Joe Duffy is the last man to beat Conor McGregor, perhaps the fastest-rising star in the history of mixed martial arts.
But before all that, before the questions and before the what-ifs about a rematch, Joe Duffy was the son of a miner. His father, also named Joe—which would eventually lead family and friends to call young Joe by the name of Joseph so as to avoid confusion—worked hard jobs.
Young Joe was born in Donegal, a place up just about as close as you can get to Northern Ireland without actually being from Northern Ireland. Donegal was once the base of operations for Patrick, the legendary missionary who was sainted and then remembered once a year when humans around the world use a day named in his honor to get rip-roaring drunk.
His family moved to Wales when Joe was young. He spent a long time in Wales but never lost his sense of being Irish.
GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) football is the real pride and joy of Ireland; much noise is made about Dublin’s Croke Park being a football (soccer) stadium, but it is actually Gaelic football that pulls in the largest, most fervent crowds. Fans of the sport travel there just to visit the GAA Hall of Fame, a sprawling, gorgeous complex inside the massive stadium that details the rich history of a sport that dates back earlier than the 1800s.
Joe followed Gaelic football, but it was the sport of rugby that was his first love. In Donegal, Joe began playing as a school kid, and he kept up his support for Ireland when the family moved to Wales. This was not easy, particularly during the Six Nations Championship. The Six Nations is a big and important rugby tournament featuring, as you might have surmised, six teams: Ireland, England, France, Italy, Wales and Scotland.
Supporting Ireland while living in Wales was a bit tricky. If Ireland lost in the Six Nations, Joe would skip school the next day so as to avoid being made fun of by schoolmates.
He became the captain of his school rugby team, and he was quite good. Joe might still be playing rugby today, in fact, if not for a movie.
Joe was drawn to the martial arts by The Karate Kid, the movie that made nearly every child of the '80s fantasize about being a karate champion. Anyone who grew up in that era can relate. He’d watch the movie and get all excited and then practice his moves at home. His parents signed him up for a taekwondo class, which wasn't the same as karate but would do in a pinch.
Joe did taekwondo for a while, and then his instructor began taking jiu-jitsu classes on his own. As he did so, he taught his students what he was learning. They learned together, teacher and student, and began competing at the same time. Joe was at the martial arts club every day of the week, practicing his striking and grappling until they closed the place up at night.
This is the natural order of things. You try a new thing, and then something way down deep inside you clicks. You fall in love with it, and then you obsess over the details. This was Joe and martial arts.
"It was part of me from the beginning," he says.
And the thing was, his rugby training actually helped him when he began grappling and wrestling. There were a lot of similarities between the two sports.
"I think MMA and rugby go hand in hand, especially with the tackling," he says. "I was good at tackling in rugby, and that has a lot in common with the double leg, for example."
Joe kept on training. He fought for the first time as an amateur on May 21, 2005, beating Tim Newman by submission. He'd been training far longer than most fighters who make their amateur debuts, and as such looked like a natural, totally comfortable in any position. He debuted as a professional on March 29, 2008, beating Mick Broster by first-round TKO. It was the start of a winning streak that would last over three years.
On March 20, 2010, Duffy beat Norman Parke in his welterweight debut for a promotion named Spartan Fight Challenge. That summer, he was selected for the chance to fight his way into the house on the UFC's reality show The Ultimate Fighter. It was the 12th season of the show, and Georges St-Pierre and Josh Koscheck would serve as coaches. But Duffy lost his preliminary-round bout to Kyle Watson.
After losing on TUF, it was announced that Duffy signed with Cage Warriors, then and now Europe's best fighting promotion.
Duffy's debut fight for Cage Warriors was scheduled for November 27, 2010. It would be held in Cork City. Duffy was 6-0 by this point, with all of his wins coming by stoppage in the first round. Five of the six wins were by submission.
Duffy's opponent for Cage Warriors 39 was a young fighter from Dublin named Conor McGregor.
The McGregor of 2010 was a far cry from the brash UFC featherweight champion we see today. In pre-fight interviews before the fight, McGregor spoke of how confident he was, but it was a different kind of confidence. It was a quiet confidence. He wasn't the kind of fighter to talk trash about his opponent, he said; instead, he would go in the cage and prove himself using his skills.
When the fight began, McGregor came out in the wide, legs-open stance we're used to seeing him utilize today. It seemed to come as a surprise, at least to the announcers covering the fight.
"Look at a totally different style there," the announcer said. "The long, wide stance of Conor McGregor."
The change in stance did not catch Duffy off guard, mostly because he did not care what McGregor did.
"It was the same as any other fight. I was going out to do my thing," Duffy says. "His style didn’t matter or play a part in what I did. I go out there and do my thing.
I have watched McGregor's earliest bouts with his coach John Kavanagh at the Straight Blast Gym in Dublin. In those videos, there are slight traces of who he would eventually become. The punching power was always there, for example.
But for the most part, he is unrecognizable from the fighter he is today, except for one aspect: his aggression. McGregor came out swinging, lunging in with his power left and then a gorgeous right uppercut, backing Duffy against the cage.
But this is where the difference in what McGregor was back then and who he is now begins to show. McGregor's aggression takes him too close to Duffy, and he is off balance. Duffy quickly drops down and grabs a single leg, dragging McGregor to the mat. He lands in McGregor's butterfly guard but passes that in less than one second, ending up in side control.
McGregor looks hapless and helpless. Duffy moves into mount a few seconds later. McGregor, panicked, rolls to his stomach. Duffy secures a rear-naked choke and McGregor taps.
Joe Duffy, son of a miner, has beaten the man who will eventually become the UFC's biggest current star.
And it takes just 38 seconds.
That was in 2010. Nearly five years have passed since Duffy beat McGregor on that night in Cork City. At the time, it was just one up-and-coming fighter beating another. It happens in cities across the world nearly every day of the week. Sometimes, the fighters involved never make something of themselves. Sometimes they do.
McGregor clearly falls in the latter category. The loss drove him back to SBG, and he began a winning streak that continues to this day. He also transformed himself from a mostly quiet and humble kid into the best talker in the sport, which in turn made him rich beyond measure.
To the casual observer, the switch in McGregor was flipped overnight. But Duffy doesn't believe that's the case.
"I think it was always there with him. He was always that personality down inside. It's just that obviously the bigger he got, the more it grew," he says. "But money is a huge part of this sport. It’s still a business. Whatever your opinion of him, you pay money to sit down and watch this and to watch him fight."
Combine McGregor's newish persona with his record since losing that fight to Duffy, and you have a built-in storyline. Duffy is no longer just Joseph Duffy. He is Joseph Duffy, The Last Man to Beat Conor McGregor. It is the kind of thing the UFC loves. That night back in 2010 has been turned into an ongoing storyline that likely won't stop until Duffy and McGregor are standing across the cage from each other once again. And it is not a stretch that just such a thing will eventually happen, especially with McGregor planning a move to lightweight sooner rather than later.
But Duffy is nonplussed by the whole thing. He will admit that he and McGregor are linked but says he would rather focus on Dustin Poirier, his opponent on Saturday's UFC card. He'll even admit that he might not be in the position he's in if he hadn't been the last guy to beat McGregor.
In many ways, McGregor is a ghost who has done wonders for Duffy's career, especially since Duffy was the man with his hand held in the air after the fight was over.
McGregor goes hand in hand with the rise of Irish mixed martial arts. He is from Dublin, where the sport has a rabid following. He headlined the UFC's first event since UFC 93 there. There are paintings and giant posters featuring his visage around the city. He is the first Irish champion in UFC history.
It is not unreasonable to say that without him, the popularity of the sport in the country may not be what it currently is. He claimed that October's event—where Duffy and Poirier were originally scheduled to meet, before Duffy was forced to pull out with a head injury just days before the fight—was "his" card, even though he wasn't fighting on it. And there is some truth to that.
Duffy is not from Dublin. He has fought just once in the city, and he does not train in Ireland, electing to spend his training camps in Montreal with coach Firas Zahabi at the Tristar gym. Dubliners are intensely proud of their own, even more so than they are of Irish fighters from other parts of the country. It certainly feels as though Duffy just doesn't have the same connection with the Irish as McGregor.
But Duffy believes he is more relatable to the average Irish person than McGregor. Having spent time in Ireland earlier this year, and having talked to dozens of people about McGregor and their impressions of him, I believe Duffy is correct. The Irish love their sporting heroes, but they especially love when they are humble and quiet. McGregor garners their attention, but Duffy earns their respect. McGregor is fervently loved by those under 30 years of age, but Duffy has a chance to appeal to a wider, older fanbase.
"Maybe the odd few people are still supporting him," he says. "But Irish people are very good at supporting their own. I’m sure they’ll get behind me."
And so for now, there is Poirier, who might be the toughest opponent of Duffy's career.
"Up until now he’s the highest-ranked opponent I've faced," he says. "I also believe his style will give me opportunities that I wouldn’t get from facing other people."
Irish Joe will focus on beating Poirier first, and then he'll move on to whatever is next. McGregor won't be next. Not yet. Duffy still has work to do, but if he keeps winning, there's almost no chance the UFC won't try to book the rematch.
And if it happens, Duffy says, he thinks he can beat McGregor just as quickly as he did on that night five years ago.
Until then, he'll keep his nose to the grindstone. The nature of mixed martial arts and the stories that go along with it means he'll be linked to McGregor until the two face off again, because we love good stories, especially when they are rooted in real life. And this is the story of two very different Irishmen with radically different approaches to the fight game. The time will likely come when Irish fight fans need to declare their allegiance to one or the other.
But for now, Duffy will continue being himself, even as the shadow of The Notorious buzzes ever so closely over his head.
Jeremy Botter covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.