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Two of John Kavanagh’s star pupils, Gunnar Nelson and Conor McGregor, are emerging at the top of their respective divisions and with the duo set for action over the next three weeks their title credentials may be bolstered even further if their upcoming contests go in their favor.
The similarities between the SBG frontrunner and the Mjolnir man’s journey with UFC have been quite intriguing and have been highlighted by the Irish head coach in the past. Both marked their debuts with first round finishes in fashions that many would have predicted and both suffered knee injuries forcing them out of action for nearly a year before returning successfully and claiming ranked positions within their brackets.
Although there has been much debate as to whether McGregor’s three UFC outings have warranted him a place in the top ten of the promotion’s featherweight rankings, Kavanagh explained why he feels Nelson and McGregor’s emergence in the world’s flagship MMA promotion have been different to some of their American counterparts given their dominance on the European scene before making their debuts in the Octagon.
“It’s very different for an American to enter the UFC as opposed to a European,” he began. “You can get in a lot quicker when you’re in the States and then you kind of build yourself up while you’re in the UFC. A good example would be someone like Matt Mitrione who has only ever been in the UFC. He has learned his skills as he has gone on and he’s turned out to be quite good.
“You see plenty of fighters going in with records like 3-1, they’re not quite there yet, but over the space of a few years they get better and then eventually they might get up to title contention. I believe with Conor and Gunni, they did all their work outside of the UFC. They had already arrived at that elite level before they got in there, so I wasn’t surprised that when they did get in there was title talk within one or two fights.”
Training under Kavanagh from their teenage years, Nelson and McGregor have waxed lyrical about their influence on each other as they continue to sharpen their tools both in Straight Blast Gym in Dublin and at Nelson’s Icelandic stronghold, Mjolnir. Watching over the pair’s development over the years, Kavanagh commented on what separated the two from the pack in their formative years.
“It was obvious from pretty earlier on that they had an intensity about them that is not common. I’m sort of surrounded by a gym full of them kind of characters so it’s hard for anyone to stick out, but they certainly did.
“They’ve been doing it that bit longer than the rest of the guys who are kind of catching up. I can see a whole bunch of SBG guys being there within a certain amount of time,” he said.
Pondering what he believes to be the main difference between his two students and their fellow welterweight and featherweight contenders, Kavanagh is adamant that Nelson and McGregor’s x-factor is quite basic—they simply love the sport more.
He said: “We do have a different approach than a lot of typical teams. I’ve been speaking to a lot of members of different teams over the last while and I still hear of people avoiding the gym altogether or doing the absolute minimum until six weeks before a fight. They get in and put in work for them six weeks and then they kind of disappear again after the fight.
“In the ten years I know Gunni and Conor they have never done that. They’re always in the gym. For the guys who are avoiding the gym, they aren’t fighting because they love it. I know if both these guys were handed a billion dollars tomorrow and retired from the sport, they’d still be in the gym on Monday.”
“It’s fun for them, that’s how they enjoy themselves. For some of the other guys they’re just doing it for the money and then they go off and do their own ‘fun stuff’ that’s rarely martial arts related. So I think there’s a bit of difference between them and some of the other guys.”
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