Pundit Arena caught up with John Kavanagh of Straight Blast Gym; a major player in the world of Mixed Martial Arts. SBG is home to the UFC’s Conor McGregor and Cathal Pendred among others and trainer John Kavanagh is the man behind all of the success.
What a whirlwind twelve months it has been for John Kavanagh and Straight Blast Gym. With the global success of their poster boy Conor McGregor continuing to reach new heights, Kavanagh and his team of fighters recently moved into a brand new high performance facility on the Naas Road, Dublin. The move epitomised Kavanagh’s habit of upsetting the odds. Becoming a mixed martial arts (MMA) trainer at the age of just eighteen, Kavanagh’s desire and will to succeed has been the driving force behind the immeasurable growth of MMA in Ireland.
Speaking about the move, Kavanagh admitted that it was a milestone on his ultimate goal of ensuring that MMA becomes one of the biggest sports in Ireland, and that the “wow factor” one feels when walking into the new gym is invaluable. However, Kavanagh expressed his utmost respect for the other fight clubs in Ireland that continue to get results despite having very limited facilities. “It’s a testament to the clubs throughout Ireland that they have been so successful. With zero grants and zero backing, some of the trainers have to run mini-MMA events to earn some money.
“When you look at the facilities of rugby clubs, GAA clubs, etc. throughout the country and compare them to MMA gyms, there is a huge gap. Especially when we’re trying to do it all off of membership fees.”
The issue of grants, or lack thereof, is something that Kavanagh speaks very passionately about. Currently, MMA fighters receive no funding. Not one cent. This is detrimental to the growth of the sport, as a lot of fighters that are trying to reach the elite level are doing so while drawing the dole. Mental health is an extremely important aspect of a fighter’s preparations, and the constant stress and worry that accompanies financial uncertainty is something that Kavanagh witnesses every day.
“It is very difficult for the fighters. However, I do not have a whole lot of time for people that make excuses. A lot of people go through hardship to get to where they need to be, but of course it would be nice for the guys to have more resources available to them. I joke with Gunny (Gunnar Nelson) and Conor (McGregor) that when you need money, you can’t get it. However, when you don’t need it as much, people are throwing it at you!That’s just the reality of how things are. If you want something bad enough, you’ll make it happen.”
Kavanagh believes that the implementation of a minimum qualification for MMA trainers to operate is a key component of securing the future of the sport, and ultimately paving the way for Irish Sports Council grants for MMA fighters.
“I do think there are some fantastic dedicated and knowledgeable coaches in Ireland, but there also guys that are not at that level. I’d love to be able to see coaching courses and qualifications come in that are recognised by the government through the Irish Sports Council so that we can separate ourselves from people that are too under-experienced and under-qualified to be running MMA schools.”
When asked how realistic a goal this would be, Kavanagh’s answer was as defiant as ever, oozing confidence with every word. “Every step along the way for the last decade has been an unrealistic challenge, but I’ve still done it. It’s going to happen.”
Despite the colossal growth of MMA in Ireland over the past few years, there appears to be a certain stigma that the sport cannot shake off in some quarters. However, Kavanagh referred to those that believe the sport to be ‘barbaric’ as “ignorant”, as they “do not know the facts surrounding the topic that they are commenting on.”
As Conor McGregor’s trainer, it was only natural that Kavanagh felt ‘The Notorious’ was capable of removing this stigma and bringing MMA to the masses. “With Conor (McGregor) being very high-profile in the media and pretty much loved by everyone, he is definitely the character to break the mould. You could argue that it has already happened.
“With the run-up to the UFC in September, the sport is getting a lot bigger so I’m not too worried about that (stigma) anymore.”
Kavanagh is generally a calm person. However, when mentioning Conor McGregor, the tone in his voiced changed dramatically.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind,” he said excitedly, “that Conor will be a one, if not two, weight-class UFC champion. He will be recognised as one of the ‘G.O.A.T.s’ (greatest of all-time).” Strong words from one of the best trainers on the MMA scene.
“I can’t imagine that Conor’s success would have a negative effect on the rest of my fighters. If you’re training with someone that is at the level that you want to reach, then you can emulate what they are doing and also reach the top. With the new facility, there are longer opening times and better facilities. If you genuinely love the sport and want to be a world champion, then there is absolutely nothing stopping you. The blueprint is there, just go out and do it.”
Success, for all its greatness, still attracts detractors. It is a sad reality of life. However, Kavanagh is very respectful of the positivity that he receives from trainers throughout Ireland. “I’m always pleasantly surprised by the response of other trainers. They wish our guys well before the big fights and I’ll do the same when their fighter reach that level. There’s obviously a wee bit of negativity, but I focus on the positives at all times.”
This positivity that Kavanagh mentions is something that is reflected in the welcoming nature of SBG. The atmosphere is one of confidence and positivity and it’s clear that this mentality brushes off on the fighters, even if they are about to go toe-to-toe in an octagon.
“We’re careful to cultivate this feeling of positivity as a number of different people enter the gym. One might go down the road of becoming an MMA fighter, while the other might just want to train. Whatever the individual’s goals are, we ensure that the positivity is palpable throughout the gym.”
Kavanagh comes across as a very business savvy person and someone that is always looking to reach the next level. Many trainers would rest on their laurels and be satisfied with opening a gym of the size of SBG. However, John Kavanagh is not just any trainer.
“I set goals on a day-to-day basis. Today my goals are to train a class at 1:30pm and another at 8pm. If I continue to complete my goals every day then in time my results will reflect this hard work.”
When speaking about the marketing side of MMA, it was clear that Kavanagh sees himself as a leader amongst men in MMA circles. “You won’t see my fighters in the paper for any negative publicity. It is my responsibility and the responsibility of other coaches to ensure that we project a positive image. That is the most obvious thing that I can do to help out the other clubs in Ireland.”
There are a number of rivalries in Irish MMA circles, or octagons for want of a better word. Some are healthy, others are not. However, Kavanagh earmarked a number of clubs throughout the country as ones that are doing some great work.
“The MMA Clinic in Cork have got some excellent fighters coming up and it will be interesting to see how they transition to the pro game. I have no doubt that they will do very well. Team Ryano are also an excellent outfit. Another team that I believe will become a lot more active this year are Primal MMA under Owen Roddy. He has recently retired and this will free up a lot of his mental energy, which will have a positive effect on his training. I’m very curious to see how those guys do.
“Competition comes from two words; grow together. If we don’t have people to compete against then how would we get better? I look at competition as training. I don’t take the results as seriously as I would when we go travelling because I do believe we are here (in Ireland) to help each other grow.”
Once again the subject of mental strength came to the fore. It was clear from Kavanagh’s remarks that he values mental strength above all, especially as the skill level increases with professional fighters.
“In an amateur fight, you could have one guy beat another purely down to the fact that he knows more technically. If you were to imagine it as war, it would be like somebody with a sniper rifle a mile away fighting against somebody with a stick. It can really just come down to superior technology.
“However, at the professional game if you have two guys at a very high level, they’re not going to beat each other down due to knowing more techniques than the other guy. Everybody can box and wrestle and understands Jiu Jitsu at the higher level so what is the difference?
“The difference is one thing; the mental approach on the night. As skill level evens out, the mental side of things become more obvious.”
For many people, the rise of SBG and, in particular, Conor McGregor has been a quick one. However, for anyone involved in MMA , this rise has been the culmination of over a decade of training, hardship and pure dedication. Kavanagh is fighting a battle against the heavyweights of Irish sport and does so while exuding both confidence and composure in equal measure.
It is quite ironic that such a calm man has dedicated his life to combat sports. Kavanagh’s ambition is undoubtedly his most deadly weapon and this has rubbed off on his SBG Team. They have set the benchmark for all up-and-coming MMA clubs in Ireland.
It is often said that fighters live in a bubble, one where MMA is the be all and end all of life. The same rings true for John Kavanagh and his SBG Team. However, this bubble is expanding at a ferocious pace and there is no doubt that John Kavanagh will continue to be the driving force behind the advancement of Irish MMA.
Pundit Arena, Richard Barrett.