LAS VEGAS – Few people outside of a handful of UFC executives and members of his team know more about how Conor McGregor has looked as a boxer than Joe Cortez.
McGregor is the UFC lightweight champion and among the finest MMA fighters of all-time, but he’ll be making his boxing debut Saturday when he faces the 49-0 Floyd Mayweather in a rich pay-per-view bout at T-Mobile Arena.
McGregor is big on visualization and wanted to mimic a bout as closely as he could during training, so he decided to bring in a referee. He also wanted to understand what he could and couldn’t get away with in a boxing match.
Enter Cortez, a 2011 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
One of the greatest referees in the sport’s history who became known for his catchphrase, “Remember guys, I’m fair but I’m firm,” Cortez was hired by McGregor to officiate his sparring matches.
Cortez is bound by a confidentiality agreement and there are certain questions he couldn’t answer, but the most significant one that he could is a big one: How does McGregor look as a boxer?
Cortez, a man not prone to hyperbole, gave an eyebrow-raising answer.
“He reminded me a lot of Prince Naseem Hamed,” Cortez said.
Hamed is also a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and was one of boxing’s biggest stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was known for his wild entrances, unusual style and powerful punches.
Cortez didn’t hesitate in bringing up Hamed’s name.
“He’s a little awkward with his style, like the Prince was, and he throws punches from everywhere,” Cortez said. “It was hard to see where they were coming from. They were punches that could hurt you.”
McGregor was so adamant about following protocol to mimic a fight as exactly as possible that Cortez would go into the locker room before McGregor sparred and give him “pre-fight” instructions. Before the sparring began, Cortez would bring the fighters to the center of the ring.
It was McGregor wanting to fully understand the rules and feel comfortable with the way things happened in a boxing ring.
Cortez said he is confident McGregor won’t resort to any MMA moves, even though many fans expect – or are hoping – he will kick Mayweather or take him down.
“He’s a great student and he pays attention, and I was super surprised how quickly he learned the rules,” Cortez said. “He handled himself very professionally and you could see him learning day by day, as we went along. I just don’t believe that would happen.
“I don’t think he’ll do any of that MMA stuff because he knows he’ll pay a hefty fine, but he also is serious about being the best boxer he can be and doing the right thing.”
Cortez said that while he can’t be too specific about action in the ring, he thought McGregor learned enough and said, “I’m a positive thinker and I think it could turn out to be a decent fight.”
McGregor, he said, showed many of the traits he’s known for in MMA.
“He didn’t get hit that much in his sparring,” Cortez said. “He has good reflexes and knows how to get away from punches. And honestly, the punches he did take, he didn’t get hurt at all. He can take it.”
But was it a knockdown, as fans have vigorously debated since the sparring footage of McGregor and ex-boxing world champion Paulie Malignaggi surfaced online, or was it a push?
There is where Cortez drew the line. His deal with McGregor prevented him from answering the question.
But he said enough to believe that fans who watch the show will “see an exciting night of boxing.”
Related coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• How Mayweather-McGregor fight should play out
• Clause in McGregor’s contract could prove costly
• Mayweather guaranteed to make $100M vs. McGregor
• How a $750K bet made Mayweather a $1B fighter
• Las Vegas facing disaster if McGregor actually wins