Interview by Kane Clarke (@IrishBoxinNews)
Conor McGregor makes his highly anticipated professional boxing debut on August 26th against arguably the best pugilist of our generation, Floyd Mayweather.
Since conquering the mixed martial arts world, where he simultaneously held UFC titles at featherweight and lightweight, the first fighter in history to do so, ‘The Notorious’ has turned his attentions to boxing.
The Sweet Science was McGregor’s first love, a sport he first delved into when joining Crumlin BC under the tutelage of double Olympian Phil Sutcliffe, before finding his way to John Kavanagh and Straight Blast Gym (SBG).
McGregor’s story bears similarities to that of cruiserweight Conor Cooke, another Irish boxer turned mixed martial artist who is now back in the ring and working towards a pro debut of his own
A former All-Ireland and Four-Nations champion as an amateur, Cooke made his professional MMA debut back in November 2010 at the Neptune Stadium in Cork.
Also on the card that night? A now-famous 38-second loss for McGregor against Donegal’s Joe Duffy – another switcher between codes, later racking up a 7(2)-0 pro boxing record in 2013 before returning to the octagon and being signed by the UFC.
Antrim’s Cooke knocked out Welshman Gareth Pugh in the first round that night to get his professional MMA career off to the perfect start. ‘Da Crook’ went on to have success in his 10-year career where he won domestic and national titles, as well as WIMAAO British and World titles in kickboxing.
Cooke, now 30, has decided to return to his first love – boxing, and has teamed up with Ray Ginley and Dee Walsh at Immanuel Boxing Academy in Belfast in order to chase his dream of becoming a champion in a third professional combat sport.
With knowledge and experience of both sports, Cooke is perhaps better placed than most to analyse the Mayweather-McGregor match-up.
Cooke has seen first hand the rise of Conor McGregor and explained to Irish-Boxing.com how “I made my professional MMA debut in Cork back in 2010, I was on the same card as Conor McGregor v Joe Duffy – who also went onto box.”
“I’ve been down to SBG a couple of times, I was down there last year training, I was chatting to John Kavanagh about maybe joining their gym, but I wasn’t too sure what route I wanted to take back then or even if I wanted to stick to the MMA, but I called down and done a bit of training with them.”
“Conor was there, he was just another member of the gym, he wasn’t getting no special treatment, he was just training away with the boys.”
‘Da Crook’ has long been an admirer of both fighters, but never believed that a crossover fight between the pair would ever materialise
“When it was first rumoured I thought it’ll never happen, it was just hype, they were just using each others names to help build their profiles, and then when it was made official, I was shocked, I’m still shocked.” he admits
“A fella from Dublin, who was signing on the dole a few years ago has brought one of the best fighters of all time out of retirement, he’s going to be on Mayweather’s record forever, even if he loses, he’s number 50, to me that’s amazing.”
One of the main talking points behind the Mayweather v McGregor bout, is whether McGregor’s unorthodox striking style will pose any threat against the defensive prowess of the five-weight champion.
Reflecting on his own transition, Cooke detailed how “when I was using my boxing in MMA it was more through single shots and one-twos, you didn’t want to get involved into too much of a brawl because you would be leaving yourself open to takedowns and knees, but with boxing you can fire three or four punch combinations and still be free to move off and create your angles.”
“In boxing, I think you can be able to be a little more loose with your guard, you’ve only got two targets, your head and your body. Whereas in MMA there is multiple target zones and I would have held my hands really tight because you’re a bit more worried about getting caught with a kick or something.”
“Now I’ve started back boxing my hands are a lot more loose and free. I would have my left hand a little lower than I’m used too, I can move more freely, but I wasn’t like that in MMA, if you tried that you’d get caught with a head-kick and get caught in stupid moves.”
While Cooke is surprised by the fact that McGregor has not added a specialised boxing coach to his team. he feels the powerful Dubliner will surprise some people
The Ulsterman outlined how “I think McGregor’s been training for this fight a lot longer than people think, but I found it unusual that they haven’t brought in an experienced boxing coach like Freddie Roach who has studied Mayweather.”
“I know they brought in Paulie [Malignaggi], but as far as a coach goes, I thought they would have brought somebody in, but then they’re probably saying to themselves if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, look how far he’s got with the team he’s got around him now.”
“I think McGregor’s got something a lot of people don’t see and don’t understand yet. People laugh at me, and other boxers laugh at me. but in my opinion you can never rule any man out, especially someone as hungry as Conor McGregor.”
“Time and time again he has proved us all wrong, I don’t think he’s the most skillful boxer, but I think he’s got something there.”
“They’re going to fight 12 rounds, and McGregor’s known for hurting people when he hits them, and he is going to hit him, and what happens after he hurts him or stuns him? It could put Mayweather off his game, you never know.”
On the difference between the length of fights in both sports, with a 12-round boxing match lasting 36 minutes and an MMA bout coming in at 25, Cooke dismissed fears over the fitness of ‘The Notorious.’
The cruiserweight reasoned that “it’s hard to say whether that will be a telling factor, in boxing there is obviously more rests, and for me that would feel like a bonus.”
“With my amateur background in boxing, I’m more built for three minute boxing rounds, and I’m sure McGregor will probably feel the same way.”
“I think the questions about McGregor’s gas-tank are crazy, he went five five-minute rounds with Nate Diaz who is a known cardio machine, he [McGregor] tired in the third and came back in the fourth and fifth to win the fight, and people were judging his cardio?”
“Have you ever had a man lying on top of you? Elbowing your face and cracking your skull, it tires you out, MMA is such a tiring sport, it really really is, some people don’t understand.”
“I think he’ll do the twelve rounds okay, I’m sure he will already be doing them in the gym and adjusting, he has a great team around him.”
But if what many people believe to be impossible, happened, and McGregor defeats Mayweather, Cooke does not think it will ‘harm’ boxing.
“People keep saying that its going to be bad for boxing, but are people going to stop attending and supporting boxing shows?” he muses.
“This is an entertainment business, its not a proper boxing fight like Canelo v GGG, this is purely for entertainment value.”
In terms of predictions, Cooke is going for the upset.
“I think Mayweather, 99 times out of 100, is going to outbox Conor, it’s silly saying otherwise, it could turn out that Conor’s skills match-up nowhere near the required level to beat Mayweather. Floyd might stop Conor with that counter right-hand and walk him onto a big one.”
“But again, I’ve seen Conor’s journey first hand, I’ve seen where he;s came from and what he can do, he’s one of the most dangerous men on the planet.”
“I think, and people will laugh at me for saying this, but I think he might just pull off an upset, there’s been bigger upsets in boxing, he’s only 4/1 with the bookies, I’d say that’s down to Mayweather’s age.”
“If I had to pick an outcome with a gun to my head, it’s McGregor, he just has so much belief in himself I can’t go against him. Belief in yourself is such a major thing, he believes he’s taking over boxing, and to me, that’s better than any skillset you have.”
“If you work hard and believe in something so much, it becomes a reality, its been proven time and time again.”