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Representing Ireland as the world’s best is Duffy’s aim

11/11/2014

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“If I’m looking back at the end of my career and that ends up being the thing that still stands out most, then I think that would definitely mean failure…”

By PAUL DOLLERY

If he was looking for a sign to reassure him that he’d made the right decision, this was it.

The Helix in Dublin last August 16, and Irish-born Joseph Duffy is making his return to mixed martial arts after a two-year stint on the professional boxing circuit.

Duffy was pretty sure that he’d made the right move by abandoning the ring in favour of the cage, but the reaction of the crowd confirmed it. The fans raised the roof to greet the 26-year-old, as he was re-introduced to the MMA world before defeating Damien Lapilus.

The reception from the Irish fans also served to let Duffy know that he is most certainly one of their own. Names like McGregor, Parke and Pendred have brought the sport of mixed martial arts into the public consciousness in Ireland in 2014, but Duffy was unsure about being accepted as part of that new generation of ‘Fighting Irish’.

He was born in the coastal Donegal village of Burtonport, raised in Wales and is now based in London, but Duffy represents only one nation…and you don’t need to see the tricolour on his fight shorts or the ‘Dún na nGall’ tattoo across his back to know which one.
 
“I’ll never forget the noise in The Helix that night,” Duffy reflects. “The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. It was unbelievable. For that moment alone, it was worth it.”

Conor McGregor has propelled himself into mainstream stardom in Ireland in the past eighteen months, a groundbreaking achievement for an athlete competing in a sport that’s still in its infancy.

Were it not for his aforementioned hiatus from MMA, it’s likely that Joseph Duffy would also be a household name by now. McGregor is currently one of MMA’s hottest properties, but his last taste of defeat came at the hands of Duffy back in 2010.

Much has changed for both men since then. While Duffy was discovering what boxing had to offer, McGregor was busy turning himself into a global superstar…and the most talked-about athlete in Ireland today.

But there are no regrets for Duffy – “This is the path I was meant to take,” he insists – and he’s adamant that he’s en route to a career that will ultimately yield much more to be proud of than a largely forgotten win over Conor McGregor.
 
Given McGregor’s subsequent achievements, it’s difficult for Duffy to escape questions about their CWFC 39 bout, and while it was a win to be proud of – like any other – Duffy himself is the person least likely to broach the subject.

For him, it’s a win no more or less valuable than any other, and when the time comes for him to hang up his gloves, you’re unlikely to find Duffy on a barstool regaling punters with tales of how he brought down Conor McGregor in exchange for free stout.

Joseph Duffy and Conor McGregor come face to face ahead of their 2010 bout at CWFC 39 (Photo: Peter Waldron).

However, that win has certainly proved useful since Duffy made his MMA return…as a barometer for what he’s capable of, and in attracting an amount of publicity otherwise unwarranted for a man who hadn’t fought in just under three years.

And, when looking to the future, Duffy is fully aware that previous achievements count for little. If the events of 2010 were to make him a superior fighter to McGregor today, then by the same logic he’s not up to standard for The Ultimate Fighter…an assessment few, if any, would agree with.

As a raw 21-year-old, Duffy bulldozed his way through the auditions for TUF’s twelfth season, but failed to make the final cut when he fell short against Kyle Watson. Duffy’s only official career loss thus far came at the hands of Ivan Musardo for the CWFC lightweight world title in October 2011, but it’s his TUF failure that still haunts him most.

“The losses seem to define fighters more than the wins,” Duffy says. “Looking back at the whole Ultimate Fighter experience, it really cuts me deep down. I felt like the occasion got too much for me, and when I got in there I just folded.  So that still sticks in my throat.

“But even just mentally alone, the fighter I was then compared to today are two completely different people. When I went over there I had only made lightweight once – my first fight at lightweight was against Norman Parke – and I had only heard about the tryouts a week before I actually left to go out there.

“I felt like I was flying in the tryouts, no matter who I was in with. But when it came to the house itself, it all became a bit too much for me, to be honest. Coming from a small club, I started to doubt myself. We didn’t even have another pro fighter in the gym at the time.

“I didn’t know much about weight-cutting and I hadn’t experienced fighting in a big cage either. I let all that come into my mind and I think I beat myself before I went in there. Technically I’m a totally different fighter now as well. I didn’t even know how to sprawl back then!”

His time away from MMA has left Duffy with some catching up to do, but to dismiss his two years in boxing as time wasted would be naïve. The Cage Warriors lightweight division moved on without him, but in the meantime Duffy was sharpening what, by his own admission, wasn’t his most effective tool.

“I wouldn’t say I was ever totally confident in my stand-up at the top level, but that’s not the case now,” he says confidently, thanks to the experience of the seven wins (and no losses) he racked up as a professional boxer.

Joseph Duffy went 7-0 in the ring in 2013 (Photo: Tommy Lakes).

When he announced his decision to switch to boxing in the summer of 2012, Duffy was fully focused on ensuring the move was a success. But did MMA always cast a shadow?

“To answer that, the best way of putting it is that I squeezed it out,” he says. “I knew I was ready to give everything to boxing at the time, so I knew I needed to put MMA out of my head. But that was tough to do.

“I wanted to follow what was going on with Cage Warriors and stuff, but I had to try to stop in order to take myself away from it mentally. But every once in a while I’d watch it, and then it would leave me in two minds. But I think I did things correctly. I gave boxing everything, but towards the end MMA was weighing heavier on my mind than boxing, and that was when it was time to go back.”

As a comeback, Duffy could hardly have asked for more than his Cage Warriors 70 victory over Damien Lapilus in his native Ireland earlier this year.

“It was a tough fight but I enjoyed every second of it. That’s not something I could say when I was boxing. Sometimes in boxing I’d be praying for the fights to end. There wasn’t always that same enjoyment. After the fight in Dublin [against Lapilus] I was still buzzing a week later, but there was never anything like that when I boxed.”

Fight night is approaching now, and between training sessions Joseph Duffy is taking refuge in a North London café. Outside, the road surface on Islington’s Upper Street is undergoing some maintenance. If things had gone a little differently, he might have been out there laying tar instead of putting the finishing touches to his preparations for a highly-anticipated contest in an Olympic arena.

“Sport is all I was ever interested in, really. Had it not worked out the way it has, I’d probably still be in London but working in tunnelling for Crossrail or on a construction site somewhere.”

Whether it was MMA, boxing, rugby or something else, a life as a professional sportsman is what Duffy aspired to live, so he’s grateful to be doing so. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t tough. The easy way out has never been an option for Duffy and his family.

When work dried up for his father in the 80s, as it did for many Irishmen back then, the Duffy clan uprooted to the industrial Welsh town of Ebbw Vale, and although they were back and forth, keeping the links to Donegal alive, Joseph spent the majority of his childhood in the valleys.

Duffy celebrates his victorious return to MMA following August’s submission triumph over Damien Lapilus in Dublin (Photo: Dolly Clew).

While there, if he wasn’t in school, he was more than likely to be found at Falcons Martial Arts club, where he began training in taekwondo at the age of five; which would have been useful at the time given how strongly he clung to his sense of Irishness.

“It was hard growing up in Wales. I was terribly into sport, so if Ireland lost in the rugby I would try to skip the next day at school, just to avoid the hassle it would bring. I suppose I would always have made it known I wasn’t from Wales as well. I never accepted it, which probably made life hard for myself.

“Other than in the gym, I never felt like I fitted in in Wales. Outside of school and the gym, I never really did much else. If I had ever put on a Welsh jersey I think I would have had lumps knocked out of me at home. I was born in Donegal, I’m proud to be Irish and I’ve never looked at myself as anything else. I loved representing my club in Wales, but I represented them as an Irish person.”

In 2010, Duffy went to Las Vegas as part of a British team competing at the World Martial Arts Games. In the team photo, he can be recognised as the guy wearing the Donegal football shirt and holding the Irish tricolour.

This Saturday, Duffy will aim to improve his professional MMA record to 12-1 with a win over French veteran Julien Boussuge. As arguably the most vaunted athlete on the CWFC roster, the world will be watching the Irish lightweight.

Duffy is putting in the work, at the MMA Clinic and Team Titan in London, and respite is scarce. If he’s relaxing during a rare evening off, and thoughts of Boussuge putting his shoulder to the wheel enter his mind, Duffy will launch himself off the couch and on to the pavements around his home in Holloway to clock up a few miles.

He’s still writing the opening pages of the second chapter of his MMA career, but as one of the top contenders in the most competitive division in Europe’s leading promotion, and with a big fight on the horizon, Duffy’s story is likely to be one worth reading…and because of his own achievements, not those of his past opponents.

“It’s understandable that I’ll get a lot of questions about Conor McGregor, and that’s fine, but if I’m looking back at the end of my career and that ends up being the thing that still stands out most, then I think that would definitely mean failure.

“I’ve got no interest in making my name from someone else’s achievements. I want to be the best in the world and anything less than that is failure. If I haven’t got the ability to get there – which I believe I have – then I can live with that as long as I’ve given it everything I have.”

And if Duffy does reach the summit, he’ll be planting his Irish flag next to McGregor’s when he arrives.

“The way MMA has exploded in Ireland this year has been incredible. Living over here in the UK, and having been brought up over here, it was important to me that I’d be accepted in the same way the other Irish fighters have been.”

Duffy’s exerts inside the cage have already made him a popular figure on the Irish circuit, but his warm personality is equally as endearing. When added to the immense pride he takes in representing his country on the international stage, his acceptance as an Irishman is assured.

The luck of the Irish is not something Duffy can count on at this level of competition, but as he discovered at The Helix in August, the love of the Irish certainly is.

French veteran Julien Boussuge is Duffy’s next opponent (Photo: Dolly Clew).

DUFFY ON…

Expectation, and the pressure to deliver:

“Sometimes you’ve just got to forget all the bullshit around it and remember that it’s just a fight. That’s what I try to do now. In the last fight I just concentrated on enjoying it, because towards the end when I was boxing it was miserable. So if I just go in and enjoy it, I don’t think I can go wrong. The worst thing that can happen [against Julien Boussuge] is I’ll lose, but he’s going to have to be good to beat me.”

The persistent hand injuries that have caused him problems:

“I didn’t land as many clean shots as I’d have liked [against Damien Lapilus], but I didn’t have any trouble at all from the hands. I’m not going to hold back on shots. I’ll keep fighting and trying to win. There’s always a risk of injury. That’s the nature of the sport. It’s not a concern at all.”

The CWFC lightweight division:

“While I was out, the division went up another level. A few years back, I was probably ahead of the curve then, but since then it’s moved forward a hell of a lot. Any of the top guys in Cage Warriors could do well in any promotion. I’m really looking forward to Mick Sinclair vs. Saul Rogers; that’s a great fight and one that I’ll definitely want to watch back afterwards. But as for the division as a whole, I think it’s maybe the most stacked in Cage Warriors.”

The CWFC 70 win over Damien Lapilus:

“I was disappointed with my performance afterwards, but in hindsight it was the best thing for me. I learned from it and I know what work needed to be done. Most of his wins were by submission, but as soon as I took him down I felt at home and on another level. I’ll take confidence from that.”

The success of Conor McGregor:

“The way he’s fighting, I think it’s beautiful to watch. He’s fearless, he’s confident in his training, he knows what he wants to do and then he goes out and does it. The pressure never fazes him. I think he’s exceptional.”

His CWFC 74 opponent, Julien Boussuge:

“I know he’s a high-level judo guy. He’s mixed around with a lot of different styles and he is decent on his feet, but I’d put him down as more of a grappler. I watched his last fight against Damien Brown, and Damien is tough, but I thought Boussuge made hard work of him. I definitely see a few holes there. I think he slows down as well; the spring goes out of his step after the first couple of rounds. I’ll keep the pressure on him and I think it’ll only be a matter of time before he makes a mistake that I can capitalise on.”

His hopes for the future:

“I find that if I look too far ahead I start to take my eye off the ball, so I don’t really do that. After the Boussuge fight I’ll look at the result and the performance, and then I’ll get ready for whatever is next.”

Joseph Duffy fights Julien Boussuge at CWFC 74 at the Copper Box Arena in the Olympic Park in London on Saturday, November 15, 2014. Click HERE for ticket and event information.

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