Behind the scenes of Michael Conlan's final spar as world title destiny calls

There’s a sign on the wall that says, “Will it be easy?” 


“Will it be worth it?” 


It is the day of Michael Conlan’s final sparring session at the Boxing Booth Gym, a comma near the end of the training camp if not the full stop.

When I arrive, the Irish featherweight star and two-time Olympian is putting in some steady work on the treadmill to warm up, and that is followed by some light stretching. 

We fist bump and, as always, he is obliging and starts talking, but aware of not wanting to take his mind off his work, I fade into the background with my notepad and start making observations.

Conlan has far more pressing matters at hand. The 31-year-old Irish icon travels back to Belfast in a couple of days to carry out fight week obligations ahead of the most important contest of his life, when he fights Mexican Luis Alberto Lopez for the visitor’s IBF featherweight title.

The SSE in Belfast will be an absolute cauldron on May 27, and while there is tension in the air ahead of this session, coach and gym owner Adam Booth’s Motown playlist has Conlan moving to an uplifting beat as others in the gym nod their heads and sing under their breath to a number of classics from the eighties.

The mood is jovial and relaxed.

There’s a group of pros finishing a sweaty circuit and starting to tee off noisily on the bags.

Conlan begins to shadowbox. His father John paces nervously and tries to share a joke with Booth to put them both at ease.

“The hard work is done,” Michael tells me. 

That is true. But the risks are still there and the stakes, little more than a week from fight night, have never been higher.

Yes, the hard work might be done, but a cut, a twisted ankle, a knee that goes the wrong way… One disaster and the axis of Team Conlan’s world will stop moving amid headlines of postponement or, worse still, cancellation. The weeks would have been for nought.

“I hate the last spar,” Conlan sighed. “I’m a 23-year veteran. I don’t need to spar as much.”

Feeling the pressure, I change the conversation and Mick tells me about a Paris trip to Disneyland that is booked the week after the fight, how his wife wants to go on safari in South Africa, that there is a trip to New York pencilled in for the Boxing Writers’ Association of America awards in early June and that a relaxing holiday in Italy beckons later in the year. 

“It will be the first summer I’ve had off since the amateurs,” Conlan said. 

He has sacrificed for his love of the sport but again, I don’t want to take his mind off things so I leave him to finish his stretches. 

Conlan then heads towards Booth’s office and is met by the trainer, who starts to wrap his charge’s hands. Meanwhile, the sparring partners have arrived to help complete the sharpening of Conlan’s southpaw tools. They skip, mobilise and get warm. They must also be tense. A stray elbow, an accidental meeting of heads or crossing of feet could be disastrous. But it’s also not a waltz.

While the hardest rounds are done, these eight sessions need to be meaningful. Conlan must leave with confidence, but not a false sense of security. He doesn’t need to go through the motions and he doesn’t need an ensemble cast to kowtow to him. They must give him work and make him earn the right to feel he is in no better shape to fight Lopez than he is now.

Conlan is wearing a light grey Conlan Boxing sleeveless tank top with his likeness silhouetted in black on the front. His shorts are a similar colour and his vascular arms are cocked at the elbows and rotating in circles as he continues to limber up.

He slips into a purple and green protector with The Conlan Revolution on the front and Booth, who’s applied cocoa butter to the headguard, gloves Mick up.

Patrice Rushen’s Forget Me Nots greets Conlan and Conlan Boxing’s 6-0 former Olympian and hot prospect Kurt Walker, a skilled 28-year-old Irishman who boxes on the Belfast undercard.

Conlan’s phone is propped up on a ringside counter with his Polar heart rate monitor attached via the app. He will log the data of the session and compare it with other camps and other spars, and expects his heart rate to get as high as 175 or 180 beats per minute at times in the next eight rounds.

Walker wears a charcoal T-shirt and grey shorts. He has a white headguard and he and Conlan open at a brisk pace. The older man is sharp but composed, moving quickly like an electric current yet also smoothly like a stream.

Walker carries his lead left hand low and is willing to engage Conlan at each opportunity.

Three minutes goes in the blink of an eye. Occasionally Booth shouts “beautiful” but one can’t help keep thinking that in this last spar, there is no margin for error.

John Conlan stands a few feet back from the centre of the ring stoic, tense, arms folded. 

Walker completes a second session to Cheryl Lynn’s Got to be Real and Love Come Down by Evelyn King.

The tempo of what is happening in the ring increases in the next session, the intensity and power seems to have subtly gone up a couple of notches as well.

After two, Walker is excused. Job done.

He is replaced by 1-0 Byron Cox and I walk over to a clearly apprehensive Conlan Snr to ask him how he is feeling.

It was a stupid question unless I wanted him to lie to me.

“Nervous,” he quickly replied.

His son is 18-1 as a pro and his only defeat came in his previous world title fight, to Leigh Wood, little more than a year ago. That was 2022’s Fight of the Year and John Conlan wants to see no such exchanges today. He knows the pitfalls of one last spar. 

Happily, he praises his boy’s distance management, and talks with pride about Michael and Jamie, his son who was a crowd-pleasing ex-pro who is now managing the Conlan Boxing fighters. 

“Shot!” “Shot!” 

Conlan Snr likes what he sees.

This is supposed to be a box ticking exercise in timing, distance and sharpening and it is exactly that. There is a moment where Conlan stays in the pocket longer than John would like and John lets him know.

Harlem Eubank, the 17-0 super-lightweight contender and fellow Booth protégé steps in for the fifth round. 

“He’s difficult coming in fresh,” John bristles, looking, frankly, agitated. As cordial as he has been with me, I leave Conlan Snr to it. I don’t want to be next to him if something goes wrong.

By now, Mick’s pale grey tank is soaked to almost black but he is in a rhythm, and it’s not because Nu Shooz or Chaka Khan tumble easily from the speakers. Conlan is smooth, relaxed, focused and checking this invaluable box.

Eubank, though, has too much respect to willingly play second fiddle to his friend and wants to give him work. The pace is fast. It’s chess at a high and physical level. There’s feinting, each setting traps trying to trigger one another, urging one another to make mistakes from which they can capitalise. 

At the end of Conlan’s seventh, his dad holds his index finger up to Booth, asking whether there is one more. Booth smiled.

It turns out, Michael was feeling good after six and he had checked with Adam that he could do two more and finish on eight. Booth nodded. 

Through the last one or two rounds, the gym has come to a semi-standstill. Regardless of what station they were at, boxers either half looked at Conlan and Eubank as they tapped the bags in front of them or they stopped altogether in appreciation of what they were watching.

Following the eighth, Conlan Snr breathed a sigh of relief and Booth grinned knowing the perfect last eight sessions of camp were condemned to history and Conlan was unscathed. 

Better than that, he was ready.

Conlan and Eubank both speedily left the ring.

“I hate sparring,” Conlan repeated to me. 

Eubank, meanwhile, was delighted. He had more rounds to do with other fighters, but he knew where Michael was, complimenting Conlan’s timing and sharpness.

Conlan, drenched in sweat, changed gloves and went to work on the bags. John watched on, noticeably more relaxed but thoughts of his son’s championship fight clearly in the forefront of his mind.

I returned to Booth who said the spar was “more than I was hoping for.”

He said being able to shut Walker down had allowed Conlan to maintain the correct mindset through the spar and when asked about Michael perhaps wanting to plant his feet too much against Cox, Booth could only shrug, “It’s in him.”

He was referring to the ruthlessness, the type it takes to become a champion.

Booth allowed Conlan to freestyle the rest of the session, to do as much or as little as he felt like. At one point, Conlan jumped rope and Booth reminded him to do some ab work.

Having previously recommended me to watch Gomorrah, which I enjoyed, Conlan – a sucker for a good boxset in training camp – advises me to watch Zero Zero Zero. At the moment, he’s listening to true crime podcasts, particularly about the situation in Ireland. 

He likes hearing the familiar accents of those at home while in camp in England, but he is pleased to be the captain of his own ship since Conlan Boxing severed all ties with MTK and other promotional offshoots. He and Jamie have their own stable, are doing their own things and investing in their own futures, and in that of Irish boxing. Now is the time for the real Conlan Revolution.

Conlan fist bumped everyone as he slipped away for the day. He was going to rest ahead of hill sprints in a few hours’ time. He has one more gym session left, a hard 15-round circuit on Friday. He flies to Ireland on Saturday. Booth joins him early next week and Conlan will do little more than jog, some sharp mittwork with Booth or go for walks.

The work is done. 

Now the longest wait for a fighter begins. It is the time when doubt creeps in, pressure is turned up and fear interrupts sleep. It is when the last few pounds and ounces have to be persuaded to reluctantly depart and stress and anxiety cause a normally low resting heart rate to edge up unknowingly through the day.

But when Conlan steps through the curtain next Saturday night at Belfast’s SSE Arena and the decibel level causes the roof to vibrate with hope, expectation and passion, Conlan will know the work has been done.

“Will it be easy?” Asks the slogan on Booth’s gym wall. 

“Nope,” is the answer. 

“Will it be worth it?”


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