Coach Eric O’Keefe on Joseph Duffy’s Transition to Tristar


Donegal’s Joseph Duffy isn’t the only Irishman that goes about his business in the hallowed halls of Montreal’s Tristar gym, the home of all-time great Georges St Pierre and welterweight title challenger Rory MacDonald.

Although he wasn’t born on the Emerald Isle, one of the coaches of the world-renowned gym has strong links with Ireland.

“My father grew up in Cork City and we have family in Ballingarry, Tipperary, they’re in the horse business,” coach Eric O’Keefe tells me on his morning commute. “We have more cousins in Kinsale and there are a load of O’Keefes in Dublin as well.”

As Duffy explained to before he left for Canada, O’Keefe was instrumental in his transition to Tristar. With Duffy’s manager, Graham Boylan, having built a relationship with the Irish coach through Tom Breese’s Canadian crossover, when the former Cage Warriors CEO contacted him about Duffy, O’Keefe was immediately interested.

“When I saw Joe fight Lapilus and I saw the Boussuge fight for Cage Warriors, I was very impressed even before we had talks about Joe coming over,” he remembers.

“He was obviously a very talented striker and he had some good submission skills, but I was also very impressed with how he carried himself – inside and outside of competition.

“I watched some interviews with him and he came across like a very humble gentleman. That’s been a bit of trademark of our gym following in the steps of GSP.

“We don’t mind the guys who trash talk and all of that, people can earn a lot of money doing that, but Tristar has always produced humble athletes. He just seemed like a good fit for the rest of the guys.

“Graham (Boylan) had approached me, there were a number of top teams that had opened their doors to Joe. I told Graham that Joe could improve with any of them teams and that we didn’t really recruit fighters.

“We let the guys come over and we see if they’re a good fit for the chemistry we already have in the gym. I had been working with Tom Breese who is also managed by Graham, and when he told me that Joe did want to come over and train I was elated.

“I hold an Irish passport, I’ve always had a bit of favouritism towards the Irish fighters and I go back to the country regularly. I’ve done some work with some lesser-known guys over there and I even cornered Denis Kang when he fought at the first UFC in Dublin.

“Since he’s come over I’ve had Joe over at my home at the weekends with Tom (Breese), and I just get on really well with him. He’s a very good guy and I’m hoping after this fight he’ll be back soon enough. He’s a joy to work with.

“Joe has come in and he’s fit in perfectly. The guys love him and he’s integrated into the group very well.”

O’Keefe recalls his first impressions of ‘Irish Joe’ when he came through the doors of the Montreal facility. The Tristar coach also cites the considerable hype that surrounds Duffy ahead of his UFC debut.

“People always laugh when I make this comparison, but MMA is a lot like golf. In golf you can always make one shot less right? So MMA is kind of the same – you can always find something to improve,” he says.

“In Joe’s case, it’s not like he was coming in with just one threat in his arsenal, he has great striking and he has great submissions. Joe really thought that a move over here would improve his wrestling and our team’s grappling game is very wrestling based for the most part. I think his performances will be even better after his time over here.

“There is a lot of hype, there seems to be a big buzz in Ireland and Europe in general with these fighters. How does Joe live up to the first round knockout that got him there? It was spectacular, but that type of thing doesn’t happen in every fight. People have to be realistic.

“Our goal for Joe is to win the fight. We win the fight, then we go back to work. A win is a win, and that’s the way Joe needs to be thinking. After we see how this fight goes, we’ll be able to tweak things a little bit. We didn’t want to change things too much before this, because as we know, Joe is already a well-rounded fighter.

“I think the more we work, the more you’ll see a different Joe. I don’t think you’d say an improved Joe, he’s already so good, but everyone has holes in their game and he’s no different.

“Georges (St Pierre) was a champion for nine years and he had holes in his game. Joe is well aware of this, and he wants to work. He’s found this new excitement. This is Tristar, now he’s in at the deep end of the pool.

“Any given day on the mat we have 12 to 16 UFC fighters in the gym plus a bunch of guys competing in Bellator and Titan FC championships. We’ve got Desmond Green, a division 1 wrestler and we’ve got 35 pros on the mats for pro practice.

“For Joe, coming and having all these rounds against so many different guys that show him so many different looks, it was great for him. I think he is far more ready now for his UFC debut.”

Having now spent time in the top-class facility, O’Keefe highlights some of the improvements we might see when Duffy takes to the Octagon to face Jake Lindsey on Saturday night.

“There have been improvements everywhere, but I think the main thing for Joe was just confirming that he was doing the right things,” explains O’Keefe. “We’ve left it so there is no doubt in his mind now. He’s been in there sparring with other UFC guys and he can see he’s doing well.

“His Octagon control is a lot better, his positioning has improved greatly – these are small improvements that make a huge difference in a fight. He was slightly over committing sometimes with his hips when he was striking, I don’t want to reveal too much before his fight, but I think you should see improvements definitely.

“We’ve tweaked his striking a little bit, but he was already very strong in that department. His takedowns have been coming on great and his takedown defence has really improved. You’ll see a major difference in how he reacts when he gets taken down if they fight gets taken there too.

“He’s got a lot more exciting options from there now. Often he was going back to things he was comfortable with, but now we’ve given him some options that he has really taken to very well.

“He’s very quick and wiry for his size. We call it ‘farmer strong’, it’s like he’s just been lifting bales of hay his whole life. He looks kind of skinny but he’s deceptively strong.”

As for the man that stands in the way of Duffy’s first UFC win, O’Keefe is quick to point out the Jake Lindsey is no slouch.

He says: “A lot of people are taking Lindsey lightly, we certainly are not. He has shown that he hits hard, he has good knees on the inside and he’s a big guy. It’s not an easy fight by any means. At UFC level, everyone that’s in there is a tough fight. Joe is very seasoned, he’s not taking Lindsey lightly at all. He understands the threats that he possesses.”

With news coming through that Duffy is looking to drop down to featherweight, O’Keefe outlines why he and the Tristar team believe the Irish talent would be better at the lower weight bracket.

“We want to get this fight done first, he’s signed to fight at 155, but after seeing the size difference between and our other lightweights, we’re confident that he can make 145.

“We have him working with George Lockhard from VT Fitness, he worked with Cyborg in preparation for her latest fight on Invicta. He works with Rory MacDonald and a lot of UFC fighters too. Joe is learning a lot about the diet from him.

“George will be at UFC 185 in Dallas, Rafael Dos Anjos will be flying him out, and he has agreed to work with Joe for his cut. Joe has been eating everything George has told him to eat, and I think with George there, the cut will be very smooth. He’s going to get to see how his body reacts to the cut.

“Not to put down anything that goes on in Europe, but I think the weight cutting process is a bit more evolved here. Everyone suffers during the weight cut, but Joe can’t even fathom getting the extra ten pounds off at the moment.

“This week I think he’s out of his comfort zone because we have him heavier than he usually is. He was telling one of our other lightweights at the weekend that he 169 lbs, and he couldn’t believe it. He was like ‘Joe, I weigh 169 the day before my fights, you’re doing great’. Joe was looking at him like he was crazy! He trusts us though, and I think once he does it and sees it, then he will start believing.

“We haven’t talked too much about the drop down to 145, we just want to focus on this fight for now. Although it does depend on what George Lockhart tells us after this fight, we’re confident that Joe will fight at 145 in the future – maybe not the next fight, but I think it will happen.

“He would be a huge 145er. He’s 5’11’’, he’s got a very good reach and we think he can make the weight quite comfortably. He just has to maintain a slight lower body weight, so he just has to change the way he eats a little.”

The move to 145 will obviously put a fire under the victory that Duffy fields a lot of questions about. For O’Keefe, the constant talk of a rematch between ‘Irish Joe’ and McGregor is a little overplayed.

“All the comparisons with Conor and that fight that took place five years ago, I think a lot of people dwell on that stuff too much. I know it’s fun for media to talk about and yes, maybe that fight will happen down the road,” says O’Keefe.

“We all have great respect for the SBG camp and for everything that they have achieved so far, but I don’t think Joe’s career should be just all about that fight. Joe is his own fighter, he’s going to come into his own and he’s going to continue to develop.”


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