John Kavanagh is always cool under pressure. Just watch the leader of the SBG Ireland team in the corner between rounds, never raising his voice, never sporting a panicked look on his face, his only goal being to assess, adjust and get his fighter ready for the next round.
Yet “cool” doesn’t mean unmovable. Just as he adjusts strategy on the fly if necessary, he must also look at everything around him and see where there is tweaking to be made. And after a hectic UFC 189 training camp for featherweight star Conor McGregor that included injuries, an opponent change, and a nice percentage of the Dublin fighter contingent converging on Las Vegas, Kavanagh got to work to make sure the camp for McGregor’s title unification bout with Jose Aldo this weekend was a lot different.
“It’s been a little bit easier I guess, because 189 was very stressful in my role as coach because of the knee issue (suffered by McGregor),” Kavanagh said of the UFC 194 camp that mostly took place in Dublin, but finished in southern California. “Weight was very difficult to get down, training was very restrictive, and also, we're kind of still learning how to put together fight camps, and 189 was probably too big.
“We had nearly 50 guys at one stage and there were a lot of guys here that were doing a fight very closely before or after it, including the IMMAF (International Mixed Martial Arts Federation) amateur world championships, which I had one guy win actually on the morning of Conor's fight. So I probably took on a bit too much in the lead-up to that, whereas this one has been a very stripped down training camp. There's only the bare minimum here. Obviously we have no injuries or anything like that, so everything goes easy.”
It’s a testament to Kavanagh’s coaching and leadership that he not only takes full responsibility for the last camp, but has left himself open to always learn new things. It’s made his fighters unpredictable and unique stylistically, which has benefitted a squad that sends McGregor, Gunnar Nelson and Artem Lobov into battle this weekend. And the stakes are high for everyone fighting out of Dublin.
McGregor is competing in the biggest fight of 2015, Nelson can make a significant move up the welterweight ladder with a win over Demian Maia in a highly-anticipated battle of jiu-jitsu black belts, and Lobov can become the first fighter from his team to win The Ultimate Fighter competition.
And though others might call it a distraction, Kavanagh has accepted the recent retirement of longtime team member Cathal Pendred as simply part of the game.
“Anytime I get a chance to use a classical reference, I will,” he said, laughing, “and it was Heraclitus who said ‘You never stand in the same river twice.’ And I seem to be at that stage now, where I will always have guys at the brink of retirement, I will always have guys who are peaking, and I will always have guys who are just beginning.
“I have a kid in my gym right now, Ryan Keogh, he's 15 and I see him as being one of the next big things to come out of my gym. That's someone that's right at the beginning. And then you have your Conors and Gunnis that are just hitting their peak right now. And then we have the example of Cathal that just retired. He's not my first. I had a very experienced professional fighter retire a couple years ago. So it's not a new experience for us, and it doesn't feel strange and doesn't feel weird. It's something that I had to get used to.”
Another thing Kavanagh has had to get used to is watching fights after the fact. Sure, coaching is how he makes his living, but the Dubliner is still a fan of the sport, and he admits that he is anticipating several fights this weekend in Vegas. Probably none more than the one Nelson is in against Brazil’s Maia.
“I guess because of the main event, a few fights have gone under the radar that are on this card that I'm personally very excited about, and obviously Gunnar and Maia is one of them,” he said. “And there’s (Luke) Rockhold and (Chris) Weidman and a few other fights there that are very interesting, and when it's all said and done, I'll watch them back.
“But for me personally, I trained in all the martial arts, but the only one that I can really train at a good level is jiu-jitsu. So like all jiu-jitsu players, we immediately got excited when we heard that matchup. I've actually joked that even if he's winning quite comfortably on the feet, I'm still gonna tell him to pull guard in the second round because I need to see some grappling in that fight.”
With that Kavanaugh laughed again, and he will likely get plenty of support from diehard fight aficionados who are hoping to see a few (or many) ground exchanges between two of the best in the business. But in all seriousness, if his charge sees the opportunity to win the fight on the feet and not the mat, he will take it.
“Our approach is always not singular,” Kavanagh said. “It's wherever the fight is going, win that moment, and we really don't have a super strong game plan in that fight, like 'You do this, you do this.' Gunni is coming into his own in the striking right now, and obviously his ground is at a really high level, so wherever it goes, it will feel right.”
“But yeah, I definitely need to see some grappling in that fight.”
Then it’s off to the main event, the final fight of three UFC events held over three days. It’s the big one – Aldo vs. McGregor. And though “The Notorious” has been his usual confident self during media appearances and in interviews, it bears consideration if his stirring win over Chad Mendes to win the interim featherweight belt – which came after the tumultuous training camp described earlier – left him emotionally drained.
Can McGregor get himself up again for this matchup after seeing it snatched away from him in the summer? No one knows better than his coach.
“He's a self-motivator,” Kavanagh said of McGregor. “It's not fame, it's not money, it's competition. This is his chance to show where his level is against somebody that everybody's calling the pound-for-pound No. 1. And that's always been his number one motivator - competition. That's what gets him excited.
“If it was money or fame, he could stop now and go and earn a helluva lot more money with a lot less risk. So it's clear that's not the motivator. So what is the motivator? The motivator is wanting to do an extra session during the day when everybody else is tired. The motivator is competition, and this is his moment - Weidman beating (Anderson) Silva or something like that. It's to prove everybody wrong and to show just what plane he's working on in mixed martial arts. And as a coach, it's very exciting for me as well. Here we go, here's the No. 1, undefeated for a decade. Let's see what's up.”