As an example of Conor McGregor's business acumen, September's Go Big press conference in Las Vegas exists as the shiniest coin in a treasure trove. Jutting his chin, McGregor surveyed uncharted territory in the UFC lightweight division and delivered a masterclass in aggravation. It was three months before one of the UFC's biggest ever showdowns: his featherweight title fight with Jose Aldo, the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the promotion. It didn't seem to matter. Aldo was already history to McGregor, receding in his rearview mirror with every wild utterance about red panties and stuck-in-the-mud divisions. McGregor was mapping the future and behind those sunglasses it was not difficult to imagine dollar signs twirling.
On the road ahead were body types, as McGregor would call them. But we know them as Cowboy Cerrone in his habitual ten-gallon hat, who treated McGregor that day as if he were a cattle rustler; lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos, who found that machine-gun brogue barely comprehensible; and Joseph Duffy, an unranked fighter from Donegal and chalk to McGregor's cheese. He barely spoke. But did he have to? As the last man to beat McGregor, in 2010, he would remain in the McGregor raffle as long as he beat Dustin Poirier in a hugely anticipated main event in Dublin.
In his last sparring session in Montreal, Canada, seven days before the fight on October 24th, Duffy was knocked to the canvas. "It was one of those shots I didn't see that put me down," he told Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour. "For a split second I was down, then I was up. It was a flash knockdown."
He knew it wasn’t good. Non-contact training on Monday went well, however, and on Tuesday Duffy jumped on a plane with the intention of facing Poirier. On landing, he was taken for an MRI, then a cat scan and he did a concussion test the next day with independent doctors. The last doctor delivered the “nail in the coffin”. He had a mild concussion. “I was numb. Just heartbroken,” said Duffy. “I had been away for 12 weeks working my ass off. I wanted to go to Ireland and put on a show for the fans. To me, it feels like it was my coming-out parade, put myself in the rankings. Once I got the news, it was heartbreaking.”
Duffy has since drifted from the McGregor conversation, a conversation that has intensified since those jaw-dropping 13 seconds when Aldo crumpled into that dark place where there is only despair. Now there's a long queue for the money fight, with Frankie Edgar and Dos Anjos and the volatile Nate Diaz behaving like piranhas at lunch.
But Duffy is ready to re-enter the conversation. He returns this weekend when he takes on Poirier in a rescheduled bout in Las Vegas at UFC 195. Succumbing in 106 seconds to McGregor doesn’t look all that bad for Poirier now. At the time, though, it was a death blow to his featherweight ambitions and he folded his battered tent and struck out north, where his heavy hands have brought two first-round KOs in the 155lb division and a growing sense of rejuvenation.
Poirier represents an extremely dangerous opponent for Duffy, who has two first-round stoppages himself since joining the UFC at the beginning of 2015. When Duffy made his debut, unleashing a head kick that wobbled his foe like a cheap bookcase before a body shot finished the fight, the MMA world immediately started talking about a second Irish star. In his follow-up in Glasgow, different skills were displayed. Duffy was picked up and put on his back. A vulnerable position against a specialist grappler. But before his opponent could assert top control, the Donegal man, like some slippery creature from the imagination of Ridley Scott, had curled his legs around his opponent’s neck and locked in a predatory submission that was to earn him a performance of the night bonus.
In a sport as layered and technical and mentally taxing as MMA, the gaps in a fighter’s armour can be chinks or gaping holes but there will be gaps, and no fighter who shows potential is immune to the misgivings of others until he beats elite company in the cage.
Duffy now gets that chance and one suspects he can seize it. A black belt in both Japanese jiu-jitsu and taekwondo, Duffy brings a well-stocked arsenal to the octagon, but having amassed a 7-0 professional boxing record in 2013 during a break from MMA, it’s his reputation as a pugilist that precedes him.
Two traits speak to his confidence: his calmness in the cage and the relaxed position of his hands. Duffy’s footwork and head movement make him an onerous target and offer him him the freedom to fight with his left hand low, right arm cocked, which in turn allows him to be more creative in attack. He is comfortable at long range and in the pocket and in a fight that’s expected to play out on the feet Duffy brings more well-rounded skills than the powerful though defensively suspect Poirier.
Should Duffy come through, the UFC will have their second Irish star. And a possible rematch with McGregor on the horizon. Then we’ll be talking about the razor-sharp jackeen versus quiet man from the country.