You’ve probably seen the ads for the fights or at least heard of Conor McGregor yeah? Mixed Martial Arts is on the rise, with gyms providing an egalitarian and positive environment – It’s less about the sonic boom and more about the positive male role model as Eoin Hallissey finds out.
McGregor is the de-facto face of the UFC in Ireland. His profile grows daily, from his ubiquitous social media presence to his appearance on ads for King crisps. In the past two years, he has earned over $180,000 through fighting alone and has recently signed a book deal, which seems less inexplicable when one considers the number of autobiographies penned by certain footballers.
An increasing number of Irish-based fighters are following in his wake. Including McGregor, four fighters from Dublin’s SBG gym won bouts at the July 19th event, all through stoppages. Cathal Pendred ,Paddy Holohan and McGregor’s co-headliner, the Icelandic Gunnar Nelson all emerged victorious. The gym’s owner, John Kavanagh, must take huge credit for this achievement. He has become the Godfather of Irish MMA.
Kavanagh’s gym has grown from modest beginnings. Having finished an engineering degree in 2002, he opened his first gym within a month of leaving college. His first facility was the size of SBG’s current lobby ‘only not as nice.’ When his parent’s visited his nascent “business”, he tells me his mother cried.
At the entrance of SBG, a sign states that there are ‘no shoes or egos beyond this point’. Kavanagh is keen to emphasise the fact that SBG is open to everyone, offering Foundation programmes for beginners. Professional athletes and what would be deemed regular guys in an MMA context train side-by-side. Not only does training with the elite inspire SBG’s members, Kavanagh feels that this unique scenario can prevent his fighters ‘get(ting) up themselves’, no matter how much publicity they happen to be receiving. Egalitarianism is a central tenet of SBG life. ‘Everybody’s a regular guy here.’
Kavanagh is an interesting man. He possesses a cool demeanour, coming across less single-minded than one would imagine someone so successful in such an unforgiving sport to be. He cites the diversity of characters in MMA as a reason for his love of the sport. He gives the example of a boxing club and a golf club as two arenas in which you will find people with relatively homogenous backgrounds and experiences. In MMA, he states that this is not the case.
Doctors, teachers and the unemployed frequent SBG. McGregor hails from Crumlin, with a background in boxing whilst Cathal Pendred won a Leinster School’s Senior Cup medal on a Belvedere rugby team including current Ireland internationals Cian Healy and Ian Keatley. When visiting the gym, GAA legend, former Armagh captain and Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney walked by me.
Kavanagh feels that a diversity of people and opinions is beneficial to the group as a whole, referencing McGeeney’s famous intensity and competitive spirit as something which he has drawn from.
The work done in SBG alone has not brought UFC to the masses. A marketing machine is at the core of UFC, with White and others being both criticised and lionised for the successful promotion of the events and fighters. McGregor’s personality is undoubtedly beneficial on this front. He is articulate, sharply dressed and relentlessly confident. In an era where sportspeople attempt to say as little as possible, he refuses to keep his opinions to himself. He has been hyped beyond recognition, with his next opponent, Dustin Poirier claiming that his ascension to 9th place in the rankings has more to do with this hype than talent.
Kavanagh acknowledges that it was unusual for a fighter in his third UFC event to headline an extremely large event, as McGregor did on July 19th. When asked whether this was the UFC cashing in on his persona, or if his talent was special enough to merit it, he attributes it to ‘all of it.’ He points out that McGregor received the ‘blackout’ treatment, the dimming of the lights reserved for headline events, in his second fight. His swift ascension to headliner was inevitable from that point.
It was once easy to categorise the sudden growth of MMA in Ireland as fad. When young men in dickie-bows attempted to ape McGregor’s style, many concluded that what they were seeing was just another bandwagon, myself included. July 19th proved that this was not the case. Whilst boxing is failing, the UFC fills the void. Belfast’s Carl Frampton has the potential to be as successful as Barry McGuigan in professional boxing yet he can but dream of the fame being bestowed upon McGregor. This is the new reality of the fighting world.
Over 600,000 people watched UFC Fight Night on 3e. The SBG successes of that night are something Kavanagh is ‘pretty proud of’ and it is clear that the conveyor belt of success won’t be grinding to a halt any time soon. Speaking to 17 year old Strabane-born fighter James Gallagher, his goal is to ‘do what John tells me’ before ultimately being signed to the UFC within the next two years. His trust in John, who he has stayed with whilst living in Dublin, is absolute. Gallagher fought a few days after we spoke, winning by submission in slightly over a minute, and is due to fight in Europe’s largest promotion Cage Warriors, on August 16th.
John Kavanagh and his SBG gym have played a remarkable role in the growth of MMA in Ireland. Whether his success thus far has been an accident or not, it shows no signs of abating. He calls it an “inevitability” that his fighters will win more belts, and more people will come streaming through his door. Whether or not he will have to kick out Bill Cullen next door and knock down the wall remains to be seen. With talk of UFC fights soon being held in Landsdowne Road, you wouldn’t bet against it.
Photos by Thomas Sweeney and Thomas Smears.