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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL KIMMAGE

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

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?

JK: No.

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?’

PK: (laughs)

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?

JK: Yeah.

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.

PK: (Laughs)

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.

PK: Sure.

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.

JK: Okay.

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.

PK: In­ter­est­ing.

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.

PK: Right.

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.

JK: Yeah.

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?

JK: Bizarre.

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?

JK: Yeah.

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.

PK: And?

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.”

JK: (Nods)

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.

JK: Right.

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.

PK: Sure.

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.

PK: Sure.

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?

JK: (Pauses)

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.”

JK: Yeah.

PK: Think of the money Tyson earned. JK: Yeah, and he’s back do­ing ap­pear­ances now and shak­ing peo­ple’s hands.

PK: Ex­actly.

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?

JK: Yeah.

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’

Photo: David Conachy

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’

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