Rejuvenated Duffy determined to consign 'embarrassing' performances to the past

The UFC lightweight from Donegal will compete for the first time in 16 months tonight in Abu Dhabi.

mma-ufc-fight-night-london-diakiese-vs-duffy Joseph Duffy hasn't fought since his March 2019 bout against Marc Diakiese. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

AFTER ENDURING A testing period that left him contemplating retirement from mixed martial arts, Joseph Duffy rediscovered his appetite for the sport by putting in day after day of hard work – not in the gym, but under a railway line in south-east Wales.

“Working for 12 hours a day tends to give you a good sense of perspective,” says the Donegal-born UFC lightweight. “As much as I enjoyed the physical work, it does also allow you to appreciate what you do for a living.”

Five years to the day since the win that catapulted him into a headline bout in Dublin, Duffy (16-4) will enter the octagon tonight for the first time in 16 months.

A victory against 27-year-old Spaniard Joel Alvarez (16-2) is essential, but the manner in which it might be achieved also bears considerable significance for a man who pulls no punches in assessing his most recent performances.

“I definitely felt like I was a shadow of my old self in the last couple of fights,” he says of his outings against James Vick and Marc Diakiese, which condemned him to consecutive defeats for the first time in his career. “Mentally I just wasn’t there.”

When he was signed at the height of the so-called ‘Irish Invasion’ of MMA’s premier platform, Duffy was quick to garner attention in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, showcasing his array of attributes while winning his first two bouts inside the opening round.

A spell in professional boxing was put to use in his KO of Jake Lindsey, and there was another eye-catching finish on 18 July 2015 when he submitted a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in Ivan Jorge.

A fortnight later, he was on Ireland AM to announce that he had been given a “massive opportunity” with a main-event clash against Dustin Poirier at the 3Arena.

Joe Duffy (27) Duffy draped in the tricolour after his 2016 win over Mitch Clarke. Source: Tommy Lakes/The42

Duffy ultimately ceded home advantage when a concussion he suffered in training forced the Poirier fight to be postponed. They later squared off in Las Vegas instead, with the Irishman emerging on the wrong side of a unanimous decision in his bid to topple a future title challenger.

Nevertheless, that setback was met with an emphatic response. He needed just 25 seconds to record a submission of Mitch Clarke, before comprehensively accounting for Reza Madadi via the scorecards. 

Since then, however, his promising career has veered off course. A TKO loss to James Vick was followed by a long absence caused by shoulder and rib injuries. When he returned in March 2019, Marc Diakiese capitalised on an uncharacteristically lethargic display to inflict a defeat which left Duffy disillusioned.

He was eager to return to action in the hope of arresting the slide, but the rib issue became increasingly problematic. As the subsequent lay-off continued, doubts over his future in MMA began to grow in the mind of the 32-year-old.

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“There were certain things in my game that I felt I wasn’t ironing out,” he says of the back-to-back losses. “I was also getting too complacent, instead of being the old me where I was very detail-orientated and almost obsessed with fixing things that needed to be fixed in the gym. I just wasn’t holding myself to the level that I should be.”

He adds: “The rib injury was causing a lot of issues. I would start to get into shape and then injure it again. That process seemed to keep repeating itself so I started to get fed up of it all.

“Even keeping the weight down was hard because I couldn’t get any consistency in my training. It was a frustrating period and I got to the stage where I was wondering if I’d even be able to fight again. It [retiring] was definitely in my head for a while.”

For the sake of body and mind – and bank balance – a change was needed, so Duffy’s brother entrusted him with four months of tunnelling work on a construction site in Wales last August.

mixed-martial-arts-2017-ufc-217 Duffy was stopped in the second round of his UFC 217 meeting with James Vick. Source: Jason Silva

“It took the pressure off financially but it was also good to take my mind off things and keep me busy,” he explains. “I really enjoyed doing something else. I didn’t want to get into a situation where I’d be fighting just for the money. I can’t bear to go in there and put on these embarrassing performances. I’d rather jack it in before doing that.

“The whole experience was great, to be honest. It gave me a new lease of life and it also gave the rib time to heal. When I came back I was able to get some consistent training in and everything started falling into place again.

“Laura was only four months old then so it was a long spell to be away from her, which was tough, but I was glad to have done it. I enjoyed every second of the work.”

Since his last fight, Duffy – who’s based in Montreal as part of the Tristar team – has become a father. It’s often said that the arrival of a child provides an additional source of motivation for sportspeople to succeed, but Duffy says he needs no further incentive to achieve what he feels is within his capability. 

“I want to go in and put on a good performance for my own sake. The last few fights have just been an embarrassment, but the differences I’ve seen in myself during this training camp have been massive. 

“I’m very confident in my preparation. I know that I’ll be very shocked if I’m leaving here with a loss,” he tells The42 over the phone from Abu Dhabi, where tonight’s event will take place (BT Sport 1, 11pm).

“This fight is just about showing the world the ability I have and the level I’m at. It’s one step at a time for me now, starting on Saturday night.” 

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Paul Dollery

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