It might not have seemed it at the time but fifteen years ago, in a gym barely the size of a garage, one of Ireland’s most enduring sporting stories began writing its first chapter.
A lot has happened in the decade and a half that John Kavanagh’s story has been unravelling but, as the man who has guided the careers of Ireland’s most famous mixed martial artists launches his autobiography Win Or Learn in Dublin’s Mansion House, he tells Balls.ie that writing this book afforded him the first real opportunity to zoom out and reflect upon his journey.
It was interesting to sit down and actually remember. I would be reflective about fighting and how the training is going but I was never one for spending too much time dwelling on past results, positive or negative. I would just try and get the lesson from it, but if I’ve got this guy fighting in a week and this guy fighting in three weeks, you are always living in the future, running from one event to the next. We’re coming up to fifteen years now since I graduated and opened up my first place and it was nice to spend a bit of time to go through that. If I was to say an emotion that I went through, not that I encourage it or allow myself it too often, but a little bit of pride.
My parents are sitting out there now, proud as punch but it feels like yesterday they were telling me I was an idiot. My gym was the size of this room, my mam crying and my dad saying, ‘what if you break your back?’ That was always his story, ‘what if you break your back?'
Kavanagh’s parents’ opinion of what he was doing echoed the broader public debate about mixed martial arts that continues to this day. Slowly though, things began to take shape and people began to take notice. Young kids, all with their own different stories, hopes and dreams, began showing up to Kavanagh’s gym, eager to learn – long before MMA was even close to being considered something that could lead to career.
And it was these people who would graduate from plumbing apprentices, or former schools rugby players, to some of the biggest names in a sport that was going global, dragging the sport with them from GAA halls to Ireland's biggest indoor arena.
And once somebody cracks open that door, it is left ajar for others to follow them through.
Kavanagh has a new wave of fighters coming through his gym. Dylan Tuke recently signposted himself as one of the most exciting prospects in the sport with a decisive win at the last BAMMA show in the 3Arena. James Gallagher, who Kavanagh has trained since his early teens, will make his Bellator debut next month while Frans Mlambo is a world amateur champion. Kavanagh feels that this could never have happened without the groundwork that came before them and the willingness of the likes of Conor McGregor, Cathal Pendred or Aisling Daly to keep showing up at his gym and work hard, even when there was no reward in sight, will echo throughout Irish MMA for years to come.
The likes of James Gallagher now and Dylan Tuke, it is a whole lot easier now when they see the success of Conor. They can see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Whereas I was looking at these guys running themselves into the ground with no real solid goal at the end, other than getting better. I really took a lot from their resilience. I really felt I had to throw it all in. I couldn’t let these guys down. These guys are killing themselves to fight for fifty euro.
For someone whose mantra is that you win or you learn, Kavanagh, even his position as one of the most successful coaches in mixed martial arts, is still learning and even from his own students.
From a technical point of view, I think my first wave of guys and I were sort of figuring this out together. Now, if I’m dealing with a 17 or 18-year-old, I’ve quite a decent body of knowledge but back then, coming up with Gunni, Conor and Ais, all of these people, I took the coach role but I felt we were all in this together, so from a technical point of view I’ve learned an enormous amount from them.
There are a couple of stories in the book where certain gyms fell through and you do think ‘what’s the point of all of this?’, I felt like I was hammering my head against something and I’m not getting anywhere. If I’m on the radio I’m just being told I’m encouraging dog-fighting, when I’m trying to get a gym it seems to be collapsing, you apply for a grant and you’re told what to do with yourself. Certainly [my fighters'] resilience was inspiring to me.
With Conor McGregor's rematch with Nate Diaz on the horizon, Gunnar Nelson looking every bit a future welterweight champion and a new generation of young fighters coming through, the idea is that Kavanagh and his stable of students will continue to both win and learn.
And though his autobiography now sits on bookshelves across the country, you get the feeling that this story isn't told just yet.
John Kavanagh's first book Win Or Learn is out now.