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After exposing Olympic judges, Ireland's Michael Conlan gains Conor McGregor's support for pro debut

After exposing Olympic judges, Ireland's Michael Conlan gains Conor McGregor's support for pro debut
Michael Conlan poses during a news conference on Jan. 18 in New York. Conlan makes his pro debut at The Garden on St. Patrick's Day in a junior featherweight bout against Tim Ibarra. (Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press)

It's not the Olympic rings that define Michael Conlan.

It's the defiance embodied by the double middle fingers he shot at Olympic judges who were ultimately fired that set the tone for the next stage of the Irish super-bantamweight's boxing life.

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On St. Patrick's Day night in Madison Square Garden's theater, Conlan will make his professional debut after being walked into the ring by a countryman who also strides confidently as his own man, UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor.

In Rio de Janeiro, Conlan was robbed of what appeared to be a convincing victory by decision over Russia's Vladimir Nikitin, proclaiming he'd never fight for the Amateur International Boxing Assn. again. He later tweeted a question to Russian President Vladimir Putin, "How much did they charge you, bro?"

A former European and world amateur champion whose journey was documented on national television, Conlan, 25, announced, "That's the end of my Olympic gold. My dream has been shattered now."

The heartbreak was short-lived as Conlan endeared himself to his countrymen and the world by taking a needed stand against the corruption.

"It was so controversial. … How I reacted, I did it with my true emotions — I didn't sugarcoat it. And I don't regret it at all," Conlan said. "I didn't stick to the routine that every athlete does and say, 'Oh, well, this happened,' while reading from a script.

"I feel the Irish people love that [authentic] stuff and they were real happy that I did that, that I stood up for Ireland. I became a little bit of an obsession. Everybody wants to see what my next move is, and that's March 17 at Madison Square Garden.

"You have to be honest. There's no point in [softening] yourself. If I hadn't done what I've done in boxing, I'd still be like that. So I'm very happy I said what I have to say."

Veteran Top Rank promoter Bob Arum moved quickly to sign Conlan to a multi-fight deal that is expected to feature bouts in late April, June, September and December (in Belfast).

Irish boxer Michael Conlan talks to Top Rank's Crystina Poncher about making his pro debut on St. Patrick's Day at Madison Square Garden.

The St. Patrick's Day fight precedes Saturday's Gennady Golovkin-Daniel Jacobs pay-per-view middleweight title unification bout.

His manager, former two-division title challenger Matthew Macklin, predicts Conlan will quickly win over a loyal following in the U.S.

"He's an exciting, well-rounded boxer-fighter who sits in the pocket, loves to work the body, doubles up with both hands," Macklin said. "It's an exciting style, fought with emotion.

"Any neutral sports fan who would see someone cheated out of something they work so hard for, you have to sympathize … . People appreciate his openness, his honesty and the fact he cares so much about trying to be the best. He's principled. Plus, he has an exciting style. He's fighting with channeled aggression."

Having McGregor lead the way in with the Irish flag might be the best introduction of all.

"His mentality has an influence on me," Conlan said. "It's special headlining MSG for my first fight. It's the best day for Ireland. It's going to be really special and something I'll never forget. The key to success is fixing your attention, splitting your head to the fact this is just another fight."

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