Irish boxing received a massive boost last night with the news that Michael Conlan had followed his old pal Paddy Barnes into the professional ranks, signing a lucrative deal with Bob Arum's Las Vegas-based Top Rank Promotions.
Conlan's sign-on fee was confirmed by Matthew Macklin, who was present at the signing and will manage his younger compatriot, to be the largest in the history of Irish boxing, and the deal will see the two-time Olympian make a career-defining transatlantic move with the backing of arguably the most effective promoters in the game.
One man who had seen the move coming for some weeks was leading US boxing scribe Dan Rafael of ESPN, who last night revealed that Conlan's professional debut will arrive on Patrick's weekend at Madison Square Garden in New York. Dan joined us on the line last night to provide Irish boxing fans with more information on said professional bow, the background information on Conlan's prestigious deal with such giants of the boxing landscape, and the likelihood of the 24-year-old fighting in his homeland next year (turns out, very likely).
You can hit play below if you wish to listen to Rafael break down the deal and how it came about, or alternatively you can read some of the transcript below the following Soundcloud link.
Top Rank has a well deserved reputation as being a company that can take a top amateur boxer and bring them from 0-0 in the professional ranks, and not only give them the right fights to help them move along in their career - in terms of moving up a ladder to get to a point where they can become world champion.
But as they're doing that, also, because they have the best matchmakers and experience and they've done it a thousand times, they also know how to build a fighter into an attraction and expose them in various media and that sort of thing. So they're the best of both worlds to many people because of their ability to bring along a fighter with talent and ability and give them the right fights, but also build them into a star attraction. They did it with Oscar De La Hoya, they did it with Floyd Mayweather Jr, they did it with Miguel Cotto. Vasyl Lomachenko hasn't maybe become the attraction, but they got him to a world title in his third fight.
If you wanna go pro and make it big in the United States, Top Rank is one of the best - if not the best - that you can do it with.
Conlan had previously hinted that a move to the UK was more likely, as he was keen for his daughter to attend an Irish school and become a Gaelgeoir. He did, however, insist that money would be a factor, and that if he had an opportunity to secure his family financially he would take it from wherever it might have arisen.
Eddie Hearn's Matchroom Promotions had long been touted as a potential move, but it seems Hearn and the Sky Spots machine have been outbid by Bob Arum and co in Las Vegas. And so too were Mayweather Promotions, who reportedly did their best to hijack the deal last weekend. Rafael, who spoke with Conlan and his team on Monday, suggests that offers were flying in from both sides of the Atlantic, but also explained why Top Rank viewed Conlan as a must-sign long before his post-fight rant in Rio.
I know they were chased around by lots of different promoters - not just in America - but [Top Rank] is what they settled on, and Michael himself when I spoke to him talked about the track record that Top Rank had, that was a big appeal to him and his team.
Top Rank's perspective was twofold. Number one - they see him as an extraordinarily talented young fighter, and they're in the business of signing talented young fighters. But they also know that he has a tremendous upside in terms of his marketability. Now, did he do some of that on his own, in terms of the meltdown he had in the Olympics? Yeah, sure. But he has a good personality, and they believe that they can build him into a huge attraction.
I know from talking to people at Top Rank in the last few weeks that they always look to sign top talent - talent that they think can become championship-level fighters as well as attractions. From the moment the Olympic Games were on, they wanted Michael Conlan from the beginning. He was their number one target above anybody, and they got him.
It was Rafael who first broke the news that the 24-year-old Belfast man will make his professional bow at Madison Square Garden, New York on St. Patrick's weekend next year (likely on Saturday March 18th, which promises to be a mouth-watering day of Irish sport). He explained that said card, which for now is too far out to contain a headline fight or anything of the sort, will be built around Conlan and thus far unnamed Irish peers.
Top Rank made it very clear to me that they have the date on hold with the arena. Conlan, obviously, will be the star attraction of that event for his pro debut. He's obviously not going to fight a top-level, championship calibre fight but it's a matter of getting your feet wet. Top Rank know what they're doing: They'll put some other attractive fights on the card and built it around the fact that this is Michael Conlan's pro debut.
But while America's Irish contingent will be provided with ample opportunity to see one of our finest sporting exports ply his trade on the big stage, fans back at home in Conlan's native land won't be forgotten about either.
Rafael explains that the former World amateur champion is set to fight six times in total next year, with one of those fights tentatively scheduled to take place in Ireland. With Conlan signing a management deal with Matthew Macklin, it means that Irish boxing fans' long-held dreams of seeing Conlan, his brother and Commonwealth super-flyweight champion Jamie, and their brother from another mother Paddy Barnes all fight on the same card in the trio's hometown of Belfast.
When the night does arrive in 2017, it'll register on the Richter Scale.
They want to do six fights in that year, five fights in the United States, one fight in Ireland.
They know that Michael, whenever he fights in Ireland, is going to draw attention and a crowd just because of who he is in Ireland and the reputation that he has. So their focus and goal is to build him in the United States, and help him become a pay-per-view attraction. But they're not going to completely ignore a place like Ireland where he's going to have a lot of fans also - I mean, you fish where the fish are.
So, by having him fight a couple of times here and there in Ireland, you keep that fanbase happy by giving them the opportunity to see him, but you still continue to build him up in the United States.
Conlan's suggested professional debut will be the icing on the cake of a massive day-slash-weekend for Irish sport. The notion of potentially seeing Conlan, his brother Jamie and Paddy Barnes in a packed-out arena in Belfast is almost too good to be true, but might well transpire later in the year.