Paul Kimmage meets John Kavanagh: My friendship with Conor, battling McGeeney and how we blagged our way into J-Lo's party
Charismatic MMA coach John Kavanagh opens up about his relationship with the sport's superstar name Conor McGregor and how his dislike of confrontation sent him on a path to the top of the game
For some time now - since that '60 Gs' moment on April 6, 2013, to be precise - Conor McGregor has ticked all the boxes:
What an interview!
Some inquiries were made but he was hard to pin down - until finally, in an act of pure desperation, we were dispatched to a nightclub in Swords where he had agreed to meet the press during a Q&A with fans. It was a dark, damp Monday evening in late October but the queue was extraordinary.
We were ushered to a private suite upstairs with a dancer's pole and view of the stage, and were told he was running late. An hour passed. Some of the hacks were on deadline and started to get restless. Another 30 minutes passed. Hector O' hEochagain, the MC for the evening, had run out of gags: "We'll play some music boys."
The PR lady apologised but our goodwill had long expired and we were conjuring new words to describe the Notorious:
And then, to appease us, I suspect, they wheeled in his trainer.
I'd never met John Kavanagh before but knew within seconds that I was going to like him. He took a seat at the oval table, glanced around the room and smiled as we scrambled for our notebooks and pens.
"Jesus!" he said. "You start doing a bit of martial arts, next thing you know you're sitting down beside a stripper pole on a Monday night. Mad world."
1. The tangled web
Years ago, high school student Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained the speed, agility and proportional strength of a spider - as well as the ability to stick to walls and a spider-sense that warned him of imminent danger. After learning that, with great power there must also come great responsibility, he became the crime-fighting super hero … the Amazing Spider-Man.
Paul Kimmage: You've a very interesting Twitter feed, John, and I want to start with a couple of recent posts that jumped out. You were on The Late Late Show last month and you posted a photo from the Green Room of a glass of whiskey: "One to steady the nerves - if it turns into three, it might be an interesting chat."
John Kavanagh: Yeah, I was sick with nerves in the lead-up to that - the worst I have ever felt.
JK: I don't like public speaking. I'm comfortable with this but I don't like a lot of people looking at me when I'm talking. I also have a skin condition, a very bad rosacea, which means that if I get nervous at all, this redness comes up around my neck, and I'm talking putrid red. I can actually feel it coming on and that makes me more nervous, which increases it, and it goes on and on until I feel like I'm a beetroot.
JK: So I figured, I'm going to be on The Late Late Show, this will start coming on, I'll start stuttering over my answers… it's just going to be a nightmare. I couldn't eat for two days before it. I was actually thinking about breaking my arm: 'If you break your arm you won't be able to go on.' All these thoughts were in my head.
JK: Yeah, and Orlagh (his fiancée, Orlagh Hunter) was like: "Why are you doing this? Just pull out of it. Who cares?" And I thought: 'No, I want that, if I have a son, to be able to show him - not just tell him - that sometimes you've got to do things in life that are uncomfortable.' So I went on and started OK - not too bad - and then, at about the second question, I could feel the heat. I said to myself: 'All right. Do it. Do your worst, body.' I have this habit of talking to myself in the third person: 'Do as bad as you can do.' And it kind of died down a little bit. But I had grown my beard a bit heavier because I figured that would cover it…
JK: Bizarre, right?
PK: Yeah. I loved that passage in the book when you're fighting this guy and the little voice in your head is telling him how to beat you.
JK: Yeah, that's my personality.
PK: How do you explain the nerves? You're not some kid who has just got lucky - you've been exposed to the spotlight for a long time now.
JK: I haven't really. Conor has been exposed to the spotlight and he's brilliant at it. I've not had cameras in my face, and I rarely do interviews - or certainly not with cameras - and to be asked to talk to a bunch of people… I mean, I've just agreed to do a talk today and the minute I agreed to it, my stomach started churning.
PK: Is that the One Zero (conference)?
JK: Yeah. As I said, I'm trying to force myself to do things that are uncomfortable - that's how I drifted into fighting in the first place. I hated confrontation. I hated anything to do with fighting, so I started working on the door (of a nightclub), which was horrendous, and then I started teaching martial arts and made a career out of it. But the showbiz side of it was an accident and I'm still not that comfortable with that, if I'm being honest.
PK: What do you mean by the showbiz side?
JK: The Saturday night fights… the larger-than-life characters… the bright lights. It's sport and part of what we do, but if that was to go tomorrow, I wouldn't mind.
JK: Yeah. I would hate to lose the Monday-to-Friday stuff. I love training people and seeing their eyes (light-up) when they can't escape (a hold), and I show them the move. It's like magic: "Wow! That was cool." So I'd hate to lose that - being on the mats and playing with my friends. It's a dream job.
PK: What about these things? (There are two massive tarantulas in a tank beside his desk.) I had no idea they were as awful looking as they are!
JK: Ahh, don't say that.
PK: I'm starting to think you are seriously fucked up.
JK: I was a massive Spider-Man fan as a kid. I grew up in a cul-de-sac in Rathfarnham with a bunch of girls, but I wasn't allowed hang out with them and was always on my own, and from a young age, for whatever reason, I fell in love with throwing insects into webs. I thought they were incredible creatures. I actually tried to write a book on arachnology when I was 12, believe it or not, and at 13, I bought my first spider.
PK: Was it like one of those?
JK: A smaller one - a Chilean rose, it was called.
PK: What are they?
JK: That's a salmon pink - the second largest species in the world. And the one above is a goliath birdeater - the largest species in the world.
PK: Are they dangerous?
JK: You would get a nasty whack off them, a nasty bite.
PK: Take me back to the start. You're the second eldest of three and you grew up in Rathfarnham, and you've an interesting relationship with your father that I haven't quite worked out.
JK: What do you want to know? We were just so different. I was very similar to my Mam's personality - introverted and calm. I don't like loud noises, I don't like arguments, I don't like confrontation. My Dad loves fighting and arguing and screaming about football on the telly. I can't understand it, it's not my personality. He has calmed down now and we get along great, but I didn't have anything to do with him growing up.
PK: I thought you started karate together?
JK: He never did it, but he liked me doing something. I never had a lie-in. On Saturday morning it was:
"What are you doing today?"
"We'll see about that."
And the windows would be cleaned, or the garden would be dug, or the grass would be cut. And if there was nothing to do at home, he'd bring me out with him - he worked for himself - and give me the worst jobs. He said later it was to make sure I didn't end up as a maintenance man or a builder, and would work harder in school, but I don't think that was the reason. I think he just liked giving me a hard time. I liked my Mam's company, but I didn't like my Dad. I couldn't wait to get away from him if I'm being honest.
PK: That is honest.
JK: He never hit me, I never went hungry and he treated my mother like a goddess. He was 18 when they met and they're an incredibly close couple, so I grew up in a great family environment. And I got a lot of great things from him - work ethic, how to treat women - but we weren't friends. And I wouldn't have chosen him as a friend because I didn't like that personality.
PK: But you're friends now?
JK: Best friends. We meet every Sunday and have a few pints and he's super proud of me. Orlagh has seen us together and thinks: 'What a childhood you must have had!' I couldn't stand the man! He loved football but I hated everything about the game; the chanting, the theme from Match Of The Day…
PK: You sound like one of my sons.
JK: Yeah, it's amazing. I think Conor and my Dad would have gotten along great. Conor is volcanic… he has a temper… RAAAAGGGGHHH! Now, they probably would have killed each other - but they would have had much closer personalities.
PK: OK, so you didn't like football. What about other sports?
JK: I played a bit of rugby in De La Salle… the thing about football I didn't like was the atmosphere at games, the crowds jeering each other and… I dunno, it seemed to draw a certain personality, whereas rugby seemed quite gentlemanly. At the end of the game, you clapped the other team and there were handshakes and respect for the referee. And I liked the bit of contact - I always liked wrestling and grappling.
PK: Tell me about the karate: you were an all-Ireland champion at 15 but it didn't do much for your self-esteem?
JK: No, it made it worse.
PK: Explain that.
JK: I've never met or trained a fighter who was worried about getting hurt - they don't want to be embarrassed, they don't want to look silly, that's always number one. And it's the same for a young teenager who gets into a street fight - he's not worried about being injured, he's worried about looking silly. I was an all-Ireland karate champion, so not only was I expected to win but I was expected to win with flair. But I knew in my heart that I couldn't fight in the street. I was OK in the dojo - a quiet atmosphere, a set of rules - that was fine. But the violence and aggressiveness of a street fight, that wasn't for me.
PK: But you're walking home from a bar one night with your girlfriend and happen upon a cyclist being set upon by a load of gurriers. "The cyclist was getting a fairly decent kicking, and I started thinking: 'I have to do something here, I just can't allow this to happen.'" And you don't.
PK: But you are badly beaten up.
PK: A significant moment.
PK: Because you resolve to learn to defend yourself?
PK: And you're in town one afternoon and pick up a video - Ultimate Fight Championship: The Beginning. And it's your first time to watch… is it Royce Gracie?
JK: Yeah, but the 'R' is a 'H' sound in Brazil, so its 'Hoyce'.
PK: 'Hoyce' Gracie.
PK: And this is a lightbulb moment for you, that someone so physically slight can win all of his fights.
JK: Not only physically, it was his demeanour. Physically, he was a slim guy, but I've seen slim guys that are dog rough - Royce was like this (he shrinks meekly back into his chair). And he was going to fight in a cage with no rules - because back then there were very few rules and no weight classes - against guys that looked like these terrifying bullies I'd feared my whole life. And I couldn't believe it.
PK: You thought it was fake?
JK: I thought: 'This is a movie. This is fake.' But he goes out and not only does he win, but he makes it look so easy. And it wasn't magic he was doing. There was no Bruce Lee stuff or anything wild. It was all very methodical. And I thought: 'If he can do that, I can do that. If he can learn that, I can learn that.' And from that day I've practised jiu-jitsu every day in some form or another.
PK: To confront your fears you become a doorman at the Turks Head in Temple Bar. Was there a moment, a first moment, when you had to put what you had learned into practice?
JK: Yeah, the first night.
PK: The first night?
JK: Yeah, the very first night. I'm on the door with another doorman and a group of lads came up. The build-up was horrible. I saw them approach and knew they were (trouble) and felt sick to my stomach. The other guy - the head doorman - refused them and it all kicked off, but when the first guy swung at me it was easy - the physical response was easy. I put him down and was looking at him on the ground thinking: 'Who the hell did that?' But the tension never eased for me over the years. I hated confrontation. I hated the build-up. I'd say to the other doorman: 'I'll fight anyone, but don't have me doing the talk.'
PK: You didn't like the talk?
JK: I hated the talk ...
"You're not coming in."
"You're not coming in."
"You've had too many drinks."
"I'll fuckin' burst you."
I hated all that. In fact, sometimes I would pull a guy aside and say: 'If you're going to fight, just do it.' And most of them would look at me like I was some kind of lunatic and walk away (laughs). But the talking made me so nervous.
2 Cage warrior
Even though the rules are the same, there's something very different about competing in a cage instead of a ring. When you hear that door being bolted shut, it can suddenly feel very claustrophobic in there. You're literally caged in. At first, you tend to think: 'Shit! This is insane. What the hell am I doing in here?'
'Win Or Learn'
PK: Tell me about the cage because, for people like myself, who don't know or understand the sport, it's our first impression - and you put animals in a cage.
JK: They used to hold the events in boxing rings but a lot of our sport is grappling and wrestling and people kept going through the ropes, so it was part functional. The chain-ring fence allowed the fans to see, and you could lean against it without going through, but a part of it was definitely theatrical. If you watch that documentary about UFC 1, they were discussing having fire on the outside, or a ring surrounded by alligators in a moat, and it was Hollywood meets sport. But now it's just the format. A ring? It's boxing. A cage? It's mixed martial arts. But if it was up to me, I would probably try for a different look so that wasn't people's first impression.
JK: I remember my mother's reaction when she saw I was going to fight in one. And my Dad. I knew he was worried and didn't want to see me hurt, but the only thing he said was: "It would be terrible if you broke your back, wouldn't it?"
PK: Where was that fight?
JK: Portsmouth. It was the first in Europe.
PK: How did you feel about it?
JK: It's a bit daunting initially, but then I actually got to like it because it felt like everyone else was locked out, and there was something serene about that: you're on your own, they're not really part of it. It's just you and one guy.
PK: Here's another quote from the book: "Whenever I fought, in order to motivate myself, I needed to do something that I always tell my fighters not to do, and that is to become emotionally invested in a contest."
JK: There's a phrase: work the technique, not the man. So, in every position in the fight there's a technical solution. He has me in this position? I go one, two and three - and that's what your focus should be. You don't go in thinking: 'I fuckin' hate this guy, I'm going to rip his head off!' That's not how your brain should be working. So work the technique, not the man.
PK: Why didn't you fight like that?
JK: I learned by error. My friend, who didn't know any better, would tell me: "This guy is going to hurt your sister." And I'd go in all ramped up and intent on hurting the guy, but that's not a good way of doing it. My second book is going to be called 'How to do Everything Wrong', because I fought wrong, I ran a business wrong, I did everything wrong.
PK: You make another point in the book about competing - one you attribute to Kieran McGeeney: "He often says that you need to have a darkness inside you to compete at a high level in any sport. If you can't tap into that dark side, you'll quickly come unstuck."
JK: I would almost say that Kieran would be an idol of mine in sport.
JK: Well, I came from a background of maths and engineering and was never high up in sport, or sports science, so when I got friendly with Kieran, it was a great resource for me to pick his brains about athletes and how they trained.
PK: How did you meet?
JK: We got a call one day at the gym - a guy wanted to book 10 one-on-one sessions with me. I hate doing one-on-ones - I'll only do them with fighters like Conor - but we get asked all the time and I always say no.
JK: I don't enjoy it. I love teaching group classes and get a huge kick from teaching raw beginners, but one-on-one with someone for an hour is a long time. My sister was answering the phone for me at that stage and I think I said something like: 'Tell him it's a thousand'. And she says: "He said no problem, he'll see you Monday." So I'm like 'shit!' So I walk in on Monday and there's a guy there in a GAA shirt and shorts and I have no idea who this is.
JK: No idea. I didn't follow (Gaelic football) - but he looked big. So I have this drill I use when I'm dealing with someone who looks stronger than me - it's exhausting and brings them down to my level, because then I can teach them. So I did it with him for 20 minutes and he keeps coming at me, and we're half-an-hour into it and he's still not slowing down. The session ends and he leaves and a few people run up to me. "Do you know who you were just with there?"
JK: And we've since become very close friends. But I never train with Kieran. We fight every time - each time I meet him here, it's a battle. He was here three days ago and had to stop after a few minutes with a cut - it was like an axe had split him.
PK: He still trains here?
JK: Oh yeah, like a lunatic.
PK: And you say you always fight him?
JK: Well, in jiu-jitsu, which is what we do, the idea is to try to outsmart your partner and not to use too much strength. If I feel you're outsmarting me, I'll give you that move: if you feel I'm outsmarting you, you'll give me that move. Kieran never gives me anything! I'm choking him and he's dying but he never taps (submits) until he's on death's door. So everything is a battle with him. Everything is a fight. He's incredibly competitive.
PK: He probably found the wrong sport.
JK: If he had walked in to me at 16 he'd have been a world champion, I have absolutely no doubt.
PK: You started going to games with him?
JK: Yeah. Kieran brought me to my first ever game. And it was funny because this was just when Conor was starting to get a bit of a name. I thought he was known, I thought we were becoming stars, but I walked into Croke Park and there's 80,000 people there and (McGeeney's) being chased by cameras and I thought: 'OK.'
PK: That's a star.
JK: Yeah, I just hadn't seen that world.
PK: I scribbled a warning into my notes: 'The danger of interviewing John Kavanagh is that it becomes all about Conor McGregor.'
PK: Is that an irritation for you? Because so much of your identity is wrapped up in him?
JK: No, because I recognise the positives of it. I'm the guy in the background with the bucket. He's the guy in the spotlight.
PK: Tell me about the first day (in 2007) he walks into your gym. He had been boxing in Crumlin with Phil Sutcliffe.
PK: And he picks a fight with Owen Roddy.
JK: Well, it was supposed to be a spar, but it was a fight. Owen was the top dog back then and the new guy wanted to test himself.
PK: And you're watching this with an inquisitive eye?
JK: Of course. Owen had been with me a long time - he was my boy - but this new kid moved in a certain way. He was a southpaw, a good boxer and he just had a way about him that made you go: 'What's going to happen here?' And he caught Owen with a good shot and put him down.
PK: And then he floored Aisling Daly, which was incredible really.
JK: 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.
PK: And now the coach is not happy.
JK: I got a little emotional because Ash 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 was still fighting at that stage, or hadn't stopped that long, so I put the gloves on… actually, he has corrected me on that and says it was bare knuckles. But I held him down and beat the shit out of him, without putting too fine a point on it.
JK: 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.
PK: A year later (June 2008), he's preparing for his third fight and you give him some tickets to sell.
JK: I used to run these little shows in Good Counsel (the GAA club) down the road and I'd give the guys tickets to sell and give them a commission or whatever. So he had a bunch of tickets and all his mates were there, and he was 'the name', the rising star, but he was fighting this skinny little Lithuanian fella who just ran through him. I keep saying it - fighters don't mind getting hurt, but they hate being embarrassed, and that was an embarrassment for him.
PK: So he runs out the door.
JK: Yeah. I didn't see him and I didn't see the money - I think he had already spent it.
PK: And his mother calls you a few days later and asks you to speak to him.
PK: What if she hadn't called?
JK: I would never have seen him again.
JK: I had no interest. I had a lot of other guys coming through. Tom Egan was better than him; Owen Roddy was doing great; Ashling was starting to do well. I don't put negative energy into chasing people who are not in the gym: if you're not here, you're not on my mind; if you are here, I'll give you everything. So I wasn't ringing him.
PK: So what made you go and see him?
JK: His mother was worried. Her name was Margaret - my mother is Margaret too - and it was one of the first times, maybe the first time, that a parent had reached out to me. It got me thinking: 'Maybe I have a bigger role here than punching and kicking. Maybe I'm doing a bit more for them than I thought.' And I guess I started to realise that a lot of people get into fighting for the same reasons I did - it's not for the fighting, they are dealing with something in their childhood.
JK: And I wasn't going to turn my back on someone in trouble. But I thought it was a waste of time and my best friend at that time, Dave Roche, he thought it was a waste of time.
JK: Conor is a bit of a street kid and Dave felt he would fall off the wagon or go back down the same pathway in a couple of months. But I had to give it a shot.
PK: So you called out to his house.
PK: And he was in his bedroom.
JK: Yeah. I was used to this bubbly, charismatic athlete but he looked very down and just didn't look healthy to me. So we had a conversation that I've had with a couple of guys since: 'You don't want to be the guy in your 40s saying 'coulda, shoulda, woulda' with a pint in your hand at the bar. You've got potential. Use it. Do it. Don't worry about the ticket money - scratch it off, I don't care.'
PK: Five hundred euros was a lot of money.
JK: It was a hell of a lot of money.
PK: And you didn't have a lot of money.
JK: No and I certainly wasn't flippant about it. But I also knew he didn't have it and that if I didn't wipe the slate clean, he was never going to come back.
PK: How did he respond?
JK: He didn't say much. He was mostly listening.
PK: You say in the book: "There were tears from both of us." Where were yours coming from?
JK: Well, it sounds silly but it was kind of emotional. He started crying and I'll cry watching Free Willy, that's just my nature. But I felt he was going to give everything to me. Maybe we hadn't been the best of friends up to this and we certainly weren't the best of friends when he ran off with the money, but I felt he was going to give everything to me. It was going to be a clean start.
PK: You say he had potential.
JK: A blind man could see it.
PK: But it was five years before he got an offer from the UFC?
PK: And it came just when he was starting to drift.
JK: Well it wasn't easy - he was on the dole, earning €100 a fight and training at the height of winter in a cold gym. Now I don't care how passionate you are, but there are always going to be periods of thinking: 'Fuck this! What am I doing here?' And he was going through one of those periods. He was a two-weight world champion in 'Cage Warriors' and I couldn't get him a sponsor for a tub of protein. His annual earnings for that five-year period was something like €1,500 a year! There was no money and I was running out of ideas. The UFC was a closed shop. There were no opportunities and he had one foot out the door.
PK: And then you get the call. You were in Iceland?
JK: Yeah, Gunnar Nelson, my Icelandic fighter was starting to make waves and I was considering moving there. I got the call (a contract offer from the UFC to fight in Sweden on April 6, 2013) and tried to phone him, but he wouldn't answer. He was teaching a boxing class for me at the time and hadn't shown for one of the sessions and thought I was calling to eat him out.
JK: Eventually he answers: "Sorry John, I got delayed, the traffic was brutal." I said 'Shurrup, will ye? It's not about that. UFC Sweden, eight weeks' time - we're on!' And he just lost it.
PK: I found it interesting that he stopped to collect his dole money on the way to the airport.
JK: Yeah, that did my head in. It was a Tuesday morning and we're flying to Sweden…
PK: Just the two of you?
JK: Yeah, now it's a 10-car cavalcade wherever we go, but back then there was just the two of us. We get to Stockholm and we're walking through the hall (the Ericsson Globe Arena) and there are all these teams and stars that I've been following for years and I'm overwhelmed, thinking: 'This is the UFC!' But from the moment we got there, he walked taller than everybody. It was fascinating to watch. "Who's he? Put me in against him." He was aggressive, competitive and ready to go at everybody. He grabbed it by the neck and he hasn't let go.
3. Planet Hollywood
In his post-fight interview in the octagon with UFC commentator Kenny Florian, Conor had the audience eating out of his hand. Given the manner in which he put Brimage away, I was confident that Conor would be in with a good shout of being awarded the 'Knockout of the Night' bonus worth $60,000 - a significant financial boost considering that his pay for the night was $16,000. As the interview was drawing to a close, I mouthed to Conor: 'Ask for the money.' UFC president Dana White was in the audience, and I thought he might be persuaded by a cheeky young Irish newcomer asking for the bonus. Conor grabbed the microphone and shouted: 'Dana ... 60 Gs, baby!'
'Win Or Learn'
PK: Tell me about Win Or Learn - it's an interesting title.
JK: I had to battle with the publishers to get it; they wanted 'Out of the Cage' and I would have hated that. Because it's not about that, it's about win or learn. That's been my approach in business and in coaching and it's how I talk to my fighters. They are going to meet failure, they are going to have losses - we all do - but use them as an opportunity to learn.
PK: I've read somewhere that you also wanted a different prologue? Something that captured the atmosphere in the dressing room before a fight.
JK: There's a great clip on Mac Life (McGregor's docu-style video blog) of the rematch with Diaz ...
PK: Yeah, I've seen it.
JK: That's what I was trying to get across, because I think people have the impression that the fighters just stroll out to the octagon and it's "Ready? Fight!" But rewind half-an-hour… the feeling in the changing room… the build-up… the tension…
PK: Yeah, the tension really comes across.
JK: It's incredible and it's what makes Conor so special, because the amount of people that break down, and I see them breaking down, and by the time they walk to the cage, they're exhausted. Conor gets bigger, somehow he gets bigger, and I believe that's a one-in-hundred-thousand (trait) because most people wilt… millions of eyes on you… a guy over there who has trained to take your head off… the build-up… the tension… the walk-out. I find it fascinating that he can do it. I couldn't do it.
PK: Let's go back to Sweden: he knocks out Marcus Brimage and is interviewed after the fight. I never understood until reading the book what "Dana ... 60 Gs, baby!" actually meant.
PK: I thought Dana was his girlfriend, 'D', and that he was celebrating the fact that he'd just won all this money.
JK: No, they give out three bonuses in every event.
PK: So he was actually asking for the 60 grand.
JK: I told him to shout it.
PK: You told him?
JK: Yeah. To be a multi-millionaire in this sport you have to be able to talk. Now some people get annoyed by that, but that's life - and who ever said life was fair? The combination to be a wealthy prize-fighter is high-level fighting skills and a charismatic personality. So I always scratch my head when I hear fighters complaining that Conor gets everything and that no one knows their name. Dana just didn't call him one day and say: "Here's 10 million. You've a title fight next week." It was earned over months and years.
PK: You stopped managing him after the fight in Sweden?
McGregor has no money issues now
JK: Yeah, everything up until then had been small-time - small shows, €300 a fight - no need for managers. But he knocked Brimage out and we're suddenly in the UFC spotlight, and next day it was just phone call after phone call. I said: 'Conor, I'm not able to handle this, and I don't think you should do it either, because you're going to make a bad decision.'
PK: Some people might have got sucked into that.
JK: Very easy to, I've seen it happen and watched the mistakes others have made. Actually, there's a funny story about him that I didn't tell in the book. A couple of months before he joined the UFC, a guy tried to sign him as his manager to a very restrictive deal that would have cost him around 20-25pc of his earnings in return for something like a €1,000 a month.
PK: Was this guy Irish?
JK: Yeah, and Conor was rushing to sign it, saying: "I'm getting a thousand euros for doin nuthin!" I begged him not to sign - I literally ripped the deal away from him - and to this day I bring it up every now and again: 'Do you remember that?' Because Conor will get a contract, flick straight to the end and look at the number:
"Yeah, I'll do it."
"You don't know what you're committing to?"
"Ahh, fuck it! Just sign it!"
… but I sorted him with Paradigm, and Audie (McGregor's manager, Audie Attar) has been rock-solid from day one - not that Conor's much better these days: "What's the number?"
PK: When is the last time you had a row with him?
JK: A row?
PK: Yeah, you're obviously around each other a lot.
JK: I don't think we row. I don't have to chase him about going out because he's not like that. He has his blowouts every now and then, but you see…how do I word this? I don't want it to come out wrong if he reads it… I wouldn't be super-friendly with Conor. We wouldn't go to a match together. I don't go to the cinema with him. I don't go for meals with him, or it would be very rare. I'm his coach and he's my athlete and I kind of like it like that. He had a party last Saturday in Dublin, but I wouldn't go to that. When he has his after-parties at the fights, I don't go to them.
PK: That's interesting.
JK: The last one, Orlagh begged me to go - and we walked into this nightclub and it was nuts. I said: 'I'm going home.' And I turned and walked out. I'm just not into that. I like having a bit of separation from my fighters - I think there should be. You're not their mate, you're not their drinking buddy, you're their coach, and sometimes you have to give them tough messages.
JK: We're both obsessed with technique - and this will sound weird - but he might send me a video of two gorillas fighting: "Look where he's after grabbing him! Could we do that?" So that's where our minds are at, and those are our conversations. I certainly don't have to chase him to work - he's a workaholic - if anything, I'm toning him down. So we don't row.
PK: What about his timekeeping?
JK: I've accepted that's how he is.
PK: But is that something you should accept? Surely, when you're dealing with people and you say 'I'll be here at this time' you have an obligation, out of respect to those people, to adhere to that?
JK: Well, I'll put it this way - I wouldn't put up with him doing that to me. I don't care that he shows up late for press conferences; if I'm meeting him to train at 2pm, he's here at 2pm. So there's a difference with that. And I would call it very different if he wasn't respecting his training partners.
PK: But it's OK for him to shite all over everyone else?
JK: (Laughs) That came across the wrong way. Sometimes the UFC overwork him - now he gets the benefits with that, but it's one of the reasons I stepped away from managing him, because poor Audie does be all over the place with his time-keeping and stuff.
PK: Talk to me about the spotlight: you posted a link on your Twitter feed last July to another Mac Life and described it as "the best episode yet". You're in Vegas preparing for the rematch with Diaz and Ronaldo shows up at the training camp with a few pals.
PK: They start chatting and we catch a glimpse of you in the background, staying out of the way.
JK: Yeah, I didn't speak to Ronaldo until later that night.
PK: What happened that night?
JK: We went to J-Lo's (Jennifer Lopez) party.
PK: OK, and this is what's confusing me, because it's obvious from the video that Conor hasn't been invited to this party.
PK: He doesn't know J-Lo?
PK: So how do you end up at the party?
JK: That's just cheeky Conor, a throwback to his youth. He just says: "Ah sure I'll come along." And Ronaldo goes: "Ehh…OK."
PK: (Laughs) Really?
JK: Yeah and we're all there thinking: 'How can Ronaldo invite us to this gig? Who's going to be there?' Even in the car as we're driving in: 'Wait! This a terrible mistake. We're going to walk in here and be thrown out by some security guard!'
PK: And were you?
JK: We go in and J-Lo catches his eye and comes running over like a schoolgirl: "Oh! Conor McGregor! Thank you for coming. Let's dance!" She drags him to the dancefloor and they start dancing and I'm like: 'Oh, here we go, just another crazy story.' Ronaldo is there. He comes over, tells me that he reads everything (I write) and follows me on Instagram. I'm thinking: 'Wait until I tell my dad about this!'
JK: He kept coming over, and then he would drift away, and then I'd be in another part (of the room) and he'd come over again. (Laughs.) And it got to the stage where Orlagh was like: "Here's this sports megastar harassing you!"
PK: He had you in a headlock.
JK: Yeah, it was like a drunk party: "I'll tell you this." But it was very enjoyable. We spoke about training regimes and the psychological aspects of competition and after a while I started to realise: 'This guy is just like Conor.' Just a one-track mind, no interest in anything else. Civilians would call them obsessed or say there was something wrong with them, but you can't get to that level unless you have that personality.
PK: Any other interesting people you've met?
JK: Arnold Schwarzenegger was interesting, he had that same drive and competitiveness and was very down-to-earth. But it's what Joseph Campbell says in The Hero With A Thousand Faces... There are archetypes we meet as we go through life and when you get to a certain age you've met them all. 'Oh! You're that guy. You just have a different face.' I'm sure you've felt the same when you've interviewed people.
JK: I mean I've met Kanye West and he's just another guy: 'How's it going?' And he came to us, so there's a different (vibe in play) than when he's being harassed for selfies and stuff and has this persona of 'just fuck off', and I get that. I see what it's like being around Conor and people are never happy, no matter what you do. They want another picture, another autograph, it's very draining. I certainly wouldn't be able for it.
PK: But he copes with it.
JK: He's brilliant at it. I don't know how he got so good at it, so fast, with no training, because he went from obscurity to… I mean he's one of the most recognised stars in the world now and it still kind of catches me to say that.
PK: Was there a moment you noticed that he was starting to draw these celebrities?
JK: It still kind of gets me, you're at an event and… I'm trying to think of the last guy that was hanging out of him… Justin Timberlake. It was almost embarrassing. He was like a fanboy. I was like: 'Go away man'. I prefer being around sports stars than film stars because I can relate to what got them there.
PK: You mention Tyson in the book?
JK: Yeah, we met Tyson very briefly. He said to Conor: "If it depreciates, lease it. If it appreciates, buy it." That was it.
PK: I was curious about that.
JK: Yeah, not that he listened - (laughs). He bought 25 cars the next day!
PK: He has a big fight in New York coming up. What's the long-term goal for you?
JK: I've always been a day-by-day person. I always say that when you're (making the choice between) a bottle of water or a bottle of coke, you're forming your future self. I've always liked that scene in Back To The Future where (Marty) has the photo of his parents and, if his decisions are bad, the image starts to fade, and if his decisions are good, it gets stronger. And I've always tried to be the same: I've tried to be a good person, I've tried to make smart decisions, I've tried to give good training sessions - and here I am. I'm happy.
PK: How do you replicate the success you've had with Conor?
JK: I don't have any goals to replicate it. I have some young fighters that are doing great and if they bring me on that journey, and that's where they want to go, I will gladly go with them. But I don't sit here thinking: 'Who's my next guy?' That's just not me. I see my parents every Sunday and know that won't be forever, so I focus on them, and listen to them, and make it the best it can be. I try to get the best out of everything I'm doing and if the future is more high-level fighters, great. If the gym gets smaller but I can still pay my bills and train with my friends, that's great too.
Sunday Indo Sport