Michael Conlan, the 2016 Irish Olympic star, said he always imagined his professional debut would be a big deal. But the main event? In New York? On St. Patrick's Day?
Never in his wildest dreams.
"It's a huge deal. It's something I am completely excited about," Conlan said. "You do get nerves, but I'm excited for it and I'm in this position because I've asked to be in this position. I was always expecting a big show for my debut, even if I didn't expect it to be at Madison Square Garden on St. Patrick's Day, but it's something I am grateful for."
Indeed, Conlan will lace up the gloves for pay for the first time when he takes on 26-year-old Tim Ibarra (4-4, 1 KO) of Denver in a six-round featherweight fight that will headline a Top Rank's "Solo Boxeo" card on Friday (UniMas, 11 p.m. ET/PT) at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
The card will also feature junior lightweight Robson Conceicao (2-0, 1 KO), 28, a 2016 Brazilian Olympic gold medalist, competing in a six-round bout and welterweight up-and-comer Alex Saucedo (23-0, 14 KOs), 22, of Oklahoma City, taking on Johnny Garcia (19-4-1, 11 KOs), 34, of Holland, Michigan, in an eight-rounder. Saucedo is trained by Abel Sanchez and managed by a group from Churchill Management that includes movie star Mark Wahlberg and filmmaker Peter Berg.
Walking Conlan to the ring on fight night will be his good friend and countryman Conor McGregor, the UFC superstar, and around 2,000 fans are expected to make the trip from Ireland for the fight.
"Possibly more than 2,000," Conlan said. "I'm taken aback by that but I'm very grateful for it. I have a great fan base and they are great traveling fans. I have the backing of my country and I carry the hope of a nation. They need a huge star coming through. They have McGregor in MMA and I feel I'll be the guy in boxing. It's in my grasp.
"I'm excited. That's the simple fact. I'm expecting to walk into the arena filled with Irish people going crazy, a lot of green, a lot of noise and a lot of alcohol being drunk. But I'm just focused and ready to go. I'm well prepared for this situation. You could say it's a pressure cooker but I always say pressure is for tires."
Conlan said he and McGregor have been buddies for the past few years, so when he asked him to walk him into the ring for his pro debut McGregor said yes right away.
"I'm looking forward to it. It's gonna be great," Conlan said. "I just asked him and he said it would be an honor for him to do it and it's an honor for me to have him do it."
Top Rank liked Conan, 25, from the start and had him atop its Olympian wish list because of his combination of talent and marketability. When the company, Conlan and his manager, retired former middleweight contender Matthew Macklin, hammered out a deal, Top Rank was even more enthusiastic about Conlan because of his decision to move himself and his family full-time to the United States.
Conlan, his fiancée and 2-year-old daughter moved from Belfast, Northern Ireland to Marina Del Rey, California in mid-January so Conlan could focus on his career and train with Manny Robles at "The Rock," his gym in Carson, California, only about a 20-minute drive from where Conlan lives.
Top Rank was thrilled by Conlan's decision to move stateside.
"It showed us his commitment to being a star and to getting the best possible sparring and fights by picking up and moving to the U.S., where he's with a top trainer and can get top sparring. That's priceless," Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti said. "He is not abandoning Ireland and he will fight there every year, so when he told us that he was going to move here our eyes really lit up. Now we can really turn him into something big here.
"I have the backing of my country and I carry the hope of a nation. They need a huge star coming through. They have McGregor in MMA and I feel I'll be the guy in boxing. It's in my grasp." Michael Conlan
"Most guys who come over from Europe and fight in the United States are already established and it's difficult to develop a fan base. He will always have that fan base in Ireland but we are literally starting to build him on the best holiday in the best city you could ask for an Irish kid. His fan base will be with him from Day 1 and Fight 1."
Moretti said Top Rank plans to make a Conlan fight on St. Patrick's Day weekend a regular part of the boxing calendar the same way it has done so many fights in Las Vegas on Cinco de Mayo weekend for Mexican boxers and in New York in June on the Puerto Rican Parade weekend.
"We will look to have an annual St. Patrick's Day show with Conlan," Moretti said. "We'll look to hold that weekend for the next 10 to 12 years, hopefully."
Conlan, who won a gold medal at 123 pounds at the 2015 world amateur championships and a bronze medal at 114 pounds in the 2012 Olympics, made international headlines at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics because of what he did after being eliminated in extremely controversial fashion via decision against Russia's Vladimir Nikitin in the bantamweight quarterfinals.
An emotional Conlan gave double middle fingers to the judges while still in the ring and then ripped them and AIBA, the organization that oversees amateur boxing. He had so dominated Nikitin that the Russian was too busted up to fight in the semifinals and withdrew from the competition, giving American silver medalist Shakur Stevenson, who has also signed with Top Rank, a walkover into the final.
When Conlan signed with Top Rank he said it was best for him to move to the U.S. He is pals with Irish middleweight prospect Jason Quigley, who signed with Golden Boy Promotions and relocated to Southern California to train with Robles. When Conlan was trying to figure out where to live and who to train with he said he texted Quigley to get his take on Robles.
"He texted me back and said he's the best trainer he's worked under and I have found out how good he is. I have the amateur pedigree but I need to get the pro style and he was the best to give me that."
Conlan went to Robles' gym for the first time in November to work with him and said they immediately hit it off.
"I felt like I was training with my father. We gelled right away," Conlan said. "With Manny it was instant. I felt at home, I was welcomed in the gym and I've learned an awful lot."
He is also in a gym with many quality fighters who work with Robles, including Quigley and featherweight world titleholder Oscar Valdez and junior featherweight titlist Jessie Magdaleno, both of whom Conlan spars with.
"Sparring with those two guys is another reason to be in that gym," Conlan said. "They're world champions and in a position I want to be in, so I want to learn from them. I feel like it's been great sparring with them. Very, very tough but you're learning all the time. Manny's gym is a hotbed for (boxing talent). I feel I'm in the right place."
He said he and his family have adjusted well to the move across the world.
"It was the perfect move for us. We feel at home and we are enjoying life," he said. "The family loves it. They're able to go to the beach every day, to the parks. It's a lot different than Ireland. If I was here by myself I don't think it would be possible. I would have missed them very much if they weren't here.
"So far, so good. We're at home. The weather is so nice. You wake up to a blue sky on a warm day. I have to live here. I have to dedicate myself to my craft and train really hard. This is just the beginning."