Dublin, 1995, and curled up in a ball in his bedroom is a young man still in his teens, wanting to hide away from the world and the hurt and the humiliation it can bring.
His mother Margaret is worried about him. John Kavanagh used to be so active, doing that karate and all, but for about a year now he’s barely left the house.
It all changed out one night, walking to a taxi rank with his girlfriend, when he came across a gang of six or seven guys pulling a passing cyclist off his bike for no reason and laying into him. John couldn’t just watch or walk idly by. So he stepped in, trying to reason with them. “Come on, lads. He’s had enough.”
At which point they decided the cyclist had had enough all right and it was Kavanagh’s turn to be assaulted. To the horror and screams of his girlfriend, they proceeded to smash his face to the pavement, pin him down and beat him senseless. They even hit him with a brick and tried to throw him in front of a bus until a friend came along, causing them to scatter.
Kavanagh along with his girlfriend and his friend managed to make their way to the nearest Garda station but the Gardai just took one look at his fractured eye socket and cheekbone and dismissed him: he was obviously just another scumbag who had it coming to him.
Since then he seems to have lost all faith in the authorities, his karate training and honours, and especially himself. He’s been shaken to his very core.
But then he starts reading a book about self-defence by a doorman Geoff Thompson that opens his eyes. Then he opens his bedroom door and heads into town where he and a buddy wander into the old Laser video store on George’s Street. He’s struck by a video of some fellas fighting in a cage- Ultimate Fighting Championship: The Beginning. He’s intrigued. Suddenly he’s ignited.
It shakes up his world. He decides it will be his world and he’s bringing it to Dublin, straight out of Phibsboro and a tiny shack down one of its backstreets.
DUBLIN, 2008, and hunkered in another bedroom across town is another young man still in his teens, wanting to close off the rest of the world and the pain and the humiliation that it brings.
His mother Margaret is worried about him. Conor McGregor used to be such a vivacious young fella but since he got hammered in that cage fight against a Lithuanian lad last month he hasn’t been himself.
He hasn’t been training. He hasn’t been eating properly. He’s been hanging with the wrong crowd, doing God knows what. If she doesn’t do something, he could end up as some statistic, another that took or wasted his life.
So she calls that John Kavanagh fella she met at the fight. He seemed like a decent man, someone Conor liked, trusted.
What Margaret doesn’t know is Kavanagh right now isn’t so trusting of her Conor. Conor owes him €500 between gym membership and the tickets for the last fight promotion he flogged to friends. For someone who owes the bank tens of thousands to keep his gym open and dream alive, Kavanagh could do with that €500.
So for as promising and likeable as he finds Conor to be, Kavanagh’s first thoughts are: “Oh, yeah, that little shit that took my money and ran away.” Only he doesn’t say it. Instead he asks: “Sorry, what did you say your own name is again?” Margaret, she says.
And that gets him. Margaret: the same name as his own mother. With the same motherly concern Margaret Kavanagh must have had for her own son at some point.
So, on Margaret McGregor’s request, John Kavanagh calls up to her son in his room. The guy looks like shit. A ghost. Kavanagh sits down. He listens to him. He’s cross and stern with him.
He’s gentle and caring with him.
Forget about the €500. Clean slate. Tonight is Friday. See you in the gym on Monday or else we won’t see each other again. Deal?
At that, Kavanagh gets up and leaves the room with a result: on the Monday McGregor will report to the gym.
Would Kavanagh have been so successful and empathetic if he himself hadn’t been in a similar room and state years earlier?
“I’ve never actually put that together before,” he says when you suggest that to him, “but now that I think of it, probably not. I had my lowest point and then he was at his lowest point.” And when he recognised it was that, again, how could he stand idly by?
ASK John Kavanagh if he had regrets stepping in to help that assaulted cyclist and he laughs loudly.
“Almost immediately!” Even limping out of that Garda station though, a part of him didn’t regret it.
“Sometimes I think, what if I had read in the paper the next day, ‘Cyclist kicked to death on the street.’ I don’t think I could have lived with that.” And maybe if he had just walked on, turned a blind eye, he wouldn’t have seen or got into this whole mixed martial arts.
“I was sort of losing my mojo for martial arts at that stage. I was still doing a bit but I was tethering. I was kind of ‘I’ve been doing this since I was four, I’m kind of bored of it.’ I was just after leaving school and thinking of what to do next with my life. But this tipped me over the edge to be obsessive about it. So in hindsight, I see it now as a positive experience.”
Win Or Learn, he calls the book he has just released. Well, that night he lost – badly. So he’d learn. But this defeat hurt more than any other, in every which way. It wasn’t just the broken cheekbone or eye socket. Emotionally, mentally, he was a wreck.
“I felt nothing. Worthless.” Part of it was because he was supposed to be the Karate Kid. “I grew up watching those movies and the fantasy in your head is that you drop the three guys and you walk off into the sunset.” To get his ass kicked in front of his girlfriend was shameful, as great as she and her parents were to him about it.
But it was deeper than that. It wasn’t just because he was meant to be the Karate Kid. It was because he was supposed to be his dad’s kid.
Ask him how and why he finally left the room where he used to hide away from the rest of the world and he’ll mention two people.
First, Geoff Thompson. “He was the first person I’d ever read or known that spoke honestly about being afraid. That if a fight is about to break out, stress hormones are normal. That it’s completely natural and okay to be afraid.” Second, Alan Kavanagh. He was different. “I grew up with a larger-than- life dad who was not afraid of anything.
“I saw him stand up to 10 people once and he didn’t care. There was a field behind us and every now and then gangs of teenagers would come in and drink. And when I say teenagers, they could have been anything from 18 to 23. And my dad went in and tried to move them.
“Now, you’re talking about 10 guys, and they jumped on him and they beat the shit out of him.
But he got up and found a pole somehow and fought them off and they ended up running away.
Now, my father came in with his face rearranged but he’d chased off 10 guys. And you’re talking about a 10-year- old boy looking at this, so my dad was Superman.
“Another time we had a street party and two fellas came down and tried to start something. And I’ve always remembered it. When you’re a kid, maybe things get bigger in your head, but there was two footpaths and he hit one of the guys on one footpath and he [the guy] actually fell on to the other footpath.
"He flew across the road. So that’s what I grew up seeing. Whereas me, I was afraid of my own shadow. I just hated fighting, anything to do with violence. I did karate but that [night] was one of the first times I had been in a really violent confrontation.”
He thought so when he opened his very own fight club that his dad as well as his mam would be happy and proud. Instead when they first saw that tiny, freezing shed down a laneway in Phibsboro, Mam cried while Dad just shook his head. Jaysus, son, what are you doing with your life? It was for this they’d put him through college, that he’d got a degree in engineering?
In time though they’d come round to realising this was their son’s passion, while he’d come to appreciate their initial concern and even disapproval. Actually, John Kavanagh has come to see it as one of Alan Kavanagh’s strengths.
“Whenever I’m thinking of doing something new, I always ask my dad, just because he’s so negative,” he smiles.
“That sounds bad but he always gives me the real ‘what-could- go-wrong’ scenario. And I need that. I’m very glass not only half-full but someone else will fill the rest of it. My father is a disaster about everything. And I can only see it from their perspective now. If I was the parent and my son was just after graduating and he was showing me this place with part of the roof coming in...”
We’re talking here from Kavanagh’s upstairs office in his huge Straight Blast Gym on the old Naas Road. Training below are world champions. Belts, flags, big sponsors and logos adorn the wall. The dream has become a reality. But it started in that Shed, which would have been only twice the size of his office here.
Conor McGregor has rightly made the point that there was no pathway for him; there’d never been an Irish UFC champion before.
But neither was there a pathway for Kavanagh. Whatever dirt path was cleared for McGregor, it was his coach who shaped it. And while we know that Kieran McGeeney often grapples on the mats here, McGeeney never had to pay the rent here, run it, keep it open. It was all on Kavanagh.
“It’s easy to say, if someone had said back then, ‘If you work really hard, you’ll get this.’ That’s a great motivator. But back then it was like ‘Work really hard and don’t know what’s going to happen.’ People were describing MMA as human cock-fighting, the UFC was on the verge of collapsing, so the sport was in a really weird place.
"But the number one driving factor for me, and I know it’s the same for Conor as well, the activity itself was so much fun.
"If there was no end like this but I got do it three times a week with my mates, then maybe take up the engineering or become a teacher, I’d have been fine with it. It was additive to me.”
He wasn’t a jock like McGeeney or McGregor, more a geek actually. “I had no real sports background. I was reading Spiderman comics and studying maths. But what I did early on was I got good at analysing statistics of fights.
"So rather than thinking I had to learn everything about fighting, I would watch a thousand fights and break down how many times I saw each move executed and which moves worked most of the time.”
His younger brother James was his lab rat. He’d try a certain move, bending James’ arm and when James would scream, Kavanagh realised, “Oh, that one works” and would write the move down.
Reading Thompson’s account of being a doorman, he learned how to deal with potential violent situations to the point he became a doorman himself. One subtle technique was The Fence. If a situation was getting a bit heated, he’d put his hand on the potential aggressor’s shoulder, and extend his own arm, creating a barrier, a fence, while trying to reason with them.
“It’s a weird thing that men do: they’ll start to posture and come up to you, trying to make themselves bigger and put their chin up, like animals do. Sometimes they show their teeth. So like when I was doing the door, I might stop them [with the fence]. ‘Hey, hey, all right, buddy.
Let’s just talk about it. Hey, were you here last week?’ “Now, if I feel pressure on my hand, that’s an amber light. It’s a big psychological thing, because in your head you’re thinking, ‘If he pushes into the fence a second time, it’s go time.’ That’s a big boundary to cross. But I found it [The Fence] very useful. I had frozen in the past and let someone come up that close to me, but now I had the skills to fall back on.”
He wasn’t an alpha male like a McGeeney or a McGregor. His motivation was more pure intrinsic; he loved the sport and its possibilities for its own sake.
They were more ego-driven, more competitive. Kavanagh was an accomplished fighter in his own right, winning European championships in various martial arts. This was no dry-land swimming coach; he’d got himself wet plenty of times, often having to carry his own spit-bucket into fights, being his own coach.
But there were times he found himself almost coaching the opponent he had in a hold, thinking to himself, “No, you’ve your hand going the wrong way....”
McGeeney and McGregor by nature weren’t so merciful. McGeeney has spoken to him about a dark side being necessary within an elite sportsperson, though Kavanagh has found it interesting from such discussions the boundaries McGeeney himself had.
“Often when Kieran’s name comes up in chats I have with journalists, they talk about how intimidating and intense and aggressive he must be.
"But do you know how often he was sent off in 17 years playing high-level football? Not once. He’d tell me stories of how he’d stand on toes and pull jerseys and come up to guys and say, ‘God, you’re not playing very good today’ and walk off. That was a man who knew how to press buttons all right. But more importantly, he was a master at how to control himself. He never swung a punch at someone.”
Like everything about Conor McGregor, John Kavanagh will hardly forget the first time he met him. The kid was 18, scrawny but lippy and cocky, already talking about becoming a UFC champion on his first night even trying out MMA.
McGregor was eager to make a good first impression in his first sparring session, so eager that he dropped Owen Roddy, one of the gym’s best fighters, with a body shot. That wasn’t how things were done around here in SBG – these people are supposed to be your teammates, not your opponents – but Kavanagh put it down to enthusiasm and let it slide.
Next thing though, he was sitting in his office when he heard the shout. “That fella is after dropping Ais.” Ais was Aisling Daly, a future UFC fighter. “A powerful woman – you don’t mess with Ais,” says McGregor now, but a woman nonetheless. More than that, a teammate, not an opponent. And he’d thrown a straight hand to her body? At that Kavanagh dropped his pen. The Fence had been pushed a second time. Go time.
“Right, Conor, I’m next,” he said, stepping into the ring, and, according to his book, strapping on his gloves.
Only, according to McGregor himself, there were no gloves laced on. It was more basic and primal than that.
What McGregor does not dispute is how their tussle played out. “It was a total ass-whipping,” he tells you. “He took me down, started whacking me to the body and to the legs. I couldn’t f****n’ walk for about two weeks. I’d come from boxing. Hard, hard training. You put on a headguard, you put on the boxing gloves and you fight to win, to stop the opponent, no tip tap. I learned pretty quickly that wasn’t the way they trained here.”
“John is a technical wizard. I’ve trained with many people from many different disciplines but technically he’s the best. I’m working 11 years with him now but when I watch and listen to him break down a technique, I’m still blown away by how good he is and how much I’m still learning from him. He just makes it simple.
"Other coaches, they can’t get across what they’re trying to teach, but with him, it’s just straight to the point, it’s right and it just clicks.”
Just as his own sport has yet to be fully recognised by the powers that be, neither has John Kavanagh’s talent by the wider coaching community.
Coaching conferences and elite GAA teams will routinely call on the wisdom of Gary Keegan and Liam Sheedy or national hockey and cricket coaches, but outside of taking a phone call from an underage county minor football coach that went on to win the All Ireland, that circuit has never called on Kavanagh’s insight.
That should change soon enough. Liam Moggan, Coaching Ireland’s head education officer, often talks about how coaches need to be as mindful with how to coach as they do with what to coach. Kavanagh’s appreciation of that is masterful.
A lot of it was from trial and error. Mistakes.
“When I think now of how I coached 10 years ago,” he says, “I hang my head in shame. Showing things that were too complicated too early on in someone’s career.”
There’s a stepping method he now finds to be very effective. Say he’s teaching someone a double-leg takedown. From where you’re standing, there are, say, five steps to pulling it off. But instead of starting you at Step One, he’ll start you off at Step Four.
You’re right at his leg. For sure, you can pull that off, so he keeps you going from four to five, repping it, until you’re confident at it. Then he’ll step back and go from three to five.
“Whereas if I had you trying to do it from here [Step One],” he demonstrates, “it’s easy for me to defend you and you feel it’s very hard to pull off. You don’t get confidence. You’re going, ‘That technique doesn’t work.’”
Another very useful tool, he finds, is the Socratic Method.
“I read about how Socrates would educate Aristotle and his other students. He didn’t have a classroom of 25 people and they all read the same book. He would just have conversations with people, ask them questions. And that was very appealing to me. I enjoyed being taught that way and then I got massive results from using it [as a coach].
“I rarely give an answer, I give a question that will get the answer out of them.
“They’re asking, ‘Why should I go this way?’ “I could go, ‘Well, you do this because of this, this and this.’ Instead I’ll go, ‘Well, what other ways could you do it?’
“They’ll mention three ways and I’ll say, ‘Try those three ways.’ Then when they’ve tried those three ways, I’ll say ‘Well, of those three ways, which was the least effective? Right, now we have two left. Now in which situations have you seen this one happen more often than that one?’
“So I like to try to engage people rather than just have zombies going, ‘Right, every time I go one, two, three...’” How does McGregor find it? “I would have been begging to introduce that just as Conor was coming in, and I would probably say Conor was the most receptive to it than anyone I’ve ever coached.
“Right from day one he would torture me with questions – which I loved. He’d never just do it and go, ‘Right. See you.’ He’d come up at the end and have 10 questions. ‘Here, I’m after getting caught with this three times today.
"If I get caught again, my head is going to explode. Tell me what to do.’ And then we’d toy out the situation and then when he’d get home it might just hit him at midnight – ‘Oh yeah, right, I get it now.’
“Even to this day he’s like that. [Kavanagh’s fiancé] Orlagh is tortured from it. I’ll still be up at 1 or 2am every night having long back and forth conversations with him on WhatsApp where he might send me a video of a fight and say, ‘Look at this, why’s he putting his right hand there?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, what do you think would happen if he didn’t?’”
That’s why Kavanagh isn’t worried that any irreparable damage was done to McGregor’s confidence after the first loss in his UFC career last March to Nate Diaz. Losing has always been a big part of his success; they just prefer when the losing has been solely away from the lights.
“Whenever we’re in training, you get guys who are on the mat and they look around and they see four guys: level one, two, three and four, the fourth being the best. And a lot of them might grab the two for the training. Some will grab the one for the training. I see that and I think to myself, ‘This fella is not putting himself in danger.’
“Conor will always look for the fours. And he will look for the best guys in each area. He will go in with a high-level boxer, and only box.
"He’ll do the jiu-jitsu with the best-level jiu-jitsu guys, and he might be only holding his own, or he might be losing with those guys in their specialised areas. But he knows in the bigger scheme of things, it’s okay, because overall it’s going to bring his game up.” That’s one of the paradoxes of McGregor. Outside the ring he is extremely, outwardly arrogant.
In the gym, he is a model of humility. He’s willing to get his ass kicked so later he can kick ass and tell the world all about it. There’s a sign in the SBG: Leave your egos at the door. McGregor, the biggest ego you probably know in sport, willingly does so.
“That is the overriding principle of the gym,” says Kavanagh.
“I always wanted it to be a place where people were comfortable losing. And for young males, to get submitted or caught with a shot, or get thrown in front of everybody, they can be a bit ‘I’m just after losing there.’ I really stamped that out early on. I wanted guys when they actually lost in the gym to be smiling because this was a great opportunity for them to learn an area of weakness.
“New guys coming in, I see them getting caught with a submission and they’re slapping the mat in frustration. And I really try to turn that around. ‘Hey, every time you’re caught in the gym, it’s one less time you’ll be caught in competition because now you know that’s an area that’s weak.
So let’s look at it. What was it? What was the submission? Okay, what sort of escapes are there for that? Okay, you’re not sure of them either. Okay, let’s drill them. So here’s the two top escapes that work most of the time against most of the people, let’s rep it out and then start with someone 50 percent on you...”
"Then we’ll work it up to 60 percent, 70 percent, and keep doing that, until an area that you were initially weak on, fast forward two months and that’s actually your speciality. You’re actually the best guy in the gym at it.
“The last thing you should want to be doing is trying to win every time in the gym. If you’re trying to win in the gym enviroment, you’ll only ever do what you’re already good at. You won’t take a chance. You won’t put yourself in a vulnerable position.” So that’s what they continuously do, the two sons of two Margarets, ever since they each stepped out of those rooms they used to hide in. Ready to take a chance.
To Win Or Learn. Or even better, Win And Learn.