Irish boxing talent has the chance to emerge from behind some very dark shadows in a seven-day period at the end of May.
Firstly, this Saturday (May 20), Katie Taylor meets Chantelle Cameron in Dublin in one of the best fights that can be made in the sport and a week later, Taylor’s friend and former amateur teammate, Michael Conlan challenges Luis Lopez for the IBF featherweight title in Belfast.
The two fighters have been close for years and could not be more encouraging of one another. Conlan is frustrated that he can’t be ringside for Taylor’s big night, when she attempts to become an undisputed champion in a second weight class.
Michael will arrive in Belfast on the day of Taylor’s fight, and he will be there in spirit if not in person.
“I’ll be back in Belfast that morning,” Conlan said, having finished camp with coach Adam Booth south of London. “I’ll head back on Saturday and I’m devastated at the same time because it was one fight I wanted to go to… For her homecoming in Ireland. Firstly it was at Croke Park and now it’s at the 3Arena. I know the atmosphere which is created there but no matter where Katie fights, I know the atmosphere that’s created, so I wanted to go and experience it and witness it first hand, but I’m really excited for her. I can’t wait to see her put on a performance.”
Conlan and Taylor both have significant tests ahead of them. These are not two cakewalks or homecoming parades but acid tests against legitimate champions.
Taylor was originally due to rematch Amanda Serrano, but Serrano could not make the original date and Cameron came in, and it’s an equally stiff test, and a physically bigger one.
“It just goes to show the type of woman she is,” Conlan continued. “Her homecoming, and the opponent she was meant to have got injured and she’s picked an even harder opponent. Undisputed versus undisputed. A bigger woman in Chantelle Cameron, who’s fit and really strong, and Katie’s decided to pick this girl for her homecoming fight when she could have picked anyone and it would have sold out. It’s crazy. She [Taylor] deserves to be appreciated and I think the whole of boxing needs to give her that respect.”
Conlan reiterates his belief that Cameron is a tougher opponent than Serrano, who Taylor shared a Fight of the Year thriller with in Madison Square Garden last April. Taylor then defended her lightweight crowns against Karen Carbajal in London and now gets to fight in front of her home crowd for the first time in 22 professional fights.
“I think it’s a harder fight than Serrano,” Conlan explained. “Serrano was lighter than Katie and maybe punches harder, yes, but she is lighter. Chantelle Cameron is a big, hard-hitting 140-pounder. It’s no gimmie. She just deserves so much respect and credit to her and credit to the people behind her who backed her in her decision, because a lot of people would just say, ‘Let’s fight anybody. It doesn’t matter. We’re going home. The people will turn out no matter what.’”
Taylor might make it to Conlan’s big night a week after her own, and was happy to talk about her fellow two-time Olympian in the lead up to her fight such is the mutual admiration.
“I’ll definitely be watching, whether it’s on TV or in attendance,” Taylor said. “Michael’s been a phenomenal fighter all through his whole career, so I’m just excited for him as well. It will be amazing that we fought as amateurs together all throughout the years, so it would be great for both of us to continue the biggest nights.”
Taylor happily remembered previous sparring sessions with Conlan, admitting “he was always a nightmare for me to spar, I learned so much, [he’s an] amazing talent, he’s a warrior as well, great heart and he has everything it takes to be a world champion on the 27th and I’m so excited for him.”
Taylor, unbeaten in 22, felt for Conlan in his only defeat, challenging WBA champion Leigh Wood and losing in the final round having decked Wood in the first and been ahead going into the last session before he was stopped last March. Conlan has won two fights since.
“He was so close before against Leigh Wood,” Taylor added. “It was an amazing performance from him. He was a minute away, basically, from being crowned world champion and I’m so excited he has another chance to become world champion because that’s exactly what he deserves.”
Conlan hopes the Irish will be riding the crest of a wave after Taylor has fought Cameron. He is certainly understanding of exactly how big the Taylor franchise is in Ireland. Eddie Hearn recently declared there are only three fighters he always picks up the phone to, Anthony Joshua, Canelo Alvarez and Katie Taylor.
“People don’t understand, especially people who aren’t Irish, how big she is in Ireland,” Conlan added. “I know people can see and think, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable,’ but she’s a proper role model. I don’t think there’s been a better role model. If I was wanting my kid to get into boxing and she chose boxing I would say, ‘Look at this woman and look how she handles herself in victory and defeat and everything.’ She’s just a proper role model, in and outside the ring. She’s a real role model.”
Conlan has even said Taylor is the nearest he has come to meeting a saint, which Taylor chuckled at, and then said he felt Cameron might give Taylor her hardest fight.
“I don’t know if I’m the closest thing to a saint but this could fight has the potential to be the hardest of my career so far,” Taylor agreed. “I am ready for that challenge. These are the fights I am excited about… But I can’t say I’m a saint!”
May 20 and May 27 could live long in the memory for Irish fight fans, a country with incredibly deep boxing roots and an almost unmatched passion for the sport.
“I like the fact I am bringing big time boxing back to the country,” Taylor concluded. “We love our sport and we are a nation who produce phenomenal fighters year in year out, we just love the Noble Art, we’re very good at it so to have a chance to bring big time boxing back to the country is very special.”
“It's possibly the biggest week ever in Irish boxing and one of the biggest weeks in Irish sport if Katie wins and I win,” Conlan went on. “Look how big that is for the whole country, and it sets the whole thing alight again and I’m proud to be a part of it. Me and Katie, we went to two Olympic Games together and I’ve known her so long that I just appreciate her as a friend, as a fighter, and for me to be creating history along with her, around the same time after both coming through the 2016 Olympics, it’s a special feeling and I think it makes Irish boxing stand up and be noticed again.”