Rising alongside his most famous student Conor McGregor, Irish MMA coach John Kavanagh has shot to prominence in world of combat sport and the UFC over the last two years. The 40-year-old martial arts expert is McGregor’s most trusted and senior strategist, and cornered the MMA superstar through each of his most dazzling performances defeating Nate Diaz, Jose Aldo, Eddie Alvarez, and more. While coaching McGregor to his status as a two-weight UFC world champion and superstar of the sport, Kavanagh also authored his memoir Win Or Learn.
During his early years, Dublin local Kavanagh pursued a career in engineering before being violently assaulted on the street in front of his girlfriend. Depression and anxiety turned Kavanagh onto martial arts, and he became the first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blackbelt in Ireland as well as a master of multiple striking disciplines.
After setting up his Straight Blast Gym franchise in a garage, Kavanagh discovered and mentored the young Conor McGregor and became the godfather of the Irish MMA scene. He continues to coach McGregor, and trains stars like Gunnar Nelson and Artem Lobov alongside a stable of rising MMA talent. Catching up during a seminar at his recently-opened SBG space in Leichardt, Sydney, I asked what we should expect to follow Mayweather/McGregor, and discovered an Australian connection that might surprise you!
Jacob Stone: You’re the godfather of Irish MMA, a scene that grew literally out from your garage to take over the world. Have you processed how crazy your life has been?
John Kavanagh: It’s been sixteen or seventeen years becoming an overnight success. There was ten years of hard work that went into it. That’s something I try to impress on young fighters – It’s not going to happen quickly. There is no escaping that ten years of daily training that you have to subject yourself to.
You’re gotta embrace that failure, deal with your losses, deal with getting tapped out, deal with losing fights. Keep pushing forward, and deal with all those losses as lessons. Gradually improve. When you keep at something, an opportunity will appear. For Conor, we got a short enough notice fight for Sweden, if he hadn’t done ten years of training it would’ve been a waste of time. But he was prepared.
Jacob: One of the setbacks was almost losing your new gym when it failed to move to another location. Your parents said they’d prefer you had another career. What would have happened if you’d listened to them?
John: Back then Irish MMA and Conor were completely unknown. Even the UFC was quite a small organisation, it wasn’t a definitive career path. It would’ve been easy to stop and focus on engineering. I could’ve gotten a pretty good job with that. But I couldn’t, I was addicted to this. It’s a passion, it’s a love. I’d have done this and continued to do security for the rest of my life, if that’s what it took.
Jacob: When you first started martial arts, it was because you were assaulted. How badly were you hurt, how did it affect you, and how common an origin story is this for martial artists?
John: I got badly beat up; I broke the orbital socket in my head and was badly concussed. The bruises healed in a week or maybe two, but the humiliation and depression that set in lasted six months, maybe even a year. I thought to myself ‘I can either stay in my room for the rest of my life, or I can deal with it’. I started to look at different martial arts, and what I got out of the sport martial arts like jiujitsu and boxing was a sense of confidence.
I thought I was doing it to learn how to defend myself in the street, but I wasn’t. I was doing it to get confident. I learned how to be confident and speak in front of crowd, meet other people. Okay, physically I learned how to defend myself but I never had to use it after that. That was the greatest gift that sport gave me, and I think the same is true for a lot of young men and women.
Jacob: Would you life have been very different without it?
John: Looking back, I can’t say the incident was bad because it knocked me onto a path, and look at it! I’m in Australia, talking to you. I’m living the dream. My hobby, my pastime and passion have become a career. And if that hadn’t happened back then, I would’ve just carried on the road of becoming an engineer. I enjoyed that as well, but this has been… it’s been pretty good.
Jacob: I’ve heard that head instructor Ben Power at SBG Australia was your first jiujitsu coach?
John: Even before I set up SBG, Ben was a presence. These days, if you walk into a school and there isn’t a black belt teaching, you’d walk back out. But back in the day, if there was a blue belt teaching, you’d think it was amazing. I was learning things out of books, and there were only white belts in Ireland at the time. I was training, and in walked this purple belt. A purple belt is god, especially to a bunch of white belts. It was Ben Power, and we hit it off. I got this concentrated training because we were rolling together everyday. I tried to be a vampire and suck all the knowledge out of him.
I think we have a similar personality in that we both really enjoy teaching, and are curious about how things work. Okay that sweep works, but WHY? I want things explained to me. Ben is similar like that, and he’s a funny motherfucker. He’s a lifelong friend that I just hadn’t met yet. And now here we are, and we’ve come full circle. All those years later, he’s the one that gave me a start and now I’m here giving the school a bit of a boost, and he’s SBG, you know?
Jacob: As the school here becomes more established, do you think we’ll have visits from more UFC stars like Gunnar Nelson and seminars here at SBG Australia?
John: I know Gunnar loves travelling and so does Conor. I’ll be going back with positive stories, and if they can get a break in their career to get away…It is difficult as they are always getting ready for a fight, and Australia is so far away. I’d love to come back annually.
Jacob: Will Conor defend the 155 pound belt?
John: Yes, absolutely. Right now the challenge of fighting an undefeated boxer is what’s getting him up in the morning, that’s what excites him. That’s where he is right now in his career. He’s got money, so he doesn’t need that. He’s got two belts, so that’s not really the challenge. So he keeps looking for a challenge, and Mayweather is the current challenge.
Let’s get that out of the way, and since he’s still a young man… for sure he’s going to be back in MMA. That’s where I’d love to see him. I’m an MMA fan, and an MMA coach. Let’s see who rises to the top!
Jacob: Who is likely to be his opponent?
John: Khabib doesn’t seem to be able to make the weight anymore. So… is it Ferguson? Let’s see. I could see it happening by the end of this year.
Jacob: Tony Ferguson? Nate? It will be an interesting matchup regardless.
John: Whoever it is, there’s a lot of good names out there.
Jacob: Who has represented the toughest opponent so far, and who has been your favourite?
John: Nate, I think.
Jacob: With any luck, we’ll see them do it again. Thank you for your time.