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John Kavanagh: Conor is the more skilful fighter and he'll prove that in July

The SBG head coach writes exclusively for The42 on the announcement of the Diaz-McGregor rematch.

SBG Ireland head coach John Kavanagh.
SBG Ireland head coach John Kavanagh.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

ALWAYS TAKE WHAT you hear from a fighter in the aftermath of a bout with a grain of salt.

Understandably, after Conor McGregor was defeated by Nate Diaz at UFC 196, he was inundated with questions from the media about his next move.

A featherweight title bout against Jose Aldo or Frankie Edgar was mooted, and I would have been quite satisfied with either fight. However, the landscape gradually changed and that inaugural 145lbs title defence is now going to have to wait.

I don’t believe people should have microphones stuck in their faces immediately after a fight. There’s a lot going through your mind at a time like that so the response you’re forced to give may not necessarily be an accurate reflection of your views.

When we got back to the changing room after the fight, a rematch with Diaz was already being discussed. A defence of Conor’s featherweight belt was also mentioned, but as the hours drifted by, the frustration of not doing himself justice began to take hold and grate.

Conor chased this rematch. That’s how it has come about. He’s much more concerned about trying to give a perfect representation of his ability than he is about material things like belts or money. That’s just a fact. Money is certainly not a motivating factor anymore because he has already made plenty of it.

Conor believes that the last fight didn’t accurately reflect the skills and ability he possesses, so he’s eager to address that. He ended up harassing UFC president Dana White and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta on a daily basis for a rematch. This is the fight that’s of most interest to him right now.

I doubt that any non-biased observer could look at the first round of that 5 March bout at the MGM Grand and not score it in Conor’s favour. For me, we saw the technical difference between the two fighters in that opening frame. The difference in the second round was down to cardio, and a cardio issue is much easier to rectify than a skill one.

Going into that second round, the gameplan was straightforward: repeat what had happened in the first round… for five rounds, if necessary. However, that’s not how it ultimately played out.

UFC 196 Mixed Martial Arts Source: AP/Press Association Images

Conor’s cardio wasn’t as it should have been, but there was certainly no complacency. We didn’t train any differently for the fight. I believe it was more a case of there being a strategy error i.e. trying to stop a bigger man who’s known for having a strong chin with every single punch.

When you’re landing punches on any opponent, it gets tiring. There’s no two ways about that. With a strategy adjustment, the fight is going to play out in a similar manner to that first round, but this time it will continue throughout the contest. I do believe Conor is the more skilful fighter and the first round was evidence of that. But we cannot make the same mistake by trying to remove his head with every single punch.

It was a fight that was set up on short notice and it didn’t go our way, but there are certainly no regrets about going ahead with it when turning it down would have been very understandable. The entire process has been a tremendous learning experience.

If Conor had gone through his entire career without pitting his skillset against that type of opponent, there would have been no window for learning. The Jose Aldo fight in December was iconic, it was beautiful to watch and all that, but we didn’t really take away a whole lot from it.

With this one, I feel we’ve yielded months of lesson plans. It has really reignited the fire in both Conor and myself. We’re excited about training for it and we’ve made some good plans which involve some adjustments, including spending a little bit more time out in Las Vegas. We’ll make some minor changes to the training to get used to that particular opponent and we won’t be overly-reliant on Conor’s left hand to secure the result.

That was Conor’s 22nd professional fight but I probably learned more about him from it than I had in his entire career to date. We had no excuses whatsoever for the loss. Second best on the night, simple as that. It’s gone. Learn from it and move on to the next one.

The win over Max Holloway in August 2013 — the only time Conor has been to a decision — was good in that there were 15 minutes of material, but there wasn’t much back-and-forth action to dissect. Max’s aim in that fight was to survive, rather than win. Nate, on the other hand, came forward and pursued the victory.

UFC 196 Mixed Martial Arts Source: Eric Jamison

We took a huge amount of information away from it and you don’t get that from short fights like Aldo, or even in a one-sided bout like Dennis Siver. This one was ideal as it highlighted some holes we need to fill in. As always, we win or we learn and we’ve certainly learned a lot from this one. The improvements will be very evident on 9 July.

We always knew that if Conor were ever to lose a fight, his detractors would revel in the result. To be completely honest, that hasn’t happened to the extent that I expected it to. The overwhelming theme of the majority of the messages we received was that people were blown away by the humility on display. It seemed to either turn people into new fans or just bigger fans.

Of course, some people will want to kick you while you’re down and I don’t mind that at all. I actually wouldn’t even begrudge anybody for doing so. That’s a big aspect of the entertainment side of the sport so you have to take the good with the bad. But the feedback has been mostly positive and encouraging, and I believe Conor has actually gained support because of how he handled it.

The wins never changed Conor so I don’t believe the losses will either. His confidence is a product of the training we do so it will be there again in the lead-up to this fight, because we will train in a way that makes us feel nothing but confident. If Conor went into the last fight and was completely wiped out in every area, it would be pretty hard to be absolutely confident going into a rematch.

But the skills were there. When the strategy veered off course, that led to exhaustion and the dynamic of the fight changed. An exhausted opponent is not difficult to defeat. That’s a mistake we made. Everyone makes mistakes, but the challenge now is to ensure that we don’t repeat them. The training and the strategy will be different this time. So too will the result.

* * *

On a related note, I’m delighted to announce that just over a week before Conor McGregor’s rematch with Nate Diaz at UFC 200, you’ll be able to get your hands on my autobiography — ‘Win or Learn’.

Published by Penguin Ireland and co-authored by The42‘s own Paul Dollery, the book will be available to buy on 30 June but you can pre-order your copy now from Amazon by clicking here.

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I’ve been working hard on putting the book together over the last few months and it has been a really enjoyable experience. Our rise to the top in the UFC is often described as an overnight success but I can assure you that it has been a long, long journey to get here.

I’m sometimes asked if I ever stop to pinch myself and allow it all to sink in, but that’s quite hard to do while you’re living in the moment. However, writing the book has afforded me the opportunity to take a step back and appreciate just how far we’ve come.

I hope you find it as fascinating to read as it has been for me to write.

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