The Dubliner has achieved more in three years with the UFC than anyone in the 20 year history of the organization. From an unknown prospect to the first man to hold two world titles simultaneously, McGregor's knockout-filled march through the featherweight and lightweight rankings sent shockwaves through the world. But as effortless as McGregor's heroics seem, his journey was far from smooth. Just another teenager trading martial arts techniques with his friends, he chased a pipe dream with little promise of reward. No one guessed he would become the biggest pay-per-view attraction in the world. This is not another tale of an athlete born exceptional and groomed for success. It is about how one young man, through bloody-minded determination and indomitable spirit, changed the whole game.
|Publisher:||John Blake Publishing, Limited|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Jack Slack is an author.
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STRAIGHT BLAST GYM
Nothing about Conor McGregor's upbringing suggested that he would change the face of the fight business. There was no reason to believe that he was anything remarkable based on his early record in the mixed martial arts game. It would have been perfectly reasonable to dismiss him as delusional when he quit his first job and insisted, after meaningless victories on regional cards, that he was 'the fucking future'. But through stubbornness and self-belief, combined with a remarkable work ethic and an open and keen mind for the intricacies of martial arts, McGregor would come to outgrow the fight game itself and muscle out other famous athletes from more mainstream sports in the headlines of the world's back pages. At every stage of the journey, things could have gone another way, and it wasn't until he was more than five years into a seemingly dead-end career as a fighter that he was able to train under optimal conditions and get off social welfare. But McGregor's success stands as evidence that world-class facilities are not the only way of producing a world-class fighter. Many of the greatest fighters who have ever lived started their journey in a shed.
Tom Egan was a normal sixteen-year-old whose hobby was martial arts – more accurately, a karate-inspired form of kickboxing. When a lad from Crumlin joined Egan's school in Lucan, the young Dubliner noticed an unusual intensity in the standoffish newcomer. As it turned out, this new boy, Conor McGregor, was also interested in martial arts. More than interested – perhaps even obsessed. From his earliest days, McGregor had been fascinated by the notion of combat – in the ring, on the street, wherever it might conceivably take place. McGregor's formative years had been spent in Crumlin, where he had joined the local boxing club, but his parents had recently moved to Lucan, uprooting him from his friends, his hangouts and even his gym, which he now struggled to get to as regularly. He was as uncomfortable with the move as plenty of young men would be.
Through his early childhood, Conor had been more interested in football than in fighting, but it was a need for physical activity that spurred him on more than a great love of the teams and players. In an interview with the Irish Independent, in 2015, he mused on how some people get 'a little weird', with a tribe-like mentality towards their team. Conor observed that almost everyone he knew in Ireland supported either Liverpool or Manchester United, and while his father spent his early life in Liverpool, the Dubliner reflected that United were probably 'his' team. But by the time his family moved to Lucan, the premiership dreams had fallen away and Conor McGregor was far more invested in the sweet science – the bruising business – boxing. When he was eleven years old, he recounts, he found himself outnumbered by a group of boys who had the intention of roughing him up. To hear McGregor tell it, one lad threw a punch and the young Dubliner slipped it, shuffled his feet and exclaimed 'Muhammad Ali!' Like the great John L. Sullivan of legend, the first heavyweight champion of the world and the child of Irish parents, Conor McGregor has always spun a great yarn. 'I done the Ali shuffle! I'm only eleven years old, I done the Ali shuffle, threw a left hook.' Unfortunately even in his own retelling, our hero fell victim to the numbers. 'It was me versus six of them and I ended up getting my arse whooped.'
By his teens McGregor was an avid boxer, while Tom Egan was involved in karate and kickboxing, but neither was a purist. They both enjoyed the new American reality television show The Ultimate Fighter, in which mixed martial arts fighters competed week-by-week to force their way into the Ultimate Fighting Championship – the biggest show in the game. Much of the conversation between the two young scrappers was dominated by the subject of fighting, the Ultimate Fighting Championship and martial arts technique. When Egan's family moved out to Newbridge, his parents allowed him to convert a shed on their new property into a gym of his own. Egan and McGregor would often head out to this shed and, in the words of McGregor, 'punch the head off' each other. Egan, moving on from kickboxing, began training in Newbridge with a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt named Mick Aldridge. Excluding the largely ceremonial red belt ranks, there are only five belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu: white, blue, purple, brown, and black. They aren't given easily and few academies have grading criteria. You get the belt when your coach feels you deserve it and it could take half a decade or more between belts, or just a year.
Like Conor McGregor, Tom Egan wanted to keep improving and while a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu was rare enough in Ireland in the early 2000s, Egan began seeking out more experienced teachers. In his search for a coach, one name kept coming up. The name of a man who became responsible in a very large part for the rise of Conor McGregor and mixed martial arts in Ireland: John Kavanagh.
THE GODFATHER OF IRISH MMA
The name Conor McGregor has become inseparable from the notion of confidence. Forthright, unshakeable, borderline delusional self-belief. But the McGregor story starts with another young man, one who had none of that. John Kavanagh was a gawky teen who had never been in a fight in his life and who, like many adolescents, fought a constant battle with his own insecurities. At eighteen years old, Kavanagh and his then-girlfriend were once walking from a bar called The Station in Rathmines when they stumbled upon a cyclist being assaulted by a group of men. Hoping to get the group to move along, Kavanagh suggested that the downed man had probably 'had enough'. The result was that John Kavanagh had seven shades beaten out of him on the Dublin pavement, in the place of the man he had tried to help.
Rescued by a friend who had left The Station shortly after him, Kavanagh had suffered a shattered orbital bone and received little pity, or aid, upon reaching a police station. A fan of Spider-Man since childhood, Kavanagh had received the harsh lesson that – unlike in the comic books – there is a reason why most people keep their heads down when they come across violent or cruel incidents. As an old Japanese saying has it: the nail that pokes up will be hammered down again. By his own account, after the beating Kavanagh spiralled into depression and anxiety, recalling: '[I] was in a constant state of fear. Whenever I did go out, I was always looking over my shoulder.' A keen student of karate from an early age, martial arts had been a big part of his life and character, yet they had done nothing to help him in the one episode of violence he had encountered. To add insult to injury, Kavanagh's girlfriend had witnessed the entire spectacle, a truly emasculating experience for the awkward and timid young man.
Fortunately for the future of martial arts and the fight game in Ireland, John Kavanagh did not abandon his sport just because it had failed to help him in his hour of need. He continued to study, but drifted away from traditional karate and towards the work of street defence guru Geoff Thompson. A doorman from Coventry, Thompson had found time and again that an extensive background in traditional martial arts had failed to prepare him for the harsh realities of real-world violence. Through seminars and publications such as Animal Day, The Fence and Three Second Fighter, Thompson taught that fear was not only inevitable in a combative situation but that it was a necessary instinct. Fight or flight is inherent in any animal – you run or you throw down.
Geoff Thompson believed that the fight-or-flight instinct had to be embraced and harnessed in order to succeed, and that it could similarly be manipulated in an aggressor to defuse a situation. Thompson believed in the 'fence': essentially a guard, but not in the traditional boxing or martial arts sense, it is an unthreatening posture, usually with the hands open and raised, to keep track of the opponent's movements and obstruct the firing line of their hands. To Thompson, the handling of a situation is more about learning to handle physical abuse and keeping a cool head than the number of 'moves' a man knows. If things start escalating while using the 'fence', and the aggressor begins squaring up to you and getting in your face, a short bump in the chest with the lead hand to push him away can trigger the fight-or-flight response in his brain. With the distance re-established and a slight shock to his system, the aggressor might look for a way out of the situation. On the off-chance that he steps in again, it will be clear that he is ready to fight and at that point Thompson believes the man using the 'fence' should strike first. The pre-emptive strike has been controversial in the traditional martial arts world, but it is also the principle that Thompson places most emphasis on.
The next great moment of inspiration for John Kavanagh was something that inspired so many other successful fighters and coaches in the game of mixed martial arts today. He obtained a tape of the 1993 Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament. Royce Gracie, a member of the Gracie family famed within the martial arts world, entered the contest as the smallest man, and then defeated three opponents in one night to become the tournament champion. Gracie didn't knock anyone out, he didn't muscle anyone around; he slowly tripped them to the floor, got on top of them, moved to their back and submitted them with a choke. To everyone who saw him at the time, it seemed like magic. The core belief in martial arts had always been that technique could overcome strength, but this was not what people had in mind. There were no spin kicks or jumps, there wasn't even much speed or athleticism involved. Gracie won bouts based on his position and knowledge of a whole game that even veteran street fighters did not understand. As the great Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Carlos Machado would put it: 'The ground is my ocean, I'm the shark, and most people don't even know how to swim.'
Kavanagh began experimenting with grappling techniques in his self-defence classes but had no formal teacher to show him the ins and outs of the game, relying on trial and error as the Gracie family themselves often had, and as Tom Egan and Conor McGregor would in their own training shed. While there was no chance of getting instruction in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in Dublin, or even across the Irish Sea, at the time, Kavanagh scraped together the money to travel to the United States in order to train with the famous Machado brothers for three weeks. Many of the United States' earliest black belts happened to live in the same neighbourhood as the Gracies and were invited to train with them on makeshift mats in the family's garage. Meanwhile, Kavanagh, who would become Ireland's first black belt, had to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to get even a few days of tuition from a black belt instructor.
In his continued search for improvement as a martial artist, Kavanagh did something that might be regarded as either admirable or reckless. At twenty-one years old, while studying engineering at Dublin Institute of Technology, the young Irishman began seeking out work as a doorman in order to put himself in contact with the aggression and confrontation that had emotionally paralysed him in the wake of his assault. To this day, Kavanagh remains a soft-spoken and thoughtful man who doesn't enjoy the limelight. In an interview with the Irish Independent in October 2016, he discussed his inherent anxiety and nerves: 'I don't like a lot of people looking at me when I'm talking,' he revealed. 'I also have a skin condition, a very bad rosacea, which means that if I get nervous at all, this redness comes up around my neck, and I'm talking putrid red. I can actually feel it coming on and that makes me more nervous, which increases it, and it goes on and on until I feel like I'm a beetroot.'
Needless to say, bouncing is a dangerous gig – doormen are considerably more prone to being bottled or stabbed than the majority of the population – but much of a doorman's job involves simply looking imposing in order to convince punters it's not worth causing a scene. Unfortunately, John Kavanagh had never been physically intimidating and this made him an easy target for the drunkard who had just been denied entry or had his advances rejected by a girl and needed to reassert his masculinity. Kavanagh found himself on the receiving end of verbal abuse and threats as often as he expected. As a result, however, the young engineer developed a thicker skin and conquered a great many of the demons that plagued him following his assault. As something of an encouraging bonus, when words escalated to blows Kavanagh found that a little grappling knowledge and practice on top of his traditional martial arts experience made things a lot easier for him than he had expected. As much as every drunk thinks he could have a good crack at a professional boxing career, his fighting is improved by alcohol about as much as his driving and singing.
After graduating from Dublin Institute of Technology, Kavanagh doubled down on his teaching of martial arts. His first gym, known in the Irish MMA community as 'The Shed', hosted many of the coaches now at the head of major teams on the Irish circuit, but it was little more than the name implies. Kavanagh had a so-so career as an MMA fighter at a time when there were few events held in the UK and hardly any to speak of in Ireland. Often, he would pay for his own travel and accommodation and expect no purse in return; these were the dark days when mixed martial arts was an underground sport. Kavanagh's mantra in recent years has been 'We win or we learn' and that optimistic philosophy served him well following a crushing loss to Bobby Karagiannidis in South Africa. Afterwards, a disappointed Kavanagh spent the night drinking with his opponent's coach, Matt Thornton. Thornton had founded the Straight Blast Gym in Oregon and the two became fast friends. Kavanagh's shed soon became Straight Blast Gym Ireland.
After retiring from his MMA career while the sport was still very much in its infancy, Kavanagh moved premises to Harold's Cross on Dublin's south side. The nature of running a gym devoted to MMA or grappling is that you find breezy, bare lots on industrial estates, mat them out and fill them with equipment. If everything goes well, after a few years, you pack it all up and take a risk on a bigger one across town. At every step there is the concern that you will end up with fewer members at the new place than where you started. Whereas boxing gyms typically spring up in down-market areas and the mandatory equipment is fairly inexpensive – with a ring and high-tech kit coming as a bonus if the gym can build up some savings in its coffers – MMA and grappling gyms require space most of all, and then have to mat it all out. Maintenance can also be far more of a burden in a grappling gym because the mats are a breeding ground for staph infection, ringworm and all kinds of other unpleasant maladies that are part and parcel of the grappling game. Cleaning the mats multiple times a day is mandatory at a gym with a high number of sessions and a good number of people on the mats. With a high degree of maintenance and the need for far more floor space, it is tough to find venues that offer an improvement without moving farther and farther out of the city. Often, convenience is sacrificed for square footage. In early 2006, Kavanagh had planned to upgrade location once more to a unit in Tallaght, but when that fell through he was back to teaching part-time in a school hall. Finally, he moved into a unit in Rathcoole, and it was there that Straight Blast Gym Ireland's rise to notoriety on the world stage would begin in earnest.
Whereas John Kavanagh is soft-spoken and spent a good portion of his young life in martial arts, confronting his fears and insecurities, Conor McGregor was filled to the brim with boundless confidence and braggadocio. McGregor would walk into Kavanagh's gym in 2006 with none of its owner's doubts. He had arrived at Dublin's Straight Blast Gym with his friend Tom Egan and the two quickly made a home for themselves under Kavanagh. The latter's account of this time in his life makes it clear that he was entertaining the thought that he might have wasted a good portion of his life on a sport that could only ever aspire to being popular within a small niche. But to hear Tom Egan tell the story, Kavanagh was already a legend in the Dublin fight scene. In an interview with Severe MMA in 2015, Egan stated: 'I had met John a fewtimes at different seminars out with the guys I trained with in Athy. To see a guy as good as John back then completely blew my mind. There was this big huge guy training with us in Athy and John would completely tool him. He was a brown belt at the time, and seeing him in action reiterated everything I had already thought about jiu-jitsu.'
Excerpted from "Notorious"
Copyright © 2017 Jack Slack.
Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 Straight Blast Gym 1
2 A Bum No Longer 39
3 I'll Drag Them Back to Ireland 65
4 Chasing the Crown 99
5 The Greatest Featherweight of Them All 127
6 An Unexpected Rival 163
7 The Rematch 198
8 The Two-Weight Champion 259
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jack Slack did a great job with this book! Great details of Conor's life, his fights and MMA in general. He details every fight down to the finest detail and even if you haven't seen Conor's fights, you can see it from his description in your mind. Even if you are not an MMA/UFC fan he has diagrams and tells the reader what each fight term means. It is a great book and I couldn't put it down!