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Enraged in Rio, Conlan aims to avenge Olympic boxing defeat

NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Conlan was almost ready to forget about revenge and move on. He had ached for another shot at Vladimir Nikitin ever since the Russian's disputed victory at the 2016 Olympics sent Conlan storming out of Rio de Janeiro enraged with the judges he thought robbed him and the international boxing federation he thought enabled them.

But when their original planned match fell through this summer, Conlan figured that it was time to think about something else. “I was like, we’re done. I don’t need it," Conlan said. That doesn't mean he didn't want it.

The bout was rescheduled for Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, a fight that doesn't do much for the Irishman professionally but will help sooth some leftover hurt from when he was an amateur. “Am I gutted a bit not winning the gold medal? Of course, but it’s done," Conlan said. “I can’t dwell on the past and this fight personally, the only reason I really want it is because I’ve lost twice to the guy."

Nikitin edged Conlan in a 2013 bout, when Conlan said he was still getting used to fighting as a bantamweight. By the time they met again three years later in the Olympic quarterfinals, Conlan was a world amateur champion and a medal favorite.

He thought he won and so did many other observers, but the judges awarded the decision to Nikitin. “I’m confident in my victory," Nikitin said through a translator. “My hand was raised up. I feel that I won that fight and I don’t think nothing about it."

Conlan, having beaten up Nikitin so thoroughly that the Russian had to pull out of the tournament before his semifinal match, blasted the boxing federation for being corrupt and extended his middle finger to the judges before leaving.

But, he says, none of his anger was directed toward Nikitin. “It wasn’t him who made that decision in Rio, so there’s nothing I can feel against him," Conlan said. “So, what happened in Rio happened.”

Conlan hopes there is less chance of it happening next year in Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee is overseeing the boxing competition after stripping governing body AIBA of the right and has barred any judge from Rio from taking part in the 2020 Games.

“Fantastic. I believe I’ve changed Olympic boxing forever and thankfully so for the young fighters coming through," Conlan said. “Who’s to say that there still won’t be some kind of form? It’s sport after all. Every bloody aspect of sport has some kind of cheating I think. But if I’ve had an immediate effect in these games, which I believe I will in terms of people being robbed and decisions being correct, I’ll be really happy."

Conlan (12-0, 7 KOs) signed with Top Rank and turned pro after Rio, with CEO Bob Arum saying Conlan told them from the start he wanted a match against Nikitin. Top Rank has been building toward that, putting them on the same card twice, and they were set to meet in Ireland in August before Nikitin pulled out with an injury.

Conlan was on board when the match was rescheduled for Saturday for the undercard of Terence Crawford's welterweight title defense on ESPN, even though he acknowledges Nikitin has far more to gain from it. The Russian has had only three pro fights, winning them all, and fighting someone with such a light resume doesn't move Conlan any closer to the title shot that Arum said is in the works for 2020.

“Doesn’t matter. It’s in his psyche," Arum said. Conlan now sees the positives in his Olympic disappointment, believing it matured him. He's gone on to a successful pro career and headlined cards where fighters who did medal in Rio have fought under him. Arum already is planning to bring him back on St. Patrick's Day to MSG, where Conlan has fought in front of adoring crowds the last three years.

Conlan isn't thinking about the future now. For now, it's about a 0-2 record in his past. “One might have been controversial, the other was still close, but I’m not going to complain about it," Conlan said. “So this time I’m just focused on getting the victory. He's a rugged, rough opponent, but I believe he’s perfect for me at this stage of my career.”

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