John Kavanagh ‘beat the s***’ out of Conor McGregor in his first session at the gym but they went on to form a dream team… here’s how coach and pupil flourished to reach the very top
- John Kavanagh and Conor McGregor have seen in all together in the UFC
- Coach ‘beat the s***’ out’ of McGregor for training indiscretion in early days
- But since that flashpoint, they formed an incredible team and made it to the top
- Here’s how the relationship between both men has evolved over the years
There have been some iconic athlete-coach duos in history and Conor McGregor‘s combination with John Kavanagh is undoubtedly among them.
Both men reached the pinnacle of MMA from humble beginnings and charting the evolution of their relationship can help explain why they made such a successful team, even if things did not get off to the most auspicious of starts.
John Kavanagh and Conor McGregor have formed one of the best coach-athlete duos ever
The UFC superstar knocked down Aisling Daly who went on to fight in the strawweight division
A well worn anecdote about one of McGregor’s early sessions is still often retold.
Back in 2016, the Kavanagh explained to the Irish Independent about a sparring session between former UFC strawweight Aisling Daly and McGregor.
Kavanagh said: ‘It sounds worse than it was. He wasn’t hitting her in the head or anything, but just happened to throw a body shot that hit her in the sweet spot, the solar plexus, and put her down.
‘I got a little emotional because Ais had been with me a long time and the other guys would look after her.
‘But this new guy had come in and put her down, and my protective nature kicked in. I held him down and beat the s**t out of him, without putting too fine a point on it.
‘I kept hitting him in the body until he couldn’t breathe and then I looked at him: “What’s it going to be? We can train or we can fight?” And he was OK from the next day.’
McGregor was still making his way in MMA having come over from Crumlin boxing gym where he’d previously trained. Kavanagh had not long retired from his own MMA career, racking up three wins and three defeats in a short stint as a pro.
McGregor flourished under Kavanagh’s tutelage in Straight Blast Gym, Dublin
But he was developing a reputation as a cerebral coach, the first Irishman to earn a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and the ferociously ambitious McGregor fell into his lap.
It proved to be a match made in heaven. Together, along with striking coach Owen Roddy they were off to the races, winning the Cage Warriors featherweight and lightweight titles before McGregor was signed by the UFC.
‘Notorious’ would embark on his now well-known journey, winning his first seven fights in the promotion and dethroning former featherweight king Jose Aldo spectacularly in 13 seconds.
Kavanagh has since spoken about his reaction to that stunning KO, offering some insight into the work that went into achieving it.
He posted: ‘Over a decade of repetition behind closed doors for one moment under the lights. 13 years for 13 seconds.’
But when victories are being racked up and champagne is flowing, the athlete-coach relationship is not being fully tested.
Kavanagh is a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belt and has a superb reputation as a coach
It was after McGregor’s next fight, his submission defeat by Nate Diaz, that the pair started to look in the mirror.
McGregor was on top of the world and dealing with his new-found celebrity status but Kavanagh’s life was also vastly different.
He previously explained on the MMA Hour: ‘I guess what did change a lot was our relationship. My life over the last couple of years has gotten a bit wild.
‘I went from having a gym of about 80 people to having a gym with over 700 people and having a number training groups around the country that I visit regular (sic) and, you know, book coming out.
‘Also hitting the stage of my life where I want to buy a house and do grown-up stuff, whereas (in my) 20s and 30s (it) was just head down in sport.
He went on: ‘Conor’s life has obviously gotten wild over the years and not that it was by design, but we kind of drifted a little bit. We realised that and we spoke about it after the contest and we made a pact to go back the way it was.
Both men’s lives have changed dramatically since McGregor first entered the UFC
‘It’s kind of like growing old. You don’t notice it and then you meet someone who hasn’t seen you in a while and they go, “Oh, you’ve changed”, or “you’ve gained weight”, or “you lost weight”. Now I see it. I didn’t at the time, it was a very gradual separation, but when I look back now, compared to what we are now, I do see it.
‘There were some times in the gym when I was walking out and he was walking in and I was kind of just nodding at him.’
‘It was just a very gradual process. We were training at different times. He’d come in at 10 or 11 pm and I had been training since 9 am. I was tired, like, “I was here earlier, you weren’t”.’
Together, McGregor and Kavanagh took a step back to analyse what they could do to improve and how to avoid the same pitfalls as in the lead up to the Diaz defeat.
The McGregor FAST (Fighting Aerobic/Anaerobic System of Training) programme – a mix of high-intensity sessions and long workouts – for extreme performance was devised and they were on an upward trajectory once more.
McGregor avenged his defeat and then went on to become the first simultaneous two-weight UFC champion with his dismantling of Eddie Alvarez.
McGregor’s relationship with Kavanagh drifted in the run up to his defeat by Nate Diaz
But again, the out-of-cage antics hindered McGregor and he was exposed against Khabib Nurmagomedov in a now infamous UFC 229 showdown.
McGregor shed some light on the situation with his coach afterwards and admitted being irked when Kavanagh admitted he was yet to watch a replay of the fight.
He told Ariel Helwani: ‘I felt a little bit slighted when these interviews were going on and one of things was that “I hadn’t watched the fight back yet”.
‘When I heard that, I’d watched the fight back 888 times before I even got back to the house.’
He then admitted: ‘Myself and John. You know, I need to rekindle my relationship with my coach and get that back on track also.
‘John is a genius at the fight-game and having him in my corner is essential, you know what I mean?
Kavanagh recently posted this throwback picture of himself with partner Orlagh Hunter (left), McGregor and McGregor’s fiancee Dee Devlin (right)
McGregor retired again this year but many, including Kavanagh, think he will be back
‘I understand that my half-commitment has led to these thoughts and this type of thing. I’m just in the process of making things right and we’ll get there. John will be in my corner, no doubt.’
They did so in brilliant style when McGregor returned to knock out Donald Cerrone in the first round of their fight this January.
The Irishman has since announced his retirement again, not that many, including Kavanagh believe he’s finished with fighting.
Just seven weeks ago, the coach posted a throwback snap of himself with McGregor and their respective partners with the caption: ‘Five years ago. Book ain’t finished.’
If there are more chapters to come, no doubt Kavanagh will be among the main characters once more.