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'I'm proud to be from Donegal and I'm glad they're proud to have me representing them'

We sat down with UFC Dublin headliner Joseph Duffy.

335235467 Source: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

HIS FATHER JOE seemed to be in a bit of hurry when he arrived to collect him and his girlfriend Chloe at City of Derry Airport last Friday evening.

Six days after getting his second win as a UFC fighter, Joseph Duffy was heading back to Donegal having spent a few days in London. Returning home to the north-west of Ireland for the first time in too long.

“We have to be quick,” his father told them as they hopped into the car to make the 100km journey. “The boat is in a bad spot in the port so I’m blocking the place up.”

When they eventually arrived in Burtonport, however, the younger Joe Duffy quickly discovered the true reason for his father’s urgency. Every man, woman and child from the town, it seemed, had turned out for a surprise homecoming.

“As we came into the town I had my head stuck in my phone,” Duffy told The42 this afternoon. “All of a sudden, I looked up and there was a massive gang of people there with posters, banners and everything.

“There was a huge bunch of people who showed up to show their support and welcome me home. It took me completely by surprise. We even had a motorcade from the guards, which was fairly surreal.”

Duffy had been expecting to spend the evening in the local pub, catching up with some old friends over a couple of quiet pints. Instead he found himself up on a stage in the middle of the town alongside local politicians and the parish priest.

“I went up and spoke to the crowd then,” Duffy recalls. “I was shaking like a leaf. I was terrified, I’m useless with that stuff… especially when it came as such a surprise.”

It was an occasion to savour for Duffy. Remaining connected to his Donegal roots has always been important to him but doing so hasn’t been easy. The Celtic Tiger had yet to arrive by the time Joseph was born in 1988, so the family was forced to emigrate shortly afterwards due to a lack of work in Donegal.

He grew up in the industrial Welsh town of Ebbw Vale and his childhood in the valleys has left a slight mark on the accent, but it’s unmistakably Donegal — and so is he. The Duffy family made sure to never leave lengthy gaps before returning home to visit and that kept the ties strong over the years.

11012195_967519253271516_5450075185763599499_o Joseph Duffy being welcomed back to Burtonport last weekend. Source: Mary Rodgers

Joseph was raised in Wales, spent a few years training in London and is now based in Montreal. But Donegal is home. Always has been, always will be. And in spite of his absence over the years, the locals know that too. The welcome has been warm on every occasion Duffy has returned, but last weekend stands out.

“It was quite emotional, to be honest,” says Duffy. “To see how many people turned up just to show their support was quite heartwarming. I’m very proud to be from Donegal and I’m glad they’re proud to have me representing them.

“I don’t get home as often as I’d like but people never forget. They’re proud that I’m representing the county well. I’m just so thankful for all the support. It means the world to me.”

The main topic of conversation during Duffy’s visits home is gradually beginning to change too. These days the locals are more interested in chatting to him about rear-naked chokes and takedown defence instead of Karl Lacey and Sam Maguire.

“Yeah, it’s certainly like that when I’m around anyway,” he laughs. “The Donegal footballers have had a good few years and they’re still in the mix this year despite losing the Ulster final. Hopefully that’ll light a fire under them for the All-Ireland. 

“But in the last few years, the difference in what the people there have learned about mixed martial arts is unreal. It was pretty incredible to hear all the kids talking about it. They were all out and excited about me competing in the UFC. That was pretty special.”

One of the main questions being asked of Duffy last weekend related to his next fight. Where, when and against whom? They didn’t have to wait too long for an answer either. Yesterday, it was announced that Duffy will headline UFC Dublin with a lightweight bout against Dustin Poirier at the 3Arena on Saturday, 24 October.

11754308_967519156604859_3229044080404210875_o Joseph Duffy with his mother Teresa, girlfriend Chloe and father Joe at last weekend's homecoming in Burtonport. Source: Mary Rodgers

Two weeks ago his UFC experience amounted to one minute and 47 seconds of action on a Fight Pass prelim. Now, just four months after making his UFC debut, the Donegal native is a UFC headliner. It’s a pretty unprecedented rate of progress.

After his submission victory against Ivan Jorge at UFC Glasgow twelve days ago, the hype surrounding Duffy went up a notch. Two impressive first-round wins have garnered the interest of the MMA world. His status as the last man to defeat Conor McGregor has done him no harm either.

An undefeated seven-fight stint as a professional boxer left fans with the impression that Duffy is a striker whose preference is to keep his fights on the feet. Having caught Jorge — a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt — in a slick triangle before forcing him to tap to an armbar, people are now beginning to realise that the 27-year-old Irishman is the full package.

Duffy: “I think it shocked people that it was a submission victory. That seemed to set the wheels of the hype train in motion, I suppose. In a lot of interviews, people ask me how I see a particular fight going and they don’t believe me when I tell them I can win the fight anywhere.

“I’m confident I can beat anyone, anywhere. That’s the whole point of training in all the different areas. No matter who you fight, you need to be able to take those opportunities when they present themselves.

“Dana [White, UFC president] has gone on record and said it’s possible I could be an Irish champion in the UFC as well, so maybe that was one of the reasons why they wanted me to headline the Dublin card.

“I don’t think too many fighters have been pushed to headline an event this quickly. That speaks volumes about what they think of my ability. It’s up to me to do my job like I know I can and prove to them that they made the right call by giving me this opportunity.”

By the way, if you thought Duffy looked good in that win against Jorge, he’s keen for you to know that he’s only just warming up. Out of 10, how would he rate his display with the benefit of hindsight?

“I’d say maybe a 4. The submission was good, I was relaxed in there, moving well… but I felt like I was just getting into my stride. I’m not going to be too hard on myself. I’m doing my best to fix things. But I know I can be a lot better than that.”

And he’ll probably need to be against Dustin Poirier. While most Irish fans will remember the 26-year-old American for his comprehensive first-round defeat against Conor McGregor last September, Poirier has looked much more comfortable since he moved up to the lightweight division earlier this year.

UFC 185 Mixed Martial Arts Joseph Duffy in action during his win against Jake Lindsey at UFC 185 back in March. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Louisiana native is 13 fights into his UFC career, compared to Duffy’s two, and has stopped the likes of Max Holloway, Diego Brandao and — most recently — Yancy Medeiros in the first round. Currently ranked 14th in the UFC’s 155lbs division, Poirier will represent Duffy’s biggest test yet.

“I’ve seen Dustin’s last couple of fights. Since he’s made the move up to 155lbs he’s been looking really good. He’s been running through opponents. But it’s a massive opportunity for me,” Duffy admits.

“He’s a ranked fighter at lightweight; I think he went as high as the top five at featherweight too. He’s been around the game long enough to know the ins and outs, but he hasn’t fought me yet.

“That’s what I’m excited about. I’m excited about getting in there and putting on a show for the fans. I’m hoping that the best Dustin Poirier turns up and the best Joe Duffy turns up, and that we’ll let it all unravel on the night.”

The UFC’s last visit to Dublin was a year ago this month. At that point, due to his focus on professional boxing, Joseph Duffy hadn’t competed in an MMA bout for nearly three years but he was busy preparing for his comeback with Cage Warriors.

Twelve months on, he hasn’t just made it to the UFC; he’s made such a significant impact there that the organisation has trusted him to headline their much-anticipated return to the Irish capital. Duffy has exceeded his own expectations but don’t be confused by his humble exterior. He isn’t short on confidence or self-belief.

“I knew I could get to the UFC pretty sharpish,” he says. “I felt my stand-up was massively improved and I already had a pretty decent ground-game. The skills I learned from boxing have actually transferred over to MMA better than I would have thought.

“I didn’t think things would happen this quickly but, at the same time, I’m not massively surprised. I am one of the best fighters in the world and I’m ready to show people that. I’m here to win a UFC belt.”

Joseph Duffy attempts to submit Damien Lapilus Joseph Duffy submitted Damien Lapilus on his return to MMA last August. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

As his three-year absence from the cage drew to a close, Duffy was glued to an iPhone at a friend’s wedding on the night of last year’s UFC Dublin show, watching on as Conor McGregor overcame Diego Brandao amid a raucous atmosphere at the 3Arena.

In just over 12 weeks’ time, the people of Donegal will descend on Dublin for the UFC’s return and the same ovation will await Duffy: “A year on, it’s pretty unbelievable to be coming back here and headlining myself,” he says, glancing across at the 3Arena through the window of a conference room at the Gibson Hotel.

If he’s victorious against Dustin Poirier, Dublin will witness Donegal-flavoured celebrations that haven’t been seen since the night of the 2012 All-Ireland football final.

If Joe Duffy Senior’s boat is in “a bad spot” that night, the port will just have to wait.

Tickets to UFC Dublin at the 3Arena go on sale on Friday, 4 September. See more UFC programming, including The Ultimate Fighter: Team McGregor vs Team Faber, in the Republic of Ireland on BT Sport (part of the Setanta Sports Pack).

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Paul Dollery

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