John Kavanagh reveals the GAA coach who has been a 'massive influence'.


On Wednesday afternoon, with hundreds of MMA fans and a small army of the sport's reporters packed in, it feels very intimate. John Kavanagh, however, wouldn't agree. He has known many exceedingly more confined locations that played host to the sport of combat. He's standing back from both crowds. For now, he's happy to survey.


One of his fighters is up there on the stage, busily going through a series of striking, grappling and movement workouts with other members of the support team. He's just one of many who call Kavanagh coach. But none of the rest - roughly 20 pros in all - are quite like him. No-one who has ever opted to mix martial arts for a living is quite like this one.

Conor McGregor's every flex, every shadow punch is cheered as though it's a devastating decider. Kavanagh, however, looks to be studying each one a whole lot more intently. This is the most relaxed fight week of the Notorious team's wild journey to the top of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but it's no time to get lazy.

McGregor will again break with logic and precedent and move up two weight divisions to take on Nate Diaz in a welterweight showdown that is the headline act of UFC 196 in Las Vegas tonight. He's topping the bill in Sin City for the third time in eight months. This whole circus is in danger of becoming a bit, well, routine. Spending so much time on the Strip, the threat of Vegas fatigue kicking in is a real one.

"Emmmm, yeah. Yeah, there is a bit of (Vegas fatigue)," Kavanagh tells the Irish Independent. "But then you know, it's nice today. You can feel it starting, the ball is rolling again. We're here getting some nice energy off the fans. You know, it balances out.

A third visit in short succession. But the previous two make it a whole lot easier to come running back. They were nights for the ages. Chaotic, kaleidoscopic occasions when this neon metropolis shone bright on McGregor and his coach, the only one he's ever had.

First there was the watershed night in July when Chad Mendes was downed and an interim featherweight title claimed. It was summed up by the image of McGregor and Kavanagh - 11 years into their partnership - savouring the realisation of a dream atop the octagon.

Outright world championship status was then confirmed in just 13 seconds when McGregor again made good on his promises in December and downed Jose Aldo Jr.

"You do pinch yourself now and again to be part of this," Kavanagh says as he looks at the sea of smartphones raised to capture McGregor's workout. "To be part of this history, this story. Maybe I'll have my grandkids on my knee some day and we'll put on a video of a crazy night and a crazy fight and say 'oh, this is what your grandfather used to do'."

Or maybe he won't have to put on a video. He could read the grandkids a book instead. Amid all of this madness and night after night spent honing the rest of the brigade at his Straight Blast Gym in Bluebell, Kavanagh is putting the finishing touches to an autobiography. He's just 39, so putting his life story to page wasn't something he'd yet considered. Penguin Ireland had some convincing to do.

"I just had so many people saying it to me, (to do it). My natural reaction was like 'What! Why?' But when word got out then, I got a massive response from football players and rugby players and entrepreneurs," says the Rathfarnham native.

"They were all interested to see how this, all of this was built. How did I go from 14 years ago being in a shed with a couple of lads to standing here in Las Vegas with the most popular fighter on the planet?

"I'm getting my mother to proof-read it and she's as surprised as me. She thought it was going to just be an MMA story but it's actually not. It's a tale of coming from nothing to something, overcoming obstacles and finding success in business and in sport."

It's been some journey. Truly. While McGregor's voyage from reluctant plumber to multi-millionaire has been pored over, his coach's has rarely got the same treatment. Never an enthusiastic sportsman in his youth, Kavanagh all but fell into this life while on a very different path. His mind if not his heart was set on becoming a maths teacher.

While studying mechanical engineering in DIT, he saw a video of UFC 1 and was intrigued. He took up MMA and jiu-jitsu and was hooked. He never made it near a blackboard. His first gym was the very definition of intimate, a tiny place in Phibsboro. Nonetheless, at 24, it was a place to call his own.

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"I'm coming towards the end of (the book) now and looking back over some of the fights and gym incidents, going from one gym to another. All these places have stories, have lives of their own," says Kavanagh.

"Going back over it makes me smile. It was fun writing it. It forced me to take a half second to stop and be proud of things. And also realise that Conor is my first big fighter but you know, I'm 39. And now I have a bunch of guys coming up. He is phase one. How many of them will I add?"

While he has always been vociferous in his assertion that it is McGregor's maniacal work ethic that has been most pivotal on route to the top, Kavanagh has played a massive part. His achievements with the Notorious One, who first pitched up to his door as a squeaky 16-year-old, saw his name put forward alongside those of Cody, Schmidt and O'Neill for end-of-year coaching honours.

But what of the Irish coaches who inspired him?

"Two names jump out. And they came just at the right time, which has been a big part of my life," he says. "They would be Kieran McGeeney, GAA legend and all of that. He taught me a lot, so bloody much, about competitive mindset.

"I came from academics, I was going to be a maths teacher before all this. So I had never studied anything with sport, I'd never really achieved anything personally in sport. So I just didn't really know about high level sport and what it takes to win. McGeeney was a huge influence on me in that respect.

"He just booked a private lesson with me. I had no idea who he was. But I worked out with him and I thought to myself pretty quickly, 'this guy's not normal'. He was just different. And he's just had a massive influence on everything I've done since."

"Then I would also credit Eoin Lacey and John Connor from the ISI (Irish Strength Institute). What I liked about ISI - and for that matter what I liked about Kieran McGeeney - was the attitude. It was not like what you get a lot. I didn't want to be the best in Ireland. I wasn't training my guys to be the best fighters in Ireland. We were training for, well, for this.

"I remember I was trying to get the MMA rules changed in Ireland about seven or eight years ago and I said to the other coaches that we have to change the rules to mimic UFC rules, and the reaction was 'why, sure we're never going to have someone there?' I said 'well you mightn't but I will'."

His fighter has wrapped up his workout and provided his latest media offerings. McGregor is now tottering along a divider that separated the stage from the throng of supporters. Security and minders are holding his ankles for fear anything happens to the fighter the UFC is banking on to be their billion-dollar baby.

McGregor teeters on determinedly, obliviously. He takes a memory card's worth of selfies and signs children's T-shirts, baseball caps, a lookalike's Tricolour.

One woman offers him a $5 bill to autograph and he scolds her. "Just a fiver - come on!"

For the first time all afternoon, Kavanagh, confident that things will be over before the end of the first round tonight, takes the stage. He walks towards the back, turns and again surveys, taking in the scene for a moment. Then he disappears behind the curtain.

Some journey.