Lee McGregor: Barry McGuigan says world title fight is in sight
When the wee sage that is Barry McGuigan trumpets the chances of young Edinburgh bantamweight Lee McGregor, the smartest thing to do is sit up and pay attention.
"A heart the size of his head, Lee," says the Ulsterman, whose own big heart in the boxing ring elevated him to the status of unifying hero in the divided island of Ireland back in the day.
"Diligent, intelligent, long levers, great lateral movement, he'd box the ears off you. I'm telling you, by the end of the year or early next year, he won't be a kick in the backside off fighting for a world title."
McGuigan, of course, has a vested interest - he is McGregor's manager and mentor - but in encouraging you to discount his own words and observe the evidence with your own eyes, there is something compellingly convincing about what he says.
"Lee is the full shebang."
'I can't get other bantamweights to spar with him'
The boy from Saughton, a Hearts fan by birth, turned 22 on Christmas Eve and has recently become a father, too. He has only had five fights - and five wins - but the vibe is strong with this one.
An IBF youth champion, a Commonwealth champion, in his last tear-up, McGregor subdued Cameroonian Thomas Essomba with a 12th-round knockout.
"Going 12 rounds, and knocking out a teak-tough fighter, in just your fifth professional right is rare," McGuigan says. "It's a hell of a statement. I can't get other bantamweights to spar with him, he's that dangerous. This boy really can fight."
McGregor really can talk as well - and he has got plenty to talk about. He has packed more joy and more tragedy into his young life than most and he has a vivid way of describing it all.
"I'm hungry, I've always been hungry. It's not just because I have a daughter. That determination has always been in me," the fighter says.
His last bout was in October, while his next has not yet been announced, but it's coming soon. Down the line there might be an all-Scottish match with Glasgow's Kash Farooq, a potentially tantalising contest between two talented young men and one that would appeal to McGregor and his "itchy knuckles".
'Mum had gone. It kills me every day I wasn't there'
He is sitting in the living room of his flat in Edinburgh, his two belts draped across the couch, and he is talking about his back story, pock-marked, as it is, with deep sadness.
"I was down in Cardiff in May 2017 fighting for the British amateur title, which I won. We stayed the night. My brothers, my mates, loads of us," he says.
"The fight was at three in the afternoon and we were out celebrating. My gran left us to have our moment. She called the next day saying that mum had gone. It kills me every day that I wasn't there.
"She'd been battling with cancer, had beat it, but then it came back. We didn't expect her to go that quick. What a horrible call that must have been for my gran. She's lost her daughter and now she has to tell her sons what's happened. I don't know how she did it.
"The first thing I asked was did she know I won the title. We don't know. We'll never know. I'm just trying my best to do her proud. I know she's looking down on me."
'My granda knew he was passing away'
The tragedy continued to hit him in combinations. In the space of a few months, he lost a cousin and one of his grandmothers. Then his grandfather went. Jim McGregor was one of his biggest influences and one of his dearest friends.
"I spent as much time with gran and grandad as I did with my mum and dad and, when they left, I was absolutely broken," he says.
"I was by my granda's side. Cancer again. Never ill in his life. It was quick and it was horrible to see. He was hiding it. That's the kind of man he was. I've never come across another man like him.
"He knew it was terminal, but he was trying to give us hope. I used to say, 'Imagine the party we're gonna have, granda, when you get the all-clear'. He used to smile, but he knew it was never going to happen.
"When he was coming to the end he said, 'Listen, I'll be by your side, I'll be looking down, I promise you that'. And I believe it. I've got two belts since he's gone.
"I've got a baby with my partner Amber, our own place, a good career. Our life is good. I believe it's down to them. All the heartache in the world, but I believe it's them that's bringing goodness into my life."
'It's either in you or it's not. And it's in me'
It's almost unnatural for one so young to talk so powerfully about what's happened to him, but that's part of McGregor's appeal.
He has a lot of people looking out for him, a lot of friends, a lot of supporters who went a lot of miles to cheer him on in his last fight at the York Hall in Bethnal Green, London. He was down in the fourth round in that row with Essomba but got back up and finished the job with a big left hand to the Cameroonian's temple.
"When you speak to people about me as a boxer, you'll get, 'He loves a fight, he's strong, tough, no quit in him'. They see me as talented, but in my last fight, I showed guts and determination.
"You can't teach someone to have a good heart, you can't teach someone to have to no quit in them, it's either in you or it's not. And it's in me.
"In my first four fights, I didn't go past round four. I barely got hit and wasn't learning much. Lots of people were saying, 'What's he like in the later rounds?' And in that last fight I answered them.
"Barry could see what I had, but it's different when you have people screaming over balconies and TV cameras in your face and the nerves are going. The only person who really knew I could do it was myself."
Plotting his next step requires a surgeon's precision. Some fighters need to be moved slowly through their career and others can be accelerated more aggressively. McGregor is in the latter camp, says McGuigan.
Recently, he watched undefeated 32-year-old Frenchman, Nordine Oubaali, win the WBC bantamweight title and reckons that, with another 12 months' experience, he would be happy to put McGregor in with him.
"It's down to me. I have so much to do. I get frustrated talking about it because I want it to happen now," McGregor says.
"My dream is to fight for a world title and if I could do it at Tynecastle then that would be the ultimate. Imagine walking out into that stadium.
"My granda, like me, was a diehard Jambo. It would be so emotional if it ever happened. What I would do to bring him back to see that."