Watching the “Money Fight” of the millennium from the gym where Conor McGregor first laced up a pair of boxing gloves, Phil Sutcliffe Snr could pick out the very shots which he himself taught the UFC champion more than a decade ago.
Crumlin Boxing Club in Dublin was packed to the rafters in the early hours of last Sunday as more than 100 people came to watch McGregor's Las Vegas fight against Floyd Mayweather on a big screen.
His ability to go 10 rounds with Mayweather, who extended his record to 50 wins and no defeats, surprised some of the Dubliner’s most ardent fans, but Sutcliffe felt McGregor could have done even better.
“Every shot he threw in the fight was a Crumlin shot – the Russian, on the change, ambidextrous – he did everything he was taught here. But you need to be doing it all the time and practising,” Sutcliffe says, against a backdrop of high-tempo music and children aged six to 17 training away.
Many of them were present in the gym on Sunday morning, and the impact of McGregor’s early tutelage under Sutcliffe, and other coaches in Crumlin, was not lost on them.
“All the kids were saying ‘that’s our shot Phil, that’s our shot’. If he moved his hips more he could’ve got more leverage in his shots, and he could’ve even won then. If he had a boxing coach like myself there he would have done much, much better,” Sutcliffe claims.
Despite only being founded in 1992, Crumlin Boxing Club has an illustrious record which has propelled it to an elite level in Ireland. Sutcliffe, a two-time Olympic competitor, can reel off the names of seven or eight current Irish champions, male and female, across various age grades, who train with the club.
As such, Crumlin Boxing Club does not need to rely on its high-profile former member to attract talent. Children have been drawn from as far afield as Duleek, Blanchardstown and Ballybrack to get an education under Sutcliffe, and there is a long list of others waiting to join. Instead, the impact of McGregor's exploits has been mainly reputational. "The impact on the club has been that a lot of people around the world know where Conor McGregor trained," says Sutcliffe, adding that people from as far afield as the US, Australia and Venezuela came to the gym just to watch the fight. "They heard the fight was streamed here and they happened to be here. Some actually heard in England and they came here especially for the flight."
Former plumber’s assistant McGregor trained in the club from age 10-17. Sutcliffe remembers him as an “elusive” boxer.
McGregor is estimated to have made up to $100 million as a consequence of the Mayweather bout, but Sutcliffe laments what could have been, had his former protege not made the ultimately lucrative decision to switch his attentions to mixed martial arts.
“He was a promising fighter, if he didn’t mix up with that mixed martial arts, he could have been a lot better.”
In keen contrast to his admiration for McGregor’s achievements in the boxing ring on Sunday, Sutcliffe is disdainful of the “barbaric” nature of UFC. He is no more enamoured with the example set by McGregor in his pre-fight posturing. “I think it’s a horrible sport for children to get into where your head can be smashed on the ground with the side of your elbow, you can be kneed in the face,” he says.
“For children generally, he’s not a role model. His language, his persona; they think that’s the way they should go on. It’s really an act, Conor’s putting bravado on. I don’t want our kids to look up to that.”
In reality, however, that horse has already bolted. Among children at the gym, McGregor's story is seen as something to aspire to. "I think he represents a lot of the people in Ireland when it comes to fighting. He's an inspiration to a lot of young fighters," says 14-year-old Charlie Whelan from Killinarden in Tallaght, a Dublin county champion. William Hayden is one of the club's hottest prospects, and he will be aiming for gold at the European under-15 championships in Bulgaria later this month.
He has taken a path almost the reverse of McGregor's. William started in mixed martial arts at the gym owned by John Kavanagh, the UFC champion's long-time coach.
“I wanted to join boxing to work on my striking, but I preferred the boxing, so I just stayed at it,” he says.
Despite the misgivings of some of those around him over its brutality, William says mixed martial arts is gaining a foothold among children in the area. He is appreciative of McGregor’s loyalty to people like coach Kavanagh, who were with him from the start. “He doesn’t forget anyone,” he says.
As for Ryan Bolger (17) from Tallaght, he sees much of himself reflected in the local boy-done-good.
“It is very good to see someone like us, a normal young fella from a council estate, coming up and making it big,” he says of McGregor. “It gives us hope that we could make it in future.”