Coach Trip: John Kavanagh and his road to the UFC
With John Kavanagh’s star pupil Gunnar Nelson is set to make his UFC debut in Nottingham this coming weekend, JOE speaks to the Godfather of Irish MMA.
At UFC: Nottingham a man from a small island nation on the edge of Europe will walk into the belly of the Capitol FM Arena to the UFC’s Octagon; the ultimate proving ground. He’ll be representing his country, one that’s not typically associated with MMA; but one that wants to be.
Whether you’re talking about Gunnar Nelson from Iceland or his coach, Ireland’s own John Kavanagh the statement applies equally to both men. It’ll be John’s second walk to the Octagon with a fighter but this time it’s based on ability, last time it was probably more about novelty.
First time ‘round
When UFC 93 rolled into Dublin in January 2009, as always when the UFC plays away, there is a need to showcase some local talent. At the time Tom Egan who trained with John Kavanagh at SBGi was deemed to be ‘that guy’. He lost a lob-sided bout to a fellow debutant, John Hathaway from England, who has gone on to establish himself as quality fighter with the UFC.
“Tom was a local interest fighter and he knew they’d need a local guy. He was probably the best available at the time, but he wasn’t really ready. The UFC isn’t in Iceland and Gunni (Nelson) isn’t there because he’s a local interest fighter. He’s there because he is ready and mainly because he’s excellent!”
Quitting time? Never!
John is one of the men responsible to bringing the sport of MMA to Ireland and cultivating a strong foundation for the sport long before the UFC turned up. From humble beginnings John is now recognised as being one of the best coaches at one of the most successful gyms in Europe, let alone Ireland.
But it wasn’t plain sailing.
“I almost quit around 2005. I was kicked out of my premises in Rathcoole. The landlord didn’t like the idea of a gym in an industrial estate in case somebody walked under a truck or a forklift. I was in a bit of panic trying to find a venue, the country was booming so rents were on the up,” says Kavanagh.
“I was a week away from moving into a place in Tallaght when the landlord there decided it was too much hassle to get the place kitted out with showers and changing facilities. So I was pretty much ready to quit. I had interviewed for some engineering jobs and was headed back to civilian life. Then someone put me on to a guy who owned the building we’re in now. He was a sound guy but the place was in bits. I think I have a picture of the tree that was growing up through the middle of the building. So, I took out a big loan and started afresh…and we’re still there today.”
Having been on the brink of leaving the sport John now has a pro-fight team that holds championship titles across nearly every local promotion in Ireland and has two world champions at one the biggest promotions in the world outside of the UFC, Cage Warriors Fighting Championship. While it now seems a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ – getting an Irish fighter into the UFC hasn’t been one of John’s main motivations in coaching.
“Back in the early days I was just ‘in the moment’ as they say, so I never thought ‘how many wins does this guy need to get to the UFC?’ It was more a case of one fighter and one fight at a time. Like, ‘OK, this guy is fighting next, what do we have to do to get him prepared?’ Now, we’re at the stage where there are maybe four or five guys knocking on the UFC’s door. It’s been an evolution rather than a manufactured process.”
“Conor McGregor, Cage Warriors world featherweight champion, is probably one big fight away from a UFC offer. Then there’s Chris Fields, Cage Warriors world middleweight champion, Cathal Pendred, Owen Roddy, and Paddy Holohan who are the ones that just spring to mind as we’re talking.”
The Ireland-Iceland Axis
We spoke to John as he made his way from Amman, Jordan to Reykavik, Iceland via Frankfurt, Germany.
Having steered Chris Fields to his Cage Warriors world middleweight title, John was now setting his sights on a UFC debut and victory for his star pupil, Gunnar Nelson of Iceland.
“Gunni is probably the number one welterweight in Europe at the moment not in the UFC and it’s something he really wants to do, to fight in the UFC. So his father, Halli contacted the UFC and sent them over his portfolio.”
“I’m on my way to spend a month with Gunni to finish off his preparation. He’s just back in Iceland himself after some time in New York with Renzo Gracie. We’ll be teaming up with Cathal and Arni Issakson and the other guys at the Mjölnirgym in Reykavik.”
Due to his success in grappling competitions, his six submission wins and his black belt in BJJ, Nelson is renowned as a master on the floor. However, this has resulted in his stand-up game being over-shadowed or maybe overlooked.
“Gunni’s stand-up is excellent. He’s one of the few guys in the gym that hangs with Conor (McGregor) in the stand-up. I’ve had some excellent strikers come to spar at my gym and Gunni probably got the best of most of them. Once he gets the clinch, then forget about it the other guy is done. He was a karate champion in Iceland when he was 15 or 16. He used to regularly knock guys out with crazy head-kicks. When you’re world class at something people think you’ll be bad at some other aspect. Gunni is excellent everywhere.”
Now that John and his SBGi team have nearly reached the top of the MMA promotional mountain, he feels he probably has covered the hard yards, “I’ve spoken to a few coaches who have a number of fighters in the UFC and the hardest part is getting the first guy in there.”
A win for Gunnar Nelson would do his own employment prospects with the UFC no harm and would leave the door ajar for some of his Irish team-mates at SBGi to hopefully push through in 2013. It’s something that would bring tremendous pleasure to all at John’s gym, not just the fighters making the step up – “It’s an individual sport but there’s a huge team aspect to it. I hang all the belts on the wall and the team sees them as all their belts. One guy won it but he sparred and rolled and worked-out with lots of people in SBGi, so it’s a team effort and so is any success.”
John is also conscious that having a good fighter and a good coach backed up by a good team is crucial but there are a wider supporting cast that he wanted to acknowledge – “Eoin Lacey at the Irish Strength Institute has played a huge part in the success of SBGi and has really helped cultivate a professional attitude to training amongst the fighters. Also Bigshots Nutrition has supplied my gym and fighters with their supplements so big thanks to them for their support.”
The UFC returns to the UK on 29th September at the Capital FM Arena in Nottingham.
Irish viewers can tune into the main card on ESPN from 2100 on Saturday night.
I’ll be live tweeting from the Arena and will keep you posted on how John and Gunnar get on @GusRyan100.