PAUL KIMMAGE McGregor has some incredible role model qualities
Renowned MMA coach John Kavanagh gives a passionate defence of his sport and his most notorious pupil — who he hopes will never ight again
TWO years ago, on the morning of my first visit to the Straight Blast Gym (SBG) on the Naas Road, I scribbled a last-minute warning in my notes. “The danger of interviewing John Kavanagh is that it becomes all about Conor McGregor.” His book,
Win or Learn had just been published and it was obvious, reading it, that Kavanagh was a seriously interesting man and I resolved not to make it about his fighter.
But how can we know the dancer from the dance?
It’s a wet Wednesday afternoon in November and we’re back in that same place, talking about a recent photo he posted on his Twitter feed of himself and McGregor flying to Vegas on a private jet.
“It’s been an extraordinary journey for both of you,” I observe. “Does it seem that way to you?”
“I won’t argue,” he says.
“I smile every day just thinking about it,” he says.
“I know a large part of the success of MMA as a sport in Ireland is down to him. I know the fact that we have a big healthy fight team and good sponsorships is down to him. I’ve had success with other guys, but without him this would have been just another gym. He made it different. For all the pros and all the cons he made it different.”
But there have also been clouds.
1 Under the Microscope
An overwhelming majority of Irish newspapers called the sport of MMA into question following UFC 229. Several publications outlined issues with UFC 229 based on the promotion of the intense hostility between the camps via the images of McGregor’s bus attack, the talk of a rematch despite the one-sided nature of the Russian’s win, the behaviour of the McGregor fans after the fight and, of course, all hell breaking loose after the final bell.
On Monday, in an article that ran in the Irish Daily Star headlined ‘Saturday stank, and the smell will linger: MMA’s image has taken a serious battering’, Kieran Cunningham questioned whether the scenes in Nevada would detract from Irish MMA’s push for regulation.
“Mixed martial arts still isn’t a recognised sport in this country. Anyone seriously think the scenes — in and out of the Octagon, in and out of the arena — from Las Vegas will go any way towards legitimising the sport?” wrote Cunningham . . . UFC is the most lucrative money-making machine in this brand of combat sports. It is not, however, the sport of mixed martial arts. The thriving scene that produced the cast of UFC’s Irish invasion, including McGregor, bears little resemblance to the landscape of the national sport at present. Peter Carroll on the fallout from the Conor McGregor v Khabib Nurmagomedov fight on rte.ie
Paul Kimmage: It’s two years since our last interview, John, and a point you made that looking after Conor, and looking after fighters, is just part of what you do.
John Kavanagh: Well, I still enjoy it but it’s not forever, and I know it will definitely die down for me. The forever is this — being here in the gym on a Wednesday afternoon — and I’ll never stop enjoying the amateur scene. We had the amateur world championships in Bahrain last weekend.
PK: Yes, I saw you tweeting to Leo Varadkar about it.
JK (Laughs): He didn’t respond. PK: He was lauding the rugby win over the All Blacks and you were reminding him that they weren’t our only successful team.
JK: Yeah, we came second in the medals table out of 51 nations behind the Russians, who are sponsored by the state and have 65,000 fighters. I don’t know if we even have 100 in this country, and they all paid for their own ticket, their own flight. So I was very proud of that — this little island nation, second in the world.
PK: How many fighters did we send? JK: Thirteen. We won three gold, two silver and three bronze, and all of the gold medallists were SBG, so I was proud of that too. Lee Hammond is probably the biggest name; he’s from Crumlin and quite tight with Conor. He got a bronze four years ago, and a silver the year after that, and it’s lovely to see that progression.
PK: Where are you in terms of regulation? MMA is still not recognised as a national governing body?
PK: Why is that taking so long?
JK: I’ll give you a basic outline. As a sport, martial arts is a bit of a mess. Every other day there’s a ‘kung fu’ or a ‘wing chung’ or something else coming at you — there must be about 50 different styles — and Sport Ireland have been pushing us all to join IMAC (Irish Martial Arts Committee). They’re saying we can’t have our own governing body because MMA is not an Olympic sport. But here’s the problem: IMAC hate MMA, it’s actually banned under their constitution, so how are we supposed to join IMAC if they’ve banned us?
PK: What’s their problem with MMA? JK: I think they have an image (of us) from the early ’90s, and the beginnings of UFC, where the sport was quite lawless and unregulated and a bit all over the place. Fair enough, I get it, but it has evolved a hell of a lot since. We’re medalling at international tournaments now and have almost 50 clubs in the country.
PK: Do they not recognise that?
JK: Not from what I’ve seen.
PK: I would have thought it was in their interest? That it would give them more profile to have you on board?
JK: Maybe. They’ve said if we apply and get rejected, they will have a meeting to discuss if the rule should be changed, which it might be, and then we can apply again. But it all seems very long-winded, and that’s frustrating, because if there was one thing left on this journey for me, it would be to walk away with the sport being recognised under Sport Ireland. PK: Why does that matter to you? JK: I think there’s a lot of prestige for kids to be able to say they’re doing, quote, ‘a real sport’. I’m always jealous when I hear Katie Taylor on the radio and they’re just talking about her achievements. She’s not asked to defend boxing every time: ‘Why do you like punching girls in the head?’ ‘You gave a girl concussion the last time!’ ‘Why is that allowed?’
JK: She’s treated with respect: ‘You’re great. We love you. You’re showing women they can be strong.’ And I would love if once, just once, we were treated the same: ‘Well done, John. We know Conor is a bit mad but fair play to you, we’ve been to the gym and seen the work you’re doing with those kids.’ It never happens, but I would drift away happy if it did.
PK: There are a lot of reservations towards you from the boxing community as well?
JK: Yeah, it’s part of their rules, I believe, that if you do MMA you can’t box.
PK: But you had a visit from Mick Dowling recently?
JK: I was delighted with that. My cousin is one of Mick’s top coaches and has been chipping away at him for years: ‘You should come out to John and see what he’s doing, they’re nice kids.’ Anyway, he came out and watched a class and said: ‘I can’t believe the amount of technique involved. I thought it was just brawls.’
PK: And that’s the struggle isn’t it? That’s your struggle? The perception versus the reality?
PK: You got into a spat with Joe Brolly recently and invited him out too.
JK: I think you have to experience it. You can go back and forward forever in 140 characters (on Twitter) but it just ends up being aggressive. Then the MMA fans jumped in and (compounded it) with bad language and I was like: ‘Well done guys, you’ve just shown him exactly what he thought the sport was about.’ I’d like him to experience it. I’d like him to come out and meet the parents, and the kids, and some of our amateur team that did so well on the world stage. And if he wants he can meet some of the pros as well and partake in a class. He might walk away and say, ‘You know what? I can’t stand it. It’s actually confirmed what I thought.’ But I’d say, ‘Fair enough, at least you gave it a shot.’
PK: I don’t imagine the fall-out from the Khabib fight has helped?
JK: No. I’m hoping it has blown over now but when something like that happens, and Brolly starts coming for you, you’re kind of just hanging your head: ‘Yeah, I see your point.’ But then, just after that, there were a bunch of incidents in the GAA and a referee was attacked on a soccer pitch and it was almost like the MMA gods had sent them to me.
JK: Of course, when it happens on a football pitch it’s just ‘Ahh, boys will be boys’. But when it happens in an MMA arena there’s outrage and headlines.
JK: I had a meeting with the team here and laid it out for them: ‘Look, if you want to see the future of the sport secured, you’re going to have to realise that it’s on your shoulders. Everything you do is under the microscope now — how you act in the gym; how you act in the nightclub; how you act at an event. And that might not be fair but it’s just how it is. We are not judged the same; those incidents on the GAA pitches and in soccer will be forgotten about very quickly, but anything you guys do will always get headlines. So it’s up to you to act above and beyond (reproach) at all times.’
PK: Doesn’t Conor have that responsibility as well?
JK: Yeah . . . yeah, he does.
PK: Is that a speech you’ve given to him?
JK: Well, you couldn’t really blame him on what happened after the fight, he just got hit from behind and . . . I guess you’re talking about the bus incident?
PK: No, I’m talking about a lot of the other stuff that’s happened since we last sat down together. I was hoping we could take it chronologically. I think that would be interesting.
JK: Yeah . . . (exhales) . . . But how do I talk about that without it becoming a headline?
PK: No, I understand, I won’t make it a headline.
2 The quicksands of Dublin
McGregor is late. McGregor is always late. He’s taken a lot of flak in the build-up for his salty tongue and ‘Fuck You’ pinstripes, but nothing says ‘Fuck You’ more than his penchant for keeping people waiting. Today he’s feeling generous — just an hour behind schedule — but has brought the usual mayhem: a shoving match with the Mayweather camp as they exit the Plaza. An exchange of obscenities with a recent sparring partner, Paulie Malignaggi, the former world welterweight champion. And the usual taunts and boasts about what he’ll do to Mayweather.
“I believe he’ll be unconscious inside one round.”
“I’ve already whopped one of the faces of boxing. I’m going to whop another.”
“I am calm and cold.”
John Kavanagh watches from the fringe. I retreat from the horde and sidle over for a word.
“Ah, you made it,” he says, surprised.
(I had told him I wasn’t coming.) “Yeah, but what are you doing here?” I reply.
(He had told me he didn’t do hype.) “Ahh . . . well,” he smiles. Sunday Independent September 3, 2017
PK: Okay, so the last time we sat down was a month before Conor beat Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden in November 2016 — his second world title and a massive success.
JK: Yeah, that was the peak in my opinion.
PK: You had a conversation with him at some sort of function just after that, you mentioned it recently on the Joe Rogan podcast.
JK: Yeah, it was at his sister’s wedding. PK: Here’s how you explained it to Rogan: “I remember we were at a function shortly after and I kind of pulled him aside and shook his hand and said, ‘Right, you’re done. All the best. Enjoy the rest of your life.’ He was shocked. I said ‘What else are you going to do? You’re a two-weight champion; you’ve got out the other end of this grind; this meat grinder, with no damage. You’re in a very small percentage and you’ve made plenty of money — off and enjoy yourself.’” JK: Yeah.
JK: Well it’s difficult, and very few people get it, but there is a very big difference between the amateur sport and the professional sport. The typical amateur sports journey is . . . you get into your teens, do quite well and hopefully represent your country; you go to college, get a job, finish competing and off you go with the rest of your life. You’re using bigger pads, big shin pads, and there’s less damage, less impact, than professional MMA. It’s like amateur boxing versus professional boxing.
JK: Professional fighting is very different: small gloves, no protection, and full on. It’s a super-tough sport, and the purpose of it is to make money. That Alvarez fight marked almost ten years to the day since me and Conor had started. He had just become a two-weight champion and had a bank balance like a phone number, and I think any coach in the world would have said the same.
PK: ‘Enjoy the rest of your life.’ JK: Yeah, I’d thought about it, and we had had a couple of drinks and I said: “What’s going to get you up in the morning?” I mean, as soon as you step out of the octagon they always ask, ‘What’s next?’ That’s normal. But the real question is: ‘What’s going to give you the shivers? What’s going to make you excited?’
PK: How did he respond?
JK: He just kind of laughed. I don’t think he took me seriously.
PK: But you were serious?
JK: Oh, 100 per cent. And I meant to follow up on it, because there’s a difference between a 1.0am conversation over a drink and a 2.0pm conversation over coffee, but life happened and I was busy with my gym and I didn’t really see him for a couple of months.
PK: Wasn’t he taking a break anyway? Had his son been born?
JK: I think it was close. So I didn’t see him, and I guess a part of me thought (he was done), and then the rumours started about Mayweather and I was texting him: “Any truth to this?” “Yeah, getting closer.” And then it all happened very quickly.
PK: Had he trained during that period? JK: On and off, but more off than on. I mean he’s an athlete and always doing something, but it wasn’t twice a day, every day, like it was in his early 20s. And my gym had a rush of new members, so I was focused on that and the fights coming up and wasn’t really thinking about him up until the Mayweather fight was confirmed. PK: And?
JK: I thought: ‘My God! What an experience! What combat-sports coach wouldn’t want to go against Mayweather in Vegas? The home of professional boxing! What a journey this is going to be!’
PK: The build-up was fascinating. Wright Thompson — probably the best feature writer in America — wrote this brilliant piece for ESPN. (I show him the magazine.)
JK: I think I met him.
PK: You did, you’re in the piece. He tells a story about you setting up a ring for Conor to train, and a mural you had painted by some local artists of him landing a big left hand on Mayweather’s jaw: “Kavanagh wants that image to work in Conor’s mind. ‘So every day he sees that shot landing,’ he says.’”
JK: (smiles) As a coach you have to learn how to tap into different fighters. I’ve got some fighters who are extremely religious; I’ve got some fighters who are extremely family-driven; I’ve got some fighters who are very visualisation-driven. Conor is very visualisation-driven — no point in talking to him about God. PK: (Laughs)
JK: Now I don’t know whether he believes in God or not, but I felt this was a way of tapping into that world.
PK: There’s a passage in the piece where he sees the mural for the first time and is spooked by the presence of the artists: “When McGregor saw people he didn’t recognise, his metabolism changed. He took a few steps toward the artists. He asked again who the guys were, and Kavanagh told him to walk a little farther into the room and look at the wall.” Later, you ask him about it: “Why are you looking over your shoulder?”
JK: Yeah, I should have known better because I’d seen it before — he’s just super-aware of his surroundings. He’ll be training away and the gym will be busy and he’ll spot someone: “Who’s he?” “What’s he doing?” “I haven’t seen him before.” I don’t know where it comes from. I’ve been around his mam and dad and they are very chilled out, and his sisters and . . . I don’t know but he’s always had that. He’s just very aware of his world.
PK: Here’s another sharp observation from the piece: “Kavanagh understood McGregor and the quicksands of Dublin. Kavanagh is the son of a construction worker. And in his coach, McGregor found things missing in himself: a calming presence, a man who knew how to marshal his talents while minimising his limitations. McGregor, for all his bravado, can be fragile. Norman Mailer wrote about approaching Ali’s psyche like you would approach a squirrel. That’s true for Conor too. ‘You got to be very cautious what you say around Conor,’ says striking coach Owen Roddy.” Talk to me about that.
JK: (long pause) Emmm . . . PK: “McGregor, for all his bravado, can be fragile.” That seems a contradiction measured against the tornado of brash and bravado that he projects?
JK: You want me to comment on Owen Roddy’s quote?
PK: Do you concur with it?
JK: Can the same not be said for everybody? Don’t we all have moments when we need a hug and a kiss? ‘Wow! Conor has moments of questioning himself.’ Jesus! I don’t think that’s a surprise. But he’s never going to walk into a press conference and say: “I’m actually kind of doubting myself today.”
PK: It was you, not Conor, that convinced me to go to the Mayweather fight.
JK: (smiles) I apologise for that. PK: I actually wrote it: “I would not be travelling at all but for his coach John Kavanagh and a tweet he posted on July 3 likening McGregor to Rocky Balboa and Mayweather to Apollo Creed in Rocky: “49-0 until he faced a tough southpaw that nobody gave a chance to.”
JK: That was weird wasn’t it? That it happened to work out like that? (Apollo Creed had the same record in Rocky as Mayweather, who was also fighting a southpaw).
PK: There was more: “Did Kavanagh, a seriously bright man, really believe McGregor had a chance? His tweets certainly suggested as much. July 12: “He (Mayweather) should have stuck to hitting girls and running strip clubs. He’s awoken a dark animal that he has only met in his worst dreams.” July 13: “The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to.” JK: (Laughs)
PK: Now you’re really drawing me in. JK: (Huge guffaw)
PK: Where did you get that one?
JK: It’s a quote (from Mark Twain) that I’ve often used in the gym. Sometimes the worst thing you can face in a ring, or anywhere, is a beginner. They do everything ‘wrong’ and it takes you a while to read them: ‘What the hell was that?’ Now, once it goes past two
‘It sounds weird but he doesn’t actually spend much money . . . I don’t worry’
or three rounds the skill kicks in but there’s a moment when it’s just . . . bizarre.
PK: Did you get drawn in?
JK: I just thought: ‘It’s (our) biggest fight of all time and we’re going to be at the centre of the boxing world — let’s go and enjoy the whole thing.’ And it was something, hopefully, I’ll be able to tell my grandkids one day: ‘Look at me in the corner there in Vegas.’
PK: There’s a passage in the Thompson piece — a conversation you have with Roddy — that captures the insanity of it all: “‘Have you ever cornered a boxing fight?’ Kavanagh asks. ‘No,’ Roddy says. ‘Neither have I,’ Kavanagh says. ‘Never been in a corner, amateur or pro.’ ‘If you’re gonna go, go big,’ Roddy says. They’re really laughing now.”
JK: You have to laugh, otherwise you panic.
PK: But how do you escape the bottom line? Floyd Mayweather was a 15-times world champion in five weight divisions and had never been defeated. Conor McGregor did not have a title, had never had a professional fight and had been boxing for two months. So when you paired it all back it was a nonsense, and the boxing fraternity — people like Andy Lee and Barry McGuigan — told us it was nonsense.
JK: Well, look at your sport (cycling). There’s mountain biking and the Tour de France and that thing they do on the oval . . .
PK: The track.
JK: Yeah, so let’s say you’re a world champion at one of them and you’re going to have a go at another, it’s not like you’ve never been on a bike before! It was a fight at the end of the day, and he hadn’t been boxing two months, he has been boxing since he was a kid and throwing punches for a decade, and I just found some of the comments a bit . . . it wasn’t like he’d been eating ice cream all his life! They were of the same world.
PK: So you weren’t playing games? You thought he had a chance?
JK: Well, I had nothing to gain by conning anyone. He was ten years younger; he was coming off the best year of his competitive life; Mayweather hadn’t competed in a while; he had (sparred) Malignaggi and made him look ordinary; and the referee, Joe Cortez, a Hall of Famer, had said it: “Your boy’s real.”
PK: The thing that impressed me most was his absolute conviction walking to the ring.
PK: That was astonishing.
JK: Well, there’s a lot said about Conor: ‘He’s a terrible influence on kids’, ‘He’s not a good role model’ . . . Sportspeople should be role models, and I get some of that, but there are qualities he has that you would love to see in a child, and one is his extraordinary self-belief. I don’t know where he got that from — it wasn’t from his parents and it wasn’t from me — but I can tell you it’s not an act or something he does for the cameras. That’s just how he is. “You can feel any way you want in this world,” he says. “Why not feel like a world champion?”
PK: How did it feel in the dressing? This was uncharted territory for all of you?
PK: Was it?
JK: Yeah, just so different. For a UFC fight there’s me, Conor and three other guys. This was family and friends and camera crews and bodyguards and commissioners and . . . there must have been about 40 people knocking around. It was a circus.
PK: The other surprise was that you were dressed like a waiter? JK: (Laughs)
PK: I thought: ‘Is this the same guy who told me show business wasn’t his thing?’
JK: There was a (cartoon) about that: “How was Conor supposed to win when these cocktail waiters were giving him drink between rounds.” PK: How did that come about? JK: Conor had partnered up with David August, this huge suit-maker, and they had designed these godforsaken outfits for myself and Owen. And Conor liked them so . . . not my choice. PK: But you wore it?
PK: Why? Are you not your own man? “No, Conor, I’m a respected trainer. You didn’t see Angelo Dundee dressing like a clown?”
JK: No, that’s true. I guess I just . . .
PK: You bought into it?
JK: I bought into it. And it wasn’t that big a concern.
PK: What do you remember from the fight?
JK: I remember a moment — maybe round two — when they worked their way over to our corner and it just felt surreal. I thought: ‘That’s Floyd Mayweather! WHAT THE HELL IS CONOR DOING IN WITH FLOYD FRICKIN MAYWEATHER!’ (laughs) And I had to snap out of it and get back to the job in hand, but those first couple of rounds were spectacular. He came back to the corner after round one and I thought: ‘This boxing stuff is easy (laughs). I’m giving up that MMA nonsense.’ And then, by about (round) four...
PK: Conor had started to tire? JK: Yeah, and the obvious difference in their experience became very, very apparent. Mayweather had switched styles completely and gone from the ‘Philly shell’, or this stuff (he places an arm across his torso and the other hand under his chin), to this stuff (he holds his two arms in front of his head). He kept walking into Conor and wearing him down. See, that doesn’t work in MMA because the gloves are small and if I show you a space like that (he holds his two arms up) you’ll punch me in the face. But it’s perfect for boxing.
PK: How did defeat feel?
JK: Well, we had been there before.
PK: Was it the same?
JK: No, it felt very different to losing in my sport.
PK: And given how hard you’ve had to work, and have to work, for the credibility of MMA, was their no sense at all that you had betrayed it by signing up for this?
JK: I heard that, but I didn’t see it that way. I think, if he hadn’t prepared properly and been demolished in a round, I’d have hung my head, but he had given a good account of himself. And it brought a lot of new people to the sport, which is partly my job as well, so, no. I saw it as a spectacle and didn’t feel apologetic or (as if I) owed anyone for anything we didn’t deliver on.
3 Man Behaving Badly
In the run-up to my trip, everyone I speak to goes misty-eyed when I mention the name Federer. He is as loved for his Mr Nice Guy persona as he is for his tennis — a quietly emotional player, untroubled by controversy on or off court . . . “Anything that’s good for society and gets the ball rolling, I’m all for it,” he says. “We do so well in tennis; our sport is so well behaved. You see the UFC guy (the boxer Conor McGregor) throw a railing, or in other sports they spit and swear at each other on a regular basis.” An interview with Roger Federer by Ellie Austen in The Sunday Times
PK: What happened when you came back? There was a sense, a real sense — perhaps because of the money he earned for the Mayweather fight — that he went off the rails in the months that followed? It starts with a melee at a Bellator fight in November, when he jumps over the cage to celebrate with a team-mate? Were you there that night?
JK: I was.
JK: Well, let me bring you back a couple of years. There was an event in the ill-fated Regency Hotel — I’d have to look up the date but I’d say eight years ago — and his team-mate, a guy called Philip Mulpeter, was in a tremendous contest. And the moment he won, Conor ran from the back of the room through the tables and scaled the cage. No one knew him at the time, and it didn’t make headlines, but he was emotional to see a team-mate doing well and went over the top with the celebration. And yes, it was the wrong thing to do.
PK: What about Bellator?
JK: He is very close to Charlie (Ward), and when he knocked the guy (John Redmond) out he assumed, like we all did, that the fight was over. But the referee, Marc Goddard — the best in the world bar none — hadn’t called it and when Conor jumped over the cage all hell broke loose. Again, it was absolutely the wrong thing to do. He acted like a jackass. There is nothing positive I can say about that.
PK: Two weeks later, he’s in Blanchardstown court on a speeding fine and dumps his car outside the door.
JK: I can’t take the speeding fine that seriously.
PK: It’s not the fine, John, it’s the attitude: arrives at the door, dumps the car, struts into the court and revs off at 100mph.
JK: Well, I wasn’t at the court, I was in the gym, but if he did something wrong why wasn’t he prosecuted? He parked wrong? Someone should clamp him. Take his car away, he’s just a civilian. Am I going to sit down with him and say: “You should park your car the right way?” No, it’s not me. It’s not who I am.
PK: But you’re a man who likes good behaviour.
JK: I do.
PK: You are a man who is respectful of people who behave well.
JK: One hundred per cent.
PK: And by extension, I would imagine that in a situation like that you would say: “I’m sorry, there’s a way to behave here and you are not behaving properly.”
PK: Go forward to what happened in New York now. [In April, two days after his friend, Artem Lobov, had clashed with a rival, Khabib Nurmagomedov, McGregor was charged with assault and criminal mischief for attacking a bus transporting Nurmagomedov and some other fighters from the Barclays Center in New York.]
JK: So we know the storyline but let’s go back to the beginning: him and Artem are mates, and Conor was at home, doing whatever he was doing, when he saw Artem being grabbed and harassed in New York. He thought: ‘Do you know what? I’m going to go over there and be with him.’ But he certainly didn’t go over there with a plan. I know Conor. He doesn’t plan. He went over with (good intentions) but ended up in a position where he spent a night in jail and brought the sport into disrepute. And he has been punished, legally and financially, for that.
PK: A few months later, the fight with Khabib is announced and we have all that unsavoury stuff in the build-up that sparks the melee in Vegas. Now I accept that trash-talk — which is how it’s framed — is part of the promotion ofUFCbut...
JK: Well, didn’t Ali start all that? Didn’t he call a guy an Uncle Tom and a gorilla once? Wasn’t he the first to put sport and entertainment in the same sentence? He certainly did some unsavoury things. Before that you had Joe Louis, a gentleman, never a peep out of him, and then this brash kid came along with predictions and flirted with racism.
PK: Okay, so Conor didn’t start it, and it’s accepted as part of the promotion, but Joe Rogan asked you a question on his podcast: “When is too far?” And you didn’t answer. You gave an answer but it wasn’t what you were asked. You said: “Conor is a real divider, some people love it and some people hate it. I’m not really interested in people’s opinion on things, I’m interested in what is.” What does “I’m interested in what is” mean? You use that phrase a lot?
JK: I’ve an Icelandic fighter, Gunnar Nelson, with Conor in the UFC now, and you couldn’t get more ying and yang. Gunny won’t say two words in an interview. We joke sometimes that his expression has never changed. He’s been in the UFC longer than Conor but has nowhere near made his retirement money. I look at them and think: ‘This is night and day.’ Now imagine we went back seven or eight years and I said to Conor: ‘For fuck sake act like Gunny, be polite and quiet and respectful.’ He’d be looking at me today going: ‘John, I’m fucking broke here!’ So if we can agree that the point of professional fighting is to make money, Conor’s way of doing it is clearly the best.
PK: And we do agree. The question is when is too far?
JK: I certainly wouldn’t stand for something racist, or anything along those lines. I mean (exhales) . . . some of the stuff he says is just childish. I can’t take it all that seriously.
PK: Was the stuff about Khabib not crossing the line?
JK: What in particular? PK: “There’s a smell off your father.” JK: Yeah, dumb, stupid, childish. PK: Wrong?
JK: Okay, wrong.
PK: That’s crossing the line?
JK: I just find it silly. Since then his dad has said: “Why don’t you come over for dinner. It’s all behind us now.” And Khabib made more money in that fight than he ever will again. It’s a side of the industry that’s . . . it sells more ticket than anything else.
PK: But here’s the point: what about Conor’s legacy? You probably wouldn’t have seen this but there was an interview with Roger Federer in The Sunday Times recently and he referred to Conor as the guy who throws things. That’s his legacy now. He’s not the great Irish fighter, he’s the foul-mouthed tramp who runs around causing riots.
PK: That’s the damage.
JK: And that’s something Conor has to live with.
PK: Have you told him? Is that a conversation you’ve had? ‘Listen Conor, you’re fucking it all away! There’s a line here and you’ve gone too far.’
JK: I think he knows it. I don’t think there’s any need for me to tell him. He’s not 12.
PK: Does he know?
JK: Yeah, I mean it will never happen but I’d love you to sit down with him. PK: Why won’t it happen?
JK: He wouldn’t be interested. He doesn’t feel he has to explain. He doesn’t feel apologetic. He doesn’t . . .
PK: See, I know you’re saying you can’t have it both ways; you can’t have a guy who comes from where he’s come from, and earns that amount of money, and expect a role model for the sport and for these kids in your gym.
JK: That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that it’s a parent’s job to point out the good parts, and the bad. Conor has incredible role model qualities — dedication, self-belief, hard work, intelligence. He’s created this industry. No one was making money out of MMA, not real money, not Federer money. He (Federer) could be quiet as a mouse, have zero personality and never give an interview in his life and he’d still be guaranteed tens of millions every year through sponsorships. That’s not possible in MMA. You’re fighting for fifty grand! And that’s before the Vegas taxes hit you.
JK: And as for the kids . . . The kids here have trained alongside Conor, he’s usually in around this time, and they see a respectful guy with his uniform on, bowing at his coaches, who will pose for a picture with every single one of them. But it’s not his job to raise them. Can I make one point? Because I think it’s along the lines of what you’re trying to say.
JK: Conor is going to have some awkward conversations in his future, because maybe you had a wild 20s, but everything he’s done is on YouTube in high definition. And I’m sure when his son is 15 or 16 it will be: ‘Dad, what was all that about?’
PK: That is what I’m trying to say. He’s more than the guy who throws things. He’s better than that. But that’s how he’ll be remembered if he doesn’t change.
JK: I can’t disagree with anything your saying.
PK: Can he change?
JK: I don’t know.
PK: Does it matter to him?
PK: It must matter to him. It must matter when he reads what Federer says: ‘This guy thinks I’m a tramp.’ That must matter to him.
JK: I can’t imagine that it doesn’t. Will it affect him? I don’t know.
PK: This is another quote from the Thompson piece: “Even as someone like McGregor is rising, his fall feels close enough to touch. Nearly all famous fighters end up back where they started, busted, a punch-drunk eulogy to their inability to escape whatever first drove them to fight.”
PK: Think of the money Tyson earned. JK: Yeah, and he’s back doing appearances now and shaking people’s hands.
JK: That’s something you’ll never see Conor do. He’s as competitive now with his business, his whiskey, as he is with his fighting. It sounds weird but he doesn’t actually spend much money; everything he wears he’s paid to wear; everything he drives is given to him; he’s not into restaurants, his missus makes his meals. He’s in a fairly modest home. He doesn’t gamble . . . PK: So you wouldn’t worry?
JK: No, I wouldn’t. I mean there are strong links between CTE and risky behaviour but Conor has never had a concussion in ten years of professional fighting. And within a very short period after the Khabib fight, which was a terrible loss, he was sending me very positive messages. He went on a tour promoting his whiskey and I’ve seen pictures of him in a boardroom at 9.0am with a suit on! So maybe that goes back to your question; maybe people can change.
PK: How disappointing was the loss to Khabib?
JK: Yeah, huge. We were all fully convinced he was going to win because he has done against that style of opponent in the past but Khabib was the better man. He won and that’s sport and after a day in the dark eating chocolate I was absolutely fine with it. I can live with sport; there are wins and losses.
PK: Is a rematch on the cards? JK: Honestly? I don’t know. Will he fight again? I don’t know. I know him as a person and know that coming off two losses — even though one was boxing — will be hard for him. But he’s 30, two kids, and has a big whiskey deal that’s making him more money than fighting ever did. Would you get up in the morning to be punched in the face? I don’t think so. But he’ll probably call me tomorrow and say: ‘What did you say that for? I’m fighting in March.’ So I don’t know.
PK: I’m just thinking about that conversation you had with him after the Alvarez fight.
JK: Well, he would certainly have to convince me to go again. PK: Really?
JK: Yeah, I love him. I love the whole journey we’ve had but I’d need a good ‘why’. It might be Diaz again because he promised that fight. It might be a rematch with Khabib. But if it was just: ‘Well, they want me to fight that guy’ I think I’d say, ‘I wish you the best.’
PK: Would you?
PK: It would be a big call.
JK: It would but again, I’ll come back to my reasoning. He has a wife and two kids now and I don’t want him taking more hits than he needs to. Khabib hit him with a punch in that fight that he has never been hit with in his career. And even Superman slows down at some stage.
‘If the point of pro ighting is to make money, Conor’s way is clearly the best’ ‘I’d like Joe Brolly to come to the gym and meet the kids, and the parents’
John Kavanagh: ‘Just after the Khabib fight, there were a bunch of incidents in the GAA and a referee was attacked on a soccer pitch and it was almost like the MMA gods had sent them to me’