Lunchtime in the Straight Blast Gym and Conor McGregor is buzzing.
Not just in his vibrancy as he enthusiastically explains his training regime for his rematch against Nate Diaz, but literally in the sound he’s making.
Like a buzzing bee. Or, as he’s trying to convey, the sound of a buzzing light.
That’s what he felt like ahead of the first fight against Nate Diaz.
“I was waking up late and training late, showing up here at maybe 2pm and still being here till one in the morning. Like a buzzing light. Buzzzz. I was never fully on and I was never off. I was just there.
“That’s not what this game is about. You need to be...” He clicks his fingers, to evoke the immediacy of someone switching on a light switch. “On.”
Then he clicks his fingers again. “Off.”
For this one it’s different. He starts training at 1pm on the dot in the MMA gym his coach John Kavanagh owns on the old Naas Rd, and, as he puts it, “we work our ass off” for over an hour. Then he chills for some lunch, like he’s having here with some sparring partners brought over from all around the world. Then in the evening he’ll come back for more cardiovascular.
“This [Diaz] fight is 25 minutes. Five five-minute rounds, four minutes rest in between. That’s what I need to be on for, so that’s what the sessions are tailed for. Come in, work hard, and go.
“Then rest, recover, and then when we come back in tonight, I’m working. Because I know it’s on and then it’s off. I push it and then I chill.”
His coach Kavanagh has just written a book entitled Win Or Learn. It’s long been a central plank in Kavanagh’s philosophy. “I always wanted [the gym] to be a place where people were comfortable losing,” Kavanagh explains in a big interview that will run in tomorrow’s Irish Examiner, “because it was a great opportunity for them to learn an area of weakness.”
Never has that philosophy been more appropriate and tested than in the current case of his most high-profile client. Last March in Vegas, McGregor did not win. But boy, they insist, did they learn, and they can’t wait to show the world at UFC 202 on August 20.
Kavanagh admits he himself wasn’t switched on like he should have been. “We got caught up in it all. Everything just seemed to be going so well. The wins were coming easy. He had only just beaten the number one guy on the planet at the time, [Jose] Aldo. And it felt like we had just got home from that and I was back on a plane back out to Vegas. It was a very quick turnaround. The week before the fight, I was in Dublin at the BAMMA (British Association for Mixed Martial Arts) card. I only went out on the Tuesday before the [McGregor-Diaz I) event. That’s insane when I look back on it. I had never done less than four weeks with him before that.
“After the Aldo fight, I’ll admit in terms of training Conor, my foot went off the pedal altogether. I got caught up with stuff in the gym. The gym is full-time in itself; I could lose Conor and still be busy here from 9am to 10pm. So because there was such a build-up to the Aldo fight, I was like, ‘OK, enough of that for a while’ and I threw myself into the gym. It was supposed to be only for a week or two but it turned into six or seven and then I realised ‘We’re just two weeks out from this and I’ve barely done a session with Conor.’ Now it’s every day. We’re here at 1pm. Sharp.”
In that session the emphasis is on technique and strategy. McGregor has always embraced both elements but in the past, he viewed the identity of opponents as meaningless, all the more because his initial opponent would often fall out. Diaz taught him the hard way that you’ve to know your opponent and train specifically for him. Now that he knows Diaz is the kind who always shows up, he’s more prepared for the distinctive challenge the American represents.
That’s why last month in California, McGregor sparred with former IBF welterweight boxing champion, Chris van Heerden — “a tall, lanky southpaw with a decent lead hand”, as he’s described Diaz.
Here in the SBG gym, Dillon Danis, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion, is over from New York to help McGregor develop his work on the ground.
In the evenings, after chilling and switching off, McGregor will come back and switch on for more fitness-based training. Kavanagh doesn’t buy the argument that McGregor was foolish to take on a bigger man in Diaz. “I would say to them, how would they have scored round one? I haven’t found anyone who thought it went to Diaz.”
What he will say is that they did not pay enough respect to jumping a couple of weight divisions.
“The only reason it didn’t happen for Conor in round two was because he got tired. That’s one thing that will not happen in this contest.”
Kavanagh has long had an association with the Irish Strength Institute and it was through his contacts there that he was put in touch with a former professional cyclist, Dr Julian Dalby. “The one thing those guys know is how to build an engine,” says Kavanagh. “That’s what we’ve been doing since the loss.”
McGregor describes the work as “unbelievable” as well as refreshingly different. Just last night they did an endurance session in which McGregor’s heart rate had to be at 142 beats per minute for 50 minutes. Other times, like on a treadmill or an ergometer, he has to get it up to around 185 beats per minute for short flurries, then he rests again, just like he will in between rounds.
The result is his maximum oxygen intake and lactic threshold has significantly increased; McGregor also feels he’s getting more productivity out of his sessions because his diet is more sensible.
“I eat an hour-and-a-half before every training session, no later, so the food is actually working. Before, I’d cram the food in, rush to the gym, stuffed. The food was just sitting in the belly. I wasn’t getting any benefit from it.”
His overall approach to diet is completely different for this fight. Looking back on it, not having a weight to make for the first fight threw off his routine, his edge. Three days out from the first Diaz fight, McGregor was eating cheesecake. His customary fire in the belly had been replaced by dessert. He was off.
Kavanagh could sense it in the dressing room before the fight. He likes his fighters to be relaxed beforehand; he wants McGregor bouncing into the octagon and telling him, “It’s just another day in the gym.”
But back in March, he was too relaxed. Sport psychologists talk about an individual zone of optimal functioning, that you need to be within a certain bandwidth to perform near your best. At UFC 196, McGregor was outside it.
“I have a scale of 0-10, 0 being fast asleep and 10 being hyper-anxious. For most guys, about 5 or 6 works. I think Conor works best closer to 7 or 8. There does need to be that bit of ‘That guy is going out there to beat you — in front of everybody.’ And we definitely went into the first fight under that level. There was too much of a party atmosphere going into it.
“It’s all about that balance. You need a certain fear of losing and yet being mindful that it doesn’t lead to what we call anxiety training. We’ve definitely slipped into that in the past, where it’s your rest day and you’re like, ‘Feck it, I’ll just do a little bit’ and you end up going out doing a 10-mile run and you’re draining yourself.”
There are some who think McGregor is a diminished, less confident fighter for losing his unbeaten record and air of invincibility. The fighter himself and his trainer could not think more differently. In March he gambled. And yeah, he lost. But he’s learned. And he’s better, they’re certain.
“I see this one [fight] really as a celebration of what we’ve been doing,” says Kavanagh. “We do win and then if we do lose, we damn well make sure we learn from it. I’ve always told my fighters, ‘I don’t mind you making mistakes; I have a huge problem with you repeating them. So make mistakes but learn from them.’
“So that’s what we’ve done with this contest. The Conor that’s going out there on August 20 is an absolutely new model. This is Conor 3.0 compared to what went up against Diaz in March. And I’ve said it to Conor, whenever he’s fought his next few fights and he calls it a day, we will look at the first Diaz fight as the absolute most positive thing that ever happened to us because it taught us so much.”