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Dublin: 11°C Sunday 18 April 2021

'There was nothing to smile about here. He was in trouble and it startled me'

In an extract from his autobiography, John Kavanagh recalls Conor McGregor’s defeat to Nate Diaz.

CONOR McGREGOR’S HEAD coach John Kavanagh recently released his autobiography, which culminates with McGregor’s defeat to Nate Diaz at UFC 196 back in March — a result the Irish fighter will aim to avenge this Saturday night.

In this extract from ‘Win or Learn’ — reproduced with permission from Penguin Ireland — Kavanagh looks back on the night Diaz stunned the MMA world in Las Vegas.

Conor McGregor weights-in Source: Raymond Spencer/INPHO

I’ve always felt that having a relaxed mindset going into a fight is a positive, but maybe there’s such a thing as being a little bit too relaxed. Both backstage and in the arena itself, it seemed like there was a party atmosphere at the MGM Grand for UFC 196. It didn’t feel like any other UFC event I had been involved in. Even in the changing rooms beforehand it was difficult to process the fact that there was a fight ahead.

From Conor’s perspective, everything was fine. The warm‑up was good and he was looking as sharp as ever. But this was our fourth time in these changing rooms in the space of eighteen months and this time it just felt different.

This was the first time at the MGM Grand that we walked out after the opponent. As we waited for our turn to go, I had my eyes on one of the TV monitors backstage. For a split second, I actually said to myself: ‘Oh, cool. Look, Nate Diaz is fighting.’

I quickly checked myself and remembered that I wasn’t sitting at home watching a UFC event from the comfort of the couch. Yes, Nate Diaz was fighting, but we were the ones in the opposite corner.

When we walked out and positioned ourselves beside the octagon, I was excited. These were two alpha male warriors going toe‑to‑toe. There were no belts on the line, no drama over weight-cutting. It felt like old-school prize-fighting. One martial artist testing his skills against another. This was purely about ability. As a spectator, I was eager to find out what would unfold. This contest was going to be a privilege to watch.

The first round played out pretty much as I expected. At the end of it I was relatively satisfied, but not completely happy. While Conor landed plenty of good shots, I noticed early on that he was winding up a lot on his left hand. He was sort of falling into shots, which is something he usually would never do. He connected well a couple of times and sensed that Diaz might be about to fade, which is what usually happens when he lands those punches.

PA-25751621 Source: AP Photo/Eric Jamison

He felt that a finish was imminent, which only served to convince him to wind up that left hand more and more in order to pursue it. He was investing a lot of energy in those punches, instead of using the clean technique that he has become renowned for.

Late in the round, Conor gave up a single-leg takedown. However, he reversed it well by using the type of jiu-jitsu that he never seems to be given credit for. It was beautiful work against a BJJ black belt to finish the round on a positive note. That was one round in the bag, 10-9 to Conor.

I made my way into the octagon at the end of the round. When Conor sat down on the stool, I was taken aback. His mouth was wide open and he was breathing heavily. Okay, I thought. I haven’t seen that before. That was a concern. He had put a lot of energy into searching for a knockout punch and it was evidently taking a toll on his gas tank.

Nate Diaz is not easy to put away. He had already proven that over the course of his nine years in the UFC, during which he had been stopped just once in twenty-one fights. I encouraged Conor to slow things down in the second round; to work his jab and fire off some leg-kicks while staying on the outside to reduce the intensity that we had seen so far.

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You can afford to do that against Nate Diaz. He won’t look to maul you. There’s scope to hover outside of range for a round to get your breath back, if necessary. That’s what I wanted Conor to do. We weren’t in any hurry to win this fight. With a potential twenty minutes still remaining, the opportunities for a stoppage would eventually open up.

Within the first few exchanges of the second round, however, Conor was loading up the left hand again, picking up where he had left off. Maybe he felt something in there that I didn’t — I trusted him — but I knew that approach was taking a toll on his energy reserves. I could only hope that it wouldn’t backfire.

Nate Diaz in action against Conor McGregor Source: Raymond Spencer/INPHO

Conor was still in the ascendancy early in the round, but the tide soon began to turn. Just beyond the midway point, Diaz landed a nice straight left square on Conor’s face. Then I saw something I had never seen before: Conor’s legs wobbled. I had never once seen him rocked by a punch. He was hurt. We’ve been working together for ten years and this was the first time I’d seen Conor hit so cleanly.

Ordinarily, if he’s hit by a punch, Conor’s default response is to smile at his opponent, walk forward and send three or four back in return. But a situation like that is a challenging one for me. The coach in me wants to steer the fighter back into the contest in pursuit of the victory. But as for the friend, the brother, the guardian? His protective instincts are heightened and the priority is the safety of the fighter. For that side of me, when I see one of my fighters hurt like that, the result ceases to matter.

Conor did his utmost to keep himself in the fight, and he was able to catch Diaz with a couple of good shots in spite of the pressure he was now under. But with little over a minute remaining in the round, he put himself in danger with a laboured takedown attempt. Diaz was able to sprawl before attacking with a guillotine-choke attempt. Just as he had done against Chad Mendes, Conor sought to use ‘The Heartbreaker’ to squirm free, but he was unable to complete the roll — probably owing to fatigue — so he couldn’t make it out.

Diaz maintained top position and moved into full-mount, while landing heavy shots. It was an ominous situation for Conor. Exhausted and at the mercy of a high-level BJJ practitioner, he tried once more to break free but ended up exposing his back momentarily. Diaz needed no invitation to seize the opportunity. He locked in a rear naked choke and there was no way out. Conor tapped, referee Herb Dean stepped in to confirm the biggest win of Diaz’s career, and a deafening silence at the MGM Grand greeted Conor McGregor’s first taste of defeat in the UFC.

While the rest of the world began to come to terms with the implications of such a shocking outcome, the result was the furthest thing from my thoughts at that moment. I needed to know that Conor was okay. That straight left had hurt him and he’d taken a few more after that too. Even if he had won, my initial thoughts would have been the same. He had shipped his fair share of damage. It was much later, when I thought about the impact of the defeat, that I said to myself: ‘I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure I never see him hurt like that again.’

When I entered the octagon in the aftermath of the fight, I was relieved that he seemed okay physically, but the emotional pain he was enduring was written all over his face. I hugged him and delivered a message.

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

‘Who else is doing what you’re doing? Who else would move up two weight classes and fight a top guy on less than two weeks’ notice? You could have backed out of this when dos Anjos pulled out and nobody would have said a negative word, but unlike what everybody else would have done, you didn’t even give it a thought. You hold your head up high and speak positively when you’re on that microphone. Be proud of what you’re doing because I know I am. Remember what Fedor Emelianenko said: “Only those who never stand up, never fall down.”’

Next, Conor spoke to Joe Rogan. For the first time, he was doing so as the defeated fighter. It was a bitter pill for him to swallow but he handled it with grace and humility. People appeared to be surprised by that afterwards, but I expected nothing less. He had experienced losses earlier in his career. He had been here before. This time, the difference was that the entire world was watching.

Published by Penguin Ireland, ‘Win or Learn’ is available to purchase now by clicking here.

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