Thursday 15 November 2018

'What Khabib did was no big deal, but the other guys? That was criminal' - John Kavanagh

Khabib Nurmagomedov locks in a choke on Conor McGregor during their bout earlier this month. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Khabib Nurmagomedov locks in a choke on Conor McGregor during their bout earlier this month. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ronan O'Flaherty

John Kavanagh has had three weeks to digest Conor McGregor's defeat against Khabib Nurmagomedov. He was the architect of so many famous victories in the past, but the celebrated coach admits he got his tactics wrong on this occasion.

In the build-up to the UFC lightweight title fight, McGregor assured fans that no stone had been left unturned in his preparation.

However, in a recent post to social media, he painted a different picture.

"I gave his upright fighting no respect in preparation," wrote the 30-year-old Crumlin native. "I also gave my attacking grappling no respect. Too defense-minded. Listen to nobody but yourself on your own skill set. I must take my own advice."

It sounded like a strong criticism of his coaching team, which is headed up by Kavanagh.

Straight Blast Gym on the Naas Road in Dublin is thriving. With 600 members, it is at full capacity. However, when this reporter drops by, it's early in the day and Ireland's most famous MMA facility is relatively quiet.

McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh accepts some of the blame for the Las Vegas defeat. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh accepts some of the blame for the Las Vegas defeat. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cian Cowley, a friend of McGregor's, calls in to do some sparring. Two women in their early fifties sip tea in the lobby shortly after finishing a workout. Neither fit the image of the stereotypical MMA gym-goer. Perhaps the stereotype should be held up to greater scrutiny.

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Before entering the training area members are greeted by a sign that reads: "No shoes and no egos beyond this point."

The rules on footwear are relaxed for this scribe as he tip-toes through for his appointment.

The on-field melee in the Kerry club semi-final between Dingle and East Kerry
The on-field melee in the Kerry club semi-final between Dingle and East Kerry

Up on the first floor, overlooking the entire facility, is Coach Kavanagh's office. It's dark and untidy.

On his desk rests a laptop, as well as a screen displaying CCTV footage. A couple of mugs and a pile of stationery adds to the clutter. He apologises for the mess.

The stand-out features of Kavanagh's office are his three pet tarantulas.

"You don't want to get close to that one," he cautions. "She's an aggressive b***h."

The spiders provide an interesting talking point, but he knows that the topic of Vegas, and all that, tops the agenda.

"In preparation for the fight, when I watched Khabib's style, I think I became too defensive. I was thinking how to not lose rather than thinking about winning," says the 41-year-old.

"I haven't actually spoken to Conor since then, so I can't speak for him, but I've already put my hand up for that. I think that was a mistake I made and if we get a rematch, I would change it drastically."

If McGregor plans to avenge his fourth-round submission defeat, he will have to wait in line. Tony Ferguson is next up for a shot at Nurmagomedov.

Kavanagh still isn't entirely sure of his fighter's thoughts about the future.

"A rematch? I guess it really depends on Conor. We've had a few text exchanges since the fight, but I haven't had a face-to-face with him and, when we do, that will be my conversation with him. I'll ask him what his motivation is. Let's hear how much he wants to do. Is it one more fight, is it five more?

"There's that old saying that it's hard to get up and go running when you're sleeping in silk pyjamas. MMA is a tough, tough sport. The training is gruelling and he has his second kid on the way, so does he still have that (drive)? I think so."

UFC 229 was overshadowed by the brawl that ensued in the immediate aftermath of Nurmagomedov's victory. Kavanagh believes too much has been made of the Dagestani's decision to scale the octagon and make a lunge for McGregor's cornerman, Dillon Danis.

However, he was horrified by the actions of the three members of Nurmagomedov's team who entered the octagon to confront McGregor. He draws a comparison with the scenes that marred the recent Kerry county senior football semi-final between Dingle and East Kerry.

"Those players throwing punches at each other, I can kind of understand that. You're getting wound up during the game, somebody's giving you little elbows, you're frustrated, you're losing the game. Is it right? Absolutely not. But I can put myself in the mindset of what they did.

"So when Khabib jumped out of the octagon, it wasn't that big of a deal to me. He jumped down and shoved Dillon, Dillon shoved him back and it was over. What the other guys did was a lot more disturbing because Conor had a very tough fight and then the guy hits him in the back of the head.

"I saw one clip of the GAA match, where there was an older man and he hit a player. Again, the players are doing it and you're like, 'come on lads, give it up'. But an older man who's on the sideline? That made no sense.

"That's how I felt about those guys who ran into the octagon. They weren't involved in the fight, it was between Khabib and Conor. I think what they did is literally criminal."

Our discussion is intermittently disrupted by a high-pitched chirping sound. It's not instantly clear where it's coming from. Turns out, it's a tarantula's meal.

"That's just a little cricket chirping away," he reveals. "It's Sapphire's lunch. She obviously hasn't caught it yet, but that will be her next meal."

Kavanagh is at the forefront of MMA's bid for official recognition by Sport Ireland, but progress is slow.

He says: "Recognition matters to me. Like Pinocchio said, 'I want to be a real boy' - I want to be a real sport. I sometimes am envious of the likes of Katie Taylor and her coach. Any time they're being talked about, it's to congratulate her on winning a big fight.

"Shane Ross didn't want to meet me to say congratulations on training a two-weight world champion. My first time meeting him was confrontational, trying to justify my sport. I've been doing this for over 20 years.

"He's Minister for Sport and our most famous export, from a sport point of view, is Conor McGregor. So come out and visit the gym.

"Meet the likes of the neurologists we have here, meet the parents bringing in their kids, see what it's like for the day-to-day amateur training. See how it is and see the benefits it's bringing."

Irish Independent

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