'They just think Ireland, UK - same thing. It bugged me, and I know Conor wasn't over the moon'

John Kavanagh talks press tours, ‘simpler’ training for Mayweather, Malignaggi sparring, and The Money Fight.

AS THE CLOCK ticks toward the Combat Sports Event of the Century, John Kavanagh is all smiles.

He’s got a bottle of Heineken in one hand – his only one of the evening, mind, with BAMMA 30 kicking off in his hometown 24 hours later – and is using the other to embrace all-comers, most of whose greetings are of a vaguely congratulatory manner. ‘John, nice to meet you. Well done.’

It might be in reference to his remarkable coaching career in mixed martial arts, his ever-growing Straight Blast Gym dynasty, or the fact that the stratospheric sports star he helped craft recently manufactured a nine-figure boxing match with this generation’s greatest pugilist. It might be a sweeping aggregate of these accolades and more, but the fleeting conversations invariably veer towards Mayweather-McGregor before long.

“It’s obviously serious business,” he says, taking a break from the madness inside Lynx’s first pop-up shop in Dublin to discuss the upcoming insanity. “You’ve got to train hard and be ready. But at the same time, you have to enjoy it. When you’re looking back on it, there’s no point in thinking to yourself, ‘What was that all about, again?’ So I’m trying to enjoy every step of this crazy journey.”

It was that journey, from a hall on Dublin’s Hole in The Wall Road in 2008 to landing a globally anticipated fight versus combat sport’s cash cow nine years later, which ultimately swayed a major call in the lead-up to next month’s scrap: there would be no specialised boxing coach, and MMA striking guru ‘Rowdy’ Owen Roddy would continue to take the lead where tuning McGregor’s fists is concerned, with self-professed boxing newbie Kavanagh completing a two-man coaching team.

Even allowing for both men’s respective expertise, it’s daring to put it mildly. But theirs is a story built on a foundation of bold calls, and to deviate now might interfere with a dynamic which has reaped little but reward, says Kavanagh.

It’s just me and Owen. We’re the only trainers involved. You know, we thought about getting a boxing trainer involved, but we don’t have five years to prepare for this, we had – I don’t know – 11, 12 weeks. So if we brought someone else in, there’s the whole thing of trying to fit them into the way we do things. And at this stage, Conor’s not learning how to jab. He knows how to throw a jab.

“We kicked the idea around, and we decided, ‘You know what? We’ve gotten this far together, we seem to have a formula that works, let’s keep going with what we have.’”

And so all roads now point to Vegas once more, but this time for a professional boxing debut – the most lucrative bow in the sport’s history – as opposed to the typical UFC showpiece. Seeing McGregor, complete with his 0-0-0 record, being added to BoxRec was surreal to fight fans of all persuasions. But Kavanagh doesn’t anticipate his fighter will resemble a novice boxer in seven weeks time; in a recent interview with The Mac Life’s Andrew McGahon, for example, the SBG patriarch hypothesised that McGregor was on course to have completed the equivalent of 44 full boxing bouts by the time he climbs through the ropes at the T-Mobile Arena.

It’s quite the intensive introduction to pro boxing for the UFC lightweight champion, but his longstanding coach maintains that the heavy workload is made feasible by McGregor’s fluidity inside the squared circle.

“There would be a risk of burning him out,” Kavanagh says. “We certainly couldn’t do that for a UFC fight, because the sport itself is just a lot tougher on the body; you’re getting thrown on the ground, you’re going to pick up niggles and injuries.

But Conor’s just so elusive, when we do eight to ten rounds of boxing and we review the footage, he’s getting hit three times. Per session, that is, not per round! He’s just so hard to touch. So, it’s a lot tougher on the sparring partners – that’s why we have a gang of them, so we can rotate them and keep them healthy. But as for Conor himself, he’s racking up the rounds, getting that real-time feel of a fight without actually taking on any damage. One of my phrases is ‘he’s upgrading the software, but the hardware is getting no damage’.

“It’s a little bit simpler in that you don’t have to worry about the takedown. It’s just about foot positioning. I’m not exposing any huge boxing secrets in saying that with an opposite stance fight, it comes down to who can keep their foot on the outside. So we have to keep our eye on that.

“The stance is huge. The exaggerated, side-on stance in boxing, especially by Mayweather – if you did that in a [MMA] fight you’d have your legs kicked off you and you’d be taken down in a blink. Now we don’t have to worry about that – it’s literally just the hands. It’s simpler in that there’s less things to worry about, yet in another way more complicated because we’re going into such depth on a single aspect. It’s as though he was getting ready for a jiu-jitsu fight – we’d shelve everything else and just do jiu-jitsu to a really high degree. And now we’re having to do that for boxing.

“I’ve learned so much already, and I’m really enjoying the process.”

Conor McGregor Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

Kavanagh may well pick up a few more tidbits from straight-talking Sicilian-New Yorker Paulie Malignaggi, who’s regarded by many as the world’s most astute analytical mind on the safe side of the ropes. The recently-retired ‘Magic Man’ previously declared that he’d ‘knock McGregor’s beard off’ if they were to fight in his domain, labelling the Dubliner’s fight with Mayweather ‘a joke’.

He’ll get his opportunity to test McGregor’s whiskers in early August, when he joins the MMA icon’s training camp as a sparring partner. It will likely transpire as an educational experience for both, but by design or otherwise, it moonlights as a stroke of marketing genius; Malignaggi will also be Showtime’s co-commentator on the night, and will mic up ringside having already pitted his wits against McGregor the boxer. The entire prospect draws a smile from Kavanagh, who admits the move wasn’t his idea.

“I wasn’t part of bringing Paulie on board, but I think it was quite straightforward. Somebody from the camp reached out to him, and he was all for it. It’s great for us – he’s a very experienced boxer, he’s an ex-world champion, so let’s see how we move around with him. It’s just another body, you know? We’ve got quite a few sparring partners already, and we’ve quite a few more lined up, and he’ll be one of them, hopefully. I think he’s going to be commentating on the night which will be an interesting twist.

“He’s around the game obviously a long time, he’s a professional. He said he wasn’t going to talk about anything until fight night. If he’s sparring three weeks out, he’s not going to start blabbing about what’s happening in the gym. But on fight night it’ll be very interesting commentary for the fans, because it’s not someone who’s never been in the water. He’ll have been in the ring, he’ll have experienced the power, he’ll have experienced the different looks, the different stances, the different styles, the different tempos, and a few shots that we’re putting together.

“So to hear his perspective on it will be… Actually, I’m looking forward to watching the fight back and hearing it!”

David Haye v Tony Bellew Press Conference - Sky at The O2 Source: PA Wire/PA Images

There’s a globetrotting press tour to embrace first, all kicking off – perhaps in both senses of the expression – in Los Angeles’ Staples Centre next Tuesday. Kavanagh says with a shrug of his shoulders that he has no idea what his man is planning, and that he’ll be tuning in as feverish in his anticipation as the fans.

His tone changes to one of incredulity, however, when discussing the decision to not stage a press conference in McGregor’s hometown of Dublin. Wembley, says Kavanagh, simply isn’t close enough for Irish fans.

“It’s not! It’s not. I don’t know why it’s not coming to Dublin. If I say the Americans are idiots, I can see the headline! But it was very, very short-sighted. And it’s typical of American promotions, in my opinion.

“It’s like the UFC, when you go to Sweden and you do the walk-out time to suit people on the west coast of America. It’s ridiculous! If [Alexander] Gustafsson is fighting in Sweden, he should be walking out at 9:30pm Swedish time. And I see this as being that same short-sightedness, on behalf of some Americans… I’ll tone it down a bit!

You know, it’s a case of, ‘Where’s Ireland? Ah, that’s the UK, isn’t it? Let’s stick it in London’. And we were like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!’ They just saw it as a bigger audience. What’s Dublin got, 1.2 million people? And London has, what, 10 million? But who cares? Wherever you put it – let’s say they put it in a 10,000 stadium – okay, well that’s 10,000 people in London, but it would have been 10,000 people in Dublin. You would have easily filled the 3Arena, and then everybody in London would tune in anyway and watch it on Youtube. Absolute short-sightedness. They just think Ireland, UK, same thing. ‘Ah, it’s Europe’. It really bugged me, and I know Conor wasn’t over the moon about it either.

It’s just one of those things, concludes Kavanagh, before looking towards the final stop: The Money Fight. Intriguingly, he’s watched back old footage of Mayweather’s press tour with Ricky Hatton a decade ago, and insists that, for all his roguish bluster, ‘The Hitman’ seemed to submit to the artist then known as ‘Pretty Boy’ as the fight drew nearer. Indeed, he suggests it’s often the case with Mayweather’s foes that they adopt the B-side mindset, and are subsequently punished. In theory it’s a mirror image of most of McGregor’s fights in the octagon; there’s armchair psychology, and then there’s watching the UFC’s 10-year-undefeated, pound-for-pound finest wildly over-extend 10 seconds into his career-biggest fight.

Incredibly, Mayweather and McGregor are yet to meet in person, but Kavanagh warns that when two of combat sport’s largest personalities do finally collide, it will be the brash Irishman who asserts dominance – one which Kavanagh believes he can carry with him through the ropes in Vegas.

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“Now, I’m new to the boxing world, I’ll put my hand up – I’m only starting to watch it now. And I have to say, I’m getting obsessed about it. But here’s what I think will be a big difference in this fight: what I have noticed a lot, is that Mayweather’s opponents seem to be just happy to get in there with him. They’re happy to be ‘the other guy’.

“I just see their heads down, Pacquiao – I know he’s a religious guy, or whatever – but he just seems happy to be there. Collect the pay cheque, accept the loss and move on.

“You could not get any more opposite to Conor than that! He’s going to dominate from the press conferences to the weigh-in, to walking into that ring.

“Mayweather is an older man, he’s 40, he’s from a slightly different generation of combat sports. His prime was, say, 10 to five years ago. But it wasn’t the same then. There was no such thing as Snapchat, there was no such thing as Insta Stories. It’s a new world that he’s entering, and Conor’s the ruler of it.

I’ll word this carefully: in the ring, Mayweather is going to get zero respect in terms of, Conor’s not just going to be happy to be there. He’s going in with one goal, and as a team we’ll all be happy with only one result. And that’s Conor stopping him.

‘Zero respect’, however, will not extend to the Queensberry rules. There will be no extra-curriculars, Kavanagh insists, amidst fears from some purists that ‘The Notorious’ might live up to his moniker and create mixed boxing arts.

“No. No, definitely not. We’ve had a professional boxing referee do all of his simulations, and this guy has no knowledge of the MMA world, but he said Conor was a fantastic boxer – that he obeyed the rules, listened to his commands, et cetera. Nah, definitely no kicks…

“Maybe one kick! I’m joking, I’m joking. We’re getting ready for a boxing fight. We’ll box.”

All we know for certain at this juncture is that the rounds already in McGregor’s bank will be topped up by a metric crap-ton of money. Anything else will be a bonus. But even after the interview ends, Kavanagh stays to chat about how, while he completely understands why some fans from both sports would pull back from Mayweather and McGregor’s masterly-crafted mega-event, he hopes casual fans will be sufficiently engaged to stumble upon Gennady Golovkin or Canelo Alvarez on a Youtube deep-dive, and immerse themselves in the wider genre of combat sports. He mentions again how he’s become obsessed with boxing, and how he’s watching hours of footage – much of which is new to him.

Perhaps, regardless of the result, if McGregor can give a decent account of himself on 26 August, it won’t be the last time he wields 10-ounce gloves.

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