After more than a year without fights because of COVID-19 restrictions, Art of War Cage Fighting returned to action May 22 as the promotion hosted Art of War 18 in Feasterville, Pennsylvania. The eight-fight card featured two title fights, but it was the opening bout between Bantamweights Michael McCaffrey and Anthony Hogeback that got the event started and brough back AOWFC with a bang.
In the case of McCaffrey, 21, who won the bout by split decision (28-29, 29-28, 30-27), the fight was also a display of how some fighters have been waiting in the wings and used the year-plus layoff to hone their craft and get ahead of the competition.
The fight was McCaffery’s debut inside the cage. He has been training MMA for five years but says his skills have evolved immensely since the worldwide shutdown that left many fighters, including McCaffery, without a gym to train at. But McCaffrey didn’t let that stop him from pushing forward and doing what he needed to for a first opportunity to fight.
Nick Catone’s MMA & Fitness in Brick Township, New Jersey, is one of the gyms McCaffrey was training at when the pandemic hit. It is also where McCaffrey connected with his current boxing coach, Danny Murray, who he credits with helping him take his fighting to the next level over the course of the past year.
“That is where the evolution of me came about,” McCaffrey told MyMMANews.com. “I was an athlete my entire life. I was doing sports since I was a kid and was doing MMA since I was 16. But I was never as dedicated as I was this most recent year though. Since the age of 19, I’ve been getting locked in and doing my thing, but ever since I met Dan Murray that’s when things really started to come together. He’s a great coach and I’m truly blessed to have him with me.”
When Nick Catone’s gym closed temporarily because of the pandemic, Murray opened up his basement at his house to McCaffrey so that he could continue to train and prepare for his first fight. McCaffrey spent countless hours hitting pads and sparring in Murray’s basement, but all the while he knew it was helping him gain a leg up on his future opponents who might be using the pandemic as an excuse to take a break.
“That is why my striking got so good because the gym I was at at the time — Nick Catone’s — closed and everyone was using that as an excuse to not work, not train, just sit home and be lazy and bullshit,” McCaffrey said. “At that time, I saw the opportunity to double down and really focus on my craft. We created a plan. We stuck to it. And now we’re seeing the results.”
McCaffrey’s hard work showed in the cage. The regional scene’s unfamiliarity with him made McCaffrey more than a 9-to-1 underdog against Hogeback according to a Tapology poll. But public perception wasn’t the obly adversity McCaffrey was facing. Several misfortunes leading up to his fight, most notably the passing of his grandfather a month before the bout, made McCaffrey winning his debut seem that much more unlikely, but he turned the adversity into motivation.
“I faced immense adversity going into this fight,” McCaffrey said. “Four weeks before the fight the No. 1 role model in my life, the man who raised me into the man I am today along with my father passed away…Part of my dream was for [my grandfather] to see that this is possible and he passed away four weeks out from the fight and that shit broke my heart like you couldn’t imagine…That was a huge motivation because I know that he’s up in Heaven right now and I wanted him to see what I was capable of…I dedicated that fight to my grandfather because it was all about him at that point.”
Walking to the cage with a Conor McGregor-esque routine and an Irish-American flag draped over his shoulders, you’d never know it was the Bantamweight’s first fight.
“My confidence comes from my training. It’s as simple as that,” McCaffrey said. “You saw my walkout. You saw the energy that I carried into the cage. That’s all from my preparation. No one works harder than me inside or outside of the octagon.”
Indeed, McCaffrey’s journey into the cage has been the product of hard work and dedication. He doesn’t necessarily have one gym he calls home because he travels all over New Jersey to find the right coaches for honing certain skills. For example, he sought out the help of professional MMA fighter Sean “Shorty Rock” Santella to help him with his grappling ahead of his AOWFC debut.
“I just knew my opponent was a grappler and I needed a quality grappling coach in my corner. So I started talking to [Santella] and I guess he saw something in me as well.”
McCaffrey even uses sports science and a performance team to make sure he’s in pique physical condition and that he’s doing all that he can to rise to the top.
“I go wherever the work is,” McCaffrey said. “I am the most professional amateur in New Jersey. That’s all I have to say. I don’t leave anything up to chance.”
McCaffrey’s efforts have produced a well-rounded MMA skill set. He wrestled in grade school and says that ability has returned to him very quickly through his recent training. He loves to strike and calls his boxing his “bread and butter.”
McCaffrey said he might return to Feasterville on July 31st to fight on the next AOWCF card but he has to work out some personal matters first so he can make sure he’s able to have a proper camp for the fight. He plans to attack his MMA career aggressively, but intelligently.
Pat Donohue has been covering sports for more than 10 years. He is a former Washington Redskins beat reporter and has been covering the University of Maryland football and basketball recruiting and daily beats for Rivals.com since 2013. Pat graduated from Maryland with his master’s degree in journalism and has received bylines in publications such as USA TODAY Sports, The Philadelphia Inquirer, SB Nation, and Yahoo! Sports. As a wrestler for 13 years in Pennsylvania, Pat has a deep appreciation for MMA and a keen understanding of the sport.