Michael Conlan refuses to view being knocked out of the ring in the last round of his first title fight as a painful and humbling experience.
Instead, he considers last year’s loss to Leigh Wood for the WBA featherweight world title as a key moment in his development. It’s a setback that he believes has prepared him for Saturday’s shot at IBF featherweight champion Luis Alberto Lopez (Watch on ESPN+, 1:30 p.m. ET).
Conlan (18-1, 9 KOs), who was narrowly ahead on points before being knocked out by Wood in ESPN’s 2022 fight of the year, quickly rebuilt his career with two wins — a unanimous decision versus Miguel Marriaga in August and a first-round stoppage of Karim Gueri in December.
“I learned a lot from the Wood loss, I know how to pace a 12-round fight, I know when to put the foot on the gas, I know when to make the right defensive moves,” Conlan told ESPN. “I’ve learned how to handle the defeat and rebuild. Marriaga was a dangerous puncher and I fought him at my own pace and picked my shots well. When Marriaga tried to put it on me in the last round, I still ended up winning the round.”
Conlan, 31, will get another attempt to win his first title when he challenges Lopez, 29, at The SSE Arena in his home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Conlan believes his response since losing to Wood will ensure he becomes Northern Ireland’s first featherweight champion since Carl Frampton. Now retired, Frampton won his first title when he outpointed Kiko Martinez for the IBF junior featherweight belt in 2014. Conlan was there that night as a spectator at a specially-built outdoor stadium on the site where the Titanic was built.
“There are definitely similarities to when Carl Frampton beat Kiko Martinez,” Conlan told ESPN. “That was his first world title win and I obviously want to do the same in my home city [of] Belfast, too. The IBF world title is on the line like it was in Carl’s fight, too. I just have to use my brain just like Carl did to get the win.”
Lopez (27-2, 15 KOs), from Baja California, Mexico, won the IBF belt via majority decision over Josh Warrington in December. Conlan believes Lopez is a better opponent for him than Wood (26-3, 16 KOs), who lost the WBA title when he was stopped by Mauricio Lara in February. Wood faces Lara, ranked No. 1 in ESPN’s featherweight rankings, in a rematch, also Saturday.
“Luis is a fantastic fighter in his own right and it’s probably a more even matchup than Mauricio Lara versus Leigh Wood,” Conlan said. “Wood could have had the rematch with me for double the money and it was a risk for him to go straight back into a rematch with Lara after getting concussed in his last two fights against Lara and me. It’s career suicide in my opinion. There’s only so long Wood can box and when he gets hit he seems to get damaged.
“Lopez is a tougher fight than Wood for me and poses more threat because he can punch just as hard, he is more orthodox and is a different type of challenge.”
Conlan sparred with women’s lightweight undisputed champion Katie Taylor during his amateur career before competing in the 2012 Olympics in London. Taylor won gold at lightweight in the first women’s boxing tournament at an Olympics. Conlan won bronze in the men’s flyweight division.
“I was a flyweight and bantamweight at the time, so she was bigger than me. The spars were always tough,” Conlan told ESPN. “You couldn’t be leaving any shot behind against someone like Katie Taylor. I remember the first time I sparred with her and I remember I said I’m not going to be holding back. By that time she was a multiple world and European champion in the amateurs.”
Conlan hopes that experience combined with his development since the loss in his first title challenge culminates in him fulfilling his lifelong dream on Saturday.