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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 24 February 2021

'Paddy Holohan is the people's main event at UFC Dublin' - John Kavanagh

The latest from Ireland’s leading mixed martial arts coach in his exclusive column.

inpho_00970706 SBG Ireland head coach John Kavanagh. Source: ©INPHO/Gary Carr

AFTER A THREE-MONTH break from UFC action, Straight Blast Gym fighters will be back in the octagon this weekend — and where better to return than right here in Ireland?

We have Cathal Pendred, Aisling Daly and Paddy Holohan all involved at UFC Fight Night 76 at the 3Arena in Dublin on Saturday night. There’s a great buzz in the gym at the moment and I really can’t wait for the show.

Last week, news emerged that the heavyweight bout between Ben Rothwell and Stipe Miocic had been cancelled due to an injury to Miocic, which left the co-main event slot vacant. I fully expected Paddy Holohan’s fight against Louis Smolka to fill the void, so I was quite surprised when it initially went to Norman Parke and Reza Madadi.

Norman has lost his last two fights and he’s not from Dublin, but Paddy is a local guy with massive popularity and he has won both of his last two. It seemed a bit odd, which is what prompted me to tweet UFC Europe about it. Yet within 24 hours, UFC president Dana White went on Twitter to announce the change of plan — that it would, in fact, be Holohan versus Smolka in the penultimate bout of the night.

If somebody was being bumped up to replace the co-main event, it had to be Paddy. I’m delighted it is and so is he. It just adds that extra bit of flavour. I was somewhat looking forward to being finished early on the night, because it doesn’t happen very often and it can be nice to sit back and enjoy some fights with a beer. But we’re in the co-main event now so I’ll be busy right the way through.

In July 2014, Paddy fought in the very first fight of the night on the prelims at UFC Dublin for his debut in the octagon. Fifteen months later, he’s in the co-main event on the same show. That’s a pretty incredible rate of progress and it’s well-deserved.

“This show needed somebody big to fill Conor McGregor’s shoes and blow the roof off the 3Arena, and there’s no better man than Paddy.

Of course, you have to do the training and win your fights, but you also have to embrace the media side of the game. And that’s not easy after a while; constantly answering the same questions and having to do all this filming work at a time when maybe you just want to rest and recover during your training camp. But the guys have to realise that that’s a necessary element of being rewarded with these high-profile slots and sponsorship deals. These guys are hard workers. They’re putting in the work on all fronts.

As for the main event itself between Joe Duffy and Dustin Poirier, it’s a fight I’m looking forward to sitting back and watching. But as Ariel Helwani sometimes says, Paddy Holohan’s fight is the people’s main event at UFC Dublin on Saturday night and few people will argue with that, I believe.

It’s not a mystery as to why Joe — the last man to beat Conor McGregor — has been given this main-event slot. Obviously Joe has done really well so far, picking up two solid stoppages, but he’s got a big step-up in competition here. There’s a lot of pressure involved when you go from the prelims to a main event in such a short space of time. I’m looking forward to seeing how Joe handles that.

UFC Fight Night Boston Irish UFC flyweight Paddy Holohan. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Aisling Daly fights Ericka Almeida on Saturday. Ais has just blown me away in her preparations for this fight. I can’t speak highly enough of her right now. Whatever about the physical side of the game, but also in how she has been such a strong, positive voice for mental health issues in Ireland. We get so many messages from all around the country, and from other parts of the world too, about the fact that Aisling’s story is one of hope. A light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel story.

She lost a couple of fights, turned it around by getting treatment and therapy, and now this beaming, smiling girl has returned. The old ‘Ais The Bash’ is back. It’s a joy to see. The fairytale ending would be a good win on Saturday night, but Aisling understands that everything in sport has to be earned. She has certainly put in the work, however, and whatever happens in the fight, I’ll accept it and so will Ais, because there is not a single thing more she could have done to prepare.

She’s been basically living in the gym for the last three months, but now it’s just about the fight. With the calibre of athletes we have at Straight Blast Gym, it takes something special to stand out and impress me. But Aisling has blown me away lately.

Like Aisling, Cathal Pendred also goes into Saturday’s fight — against Tom Breese — aiming to rebound from a loss. As always, Cathal has left no stone unturned in his preparation and he’s ready to deliver the kind of performance he’s been looking for.

With such a large roster to manage nowadays, the UFC appear to be taking a more ruthless approach when it comes to cutting fighters. Any fighter who’s entering their next bout on the back of a loss is probably looking over their shoulder, so I’m sure that will be on their minds. However, it pales in comparison to the overall picture, taking into account the fact that it’s in Dublin in front of 10,000 screaming people.

With these guys, what people don’t understand is that pressure doesn’t seem to have an impact on them in the same way it would with a normal person. I don’t think a normal person could compete in this sport at this level.

When you break down what this sport is, you’re walking into a cage on a Saturday night to have a fist-fight with someone until one of you quits. That’s such an unusual thing, that if someone tells you that you could be cut by the UFC or people are saying mean things about online, that all seems very small and insignificant when you factor in that there’s a well-trained mixed martial artist on the other side of the cage who’s trying to finish you — while the eyes of the world are watching. When you put it in that perspective, I think everything else becomes very easy to deal with. 

Conor McGregor isn’t involved this weekend, obviously, but he’s busy putting in the work for his featherweight title unification bout against Jose Aldo at UFC 194 in Las Vegas on 12 December. He came back from the US six weeks ago with such a revitalised energy and he’s at the gym all the time. I’ve arrived there some mornings recently to find that the lights have been left on because Conor had been there at 2am the night before and forgot to turn them off before he left.

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Conor is in a good routine and it helps that Gunnar Nelson is here too. He’s training and living with Conor at the moment. On the outside they might seem like yin and yang, but Conor and Gunni bounce off each other so well because they’re the exact same person when it comes to training.

As an MMA fan, it’s a joy to watch them on the mat and observe what they’re coming up with. As a coach, every time I watch them do a round I get a month’s worth of lessons out of it. These are good times. 

Gunni also fights at UFC 194, taking on Demian Maia. Since Gunni entered the UFC, this was a dream fight for me. I didn’t think it was going to happen, worried that they were on different trajectories and that Maia was going to call it a day before they got the chance to cross paths. So I almost couldn’t believe it when it was announced.

inpho_00829110 Gunnar Nelson is in Dublin preparing to face Demian Maia at UFC 194. Source: ©INPHO/Rodrigo Romos

I’ve been joking with Gunni that even if he’s winning the fight on the feet, I’m going to tell him to pull guard because we have to see grappling in that fight! It’s two of the slickest jiu-jitsu guys on the planet in a modern-day MMA fight. I get chills thinking about that one.

Lastly, there was some very significant news for Straight Blast Gym this week when we announced a partnership with Reebok. SBG is synonymous with excellence in mixed martial arts and Reebok is a major brand which has always been associated with excellence in sports, so this partnership fits nicely for us both.

A brand of that stature also just brings more legitimacy to the entire set-up. It’s a Reebok training centre, there’s only a handful of them around the world, and we had to agree to match certain standards they insist on… which suited me fine, as we also insist on implementing those high standards, so we ticked all the boxes.

They’re obviously already sponsoring the UFC and Conor McGregor, in particular, but now all of our coaches, fighters and staff will also be kitted out in Reebok gear. It’s a particularly big deal for the amateur fighters because it gives them a sense of pride and satisfaction to know that they’re wearing the same equipment as Conor.

But getting back to UFC Dublin, I’m looking forward to seeing you all there on Saturday night for what I’m confident will be yet another memorable night for Irish mixed martial arts.

Paddy Holohan ready to take the next step towards a title shot at UFC Dublin

‘You gonna do somethin’ about it?’ – Things get feisty with McGregor in the next TUF episode

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