Trying not to choke on the smoke swirling around the Dockers Club in Belfast's Pilot Street, waiting for the next contest at the annual Ulster Intermediate championships to start, the name Paul McCloskey meant very little.
Three rounds later and his style and charisma had caught the eye more than the nicotine.
Here was someone with a style all of his own, a silky southpaw with limbo-like movement throwing punches from angles that most Irish opponents felt defied physics. It was 1998 when he stepped onto the iconic Ulster Hall stage and claimed the first of five Ulster senior titles and his style was drawing comparisons with Naseem Hamed, who was then at the peak of his powers.
“I watched Naz and I guess there's a bit of him in me, but from quite young I developed that style,” says McCloskey, who tomorrow night seeks to impose the skills first learned at the St Canices Club in Dungiven with coach Vinny Hargan, on WBA World champion Amir Khan at Manchester's MEN Arena.
“I remember the first gym I trained in, it was a B-hut, were the old B Specials used to train,” he said.
“It had an old zinc roof, like one of those old gyms out of Rocky. I remember running around when I was about five or six my dad was on the committee and brother Shay was training — he won a couple of Irish titles as a junior.
“Vinny was a massive impact on me and we're still very close. He's been there my whole life, like a second father. He got me to try to box orthodox, but it never felt natural. He could see that my style worked for me and went with it.
“As an amateur I always had the movement and threw some mean uppercuts and I still throw a pretty good uppercut — which could work well against Khan.”
Having chalked up three Irish titles, he just missed out on qualifying for the 2004 Olympics and subsequently turned professional with Frank Warren and manager/coach John Breen, making his debut in 2005, just four months before Khan stepped onto the professional stage having shot to fame with silver at the Athens Olympics. Six years later their paths have finally come to the focal point McCloskey has always wanted.
Khan has received five-star treatment from the moment he signed a lucrative deal with promoter Warren, while McCloskey's rise to world title opportunity has gone largely under the radar outside these shores. Hence, few seem to give him a chance, but whether it was at the Dockers Club, the National Stadium in Dublin or winning the British light-welterweight title at two weeks notice, McCloskey has never lacked an exuberant confidence.
“I know this has to be my greatest performance, but it's a performance that I know is there, it's not a performance that I'm hoping and praying will come out of me ... I know that it is there,” he said.
“I've done everything to get to my peak. I know the peak performance is there.
“I know I have the tools and skills and at the end of the day it's about whose game plan comes out on top, who can impose their game plan on the other guy.
“I know I can beat Khan and I think this will be a bigger achievement than Barry McGuigan beating Eusebio Pedroza because Khan is at his peak and in terms of profile he's one of the biggest names in boxing.
“Whatever sparring Khan has done he has nobody to replicate me. Everything has been great, I have done everything to get me in the best physical and mental condition. I've had a special chef, Phil Rogers from Bangor, cooking my meals and I have brought in a conditioner, Ollie, for the fight so everything has gone to plan.
“To be honest after I win I won't have enough time to thank everybody. It's my big chance and I have to grab it.”