John Kavanagh – MMA coach for “The Notorious” Conor McGregor – offers a fascinating insight into his own meteoric rise within the supersonically expanding sport of Mixed Martial Arts.

The first thing that strikes you when you hear John Kavanagh speak is the gentle eloquence with which he delivers each considered word. One could mistake it for excessive humility, were it not for the actual choice of words that determinedly depart.

“In professional martial arts you have to understand the entertainment industry and certainly the media,” he offers, a ripple of a smile momentarily interrupting his placid expression.

John Kavanagh speaks about the rocky road to becoming one of the top MMA coaches around Photo by Anthony Woods

John Kavanagh speaks about the rocky road to becoming one of the top MMA coaches around
Photo by Anthony Woods

The subtlety of a near-undetectable American lilt would be lost on anyone outside of Ireland. Perched on a tall stool in a Dublin city centre bar before more than a hundred curious and enthusiastic fight fans however, the influence of the American-driven MMA media juggernaut on Coach Kavanagh’s speech is a mildly noticeable quirk.

The theme of the night’s talk was “Uncage Your Passion” and Kavanagh has certainly displayed a startling transformation from young engineering student to becoming the most respected MMA coach in the business. The recent birth of his super-stardom belies a near-lifetime of hard work and dedication to martial arts.

“It has taken me about twenty years to be an overnight sensation,” he observes, drolly.

Kavanagh’s parents are in attendance, and he recalls a certain apprehension at home upon his announcement that he would pursue a career in martial arts.

“Obviously every parent want their kids to have a stable foundation in life,” he says, referring to the indecision over finishing his engineering degree and launching himself head first into the world of MMA.

Established a decade ago, Ireland’s first SBG (Straight Blast Gym) was forged out of adversity as Kavanagh faced eviction from a previous premises and his spirit to pursue his dream diminished. A last-minute offer of a new site proved the catalyst for the birth of what is now the most formidable training ground in Irish MMA and, arguably, the world.

All this was long before the emergence of such stars as Paddy Holohan, Gunnar Nelson and, of course, The Notorious himself.

“Believe it or not, there was life before Conor McGregor,” he laughs. Memories of McGregor arriving into training “in his girlfriend’s battered Peugeot” are recalled to the skittish delight of the audience, along with a few of the fighters and even Kavanagh himself having to push-start it at the end of a gruelling session.

Back then, Kavanagh never envisaged the superstardom and legions of Twitter followers he enjoys today but then, it was never about that for him.

“The reward for me is in doing the activity,” he states firmly. It’s clear that this isn’t a rehearsed sound bite for the stateside media. Such a genuine love for martial arts can’t be rehearsed; it needs no embellishment.

“As long as I get to practice my passion then that’s the reward, for me,” he adds.

The night the Irish took over – July 19th 2014 in Dublin – helped to further dismiss any self-doubt Kavanagh might have retained. He unhesitatingly declares it “the best night of my life” before going on to tempt an explosive fate by wondering whether it will ever be equalled.

It might well be equalled (and even surpassed) when the career-defining fight in July between McGregor and Aldo finally arrives. McGregor has already caused quite a stir in the pre-fight media events, and his trainer is more than OK with his star pupil’s demeanour.

“I’ve always told my fighters that what happens outside the ring is their business. Conor and the other fighters have shown me – and each other – nothing but respect,” he states unequivocally.

He describes the “almost tribal atmosphere” within SBG. “Everybody helps each other,” he continues.

Kavanagh recognises that American audiences might not be used to our unique sense of humour.

“Here in Ireland, we all had that one guy in our school, the witty guy, the smartarse. That’s Conor,” he says.

When asked what would “go down” next Tuesday when the two fighters arrive into Dublin’s convention centre, Kavanagh revealed a touch of The Notorious in his response.

“Adlo!” he exclaimed emphatically, to the cheers of the audience.

Kavanagh finishes his Q&A with what he describes as “the two things that other fighters experience for the first time when they come up against Conor.”

“The first thing,” he declares, “is the first time they meet Conor, and they see that ‘nut’ look in his eyes and they realise: ‘Oh, this is real, this is not an act. He is a psycho who wants to kill me for his next meal.’

“The second thing is when the first shot lands, and their eyes widen,” he expands with controlled relish.

Much like the glee McGregor displays in his appearances in front of the camera, nose-to-nose with his opponents or cracking jokes and talking avidly with Dana White and various US anchors about his meteoric rise through the UFC.

But as Coach Kavanagh explains: “That’s Conor. He’s a witty guy. The fact that he has a devastating left hook is a bonus.”

There was still time at the end for Paddy “The Hooligan” Holohan to join Kavanagh on stage to announce the launch of a new SBG centre in Tallaght, scheduled for a summer opening.

Paddy Houlihan pictured at Tiger's Uncage talk with John Kavanagh at House, Dublin. Photo: Anthony Woods

Paddy Houlihan pictured at Tiger’s Uncage talk with John Kavanagh at House, Dublin. Photo: Anthony Woods

As Holohan confirmed, the gym will be open to one and all. “Once you’re ready to leave your ego at the door”, that is.

After all, not everyone is destined to become The Notorious.


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