DUBLIN — Long before non-disclosure agreements, leaked photograph controversies and “the biggest fight in the history of combat sports,” Conor McGregor visited Celtic Warriors Boxing Gym for sparring sessions with professional boxers.
A far cry from the glow of the Las Vegas Strip, where McGregor will meet undefeated boxing great Floyd Mayweather on Aug. 26, Paschal Collins’ facility sits on top of a local supermarket in the working class suburb of Corduff, Blanchardstown.
Beside the supermarket, a small lane way with a single door opens into a stairwell, and, after a quick jog up the stairs, bright yellow walls welcome you into the premises.
As in most boxing gyms, the walls are dotted with legends of the sport, but one fighter is featured more prominently than others: Paschal’s brother, legendary Irish world champion and one of McGregor’s inspirations, Steve “The Celtic Warrior” Collins.
When you consider that coach John Kavanagh stated that Paschal would be brought into the McGregor camp if the MMA star transitioned to boxing, you would think he would be slightly disgruntled about the Aug. 26 date. However, it’s immediately clear that Collins’ passion for combat sports is greater than any missed coaching opportunity.
“They have a game plan in place. To bring me in on such short notice wouldn’t make much of a difference,” says Collins, with a big smile stretched across his face.
“Owen Roddy has been working on a plan with John (Kavanagh) and Conor. He’s a really good coach and he has worked with Conor for a long time. He’s showing a lot of loyalty by working with Owen in this fight and I respect that a lot.
“I think the main reason why people want to see this fight is that a mixed martial artist will be boxing. There’s no need to become a boxer, he should just keep being a martial artist. He’s pretty good at it.”
The relationship between Celtic Warriors and Straight Blast Gym Ireland is a strong one. Kavanagh often sends his fighters to Collins to work on their hands and Collins has been known to send his boxing charges to SBG to work on their clinch game and for sparring, among other things.
Paschal’s nephew, and Steve Collins’ son, Steve Jr., applauds McGregor for making the trek to Corduff on his own accord in the past, rather than being sent by Kavanagh.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Conor because he came down off his own back,” says Collins Jr., a 10-1-1 light heavyweight. “It would usually be John recommending that his fighters go to Celtic Warriors.
“Conor choose to take himself out of his comfort zone and mix it up with boxers. He put his neck out to improve his skill set, and in that sense, it was very admirable.”
An Open Mind
Unlike a lot of figures in the boxing world, Paschal Collins embraced the emergence of mixed martial arts when he lived in Boston in the early 1990s. Then a pro super middleweight, he sought out different styles, soaking up knowledge from grapplers at Brazilian Top Team.
“I can remember I was sparring with a Greco Roman wrestler one day and when he tied me up, his grappling experience completely drained the energy out of my arms,” he recalls.
“I’d like to see Conor use his other skills in this fight. If he can tie Mayweather up and get in close, he might find success in that range. I’d encourage that.
“It’s not just about grabbing someone and holding them, it’s about knowing how to do it properly and get away with it. I’m sure whoever is refereeing the fight (Robert Byrd) will be well aware of this. I’m sure Mayweather’s camp will be warning him to watch out for it.
“The last thing Conor would want to do is get himself disqualified.”
The Celtic Warriors coach underlines that he only has minor recommendations for McGregor when they work the pads, highlighting that his main striking development has always been done with Roddy.
“He works with (Roddy) and he would not be considered a conventional boxing coach, but you only have to look at Conor’s UFC career to see how successful they’ve been,” he says.
“It’s the unconventional approach that could help them in this Mayweather fight. I understand why they’re doing that. At this stage, all I could do is help him with little things — defensive leaks, head movement after he throws a shot — but you don’t want to try and teach him how to box traditionally at this stage.”
Due to the silence in the McGregor camp regarding sparring ahead of Aug. 26, there has been much speculation as to what we will see from the MMA fighter when the exchanges commence.
“Unorthodox” has been the main word used to describe what he will bring to the table. And that’s exactly how Collins described the former amateur boxer’s style.
“He’s got a boxing approach when it comes to MMA, but it’s still very unconventional. It’s kind of like what Bruce Lee did with Kung Fu. He took Kung Fu and made it into his own style. Conor has made boxing his own kind of style for MMA,” Collins says.
“All he has to do is clean up a few things. He’s got an incredibly awkward style. Unless you can get someone to mimic his style in sparring, he is going to give people problems as they try to figure him out.
“The longer the fight goes on, the longer Floyd has to monitor Conor and process his movements. That’s going make catching him clean a lot more difficult,” he adds.
Collins is adamant that McGregor must live and die by the game plan he has put in place with Roddy, Kavanagh & Co.
“If you have a game plan and you’re confident with it, you’ve got to see it through,” the coach said. “When he reaches the final bell, the plan may not have worked, but in my experience, it’s when you start getting away from the game plan that things really start to go wrong.”
Before the notion of a game plan was ever in place, or a boxing opponent for that matter, McGregor was taken to task by the leading charges at Celtic Warriors. In his teenage years, he shared the halls of Crumlin Boxing Club with blue-chip Irish boxer Stephen Ormond, but it wasn’t until McGregor began to visit Celtic Warriors in 2011 that he actually sparred his old training partner.
“I’ve done countless rounds with Conor over the years,” says Ormond, the former WBO lightweight European champion, and IBF intercontinental lightweight champion.
“He’s a very hard worker in the gym. Even when I sparred him for the first time he had a great grasp of distance and he has boxers’ habits. He has very good timing and he can anticipate a punch well.
“He’s so unpredictable. He doesn’t worry about what his opponent is doing, it’s like he doesn’t care about it at all. He knows most people have completely written him off because this isn’t his game, but he’s capable. He can do things in boxing. I really think it’s a very interesting fight when you look at it like that.”
While others from the boxing realm dismiss any hopes of the patented “Celtic Cross” connecting on Floyd, Ormond believes anything is possible in the sweet science.
“Fighting Floyd Mayweather is a different story than fighting anyone else in the world. This is a guy who specializes in making people miss. Obviously, it’s a very different story if he’s just fighting in MMA. At the same time, anything can happen in this game,” Ormond tells me.
“[McGregor] has amazing belief in himself. He’s very confident in everything he does, and no matter what anyone will tell you, the guy can fight. He can fight in boxing.
“That power is all there in the left, no matter what gloves he has on him. He turns the shot beautifully. I don’t think anyone can completely rule out him catching Floyd with that shot.”
Light heavyweight Collins Jr. can’t give McGregor’s power the same praise given their disparity in weight classes.
“I definitely wouldn’t say he is light-handed, but you’ve got to remember I’m training with heavier guys that punch all day. Up until this point, he had been spreading his training a lot thinner with different things like elbows, knees, and kicks,” Collins Jr. explains.
“I had to be very cautious when I was sparring him. And that’s not because he couldn’t take it or anything like that, it’s just a general code when you’re sparring a guy that’s smaller than you.”
He did claim that McGregor appeared to be a thinking man’s fighter from what he saw during the rounds they shared.
“I could immediately tell that he was a good mover,” Collins Jr. He was very calculated about the choices that he made. He wasn’t just going through the motions and throwing shots because he thought he was supposed to.
“He was very unorthodox, but at that time, I think he was simulating what would happen in an Octagon more so than a boxing ring. Assuming his preparation was for a boxing fight, his distance was very different.
“Boxing is a thinking man’s game, and Conor was certainly thinking things out when he was sparring me.”
Questions about McGregor’s boxing ability are constantly thrown around, but it’s his self-belief that has many of his fans certain that he can defy the odds once again.
The boxing community has largely disregarded the Irishman’s determination as a factor against Mayweather, but Ormond sees it as his biggest asset.
“Floyd has been very quiet ahead of this fight. Conor is brilliant at the mental aspect of the fight game. He believes every word that he says, too,” Ormond says.
“Conor’s mindset is on a different level than anyone he has ever faced. You see the guys Floyd usually fights; they’re half beaten before they even step in the ring. He toys with them at the press conferences and they just seem happy to be there for the most part.
“The difference is, Conor doesn’t give a f*ck. That’s what we all love about him. This might be his biggest payday, but it certainly won’t be his last big payday. For most boxers, fighting Floyd sets them up for life. Conor doesn’t have his whole career riding on this fight and I think that’s a big difference between him and other people Floyd has faced.”
The Money Fight
Neither Mayweather nor McGregor has shied away from the financial rewards they will receive for the contest. The truth is, if such an astronomical pile of cash wasn’t at stake, we probably wouldn’t see McGregor leaving the Octagon for the ring, nor would we see Mayweather leave the comfort of his retirement.
Irish middleweight Luke Keeler is another man that started boxing in Crumlin with McGregor and later transitioned to the pro ranks with Collins. Keeler happened to be in SBG days after the fight was announced. And interestingly, McGregor’s focus was solely on the competition rather than the financial incentive.
“I saw him after the fight was announced and that’s the thing that you can never take away from him, he has an amazing sense of self-belief,” Keller said. “It’s genuine too, there’s no way he could be bullshitting.
“He was so excited about the fight when I talked to him. He didn’t even mention the money. He was talking about Greco Roman wrestling in the clinch and all of this.
“You can’t help but be impressed by that. His mentality is unbreakable, and people don’t realize how important that is in the fight game.”
Throughout the four-date promotional tour for the fight, casual interest was soaring to new heights. And for Collins Jr., that was always what the fight was going to be about.
“Suddenly all of these armchair fans are interested and even though they don’t have a clue about boxing, they feel the need to voice their opinions,” he says, laughing.
“They just saw two lads talking shit and they couldn’t wait to get a piece of that action. They know that Floyd is the best boxer and that Conor is the best UFC fighter.
“What they don’t understand is, the difference between the two sports is like the difference between hurling and (Gaelic) football.”
The radio silence regarding sparring has always been a given in boxing. Even for someone like Keeler who can’t speak highly enough about McGregor’s assault on the fight game, the leaked sparring footage of Paulie Malignaggi was a step too far.
“For me, even if it is a punch that’s knocked him down, that’s not something that boxers would ever allow to leave the gym,” Keeler explains.
“Malignaggi seems like a good guy, he’s paid his dues in the game and that kind of thing is just a big no-no. A lot of people in the boxing world would see that as a cheap shot.
“In the gym, lads get dropped all the time. We don’t even have to say it to each other, we just know it’s never gonna leave the ring. I don’t know, maybe it’s different in MMA?”
Keeler doesn’t believe any damage inflicted on Malignaggi can help to forecast what happens with Mayweather versus McGregor.
“A lot of people seem to think that if Conor did knock Paulie down, that is a promising sign for him heading into the Mayweather fight. Maybe it is.
“Another way of looking at this is: if his only chance of winning a boxing match with Mayweather is knocking him out, it might not be a good sign that he has gone 12 rounds with Malignaggi and was unable to stop him.”
What happens on Aug. 27 after the biggest star in boxing and the biggest star in MMA have finally fought?
McGregor’s real magic is the element of doubt that he always seems to plant. As the date gets closer, it feels like he is adding more nonbelievers to the bandwagon.
What if he knocks Floyd Mayweather out?
“If Mayweather loses, it’s going to be terrible for boxing,” Collins Jr. replies. “For a guy with no pro boxing record to come in and beat him could have a terrible effect on the sport.
“I don’t see that happening, but I also don’t agree that McGregor has absolutely no chance. That’s an ignorant opinion, too. It’s hard to know what the outcome will be for the fans, the fighters, and the individual sports.
“Unless Mayweather has completely gone to the dogs in the last two years, as in a significant drop off from his former self, it’s very hard to see Conor beating him.
“People are talking about a puncher’s chance, but Mayweather has been in there with some of the best punchers in the world and made them look amateur. Conor’s best chance of winning is being in there with an old, shot Floyd Mayweather.”For Paschal, regardless of the outcome, the attention the event brings to the two sports should be celebrated.
“There is so much noise about how it’s going to ruin the sport, but here we are talking about it,” says Collins.
“Now that it’s happening, boxing is getting great coverage. It really doesn’t get that much coverage, so in that respect, it’s very good. Also, I think after other MMA fighters see Conor display his boxing ability in this fight – and he will – they’re going to want to spend more time working that skill set. That can only mean good things for boxing.”
Keeler is confident that the polarizing date could have a positive impact on the Irish sport, even though no Irish fighters, apart from McGregor, are featured on the card.
“This is a guy from Crumlin going in to get one of the biggest paydays in the fight game ever. I think it’s great for him and it’s great for the Irish. It’s unbelievable how far he’s come,” he says.
“I do admire the fact that he has Owen Roddy there with him for this fight, he’s been with him from the start and I respect that. Obviously, I would’ve loved to see Paschal working with him for this fight.
“I think that (Conor) getting a fight this big can only have a good knock on effect for Irish boxing.
“Boxing is in the headlines again. Everybody is interested in this fight, and even if they aren’t, they can’t stop talking about it. You just hope the fight lives up to expectation because let’s be honest, Floyd’s fights haven’t gone down well with the general public.
“I just hope it’s both guys landing shots and looking to exchange. Once the fight is a good advertisement for the sport, that’s good for everyone. I really don’t see how people can say it’s bad for boxing.”