A FORMER Lavey player is confident that he is just a few months away from securing a ticket to the UFC.
Derryman Paul Hughes is one of the most exciting MMA fighters operating in Ireland right now and although a series of hand injuries has stunted his progress, he expects to be crowned Cage Warriors featherweight world champion in 2021.
His ambitions were further hampered by a controversial split-decision loss to England’s Jordan Vucenic last month – the first defeat of his professional career – but Hughes told Gaelic Life that is was a small bump on a road that will, he hopes, make him a recognisable face on the worldwide stage.
“That fight was a number one contender fight for the world title,” said Hughes, who was actually born in Sydney.
“I’m still the number one contender though. I’m 23 and I’m right on that verge.
“Most people, including myself, felt that I won the fight. I’ve watched it back many times and I still believe I won that fight.
“Although it stands as a loss in my record, in my eyes it’s not really a loss. I left everything in the cage so I couldn’t be disappointed with myself.
“Coming back is simple. I get in there in March, fight one more time. I am still the number one contender for the belt so when I win on March 20 (fighter to be confirmed) I am in line for that world title shot which should take place in May or June.
“That world title is my goal before reaching the UFC and the title will be mine in 2021.
“A Cage Warriors world title is almost always a ticket to the UFC. I think Cage Warriors have had over 100 fighters who have moved up to the UFC.
“If you get a world title at such a young age it’s almost guaranteed. But I am young, I have a lot of time, so I don’t want to be rushing things either. I’m happy with the experience I’m getting with Cage Warriors.”
When you think of sporting stars from the Erin’s Own club, you think of hurlers and footballers who have represented the club and their county with distinction.
But they are immensely proud of Hughes’s exploits to date too, and the fighter explained how his GAA background has helped him on his journey.
“I’m a Lavey man, a Derry man,” he said. “I played Gaelic and hurling since I was no age.
“Since I was about nine or 10-years-old, the GAA was my main sport until I found MMA at 15.
“I continued to play until my final year of minor but by then I had turned professional with the fighting. I took a wee detour.
“My brother Declan was playing for Derry there for a year but he went off to Australia. He is just back though, so who knows what will happen now for him.
“I was always loved watching boxing growing up and then MMA started to become a thing, me and my mates were big fans of the UFC.
“I had heard that there a local gym in Castledawson opening up and I went down and tried the beginners class. It took me about a month to get hooked and the rest is history.
“In terms of taking technical skills from the GAA into MMA, there probably aren’t many. However, the physicality of the GAA and just being used to getting stuck in has been a great help.
“Also the pressure side of it, the pressure you had in games. I think we all know how serious Gaelic is taken at school level, club level, county level. It’s very competitive and it is nerve-wrecking at times. That has transferred over to the MMA game.
“Then obviously when I was training with the MMA that was helping my football as well in terms of the fitness and the fast hands and things like that.”
In the fight game, the word ‘viral’ can open up doors and Hughes was helped by a massive reaction to his first professional fight.
At a BAMMA event in March 2017, Hughes came up against Polish fighter Adam Gustab who is now based in Belfast.
Hughes may have been just 19 at the time of the fight, but an explosive first-round knockout soon was widely spread on social media.
“I’ve had a bit of a funny career to be honest,” he said.
“I turned professional at 19 and had my pro debut then at the SSE in Belfast.
“I won by first round KO and that fight ended up going viral around the world, I think there is over three million views on that fight. Just being that young face and the spectacular KO, I think that’s why it stood out.
“Things blew up straightaway. Everything was going well, I had another fight booked but I broke my hand – I actually broke it in my pro debut.
“Once I healed I booked another fight and then I broke my other hand. That started a really bad streak of hand breaks and injuries. It kept me out for two years and I ended up having to get surgery on one of the hands because it kept re-fracturing every time I came back.
“I came back then in March 2019 after a year in Australia and my hand was fully healed. I have been on a streak since. I had a fight in Belfast then I signed for Cage Warriors, one of the largest promotions in the world. I went on a three-fight win streak after signing with them until that controversial loss (against Vucenic).”
And as for Lavey fans getting to see their man in club colours again – don’t get your hopes up too much.
“I don’t think that comeback will be any time soon!
“Maybe when I’m retired from fighting I’ll come back and play some reserve games.”
YOU can take the man out of Belleek but you sure as hell can’t take Belleek out of the man.
Professional boxer Fearghus ‘The Mighty’ Quinn has represented Armagh at minor and u-21 level, but it’s his club jersey that he wears to the ring as his flourishing professional career starts to pick up speed. The fact that they are sponsored by ML Quinn Construction LTD, his father Larry’s company, is a nice bonus.
“It was his idea,” the affable Quinn said with a laugh. “He’s not so slow.
“I will keep wearing the jersey, I’d probably be roaded out of Belleeks if I didn’t.
“I’m a very proud Belleek man. I was fighting on Sky Sports and that was a big platform so I said I’d stick the jersey on. People seemed to enjoy it, which was nice.”
When Quinn signed professional papers with MTK Global last February, he probably had visions of his big fanbase getting an outing at a big fight night at the SSE Arena or maybe even a trip across the Irish Sea for a televised card.
Little did he realise that his 2020 campaign would consist of two successful fights in front of zero spectators and eye-catching defensive performances in the Armagh Junior final as Belleek came agonisingly close to shocking Forkhill in two Titanic clashes.
Quinn said that if his career continues to go on the path he wants it to then he will unlikely be able to line out for the side any time soon, but he said that the final – and replay – were memories that would stick with him.
“It was just the way it worked out, I wasn’t really planning on playing anymore football since I turned professional,” said the 24-year-old. “Unfortunately you have to manage your priorities.
“It was just after a fight and it looked like I had a bit of time off. It was hard to get fights with the lockdown and stuff and the limitation to the amount of shows that could be run and the amount of fights that could be on those shows.
“My fight was the week before the semi-final and Garrett (Thronton, Belleek manager) phoned me and asked me if I wanted to come back for the remainder of the championship.
“I don’t think I will be able to play anymore but it was great to be involved, it was the first time the club got to the final in a long time so it was nice to be involved with the people you have been playing with from no age.”
Quinn had caught the eye at amateur level as he pushed some noted – and much more experienced – fighters all the way as he lost narrowly to Stephen Donnelly and John Joe Nevin on split decisions.
The split decision method favoured him in 2019 though as he claimed the Ulster Elite Championship with victory over Brett McGinty.
The idea of professionalism was already on his mind at that stage and he said that it was a move that he felt best suited his style.
“I always thought my style was suited better to the professional game,” he said.
“I like more rounds and it’s not the amateur style of trying to steal rounds. There’s more fighting involved.
“I knew I would have a good backing, I’ve always had good support any time I was fighting in the Ulster Hall.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I felt the time was right. Hopefully I get a few good days out of it.”
The Armagh middleweight has started his career with comfortable points’ victories over English pair Robbie Champman and Scott James, the latter of those shown live on Sky Sports.
The southpaw said that the next year will be about keeping “active” but that his ambition in the sport is to box for a world title.
“The British Board of Control have cancelled all shows in January, which isn’t a great start to the year,” Quinn said.
“I’m hoping to get out in the first quarter anyway so I’m just training away.
“My first two fights were taken on short notice but fortunately I was keeping ready so if anything does come up I want to be ready. People are dropping like flies, coming down with Covid and different things so you never know when the opportunity will arise and you just have to be prepared.
“I have nothing lined up specifically but I want to be out in the next few months and be active this year.
“I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t think I could go all the way. My ambition is to win a world title. Over the short term though, the next year is just learning.
“I’m taking on fights against people with good records so I have been learning loads, they’re not punchbags I’m fighting.
“I like that I’m being put up against good opposition and I’m being tested and hopefully I can keep moving up.”
While Quinn won’t be lining out for his club or Armagh any time soon, you can be sure he’ll be helping out around the club whenever he can.
The family are embedded in the fabric of the club – his brother Caolan is the senior goalkeeper – and the fighter said that his love for the GAA will remain as strong as ever.
“I played for Belleek from I was no age at all right the way through.
“I played for the Abbey CBS and then a bit of county at minor and u-21, so I have been involved with the GAA all my life.”