John Kavanagh: “It’s the fighters who deserve credit for the rise of Irish MMA”


Team SBG Ireland head coach John Kavanagh believes the role of Cage Warriors in facilitating Irish fighters’ route to the UFC has been exaggerated. Despite now being in a state of uncertainty in light of Graham Boylan’s recent resignation as CEO, the promotion has been given widespread acclaim for providing European mixed martial artists with a platform to move onto the world stage.

While Irish UFC veterans Conor McGregor, Neil Seery, Cathal Pendred and Paul Redmond all established themselves fighting under the Cage Warriors banner, Kavanagh says that it was the talent and endeavour of those fighters which earned them a place at MMA’s top table, not any one promotion.

“I have to kind of smile when I read reports crediting it (Cage Warriors) with the rise of Irish MMA, when it wasn’t,” he told Severe MMA. “It’s the fighters who deserve the credit with the rise of Irish MMA. I am thankful for all the promotions out there that have had my fighters on their cards, truly grateful, but it is the fighter that makes the promotion, not the other way round.

“I think it is people not really understanding how it works, thinking it’s because of a certain show – it’s not,” he continued. “You could be on any show and be doing terrible and lose and you’re not going to get to the UFC. Or, you could be on a show that doesn’t have all that much hype behind it, in fact, where does the hype come from? The hype comes from a fighter doing well. It’s the fighter first, and the show second. I think it’s actually worth mentioning that’s how it works.”

Of Kavanagh’s five students currently plying their trade in the UFC, Gunnar Nelson and Paddy Holohan did not compete in Cage Warriors, though Conor McGregor and women’s strawweight Aisling Daly spent a significant amount of their nascent careers fighting on a variety of different shows. Kavanagh claims that the progression to the octagon of the former pair justifies his assertion.

“I have to cite two examples; Paddy Holohan and Gunnar Nelson,” he continued. “This was in a time when Cage Warriors was getting a lot of media attention, mostly because of their teammate, Conor McGregor. Even though that was the case, both of those guys got to the UFC without having fought there.

“If you’re doing very well, like Gunnar Nelson, he fought on Cage Contender and BAMMA, and you’re winning and getting momentum behind you, well then you’re going to get to the big show.

“The strength of my contacts with the UFC is a lot stronger now than it was back then, but I still got guys on it that weren’t fighting on Cage Warriors. Again, I have to come back to the original point; it’s about how well a fighter does, rather than where they fight or what the strength of my contacts are. I’d like all my guys to fight in the UFC, but I can’t do it until they’ve proved themselves in the same ways as Paddy and Gunnar did,” he said.

The Irish have enjoyed unprecedented success in Cage Warriors, with McGregor, Pendred, Seery and another SBG stalwart, Chris Fields, all winning world titles during their time there, and the promotion has been frequently visited Dublin over the last number of years.

Additionally, if counting Gunnar Nelson as an adopted Irishman, and soon-to-be debutant Joseph Duffy, all but three – Nelson, Holohan and Norman Parke – of the country’s nine fighters presently employed by Zuffa have fought in Cage Warriors. It is worth noting that Parke was briefly signed to the promotion in 2012, without ever making an appearance there.

The departure of Graham Boylan, and the subsequent cancellation of CWFC 75, which had been scheduled for March 21st in London, means fighters and coaches with a vested interest in Cage Warriors must now patiently wait out this period of upheaval. Kavanagh, who has an ever-growing stable of professional fighters, says he would do anything within his power to ensure the promotion’s survival.

“I probably have more pro fighters in my gym than in every gym in the country combined, so I’m the one that’s hurt most by a promotion going away that mostly had pro fights. I certainly hope it continues, and I certainly hope it has as many cards as it used to. Of course, fingers crossed, if there’s anything I can do to keep the Cage Warriors brand going, I would like that,” he said.

Photo: Mjolnir