THE last time Michael Conlan attempted to become a featherweight belt-holder he did so in an opponent’s backyard with the odds against him. It was, despite this, still a fight he very much expected to win, and indeed a fight he was winning, but in the end there could be no question that Leigh Wood’s last-round salvo, which ultimately wrecked Conlan’s dream, was in part a result of Wood’s Nottingham faithful roaring him through to the finish line.

Fourteen months on and Conlan now tries again, only this time he goes for the IBF featherweight belt in Belfast, his hometown. Perhaps crucially, whereas before he had to travel to the champion’s home to get what he wanted, on Saturday (May 27) he will be afforded the luxury of having the champion, Luis Alberto Lopez, come to him. That could mean everything. Or, then again, it could mean absolutely nothing.

Certainly, though, in light of the experience he had with Wood in Nottingham, and taking into account the intensity of the Belfast fans, it benefits Conlan to be at home this weekend. It is there, after all, he has won the two fights he has had since losing to Wood – his first and only loss as a pro – and it is there, when not boxing in America, he has featured most often in his six-year pro career. Few fighters nowadays, in fact, are as synonymous with a place as Conlan is with Belfast; a throwback, in a sense, to a time when fighters built fanbases in real towns and cities rather than on social media.

Last time in Belfast, back in December, Conlan was at his most explosive, stopping former European champion Karim Guerfi inside a round. That was a fight most predicted would go long, or at least longer, yet Conlan, 18-1 (9), set about his French opponent early, hurt him to the body, and then swiftly got him out of there. In the process, he proved he punches harder than some say and also, more importantly, that any lingering demons from the Wood defeat are slowly but surely being exorcised. For it was 14 months ago in Nottingham Conlan hurt and dropped Wood early only to punch himself out in an effort to finish him, then pay the price down the stretch. This Conlan now concedes as a possible reason why he didn’t become champion that night, but appears to suffer no fear of going there again when he gets a featherweight hurt.

Prior to Guerfi, Conlan had quite the opposite experience with an opponent. Up against Colombian Miguel Marriaga, he did all he could to get the stoppage – dropping his opponent three times – but to no avail, eventually having to settle for beating Marriaga over the 10-round distance. That, for entirely different reasons, was also educational and beneficial for Conlan, one suspects. If nothing else, it forced him to venture again into the later rounds and hold it together until the final bell. This he did, too, winning widely on the cards.

He would appear ready, then, at 31 and with a wealth of both amateur and pro experience, for a second shot at gold this weekend in Belfast. Comfortable these days as both a southpaw and orthodox fighter, he has added layers to his game as he has progressed as a pro and now seems as capable of trading as he is boxing and as capable of power-punching as he is point-scoring. Even questions regarding his stamina should be put to bed when considering the fact nine of his last ten fights have gone beyond nine rounds, with only Guerfi, finished inside a round, leaving Conlan feeling as though he was just warming up.

In contrast, Lopez, the man Conlan wants to dethrone, went 12 rounds for the first time back in December 2022. That was the night he won the IBF featherweight belt with a confident display against Leeds’ Josh Warrington and duly announced himself as a marked man in the nine-stone division.

Beaten previously by Abraham Montoya and Ruben Villa, both in 10-rounders, there is a feeling that Lopez, despite his improvements (those losses came in 2018 and 2019 respectively), is considered a champion there for the taking, or at least not as formidable as some of the others. That is just the nature of boxing and its myriad belts, of course, but it’s now up to Lopez to show he is a formidable champion and demonstrate once again why it would be foolish to underestimate him.

This, after all, is not the first time he has travelled to Britain to spoil the party. He did the same in December, when upsetting Warrington in his hometown, and he also stopped Isaac Lowe inside seven rounds the previous year at York Hall, Bethnal Green. He is, in other words, a fighter unwilling to read the script or follow the perceived way in which events are supposed to transpire. As far as Lopez is concerned, every trip to Britain, or America, offers him the opportunity to enhance his career and his own reputation. He hits hard enough to trouble fighters susceptible to heavy shots and he is aggressive enough to outwork those who get lazy or complacent. Most of all, by backing himself to take his career on the road, Lopez, 27-2 (15), possesses a self-belief that is often the deciding factor in fights that appear close on paper.

This fight on Saturday against Conlan will be no different. Lopez will, once more, be considered an underdog, despite bringing with him a world title, and he will, once more, have to do things the hard way just to leave with everything he had in his possession when first arriving in Belfast. Unlike the Josh Warrington fight, however, when he was essentially gifted the kind of opponent and fight he desperately wanted, there is a suspicion Conlan and his Belfast fans won’t be quite so accommodating to the Mexican’s needs. It is for that reason Conlan, having learnt his lessons and licked his wounds, should be backed to triumph over the 12-round distance in what is the true test of his post-Wood rehabilitation.

On the Belfast undercard, meanwhile, Liverpool’s exciting and diminutive featherweight Nick Ball, 17-0 (10), meets South Africa’s Ludumo Lamati, 21-0-1 (11), over 12 rounds, and Belfast’s Anthony Cacace, 20-1 (7), boxes Poland’s Damian Wrzesinski, 26-2-2 (7), over the same distance at super-featherweight.