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Camp report: Kavanagh on Conor and SBG


It doesn’t feel like more than two years since the Fighting Irish took over Dublin and shook up the mixed martial arts world, not even to the architect of the SBG Ireland team’s four-for-four run that night at the O2 Arena.

“Is it two years?” John Kavanagh asks. “Yeah, I suppose it is. It feels like a lot has happened in a short period of time.”

A lot has happened for the SBG quartet since July 19, 2014.

Conor McGregor, who headlined with a win over Diego Brandao, has gone from charismatic curiosity to contender to champion.

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Welterweight contender Gunnar Nelson continues on his road to the top, going 2-2 since defeating Zak Cummings. But it may be the stories of Cathal Pendred and Paddy Holohan that are the most compelling, as both have since retired after the greatest night of their professional lives.

That wasn’t the expected result after that night in Dublin. Those four should have sailed to the top of the UFC, joined by teammates Aisling Daly and Artem Lobov, and ruled the world. That was the fairytale version. In reality, it’s the fight game, and something Kavanagh has come to grips with.

“I've kind of accepted that,” he said. “(Greek philosopher) Heraclitus had the idea that you never step in the same river twice because the body of water is going past all the time. So you look at it as being a river, but the river's actually changing every second and I have a river of fighters that I'm always going to be dealing with.

“I'll always have guys in their late teens that are starting to mature and starting to compete at the moment, Dylan Tuke and James Gallagher and guys like that,” Kavanagh continues. “I'll always have a group of guys that are peaking, and now, that's obviously Conor and Gunnar Nelson and so on. And then I've got a group of guys that are at the end or recently retired, such as Cathal Pendred. So I've sort of made my peace with that the next 20 years of my professional life will be that. I don't hold on to anything too closely. I enjoy it as it happens and I get ready for the next wave.”

July 19, 2014 will always hold a special place in Kavanagh’s memory though, and that will never change.

“I don't know if that night will ever be equaled for me personally because there were a few factors that are maybe not replicable,” he said. “My mam and dad were in the audience, and 20 years previous I was sitting them down and trying to explain to them that I wanted to do this for a living and they were telling me that I was insane. To have them there on the night and to see that their son went on to be somebody somewhat respected in his chosen field, that beats - for me - every show I've done before and every show since. And that's just one of the factors. We're always pushing the boundaries, we're always trying to prove ourselves, and we're always trying to build on previous success, but that night is a little bit unique.”

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As is the custom in this sport, every night is unique, but some more so than others. That’s certainly going to be the case on August 20 when McGregor meets Nate Diaz in the main event of UFC 202. Despite McGregor’s superstar status, this is a pivotal bout for him, especially coming off his first UFC loss, and dropping two straight would not be good. But if past history has proven anything, it’s that McGregor seems to shine the brightest in the midst of chaos with a hurricane swirling around him. It’s reminiscent of the prime of former world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, who traveled with a huge entourage and had the expectations of a nation on his shoulders when he fought, yet he still delivered the goods when the bell rang. Kavanagh agrees with the delivering the goods part, but he doesn’t agree with the rest of the McGregor-Pacquiao comparison.

“Just to draw out that comparison a little bit more, that's somebody that is involved in politics, and the point I'm making is, he's involved in stuff other than his art, and that would be very much the opposite of Conor,” Kavanagh said. “Conor is very obsessive about just the sport and the business of mixed martial arts. He has no real interest or aspirations to do anything else, certainly not right now.

“As for dealing with a large entourage, we really don't have that,” he continues. “I'm in a house with Conor, and there is, including his girlfriend and my girlfriend, there's maybe seven or eight of us. And then we have a second house with seven or eight training partners. So it's quite secluded. It's a training camp rather than an entourage. There's nobody paid here to say, "You're the champ," or do anything like that. (Laughs) Everybody here has a meaningful role in terms of athletic development or in sparring, so it's a tight knit, effective training camp.”

It’s precisely the way Kavanagh likes it, and even while the past two years have seen him become one of the most respected minds in the sport and an in-demand interview subject, as well as the author of a biography, “Win or Learn,” coaching is still his most important passion. But when you’re as good as he is, that means more pulls on his time and more willingness to let his fellow coaches step up and help out.

“It is something that I'm working on and trying to get better at,” he laughs. And with that, it’s clear that while the venues have gotten bigger and the stakes higher, John Kavanagh hasn’t changed.

“Twenty years ago I picked up UFC I and I was mesmerized by the sport,” he said. “I knew I would do it in some shape or form forever because I was just a martial arts fan, and this was the most true expression of martial arts that I had ever seen. But if someone would have told me that I wasn't gonna just do that, but I was actually going to be able to make a career out of it and to be involved with training a guy that's recognized as being one of the top fighters of our time, I have to pinch myself.”