Kieran McGeeney gives an insight into Conor McGregor's prep for Nate Diaz rematch
As most recently evidenced by photos of John Kavanagh putting Game of Thrones actor Liam Cunningham through his paces, the SBG gym is not just a seat of learning for elite prize fighters and, as such, Kieran McGeeney has been a willing recipient of its services since 2009.
A break from the norm, those rote tenets of achieving peak physical condition ahead of the searing heat of competition, can prevent the metastasising of a fatigue that often plagues athletes.
Six years ago, as the Kildare football manager, McGeeney decided to think outside the box and diversify the Lilywhites’ pre-season training.
After some research, and constant endorsements of John Kavanagh and his main area of expertise, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he took the panel up to the old SBG facility to engage in some grappling.
McGeeney was immediately drawn to the art and has been attending classes at the gym since. At the time, Conor McGregor had only banked a year as a professional fighter, MMA was most certainly on the fringes of Irish sport, and the SBG name was far from being of the household variety.
The Armagh manager has enjoyed a front row view as McGregor and the SBG team have progressed to the zenith of the sport.
Last December at UFC 194, McGregor managed to snap a winning streak that had lasted almost a decade to dethrone Jose Aldo as the featherweight champion.
That same night he was promised a shot at lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos, but the Brazilian was forced to withdraw from the bout with a foot injury and Nate Diaz was drafted in on 11 days’ notice to face McGregor in the main event of UFC 196 on March 5.
Diaz would pull off one of the great upsets of recent times when submitting McGregor via arear naked in the second round of a makeshift welterweight bout.
Both McGregor and Kavanagh have since admitted that they had not granted Diaz’s abilities the respect they so clearly deserved.
For McGeeney, such an oversight can be an unwelcome consequence of reaching the top of one’s respective profession.
“I think in that game, like in all sports, you’re constantly learning,” he told Independent.ie
“It was a jump for Conor, I’ve listened to people talk about it, and I’m no expert in MMA, but when you’re around the gym long enough to understand some of the basic concepts in it, and like when you hear people talking about football, and not recognising what’s happening in the cage as it is.”
“Conor was definitely dominant for the first round and a bit but when you go into a different weight, and that’s obviously why there’s weight categories with the power behind it, and he did get caught.
“But when you’re at the peak, what’s the next step? The next thing is that all the focus is on you, when you’re going up the focus is on beating another person and being better at what they do.
“But then you’re the person everyone is looking at, so who do you look at then?
“There’s a change of mindset and it goes back to that ultimate thing that it’s you fighting yourself. It’s a new step for anybody that’s up there, and it’s probably why a lot of teams and athletes don’t tend to stay at the top very long.
McGeeney is no stranger to scathing criticism and, after Armagh were eliminated from the Championship by Laois in a Round 1A replay over the weekend, he’s come in for more of the same.
Given McGregor’s persona, penchant for antagonism and braggadocio, there was no shortage of those revelling in Diaz’s triumph.
Of course, their initial rematch, scheduled for UFC 200 this weekend, was cancelled after the Dubliner refused to leave a training camp in Iceland for a promotional event in New York.
After a decidedly overblown mini-drama, McGregor and his employers made peace, and he and Diaz will conclude their business at UFC 202 on August 22.
McGregor has revealed that he abandoned so much of his usual regime in the immediate build up to the Diaz bout because fighting at 170lbs meant he had no arduous weight cut to endure.
He clearly had the better of Diaz in the first round, landing a series of powerful straight lefts and uppercuts but, thereafter, the Californian was dominant in all facets.
Subsequently, McGregor and Kavanagh have said that no stone will be left unturned as they seek to avenge the former’s first loss in close to six years.
Six-time Irish national boxing champion Conor Wallace will train with McGregor in America for the next six weeks. Like Diaz, the Derry native is a long, rangy southpaw, so it would appear that the camp is being tailored specifically to Diaz’s attributes.
McGeeney believes that it is the duo’s habit of harvesting knowledge from setbacks that makes them such a successful team, and that approach will continue to serve them well, and he fully expects a far more exacting test for Diaz.
“SBG has been a good reflection of that type of mantra. The gym has gotten bigger and better, and everything that happens in the gym seems to work off that particular code. John and Conor are definitely the leading lights in that way of thinking.
“Because it takes a lot of very honest people around you at that particular stage to be able to tell you things, and even the most important thing of being able to look at yourself and say I messed up, didn’t prepare right because when you’re at the top, it’s very easy to blame something else.
“I know the two boys, I know the way they think and they’re definitely focussed in on this one. And, no matter what happens, it won’t be for a want of trying or learning.
“I saw Connor training the other day and he looked strong, so he did. I think that’s why he’s probably taking this one a wee bit more, I wouldn’t say seriously, but he’s definitely putting his head down and has learned from the last one,” he said.