The night of July 19, 2014 will always hold a special significance for John Kavanagh.
With the UFC back in town for the first time in five years, the SBG Ireland head coach guided four fighters into the Octagon inside the 3Arena – then known as the O2 – in Dublin, and one after another, they all collected victories.
“The Hooligan” Paddy Holohan kicked things off with a first-round submission win over Josh Sampo and then Cathal Pendred roared back from the brink of defeat to submit Mike King. Gunni Nelson made quick, efficient work of American Zak Cummings in the co-main event and the perfect evening was capped by Conor McGregor sending the crowd into hysterics with a first-round technical knockout win over Diego Brandao in the final bout of the night.
A couple weeks after the event, Ireland’s first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt called the evening a “dream come true” and to this day, he’s reminded of that special night every time he steps into the gym.
“It was such an emotional night,” Kavanagh reflects in between training sessions. “I have a memorial plaque on the wall from that night and there’s not a day that I don’t see it and that it doesn’t give me inspiration to train even harder the next session so as to be able to repeat that.”
On October 24, the UFC returns to Dublin and Kavanagh and the SBG Ireland fight team will once again be well represented.
After suffering his first loss in the Octagon back in July, Pendred looks to bounce back against British welterweight Tom Breese, while Holohan aims to run his winning streak to three with a victory over Louis Smolka, whom he called out after his latest win as a result of the Hawaiian getting the best of Irishman Neil Seery a week earlier in Las Vegas.
And after missing out on last year’s festivities as a result of taking part in Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, strawweight veteran Aisling Daly squares off with Ericka Almeida in her first UFC appearance on home soil.
While attention on the sport in Ireland was on the rise heading into last year’s event in Dublin thanks to McGregor, it has absolutely exploded in the 15 months since, as “The Notorious” one has risen to become one of the biggest stars in the sport and SBG Ireland has amassed an impressive overall record inside the Octagon.
Seeing a teammate experience tremendous success at the highest level has a way of motivating everyone in the gym – or at least it has at SBG Ireland – and the talkative featherweight and his longtime coach used his championship fight this summer in Las Vegas as an opportunity to show some of the younger members of the gym what preparing for such a high stakes fight is like.
“I really enjoyed being able to do that because it really exposed what it’s like training for a world title fight,” Kavanagh says of bringing several of the young members of the SBG Ireland team to stay in Las Vegas as McGregor prepared for UFC 189, where he defeated Chad Mendes to claim the interim UFC featherweight title.
“Once you’ve experienced that, you can’t go back to the way you were doing things; you kind of keep up that level of commitment and that has spread throughout the team. Now I’ve got guys that are preparing for their first amateur MMA fight and they’re training like a professional.
“Secondly, the guys that were there got to see and touch and feel what it’s like to be under that spotlight. At the end of the day, that is what the goal of every amateur fighter is – to fight in the UFC – and they got as close to it as you could actually be without being in it.
“What do they say, ‘A rising tide raises tide raises all ships?’” he continues. “Now the mark of excellence that has been set forward by the likes of Gunnar and Conor and this first wave of professional fighters, this is now what’s expected of the amateur team.
“The sessions in the gym over the last months and year have really become incredibly competitive. Steel sharpens steel; everybody is bouncing off each other. There is a real positive mojo right now in the gym.“
Not only has McGregor’s ascension lit a fire under the whole SBG Ireland team and given some of the amateurs on the fight team a glimpse at what competing at the highest level looks like, but it has also fostered growth and improvements in the sport on the regional level, leading to more events, more opportunities to for the rest of the team to compete and greater fan interest in the sport beyond the UFC level as well.
“(A couple weeks ago), we had a big show here called BAMMA – it’s probably the biggest show in Europe,” Kavanagh says of the September 19 fight card from the promotion that current UFC fighters like the previously mentioned Tom Breese, Steven Ray and Leon Edwards have all called home at one time or another. “The night was fantastic, the fights were incredible, but what really blew me away was that they sold almost 5,000 tickets. I was very pleasantly surprised to see how many Irish people there are that are fans of MMA, not just UFC.
“As a coach of 42 fighters, I need more than one big show a year; I need a lot of shows. BAMMA gives the guys an idea of what it’s like to fight on a professional show and it’s incredibly high level – they do everything perfect – and it’s a natural stepping stone for guys to do well on the European scene before doing well on the UFC scene.
“There’s a show on every month here, mostly focused on the amateur scene, but we’re getting more shows now that are putting on some professional fights,” Kavanagh says of the growing Irish MMA market. “The whole scene is maturing, literally month-by-month, and like I said, for me, with a large fight team, it’s the more the merrier.”