In a 2016 Olympic boxing tournament filled with controversies, none was bigger than the heavily disputed elimination of Ireland's Michael Conlan in the bantamweight quarterfinals.
The judges in Rio de Janeiro gave Russia's Vladimir Nikitin a controversial decision that left Conlan, who had claimed a flyweight bronze medal in the 2012 Games, out of medal contention and enraged. He flipped his middle fingers at the judges in the ring, ripped them and the International Boxing Association (AIBA), which oversees amateur boxing, and later accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of paying off the judges to give Nikitin the win.
Conlan had busted Nikitin up so badly in the fight that he was forced to withdraw from the semifinals because of injuries, which gave American silver medalist Shakur Stevenson a walkover to the final.
After the Olympics, Conlan and Stevenson signed with Bob Arum's Top Rank. The signing of Conlan was immortalized with a famous photo of Arum and Conlan giving middle fingers to the camera for a social media post that went viral.
But what of Nikitin? He has not boxed since the Olympics but now he too is going pro under the guidance of Top Rank with the express goal of setting up a rematch with Conlan after signing a promotional contract with the company, Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti told ESPN on Thursday.
Nikitin, 28, will make his professional debut in a six-round featherweight fight against an opponent to be determined on July 14 at the Lakefront Arena on the campus of the University of New Orleans. The fight will take place on the card (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) headlined by junior welterweight standout Regis Prograis in a hometown bout against Juan Jose Velasco. Nikitin's fight, along with the entire card, will be streamed on ESPN+ beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Nikitin has had around 300 amateur fights, according to manager Egis Klimas, who also guides fighters such as lightweight world champion Vasiliy Lomachenko and light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev. Nikitin won a silver medal at the 2013 World Amateur Championships and a bronze medal at the 2013 European Championships in addition to his Olympic bronze medal.
"A showdown with Conlan is eventually going to happen," Moretti said. "To put it in New York or Ireland would be incredible because of the history between the two. Nikitin is fully aware that the goal is to get to a Conlan rematch in the pro ranks. It's probably a year or so away."
Moretti said Top Rank also signed him because Nikitin "fits in with the other featherweights we have. While the main goal is to fight Conlan, it doesn't rule out fighting Shakur or anyone else for that matter."
Klimas said signing with Top Rank was the best way to get the fight Nikitin wants most: a rematch with Conlan.
"I think he's a very talented and also a very exciting fighter in the ring and we could have signed with other promoters," Klimas said. "But the No. 1 reason we signed with Top Rank was to make sure he can fight Conlan and erase the doubts people have from the Olympics. Let them meet in the professional ranks and bring a big fight for the fans. Both guys want that fight and it will be an easy fight to make."