John Kavanagh on new SBG HQ: We can produce more champions with new facility

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This week, PETER CARROLL caught up with John Kavanagh at the opening of the new Straight Blast Gym headquarters on the Naas Road, where the elite coach shared his thoughts on the move, the growth of MMA in Ireland and the impact that Conor McGregor has had on the nation’s attitude to the sport. 

There are some moments that allow you to see the microcosm of Irish MMA spill over into the broader national interest and for the most part, John Kavanagh and Straight Blast Gym are usually involved.

After a left uppercut propelled the sport into the consciousness of Ireland’s mainstream in April of last year, one of the key signs of it remaining in the limelight was witnessed last weekend in the opening of Straight Blast Gym’s latest premises, moving a small distance from the Long Mile Road to the Naas Road.

You would imagine that finding a location to house Europe’s elite martial artists would be quite an ordeal for head coach John Kavanagh, instead the new building presented itself to the Dubliner more like an itch he had to scratch.

“It’s always been in the back of my mind,” said Kavanagh. “Where I live, if I walk out the front entrance it leaves me on the Long Mile Road and if I walk out the back way it leaves me at the Naas Road. Every time I went out the back I would see these eight great, big units owned by E.P Mooney, two of which were occupied.

“For a long time I was walking around day dreaming about getting one of them, and we’re now the third occupant in that row. I made up my mind in July, had my first viewing in August, all the contracts and legal stuff was sorted from September to December and then I got the keys in the second week of December. As far as I know, Bill Cullen is moving in too, so we’ve got good company.”

As for being the proprietor of the largest MMA complex in Europe, the revered Irish coach admitted that it was a perfect storm of opportunity that led to the purchase of the goliath training centre.

“Maybe I’m a bit of a nut opening a place this size,” he joked about the record breaking gym. “Really, a couple of things came together at the right time for us – the general understanding and acceptance of the sport in Ireland, the explosion of Conor at home and in the States and the country’s financial collapse that led to the crash in the cost of commercial property.”

One of the biggest differences between MMA and most of the other mainstream sports is how accessible the athletes are. Despite the growing media demand and public outcry for some of Kavanagh’s fighters, the Brazilian jiu jitsu expert maintains that beginners will still be sharing the same mats as his stars.

“Honestly that’s the way it’s always been. Some of our current champions came in here with little or no experience and were looking up to the Irish champions of the time. Secluding yourself isn’t progressive. Conor might be training and a guy that just started with a background in Taekwondo could be doing something different on one of the bags, he could go over and learn it off him there and then.

“Obviously when our pros are sparring in the lead up to fights they will be slightly more withdrawn – we’d probably do that after lunch time rather than the rush hours between six and eight in the evening – just so I can give the guys feedback and be heard clearly. In saying that, you could walk in for your first class and Gunnar Nelson could be on the mat. For the most part, everyone is together and the information can flow both ways.”

The bright white walls seem to accentuate the size of the new SBG headquarters. The opening day saw all the stars of the gym come out as well as the unsung heroes who have played their part in the development of the highly ranked European stable.

Some of Ireland’s grappling talent traded transitions on the signature yellow mats while prospects James Gallagher and Karl Redmond displayed some light sparring over by the heavy bags. Chris Fields busied himself either greeting people or playing with the new toys that his new home away from home offered. There was a feeling of a school reunion to the day with everyone soaking in the state of the art facilities and catching up with each other.

Complete with its own shop, a boxing ring, a full sized octagon and a strength and conditioning area provided by the Irish Strength Institute, there was many a mouth catching flies in awe of how far the team had come.

A queue of fans started beside the reception and stretched the length of the gym to the octagon where Conor McGregor, Gunnar Nelson and Cathal Pendred waited to take pictures and sign autographs. Almost like a uniform in some patches of the gathering, young men wore well-manicured beards and button down shirts. The sport that once caused outrage on the national broadcaster’s airwaves has now produced cultural icons – both in style and attitude – and there is one notorious customer from the capital that represents something fresh and provocative that the youth of the nation just can’t ignore.

“It’s crazy to see but I read a lot of books and these types of things aren’t that uncommon,” said Kavanagh of the McGregor phenomenon. “When Brian O’Driscoll first emerged he proved that you didn’t have to go to the southern hemisphere to make it and it inspired a whole group of people to get into rugby. If you didn’t have O’Driscoll, you wouldn’t have guys like Cian Healy.

“Ireland was never a country known for producing world class players, and it only took one person to change that. That’s what Conor is doing for mixed martial arts in Ireland now. You can chart the same cultural changes from his world championship wins with Cage Warriors to his appearances in the UFC.

“Conor is the spark that lit the fuse and I think we can produce more world champions with this facility in place.”

Kavanagh has never been known to toot his own horn, but he did confess to having a seriously soft spot for his new head quarters.

“I literally can’t leave the place. I left my girlfriend in bed this morning and she’s just sent me a text message asking me if I’m cheating on her with my gym again. Unfortunately, the answer is yes. I can’t believe this is my place; I’m waiting for someone to come through the door and tell me to get out!

“It’s got everything that I wanted – the BJJ area, the boxing ring, the strength and conditioning equipment, the full sized octagon – but my sister Ann took on the mission of organising the reception and she has done a fantastic job.

“We’ve got this big sprawling desk with our own Gaggia coffee machine – it’s a far cry from the shitty little sheds we started in.”

The celebrated coach also acknowledged the people who made it possible for the club to get this far, and although there are some people missing the rawness of the Long Mile Road, Kavanagh is confident that they’ll soon get over it.

“A few of the guys have come up to me and said, ‘Ah the new place is great, but I kind of miss the Long Mile Road’. It was a lot grittier and probably a more stereotypical MMA gym, but I keep reminding them – it’s not the building that makes SBG, it’s the people that are in it.

“When I look around I see the same 20 or 30 faces I always have and they’re the people who made this possible. They’ve followed me around seven different premises in Dublin and there’s no way this could’ve happened without them. They are SBG, that’s what this place is all about.”

Starting 2014 with a bang, when asked about his goals for the New Year Kavanagh explained how his have remained unchanged since he began his coaching career.

“There’s no point in me making goals like, in six months I want to be the greatest coach in the world, I keep it simple. It sounds like a cliché, but I just try to make every class the best it can be. I walk to and from training every day and I like to be by myself so I can think about what I can do better – that leads to things happening as the months and years go by.

“I said it before, it’s easy to be a successful in this business, it just has to be on your mind every waking moment. Minute by minute, second by second – eventually you should get a breakthrough,” he finished.

By Peter Carroll – @PetesyCarroll

Photo: The Other Angle

Owner/Editor of SevereMMA.com. Writer, Podcaster, Producer of 'Notorious: Conor McGregor' film, 'Conor McGregor: Notorious' TV series, 'Ten Thousand Hours', 'The Fighting Irish' and more documentary films.