The man behind Conor McGregor's MMA success

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – In Los Angeles on the first stop of the world tour to promote his Aug. 26 boxing match with the unbeaten Floyd Mayweather, Conor McGregor took a seat at a table and answered questions from a room filled primarily with boxing writers.

McGregor, the UFC lightweight champion and the biggest name in mixed martial arts, was no stranger to the limelight, but the attention he drew to that point was primarily from MMA journalists.

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One journalist, who was obviously skeptical of how an 0-0 boxer would manage to compete successfully against an Olympic bronze medalist with a 49-0 record and world championships in five weight classes, asked McGregor if he felt he could dominate boxing like he had MMA.

There were smiles and raised eyebrows from those boxing writers in the room when McGregor nodded his head and confidently said, “Yes. Absolutely. There is no doubt about it.”

One man, though, who was hardly surprised was John Kavanagh, a slightly built Irishman who had helped McGregor become one of the world’s most fearsome fighting machines.

He’d heard it all before, and had witnessed too many times to remember McGregor predicting he would do something years before he went out and did exactly what he’d said he’d do.

“To go in against a guy a lot of people call the best boxer of this generation and say he’s going to knock him out, that’s a bold claim,” Kavanagh said. “But that’s Conor. It’s Conor’s career. When he was making his UFC debut, which was not all that long ago, I remember him saying, ‘Within a few years, I’ll be a two-weight world champion, a two-weight UFC champion, and I’ll have my name alongside the UFC logo on their ring and in the promotion.’ If I had told you that then, you’d have laughed at it. But that’s Conor.

“It’s what he keeps doing. He makes these bold claims, and he backs them up with extremely hard work. I’ve seen him push himself to breaking limits in a number of his training camps, the Nate [Diaz] rematch comes to mind, but this one, he pushed himself to a new level again.”

Conor McGregor (R) works out with his head coach John Kavanagh during an open workout for UFC 202. (Getty)
Conor McGregor (R) works out with his head coach John Kavanagh during an open workout for UFC 202. (Getty)

Much of McGregor’s success is, in large part, due to the way this witty, humble man who aspired to become a math teacher, has molded him.

Kavanagh first laid eyes on McGregor in late 2006, when Tom Egan, an MMA fighter who trained under Kavanagh, brought McGregor with him to Kavanagh’s Straight Blast Gym in Dublin.

McGregor was training in boxing, but was looking to learn MMA.

He sparred that day with Owen Roddy, who is now his boxing coach; and Aisling Daly, a former contender in the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division. He dropped both with body shots.

Kavanagh tells the tale in his book, “Win or Learn: MMA, Conor McGregor and Me: A Trainer’s Journey,” of how he had to get into the ring with McGregor that day and put him in his place.

And it was an unremarkable first step on one of the most remarkable journeys the two men have made together. They’ve gone on to win championships and worldwide acclaim, but there was little difference between that first meeting when Egan introduced them than there had been with virtually any of Kavanagh’s other fighters.

“I wish the story was that the clouds parted and a thunderbolt and lightning struck the building as he walked in the door, but the truth is, he walked in the door like 500 young men before him had walked in the door,” Kavanagh said. “He came in with Tommy Egan, who was one of my better fighters at the time, and Tommy told me he was a good boxer. I obviously paid attention because of Tommy’s recommendation, but he was a 17-year-old, a 16-17-year-old kid who didn’t know anything about jiu-jitsu or grappling or anything like that. He was pretty raw.”

Kavanagh, though, saw something. It didn’t take a shrewd eye to see, because there was a glow that emanated from McGregor. He was brimming with confidence and he was eager to accomplish something.

He wanted to throw himself into the profession and establish a name for himself.

“He was very energetic and that was apparent from the get-go,” Kavanagh said. “He was quick-witted, had a good sense of humor and trained really, really hard.”

Early on, McGregor told Kavanagh he’d become a UFC champion one day, but he wasn’t at all eager in those days to train jiu-jitsu.

But Kavanagh schooled McGregor in the art of becoming a professional and slowly but surely turned him into a well-rounded fighter. McGregor got the benefit of time, as Kavanagh was willing to be patient as his new charge learned the game.

It wasn’t until McGregor was 12-2 and in what would be his final non-UFC bout that Kavanagh was finally convinced that McGregor was good enough to back up all his lofty talk.

At that time, McGregor held the Cage Warriors featherweight championship and was training to meet Ivan Buchinger on Dec. 31, 2012, for the Cage Warriors lightweight title.

McGregor won the title by first-round knockout.

“The Buchinger fight, to me, was when I really thought he was coming into his own,” Kavanagh said. “The fights leading up to that, we didn’t get to see too much of him. He got a lot of quick victories and they were over a lot of lower-level guys, if I’m being honest. But the Buchinger fight was his first fight against a pretty seasoned opponent who wasn’t intimidated and wasn’t going to be put out of there in seconds. Everything about that fight, the lead-up to it, handling the media, I thought there was a real maturity in that training camp and in that performance. That opened my eyes to how far he could take this.”

Conor McGregor hits a heavy bag while surrounded by media and supporters during a workout on Aug. 11. (AP)
Conor McGregor hits a heavy bag while surrounded by media and supporters during a workout on Aug. 11. (AP)

He’s taken it to a point where he’s on the verge of earning a nine-figure payday and making himself one of the most recognizable faces on Earth.

During their training camp in Las Vegas for UFC 178, when McGregor would face Dustin Poirier at the MGM Grand on Sept. 27, 2014, Kavanagh, Mayweather was preparing to face Marcos Maidana in a rematch on Sept. 13, 2014.

The entire McGregor team watched the fight, and McGregor looked up when the fight ended and made a bold declaration to his friends.

“Someday,” he said, ‘I’m going to fight that guy.”

And now, less than three years later, he will. Kavanagh is long since past the stage of doubting McGregor or questioning what he says. McGregor is a world-class athlete who has the kind of confidence most athletes would die to possess.

But he also has a wily trainer who knows how to keep him in check and maximize his performance.

Kavanagh is an integral reason for McGregor’s success, though he’d never say that. But he will say it’s not a joke to think that McGregor can pull this most unlikely of dreams off, as well.

“I’ve seen what he has done and we’ve been able to use the Paulie [Malignaggi] spars as kind of a measuring stick as to where we are,” Kavanagh said. “He has just taken things to another level. I get why a lot of people question this or don’t think he has a chance, but they don’t know Conor. If you knew Conor like I knew Conor, you’d understand why we all feel the way we do.”

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