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John Kavanagh: The Calm General

Control the controllables.

It’s why, in the midst of chaos, featherweight contender Conor McGregor, his Straight Blast Gym Ireland teammates, and the man who leads that team into battle, John Kavanagh, have an eerie calm around them before the biggest night of their collective careers on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

In the main event of UFC 189, McGregor meets Chad Mendes for the interim UFC featherweight title. On the main card, Gunnar Nelson takes on Brandon Thatch, and in prelim action, Cathal Pendred faces John Howard. Three pivotal fights for three of the squad’s members, with none bigger than McGregor’s title fight. But while this could produce damaging nervous energy and distractions for most teams, the SBG Ireland squad has everything under control. Well, at least what they can control.

“I'll steal a phrase from our sports psychologist,” Kavanagh said. “He says 'focus on the controllables.' So there are things that we can control, such as Conor's weight and technical training. And there are things we can't control, obviously opponent changes and what not. So we put all our energy into our controllables.”

So when McGregor’s original foe, featherweight champ Jose Aldo, was forced to withdraw from the highly-anticipated bout due to injury, the team didn’t blink an eye. When McGregor gets routinely pulled from camp for media obligations everywhere from New York to LA, again, there is no wailing or gnashing of teeth. It’s just business, and a business Kavanagh and company have been preparing for long before the Dubliner made his way to the UFC.

“We spoke about this early on in his career,” Kavanagh said of McGregor. “I knew he would always be the center of attention and always be the main attraction, so we had to learn early on how to deal with that. We had to train year-round so that if a week had to be taken to do some media obligations here and there, it didn't affect us. Whereas I think some guys only train when they have a fight coming up and then missing a day or two can be critical. But for us, we're year-round trainers and to have to go somewhere to do an interview is not an issue.”

One possible issue during this long training camp was deftly avoided at the start, as McGregor and the team settled in to Las Vegas, far away from their usual setting in Dublin. You might think that putting a team of fighters in the town for several weeks would be anything but distraction-free, but as Kavanagh points out, staying at home in Ireland would have been worse.

“One hundred percent,” he said. “Conor still has the luxury of being able to walk down the road here in Vegas without being jumped on. In Dublin, that is not possible. There's nowhere he can go now without having to take 50 pictures with people. Although when people think of Vegas, they think of the strip and the nightlife, we're about a half-hour away from there and obviously we're not partying, so it's nice to have some seclusion out here.”

But what about the quietest man in camp, the architect of the Irish MMA revolution? Kavanagh leads by example. He’s fiercely loyal to his crew and just as confident as any coach is when it comes to his charges, even if he isn’t proclaiming it in the way “The Notorious” Mr. McGregor does. He may even have one of the toughest jobs in the MGM Grand Garden Arena on fight night, as he corners and leads three of his fighters. But for him, this is nothing new.

“I guess during my, if you want to call it apprenticeship, in learning how to corner and prepare for fights back in Ireland, it was common for me to have more than five fighters on one of our regional shows,” Kavanagh said. “In fact, one fight I had nine. But I have a good system now. I assign one buddy to each fighter and it’s their job to stick with them throughout the day, make sure they have everything they need, and also to organize their warm-up on the night. And then I'll come along and walk them out and do the cornering. We have a very good system that has served us well.”

Nine? Guess three fighters is an easy night then?

“It's funny, but I actually prefer having at least two,” he said. “If it's a big show and you just have one guy, it can kind of put more pressure on, as there's more to it. Whereas if you have a few guys on it, you're so busy thinking about how you're going to work it that you don't have time to think about the show.”

Safe to say Mr. Kavanagh is a talented multitasker?

“I have a science background and a degree in engineering, so maybe I'm just good at organizing,” he laughs.

One thing Kavanagh won’t have a problem with organizing is a spot on the gym wall for a representation of a McGregor win on Saturday night. The title is what all his fighters dream of, and their coach shares that dream, making teamwork the real key to everything that has gone on in the days, weeks, months and years prior. Maybe that’s why they’re so calm, because to them, this isn’t an opportunity; it’s destiny.

“19 years ago is when I started this journey, and I was 19, so it was literally the midpoint of my life to date,” Kavanagh said. “So the last 19 years have been building up to this moment. This is all I've ever dreamed of and wanted, to be able to put that UFC belt up on the wall. So without putting too fine a point on it, as they say, winning isn't everything; it's a lot more important than that.”

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