“I was enjoying the buildup, the talk, the idea of it. But it wasn’t until Conor messaged me and said, ‘It’s done, I’ve signed,’ that I was like, ‘Oh, OK. We actually are boxing.'” – John Kavanagh, Conor McGregor’s coach
While the world awaits an official announcement for Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor, preparations for the fight are already underway in Dublin.
McGregor, the UFC’s lightweight champion and biggest star, is working on a plan to defeat Mayweather in a boxing ring later this year. Two weeks ago, McGregor announced he’d come to terms with the UFC on his side of the deal.
Should the fight take place, there’s no question it will be a massive financial success. Exactly what a fight between the best boxer of his era and the UFC champion will look like — and how competitive it will be — is up for debate.
Earlier this week I spoke to McGregor’s longtime head coach, John Kavanagh of SBG Ireland, about the event, their approach, McGregor’s future in the UFC and more.
Okamoto: As far as you are aware, what is the latest in terms of making this fight a reality?
Kavanagh: The first big hurdle was jumped over, which was Conor and the UFC coming to their agreement. When that happened, it became a lot more real to me. I was enjoying the buildup, the talk, the idea of it. But it wasn’t until Conor messaged me and said, ‘It’s done, I’ve signed,’ that I was like, ‘Oh, OK. We actually are boxing.’
Now, Mayweather is dragging his heels a little bit, I guess. It’s been over a week since Conor made his public announcement. I’m not quite sure what the delay is. Mayweather seemed anxious to do it in June. Obviously, that date is kind of gone. There’s a September date that’s been talked about. I don’t know why he hasn’t signed yet. Maybe there are negotiations to do on his end.
Okamoto: But to be clear, you sound 100 percent confident the fight is happening?
Kavanagh: Absolutely. And that has been part of our mentality. The Mayweather, [Manny] Pacquiao fight [in 2015], I believe the fight was weeks away and things still weren’t 100 percent. It’s a weird industry, the boxing world. I’m beginning to learn more about it. It’s a lot less straightforward than the MMA world.
“There could still be negotiations going on four weeks out, but the big mistake would be to mentally put off the heavy training until every detail is agreed upon. We are training now. We’re ready for that date in the fall, whenever that might be. We’ll let the lawyers and suits deal with the nuances of who gets this and who gets that. Conor is a fighter. I am his coach. We’ll focus on the contest at hand.”
Okamoto: What do those preparations look like? A UFC champion, preparing for his first professional boxing match against the best boxer in the world?
Kavanagh: I have a pretty good idea on how I see the fight going. Over the next three to four months, we need to put that plan into action. Drill it. See how it works in the gym. Mix and match the plan until we have it right for the night of the fight.
I will say this: Mayweather has proven himself to be perfect against guys who have trained purely in boxing. I was asked very early on, ‘Are you going to bring in Freddie Roach? He’s the greatest boxing trainer in the world right now.’
OK. I’m an evidence-based guy. I don’t make decision based on emotions. Has Freddie trained somebody to fight Mayweather before? Yes. And a southpaw. A hard-hitting southpaw! And the plan didn’t work. I don’t see a point in doing the exact same thing.
Obviously, Freddie Roach is incredible. I’ve been trying to immerse myself in the boxing world, and Freddie has been called one of the last great guys to understand it all — trainer, cutman, psychologist to the young fighters, technician — but he did come up short in his approach to Mayweather. So, we can’t follow the same formula.
Okamoto: Has there been a moment in which you’ve asked yourself, ‘Am I the right head coach for Conor for this particular fight?’
Kavanagh: Yes, of course. And I removed any ego from that. I feel at this stage, with Conor, I’m not out there on the mat. I’m more of a performance director. I’m seeing the big picture, rather than getting lost in, ‘When Floyd puts up the Philly Shell defense and leans on the ropes, we need to do A, B and C.’
When guys get to the level of Conor or [UFC welterweight] Gunnar Nelson, they don’t need someone showing them how to do an armbar. They need someone who can manage time, make efficient use of each training session. I’ve got 50 different boxing coaches messaging me right now and 100 different guys looking for sparring. I’m the filter for that — to see who it is that will work physically and, just as importantly, personalitywise with Conor. That’s my job.
And I want to give a shout to [McGregor’s MMA striking coach] Owen Roddy. There’s a lot of talk about, ‘bring in this guy, bring in that guy.’ Owen Roddy has a lot to be praised for in developing Conor into the striker he is today. Conor came into the gym with the gift of being able to hit very hard, which is a great skill and seems to be something people either have or they don’t. But when you look at how he’s developed from a 17-year-old amateur boxer to a 28-year-old professional MMA fighter who flows flawlessly between a taekwondo on-your-toes style to a stalking Thai boxer, that’s a huge credit to Owen Roddy.
Okamoto: There will be some “boxing expert” presence in this camp, though?
Kavanagh: Yes, 100 percent. And the reason why, is that I want to know how boxing people think. It’s not throwing punches. Owen Roddy has that. I need a voice from that world to bounce some of the ideas I have about this contest off of. How he thinks a referee might see something, how a judge sees something. That’s the reason to have someone from boxing, as opposed to learning how to box.
We’re not going to spend 10 to 12 years doing something one way and then, because it’s a boxing fight, change everything for three months and beat the best defensive boxer of all time. No. We’ve got to come at this with an MMA striking strategy. Of course, hands only, but maybe there are things we can do from an MMA perspective, which, if people study boxing from the early 20th century, those things were a bigger part in the boxing game than they are today. We’re bringing an old-school boxing approach.
Okamoto: How important will the negotiations be when it comes to things like referee, judges, ring size, gloves — those types of details?
Kavanagh: If I’m speaking plainly, and I don’t know how much trouble this will get me in, I think we’re going to have a hard time finding a fair referee and a fair set of judges. It will be very difficult for a 50- to 60-year-old boxing referee to not go into this bout a little bit biased.
Actually, I’ll throw this out there, I think [U.K.-based MMA referee] Marc Goddard should be the referee. We’re already agreeing to boxing rules, boxing fight, boxing ring — everything is done boxing. So, how about an MMA referee that will understand the inside fighting that will go into this fight?
Okamoto: What weight is this fight taking place at?
Kavanagh: That’s another one to be argued back and forward. I know he fought Canelo [Alvarez] at 152 pounds. So, he has fought as heavy as that. Let’s see what he accepts. I can tell you that Conor will make whatever weight it has to be. But I will be pushing that he fought Canelo at 152, so he should fight Conor at 152.
Okamoto: UFC president Dana White has said McGregor wants to fight twice in 2017: Mayweather and then a UFC fight. Is that accurate?
Kavanagh: Yes. The shape he’ll be in postfight — he’ll obviously be in tip-top shape. We’d love to get an MMA fight in by the end of the year.
Okamoto: When McGregor returns to the UFC, who would be the most attractive opponents? I realize that’s asking you to look beyond the biggest fight in combat sports history, but humor me.
Kavanagh: I don’t know, since we’re unsure what weight this boxing match will even be at. I guess your two big names at featherweight are Max Holloway and Jose Aldo. We’ll see what happens with that this weekend [at UFC 212]. And at 155, the names are Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov. It’s hard to say. I would like to see the fight this weekend, and I’d like to see a few more fights between the top guys at 155 pounds this summer.
I’ve been around Conor for so long and I know to keep everything open. He could ring me the day after this boxing fight and say, ‘Coach, 145 pounds, four weeks,’ and I just wouldn’t be surprised. If he gets excited by something — I mean, look at what we’re talking about. This incredible boxing fight was just him getting excited about an insurmountable challenge.
“When I first sat with him and he started explaining the Mayweather fight, it made no sense to me. By the end of the half-hour conversation, he had me shadowboxing him in the room, watching boxing videos.”
Whatever gives Conor that wild-eyed, hyperactive enthusiasm is what he’s going to do. It’s going to take someone like Aldo once was, or now Mayweather in boxing — one of those guys that puts together incredible victories, gets fans behind him and gets Conor excited.
Okamoto: What would it take to get McGregor excited though, once he’s raked in his whatever-million-dollar payday and stood with Mayweather in a boxing ring?
Kavanagh: It’s a great question that I’ve given a lot of thought and here’s my answer: It’s the opposition’s job now. I see it as a job and role of others to create momentum and noise. Some are doing it better than others. Tony Ferguson is doing quite well staying out there, pushing things on social media. He’s got some good wins. That’s what they all should be doing. Not sitting back and blaming Conor for this, and blaming the UFC for that. Go in there and go through guys like Dustin Poirier in the first round. Do it in the fashion Conor has, with the style he has done it in.
It’s not the money that’s motivating him, it’s the challenge. It’s the guy that makes him get chills and say, ‘He’s got this set of skills, I’ve got my set of skills. How can we beat that, Coach? Let’s put a game plan together and climb another mountain.’
Okamoto: Before the Mayweather fight came along, was that challenge going to be Nurmagomedov?
Kavanagh: You know, it looked like that was going to be the case. I thought Tony was going to be a great final challenge for Khabib. He’s durable and has a good submission game on the ground, so Khabib would have a difficult time controlling him on the ground. It was a very interesting contest. I thought Khabib would win, and he’s got a big Russian fan base, he’s his own enigma in many ways. I thought there was a perfect collision coming, and it’s disappointing it didn’t happen. That’s the world we live in.
Okamoto: Last question, McGregor and girlfriend Dee Devlin had a son last month, how’s he faring as a father?
Kavanagh: He’s shocked me a little bit. He’s sent some videos of him doing the night feeds. He’s adept at nappy changing. I just had this image in my head that he wouldn’t be part of that, but he’s very proud of it and enjoying the whole journey.