off anything heavy, or slip into any sort of pattern or rhythm. Such dominance would, in time, then inevitably allow Conlan to settle, knowing he was well ahead in the fight, and it was in the second half he found himself with the luxury of a choice to make. He could either continue in this way, and pocket the remaining rounds with the same ease with which he had pocketed the early ones, or, and this was the option chose, he could try to add an exclamation mark to the victory.
As ever, all the fans inside the SSE Arena wanted really was to see Conlan win, and smile again, but with three knockdowns distributed across rounds seven, eight, and nine, they also witnessed enough samples of drama – drama of the right kind – to see them home content. The first of these Conlan knockdowns, scored in the seventh, was the result of a counter right hook landing around the back of Marriaga’s head, which sent him off balance, whereas the second was the result of an inventive left uppercut to the head-right hook to the body combination Conlan thought up in the eighth. By the ninth, meanwhile, with Marriaga’s punch resistance waning and his defence becoming more and more porous, Conlan was able to force his opponent to touch down following a simple but stiff left cross, securing both his third consecutive 10-8 round and, more importantly, his 17th professional win.
Though in the end he couldn’t secure the stoppage, Conlan, in going the distance tonight, achieved more – psychologically – than he would have done had he been successful in bringing about a premature end. For, in going the distance, he was to experience a final round for the first time since losing at that point against Wood in March and, while this time the final round was the 10th as opposed to the 12th, the psychology of entering and navigating it remained very much the same.
On this occasion, too, Conlan would feel Marriaga at last coming on strong and even landing his best shot, the reality of which Conlan seemed to embrace rather than fear, perhaps aware that at some stage he would have to confront the prospect of Marriaga using Wood’s success five months ago at a time when he was also at his most desperate.
This, in truth, will likely be the approach of many future Conlan opponents, with some more capable of delivering on it than others. However, for Conlan, 17-1 (8), all that really mattered tonight was that he got the win and that he also got the balance right. He did some stuff just for him and his team, making the fight appear almost like a sparring session at times, and then, in the final act, he did some stuff for the fans, enough to keep them engaged, but, crucially, not enough to give Miguel Marriaga, 30-6 (26), any hope of dragging him into the kind of fight he not only likes but required.
“Everything in moderation, including moderation,” Oscar Wilde once said and tonight in Belfast Michael Conlan successfully quenched his thirst but stopped just short of getting drunk.