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John Kavanagh: Irish MMA's Game Changer

Outside the Octagon is a weekly column from editorial director Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC encyclopedia. 

John Kavanagh (right) with <a href='../fighter/Patrick-Holohan'>Patrick Holohan</a>

A good coach is always prepared for battle. That goes double for a good coach who is also a former pro fighter.

“You still go to the shows with your gum shield in your bag in case someone drops out and you have to jump in,” laughs John Kavanagh, but his true calling wasn’t to be with the gloves on, despite the fact that he put together a 3-3 pro record back in 2000-03.

Instead, Kavanagh was to be the leader, the coach, the man in the corner, and though he’s taken aback when you bring this up to him, he’s going to be someone people will talk about a hundred years from now when discussing Irish MMA.

“I still see myself very much a beginner in this,” said the head coach of the Straight Blast Gym Ireland fight team that produced four wins at the recent UFC Fight Night event in Dublin. “I’ve got a few guys in there now, we’re starting to get good wins, but I look up to the likes of Greg Jackson and (Mike) Winkeljohn and (Ricardo) Liborio, and all these masters that trained many champions. I’m still a beginner.”

If that’s the case, then it’s been a helluva start for the 37-year-old, but not a necessarily smooth one. That is how most great success stories begin though, and Kavanagh’s is no different.

A lifelong martial artist, the Dubliner began studying his true love, jiu-jitsu, in 1996, eventually becoming Ireland’s first black belt in BJJ. He would give MMA a shot professionally in 2000, fighting six times over the course of a three-year career, but coaching was always in his blood, even if he didn’t know it when he started teaching at 18.

“I came from academia,” said Kavanagh. “I have a degree in Engineering and I wanted to be a math teacher actually, maybe like (former UFC middleweight champion) Rich Franklin. (Laughs) I didn’t play sports at a high level personally, and I didn’t do any coaching and I didn’t have any Sports Science degree or any of that. But I started coaching a number of years ago at a very high level.”

How high? Gaelic football star Kieran McGeeney was one of his students, and he told Kavanagh that he was the best coach he had ever met in any sport. That wasn’t a small compliment.

“I was absolutely bowled over by those words,” said Kavanagh, whose SBG Ireland fight team was growing at the time. “I couldn’t fathom why he was saying that, but it gave me a lot of confidence. We’re from a small country with a small pool of people, and you’re going to America to fight, and they’ve got the wrestling programs and a lot of experience, and it can be a bit daunting. But when I got those words and we started getting some positive results, I guess my confidence level grew and that in turn gives confidence to your guys.”

The SBG team quickly made a name for itself both locally and on the European scene, and when the UFC came to Dublin for the first time in 2009, it was one of Kavanagh’s brightest prospects, Thomas Egan, who got the call for UFC 93 event.

Yet despite having a nation behind him, Egan would lose his UFC debut to John Hathaway. With Egan being the only Irishman on the card, it was a crushing blow for the sport on the Emerald Isle, but Kavanagh was determined to not let the one fight define an entire scene in his country.

“For a fighter, a big loss can do two things – it’s going to make you maybe throw the towel in, or it’s going to inspire you to go off and prove,” he said. “And from that, it showed me that the UFC was willing to come to Ireland, so they were going to be back, and I just realized that I had to change a lot of things around if we were going to be able to compete with these guys at this high level. And it’s funny, but that loss was probably the best thing that ever happened to me as a coach because it really forced me to look outside the box and I went looking for experts in different areas and we really formed a fantastic team after that.”

Two members of that team, Conor McGregor and Cathal Pendred, were budding pros at the time. Patrick Holohan would follow, as well as Jiu-Jitsu ace Gunnar Nelson and women’s MMA standout Aisling Daly.  

On July 19, five years after UFC 93, the UFC did return to Dublin, with four of the five aforementioned fighters on the card. The fifth – Daly – was in Las Vegas competing on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter. It was time for Kavanagh and company to prove that this wasn’t the Irish contingent (as well as honorary Irishman Nelson, who hails from Iceland) was ready for the big leagues.

Holohan, debuting against tough American wrestler Josh Sampo, was up first. A little over three minutes into the fight, he submitted Sampo and the O2 Arena erupted.

“Paddy Holohan goes out and stops a dangerous guy in the first round, and that kind of set the tone for the whole night,” said Kavanagh. “Now everybody’s walking 12-feet tall.”

The work was far from done yet. Kavanagh still had Pendred facing Mike King, Nelson taking on Zak Cummings, and McGregor headlining against Diego Brandao. That meant a lot of work, a lot of running around, and little time to soak in Holohan’s victory or the atmosphere in the O2.

“I did prepare myself for it,” he said. “I do a lot of regional shows here in Ireland and around Europe, and it’s not uncommon for me to have five-plus fighters on a card, so I do have kind of a system down. Each fighter has a second that stays with him the whole time, and I have to give a big shout out to those guys. They’re the ones who take care of the warm-up, getting the ice, and doing all those type of jobs. I’m the first, so I’ll just come in and grab them, but it’s actually those guys that have gotten the guy ready while I was out at the previous fight.”

Pendred’s bout with King was the Fight of the Night, as the Irishman delivered a miraculous comeback to submit his foe in the second round. Two down, two to go, but while the strategies and pre-fight chats are essential to success on fight night, the psychology of the sport is also a key factor as Kavanagh works his way through this fight night labyrinth.

“Of course I expected nothing less than four wins, but I was aware that things can happen, and if you’re walking back with an unhappy fighter, you don’t want to walk into the same changing room and change the energy,” he said.

There would be no change in the positive energy as Nelson submitted Cummings in the second round, making it 3-0 for the SBG team. There was still the main event though.

“I had to be careful that after Gunni’s fight, for example, there was very much a party atmosphere in the room, and I had to kick everybody out of it and say ‘it’s not party time yet. There’s still a job here to do,’” said Kavanagh. “And you can imagine what Paddy Holohan is like after having the night he did, and I had to tell him to put on a t-shirt and disappear and party when this is over because we have another fight to go. But we have a system down, and the guys who helped me did an incredible job of keeping everybody on point and focused.”

McGregor capped off the night with a rousing first round TKO of Brandao. It was by far the greatest night in Irish MMA history. As for the architect of that night, “when it was all over, then I went back and I collapsed.”

Kavanagh laughs, and it’s been a victory lap to top all victory laps since then. He got engaged shortly after the event, and when asked if it’s all sunk in yet, it has, and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever see a night like it again.

“Unfortunately I come from an engineering background, not an English Lit background where I can use nice vocabulary to try and explain the unexplainable,” he laughs. “But it’s a dream come true. It would be hard to top this with one of my guys winning a belt in Vegas. Although that’s the ultimate goal and that will be a very, very special night, I don’t think this night will ever be eclipsed. Four fighters, four wins, main event, co-main event, my mother and father in the crowd. My dad is 64 and he said it was the greatest night of his life. It was special.”

That doesn’t mean the work has stopped. McGregor has a date with Dustin Poirier at UFC 178 in Las Vegas next month, the rest of his team will be gearing up for their bouts, and there’s still the daily teaching that goes on in a gym that is still flying high after the events of July 19.

“The air of positivity in the gym right now is absolutely amazing,” said Kavanagh. “It’s such a joy to be here. Maybe the guys are on a program to train twice a week, but they’re coming down anyway to hang out on their day off. My mother comes down once a week to bring down flapjacks for the guys, and there’s this great family, team feel and positivity. We’re getting a lot of good results and it’s a fun place to be. I’m living my dream.”

You don’t hear too many ex-fighters ending up in a better athletic place after their careers, but Kavanagh is an exception, even if he does get the itch every now and again, one that disappears as soon as a few rounds in the gym are over.

“I’ve done a few jiu-jitsu tournaments and I still have that little bit of competitiveness,” he said. “But if I ever feel the need to do MMA again, I’ll spar with my guys and at the end of it I realize why I’m on the outside and they’re on the inside. (Laughs) I don’t believe anybody who has fought ever fully lets go of it. There’s going to be a small percentage of you that feels that way, but I certainly get all the satisfaction I need from the guys doing so well on the world stage.”

And being a game changer for an entire sport in his home country is a pretty nice feather for Kavanagh to have in his cap. It’s not something you’ll hear out of his mouth, but what he will say is that these days, no one is making any snide remarks about Irish MMA anymore.

“We’re not that guy on the preliminary card getting beat up now,” he said. “We’re the ones in the main event doing the beating up, so it was nice to see that five years’ work pay off (on July 19) and that we had a stage to show what we had done in that time, and that now we were able to play at this level.”