When the car reached Shercock, Owen Duffy saw the crowd, calculated how long the delay would be and shook his head. “It must be a funeral,” he thought to himself.
It was August, 2014 and Duffy was returning from the Ringside World Championships in Kansas City – a prestigious tournament for club boxers - with the spoils of war, having won four fights to take the 69kg title.
Little did he know that word had reached Cavan before he did, texts and Facebook messages were pinging around and the local community had secretly arranged to come out in force. Home was the hero, to a hero's welcome.
The plan worked to perfection. At the bottom of the town, a Garda approachedDuffy and told him to get out of the car and continue on foot.
"I was thinking 'why are they stopping me, what is going on here',” he smiled this week, looking back. “It was unbelievable.”
And then he saw the crowds and realised they were there for him. The memory of being led up the street by a piper from the Corduff band and of the hordes of friends, family and neighbours who came out to welcome him back still wears a warm glow for Duffy, now, five years on, making his way in the professional ranks.
Pro boxing is a business, first and foremost, and support, a fan base, is vital. Duffy, whose fourth fight takes place in Watford, England on March 9 next, has an advantage because he can sell tickets, which means promoters want him on their cards.
After that, he just needs to keep winning.
“The support drives me on,” he said.
“I had some rocky moments, a couple of times I was considering taking a break from it but I got this pro contract offer which was a dream and then had my debut the first week in March last year.
“The turn-out at my first fight was unbelievable. It makes things that little bit easier to have that support. In this game, until you start winning Irish titles and get a European ranking, there's no money in it, so having support gives me a great opportunity to get fights and stay busy.”
In the medium term, Duffy hopes to have another homecoming of sorts by headlining a fight here in Cavan later this year. For now, though, his focus is on Latvian Kristaps Zulgis in his first scheduled six-rounder. Three weeks after that, he will box in the National Stadium on the Clash of the Titans bill, live on TG4.
The Shercock man trains under Pascal Collins in the Celtic Warrior gym in Blanchardstown and does his strength and conditioning work under the watchful eye of former Cavan football coach Eoin Maguire (cousin of Lisa and Leona).
“I am stepping up to six rounds but the programme is pretty much the same, just the intensity increases a bit and the endurance training with Eoin gets more specific.
“In terms of boxing training, instead of doing four round sparring sessions and bag work it's six rounds.”
Most boxers will say that making weight is the hardest part of the game. Getting punched in the face is relatively pleasant compared to boiling down and dehydrating before facing the scales.
Owen – who boxes under the nom de guerre 'The Butcher' – has learned the hard way that there are no shortcuts.
“Normally I walk around at 76, 77kg but I have to get down to 69.7kg for fights.
“People always ask me this. There's a science behind it, your body is made of 80pc of water so all it is is manipulation of the water in the body.
“The max amount of water you can lose safely without losing fluid to the brain is 10pc of your body weight they say so I always keep about six or seven kg over my fight weight.
“Then, 10 days before a fight I start drinking seven litres of water a day, a high sodium diet, normal fibre intake. You do that for five or six days and then your last two days before weigh-in you only take 10pc of that water intake, so you go from seven litres a day to 700ml a day.
“It takes your body two days to react to that change, your body still thinks you're taking in that amount of water and you're still going to the toilet six or seven times a day but you're only actually taking in 700ml so you start flushing out water form the muscles and stuff. It's interesting.
“It's probably the hardest thing. I don't mind training three times a day, it's the dieting. If you stick to it, it's easy but if you start cheating, that's when it starts getting difficult to make weight.
“I remember my debut this time last year, I totally messed it up. I was three and a half kilos overweight that morning and I had three hours to lose it.
“I was absolutely bricking it but I knew what I had to do. I went into the sauna with a sauna suit on, shadow boxing and moving on the spot and bouncing in and out between hot and cold contrasts.
“I was doing 20 minutes in the sauna, coming out for a cold shower, relaxing for five minutes and then going back in. It was absolute torture.
“People say to me 'you're so disciplined, you don't eat any takeaways or chocolate or anything' but I'm like 'listen, when you're not on weight and you have to hit that sauna with a sauna suit on, you'll never do it again, you'll have no problem dieting.'”
Duffy was a late convert to the sweet science. As a kid, football was his thing. He was part of Cavan development squads and was around the county minor set-up for a while, winning a Division 1 minor medal at wing-back alongside such luminaries as Killian Clarke, Brian Sankey, Joe Dillon, Niall Clerkin and Padraig Faulkner.
But, by chance, he ended up taking a different path.
“I was 17 going on 18. I was in school in the Patrician High School in Carrickmacross and there was a white collar show going on in the Inver College school beside us and I heard there were a couple of lads doing it that I didn't really get on with.
“I had a bit of chat with my mum about it and she was telling me there was a bit of boxing on her side of the family with her brother and all.
“And I thought 'Jaysus, this would be a great opportunity to get a dig at these lads'.
“So that's what started me, we did a six-week training camp and I absolutely fell in love with it. I knew as soon as I started that this was what I was meant to do – and I haven't stopped since.”
Duffy threw his lot in with Carrickmacross BC and was guided by Christina and Frick McMahon; Ulster and All-Ireland novice titles followed, the Ringside belt was claimed and the rest is history.
Now that he's in the pros and has three wins to his name, Duffy – who turned 25 in January – has no intention of slowing down.
“My long term goal is that I'm going to be a world champion some day. I would usually keep that to myself only that you have asked me.
“People might not believe you until you make it happen but I know I have what it takes to be there. I definitely have a lot to learn still, I know that myself, but I have the commitment and the passion to do it, I've got the coaches and the sparring partners, the physio, strength coach, a great team behind me. I am willing to put in the work, I don't mind the grafting at all. Anything good doesn't come easy.”
Spoken like a true champion.
- Any business wishing to support Team Duffy on his journey to a homecoming fight this summer can contact Owen firstname.lastname@example.org or 0871189245.