Kavanagh: The godfather of Irish MMA

Jonathon Boylan talks life, tough beginnings, and his star pupil with Conor McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh

Conor McGregor is undoubtedly the most recognisable face Ireland has produced in recent times. With an ability to split opinion like no other, he is seen by many as the poster boy for mixed martial arts (MMA) as a whole. Love him or loathe him, McGregor’s achievements cannot be disputed. Two division titles in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), ten rounds with the greatest boxer of all time, a signature whiskey brand, a self-titled “McGregor Sports and Entertainment” promotion behemoth, paired with unprecedented wealth, all combine to form quite an impressive resumé.

However, while McGregor is known for his brash nature and outspoken attitude, the true driving force behind his success, and the catalyst of Irish MMA as a whole, John Kavanagh, possesses a wisdom and personability that his star pupil could only dream of mastering.

While his fame may not match that of McGregor, Kavanagh’s rise to prominence is perhaps more intriguing, if not equally inspiring. Having achieved an architectural degree in DIT Bolton Street, Kavanagh seemed destined for a career in teaching. This was of course until he found his “true passion” in MMA. Following a “battering” in front of a girlfriend in Rathmines, Kavanagh recalls how he was forced to “lock myself in my room for days” just to conquer the humiliation.

I didn’t want to learn to fight for the normal reasons, I wanted to learn to fight for the confidence it gave me.”

In his darkest hour, Kavanagh’s passion found him, as he began watching videos of renowned Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist, Royce Gracie, taking part in the very first UFC event in Denver. He nostalgically recalls how Gracie “took apart men that were much bigger than him. It wasn’t random or aggressive, it was methodical. I thought to myself, I can do that.” It would appear that Kavanagh had indeed discovered his true calling, and following numerous trips abroad to train, alongside a brief stint in professional MMA, he would soon become Ireland’s very first Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. In many ways, that fateful scuffle in Rathmines seems to have been the foundation of Kavanagh’s evident drive: “It was very much the basis for me wanting to defend myself. I didn’t want to learn to fight for the normal reasons, I wanted to learn to fight for the confidence it gave me. And yes, when things got tough, I’d often think back to that battering if I needed some extra motivation!”

In a public event prior to this interview, Kavanagh went into great detail about the beginnings of his coaching career and subsequent enterprise, Straight Blast Gym (SBG). He recalled utilising “basically sheds”, entitling them “The Real Fight Club”. However, in order to transform this passion into a full-time career, he had to be more industrious: “My product was great, but my branding was off. We moved to bigger units and we decided to make the whole thing a little more family friendly. Now, we have thousands of members and it’s certainly a lot more stable.”

With prominent UFC fighters, including McGregor, Gunnar Nelson, and Artem Lobov all coming through Kavanagh’s storied ranks, one wonders what the mogul views as his personal highlights. Pausing, he said that two fights certainly came to mind: “The first is the [second McGregor vs. Diaz] fight. I’ve watched that back so many times. It was just a great fight and such a great rivalry as a whole. Conor aside, I would have to say, and I’m not sure if you’ll be able to find this one, but it was a fight between a fighter of mine, John Michael Sheil, against a guy called Victor. This guy was supposed to walk over [John], and get a UFC contract. It was in the Helix, and it was just one of those fights where everything went to plan. Due to great technical planning, we got a win against somebody that was meant to beat us.”

Indeed, one cannot mention Kavanagh’s devotion to his fighters without drawing reference to his star pupil, Conor McGregor. When asked about McGregor, Kavanagh speaks affectionately of a man who “has changed the game for every single fighter”, and “has worked exceptionally hard to get to where he is now”.

I get to tell my kids, my grandkids, that I walked out one of my fighters to fight Floyd Mayweather, in the biggest fight of combat sports history.”

To date, the height of McGregor’s fame was undoubtedly his bout with arguably the greatest boxer of all time, Floyd Mayweather. McGregor opted to utilise his regular MMA coaching team in preparation for the lucrative bout, the challenges of which Kavanagh did not dispute: “I will be honest, the fight didn’t interest me greatly from a preparation standpoint given that it was boxing.” However, Kavanagh certainly found the escapade to be worthwhile. “It was an incredible experience. I get to tell my kids, my grandkids, that I walked out one of my fighters to fight Floyd Mayweather, in the biggest fight of combat sports history.”  

The Mayweather fight perhaps perfectly demonstrated the willingness of SBG fighters to, in the words of UFC President Dana White, fight “anyone, anywhere, anytime” without due regard to the potential repercussions. However, when questioned on McGregor’s stablemate and close personal friend Artem Lobov’s tendency to fight higher ranked opposition, Kavanagh admits: “He’s an outlier. He will come to me and say he’s booked a fight and I’ll think, you probably shouldn’t have. I’ve always told him that I can use him as a bad example, to show all my other fighters that they should listen to me!” He does, however, note that “Artem is a fighter’s fighter. He’s like a little terrier dog chasing after rottweilers! It’s romantic, and the fan in me loves it.” Kavanagh possesses an in-depth knowledge of the fight game and an acute insight into the limitations of his fighters, both of which distinguish him as an accomplished coach.

I explained to my fighters; this sport is a baby, I’m the one who has to deal with the Ministers and the meetings.”

The discussion could not have been complete, however, without acknowledging the elephant in the room – the brawl following McGregor’s recent defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov. The incident certainly had repercussions for Kavanagh’s “personal mission” as President of the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA), to have MMA recognised as a legitimate sport by the 2028 Olympics: “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘oh no’. And look, while it does happen in other sports, try Googling GAA, or soccer, or basketball brawls, for example, I do realise that MMA will be treated differently. I explained this to my fighters. I said, this sport is a baby, I’m the one who has to deal with the Ministers and the meetings. So please, be aware of that. I think they understand that, and we try not to get too down about it. We just get on with doing what we do.” Despite the setback, Kavanagh was “confident” that progress in this area would be made, and that someday, Pinocchio may become a “real boy”.

The other major question relating to the fight is whether the McGregor vs. Khabib rematch will happen, Kavanagh reflects candidly: “I honestly don’t know. Conor is at a stage now where he has not only a phone number bank balance but a phone number with a few area codes on the end of it.” This, when coupled by the imminent arrival of McGregor’s second child, along with his Proper Twelve whiskey business, means the future of Kavanagh’s most famed alum remains in doubt. However, it became clear during this interview that his mentor is by no means finished yet. Perhaps, in time, the Godfather of MMA will someday garner the recognition both he and the sport deserve.