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Recognition of MMA in Ireland, mandatory brain scans for SBG and what's next for McGregor

John Kavanagh brings us his latest exclusive column.

Paddy Holohan and John Kavanagh John Kavanagh Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

WE’VE HAD OUR fair share of memorable moments and achievements this year, but one of the most significant developments from 2016 from my perspective took place away from the bright lights of the UFC.

It has been very satisfying to see the progress of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation [IMMAF] and how the amateur scene has begun to move in the right direction.

There’s now a real sense of pride in becoming the amateur European champion or the amateur world champion. That gives those amateur athletes something significant to aspire to at that stage of their careers. We’ve had this strange urge in MMA to rush through a few amateur fights and then turn professional as quickly as possible. I believe that’s the wrong way to look at it.

There are so many boxers who compete at a high level as amateurs and then they leave it at that. That’s great. Now there’s a proper path for amateur MMA fighters too. Being an amateur world champion doesn’t mean you’re only second best. It’s a lofty goal to aspire to. I believe that will provide a strong foundation for the sport, not just in Ireland but all over the world. I see that as one of the major positives to come out of 2016.

One development that we’ll bring into 2017 relates to the health and safety of fighters. As the owner and head coach at Straight Blast Gym Ireland, I’ll be making brain scans compulsory for all my fighters.

It’s a heavy financial burden. I don’t deny that. But, thanks to Professor Dan Healy at Beaumont Hospital, fighters can now avail of these scans for only €150, which is unbelievably cheap. They’re paying over £500 for that in the UK. At €150, it would be remiss of coaches not to capitalise on this opportunity.

UFC 205 Mixed Martial Arts Conor McGregor Source: Julio Cortez

As we approach the end of a year which saw the tragic death of Joao Carvalho, the process of recognition for MMA in Ireland is still ongoing. It certainly didn’t hurt our cause recently when Conor McGregor was named RTÉ Sports Person of the Year.

I care about something like that purely because it further enhances the reputation of MMA as legitimate sport in the eyes of the public. Nevertheless, I know people’s views are still very strong on both sides of that debate. That’s the nature of being involved in a combat sport. Boxing still experiences that too.

There was a small temptation to tweet about the irony of the national broadcaster’s Sports Person of the Year award winner going to someone in a sport which isn’t officially recognised as a sport in this country. However, our recent meetings with Sport Ireland have been very positive.

They are as anxious as we are to get the sport regulated in some form. The exact mechanism of that hasn’t been agreed upon yet but they’ve been very helpful and we’re following through with the advice they’ve given us.

If MMA is not a recognised sport by the end of 2017, I believe we’ll certainly be well on the road towards that with a very detailed map about how to get there. I’m very positive about that.

I can’t go anywhere at the moment without being asked about what’s next for Conor, but the honest answer is that I simply don’t know. He’s been away recently but we’ll chat in the new year.

I’ve been kept busy with my other fighters since Conor’s victory against Eddie Alvarez in New York last month. I can only afford to give my attention to fighters who have bouts coming up.

Darragh Maloney Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Conor is a very smart guy. He’ll let me know which route he wants to go down when he makes that decision. That will then be what we’re focused on.

He made it clear after his last fight that he’s keen to talk business with the UFC’s new owners. I find it utterly bizarre that they’ve yet to make contact. Maybe they’re spending their time trying to get a solid framework in place. I’m not sure.

It was much simpler in the old days in dealing with just Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta. Now you’re almost wondering if you have to ring Mark Wahlberg or one of the other investors. Maybe Conan O’Brien is the new matchmaker. Who knows?

These are strange, but interesting, times. We’ll have to see how this plays out. Certainly as the most valuable athlete on the UFC roster, you would think that he’d be heavily involved in these things but that hasn’t been the case yet.

There’s still plenty of exciting things on the horizon for my other fighters, including James Gallagher, who went 2-0 with Bellator this year. He’s planning to fight for their featherweight title in the next 12 months and I certainly think that’s possible for him.

I’m very confident in his skillset and I believe it’s an athlete’s duty to chase the toughest fights possible. If they don’t, I don’t think they’ll go very far. However, I also believe that it’s the coach’s role to temper that enthusiasm.

James is doing very well and has only just turned 20. There’s no rush. I like to see that attitude from a fighter but I have to guide them as well. Is a title shot by the end of 2017 impossible? No. But I want to make sure that when it does come, it’s at the right time.

James Gallagher celebrates his victory James Gallagher Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Artem Lobov hasn’t been given a date for his next UFC fight yet and I know the London card is full, so I’m not sure what their plans are for him. But he’s harassing me and the UFC every day about lining up a fight so when it does come, he’ll be ready.

Gunnar Nelson was disappointed to have to withdraw from his fight at UFC Belfast last month because of an injury. He didn’t want to set a date until he’s back in training fully. He’s very nearly there. At that point he’ll be ready in six weeks so I would expect to see him back in action in the first half of 2017. He’s in a position now where one or two really good performances could put him in the title mix by this time next year.

This is the time of year when people make new resolutions but, for me, nothing really changes from December to January. We don’t do seasons, we don’t do years. There’s no holiday. There’s always a fight on the horizon for someone here so whether it’s 2016 or 2017, we keep going just as we always have done.

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to an enjoyable few days over the Christmas period before we get the show on the road again, with another UFC debut for SBG on 28 January when John Phillips fights in Denver.

Thanks for all your support. Merry Christmas.

Conor McGregor crowned 2016 RTÉ Sports Person of the Year

John Phillips becomes the latest SBG fighter to be signed by the UFC

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