Callum Walsh has a fascination with ultimate fighting and it's a clear contrast to how little he claims to watch boxing, despite accumulating an impressive pro record of 8-0-0 (7 KOs).
The 22-year-old, dubbed King, returns to the ring Thursday for a stern test against Ismael Villarreal at the Madison Square Garden Theater — two days before the UFC headlines the big room with its UFC 295 pay-per-view event in New York City.
The close proximity to one another is all by design as Walsh's promoter Tom Loeffler struck a deal with UFC Fight Pass, and UFC boss Dana White has a passionate interest in Walsh, and a healthy respect for Loeffler.
The Irish boxer has told ProBox TV numerous times how he wants to carry the torch for Irish combat sports, emulating modern day Irish greats like Katie Taylor and, of course, McGregor — a fighter he's been watching since he was 11 years old.
"I never trained in MMA at the time as I was training in boxing but me and my friends would get together and always watch the UFC fights," Walsh told ProBox TV when we visited him at the Wildcard Boxing Club in Hollywood, Los Angeles, before he made the trip to New York for this week's showdown with Villarreal.
Walsh is a powerfully-built athlete for the 154-pound division and will still grow into that weight class, and even 160, as he grows and enters his prime years later in his 20s. But he said he still needs to pinch himself because he's gone from "watching Dana on TV" to taking business meetings with the UFC boss, and using his private steam room.
It's the same for McGregor.
"We were at a Jon Jones fight and Conor walks in and salutes me," he said. Walsh's friends turned to him in amazement and asked if they knew each other. "I went for a picture and was going to introduce myself but before I could, he says: 'Hey, Callum — I love your boxing."
The Irishmen have exchanged private messages on Instagram ever since.
Walsh wants to win world championships in boxing, then cross over full-time to MMA
"It's surreal going from watching Conor on TV to him knowing who I was, and now he's a sponsor, too, with Forged Irish Stout. I'm looking forward to drinking some of that after the fight."
Between his obvious love for MMA, and his relationship with White, it begs the question whether he has his eye on competing in the sport in this crossover era.
"Definitely," he said.
"I said I want to be the face of Irish fighting, and I mean that. Boxing is what I’m good at right now, but once I win everything I can, I want to see what else I can win."
Loeffler told ProBox TV that the goal for them is to win a world championship at 154, and, if the opportunities are there, unify belts, and even become undisputed in the weight class.
Walsh has expressed interest in competing at 160, too, so boxing isn't in danger of losing one of it's key prospects any time soon.
"I want to be in real fights but a lot of these boxers don’t want to fight each other," Walsh said, criticizing the time it takes to book certain bouts.
"I’ll do bareknuckle, I'll do MMA," he said. "I don’t want to be one of the boxers who just does it once and gets taken down early like James Toney," he said, noting that, when he does cross over, it will be for numerous fights rather than a standalone bout.
"I respect the sport enough to know you can’t just walk in there. I’ll train and do it right," he added. "I cross train already with Tony Ferguson, we'll keep going, and do MMA when I'm not in camp."
Walsh also said he's got an open invite from Nate Diaz to train with him, too.
Said Loeffler: "We all agree the focus is to win a world title in boxing but with Dana you never know when an opportunity might come in the UFC. But, definitely, win a title in boxing, maybe become undisputed. From there, maybe the doors open for whatever opportunity he wants to do."
First things first, though, is Villarreal on Thursday as a big win can further advance Walsh and Loeffler's claim to not only be one of boxing's fastest rising stars, but a champion elect.
"I've faced tougher opponents before," said Walsh, unfazed at his imminent opponent. "And I've had a lot of amateur fights. I've fought Russian champions, and the best there is, the best fighters to come out of Ireland.
"This is the toughest fight of my pro career, but I see it as another fight. I'll be here [Wildcard Boxing Club] for three years in February and I've sparred absolutely everybody, anybody you can think of at Wildcard — whatever weight; 147 to 200-pounds — Gabe Rosado, Eimantis Stanionis, Elvis Rodriguez."
If there's one thing Walsh will be gunning for when he enters the ring, it's a knockout — preferably early.
I asked him if he ever had any scraps on the schoolyard and he laughs. "I'm Irish," he said, simply, as if it was free sparring. "I've been fighting all my life."
He continued: "I always knew i could finish fights, even knocking people out in the amateur scene when I was 16 and 17 years old, and they had head gear on. I always knew I had the knockout power."
Walsh is exceeding expectations
Loeffler said: "This opponent now at The Garden on November 9, Ismael Villarreal is a very tough fighter, and a local guy from the Bronx. This would be a great test for Callum … but everyone's confident."
Walsh, according to Loeffler is a fighter who looks great in training, but greater still "when the stage gets bigger and bigger."
Loeffler boxed Walsh at the 6,000 seater Agganis Arena in Boston under advisement from White. The youngster understood the assignment and thumped his way to a second-round win over Wesley Tucker, who had a record of 15-4 at the time. "That was one of his best performances," Loeffler said. "So we expect a great performance in New York, too."
After the fight in Boston, Walsh and Loeffler went to a UFC show in the same town, much like the case this week.
"All the fans knew him," said Loeffler. "It feel it's the first time boxers are being marketed to the UFC fan-base. We're trying to cross-market Callum, particularly with UFC Fight Pass, so a lot of international fans can watch him.
"Going to MSG was always part of the plan with the huge UFC 295 show just two days later. But all the best made plans can only go as far as Callum goes in the ring.
"And, so far," Loeffler finished, "he's exceeded everyone's expectations."