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Win or learn: life lessons from Conor McGregor's coach

One of Conor McGregor's greatest assets is his coach, John Kavanagh – the man who has been in McGregor's corner from the beginning. Kavanagh tells his remarkable story in the autobiography Win or Learn. Square Mile shares the lessons to take from a born winner...

Win or Learnis the autobiography of John Kavanagh, founder of the famed Straight Blast Gym and trainer of notorious MMA fighter Conor McGregor, the UFC featherweight world champion.

It recounts Kavanagh and McGregor's rapid rise through MMA, from the early Cage Fighter events to the historic UFC 196 defeat to welterweight Nate Diaz.

Kavanagh states: “Regardless of the outcome of any contest, the real winners are those who learn the most.”

We delve into Kavanagh's story and bring you the lessons we learned.

Assaulted as a teenager

Despite gaining his karate black belt aged twelve, Kavanagh was bullied throughout school. Learning karate in a hall didn’t help in a street altercation – a real fight is all about mentality, and the young Kavanagh froze. Aged eighteen Kavanagh was severely beaten up by a gang of thugs when out with his girlfriend. He tried to stop an assault and the gang turned on him. Depressed and mentally traumatised by the incident, he barely left his house for a year. Determined never to repeat such humiliation Kavanagh drifted away from karate and into the more violent world of MMA. It’s fair to say he hasn’t looked back.

Lesson: Twofold. Firstly, a skill is only useful if it can be utilized to meet your objectives: whether in work, pleasure or self-defence. Secondly, even the worst experiences can be used as a means of self-betterment – provide you take the initiative.

Meeting Conor McGregor

One afternoon an eighteen-year-old named Conor McGregor walked into Kavanagh’s Straight Blast Gym (SBG) and claimed to be a future UFC champion. An over-enthusiastic McGregor promptly injured two opponents in his first sparring session, including female fighter Aisling Daly. Furious, Kavanagh stepped into the ring himself and beat up the cocky new arrival. Afterwards McGregor said, “Yeah, I deserved that.” He joined the gym and quickly became a vital member of the team.

Lesson: Be willing to lead through deeds, not merely words. Don’t simply tell somebody they are wrong: show them. Anybody worth their salt should respond positively.

Early defeats

McGregor lost twice early in his MMA career. Both defeats were due to an over-reliance on his punching power and an unwillingness to learn grappling techniques. After his first defeat McGregor vanished from the gym; eventually his mother phoned Kavanagh and the coach visited McGregor’s home to persuade him to return. After the second defeat McGregor was back training within thirty-six hours. From then on McGregor embraced every aspect of MMA, including grappling. Today Kavanagh insists all his charges learn to grapple, making the reluctant say: “Although grappling is not my favourite aspect of MMA right now, I’m excited about learning and improving it.” The words are important: what we continuously say, we are – or gradually become.

Lesson: Numerous. Loyalty and faith can reap dividends: had Kavanagh not visited McGregor’s house who knows where they’d both be today. Contrast McGregor’s reaction to his first loss and his second; Conor quickly understood the response to a setback matters more than the setback itself. Identify your weaknesses and embrace the opportunity to improve.

Training philosophy

Kavanagh preaches ‘flow sparring’, a form of sparring that replicates every aspect of a fight except forceful striking: fighters pull their shots at the last moment. The reason? To minimise the risk of injury and ensure the fighter is fresh come fight night. He describes this philosophy as “updating the software without damaging the hardware.” He also condemns the ‘Doghouse’ sparring sessions of Floyd Mayweather’s gym, in which two boxers fight until one quits.

Lesson: Be economical with your preparation. Physical wellbeing is vital to realising ambitions. Hard work brings success; burnout does not.

Family ethos

Kavanagh views the family ethos of SBG as vital to its success. Before his UFC debut McGregor promised to “kick the door down for my teammates to follow.” While new fighters are welcomed to SBG, they must work hard to become a true member of the team. In Kavanagh’s eyes, a fighter who has left one gym can easily leave another. For his part, McGregor understands that the warmth and attention provided by SBG couldn’t be found in a larger American gym, regardless of the money on offer. Even more than loyalty, it’s about intelligence.

Lesson: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. A small, close-knit team will always be more efficient than a large, alienated one. Identify the right environment in which you can thrive, and the people you can trust.

Reflection in victory

Following McGregor’s victorious UFC debut against Marcus Brimage, Kavanagh escaped to a quiet room and lay on the floor, reflecting on their shared achievement. “Taking that little bit of time to myself has become a ritual that I follow after every big fight.” He remembered his bullying at school, the nights working as a bouncer, the struggles setting up the gym, the various defeats of his many fighters. From those early days in UFC to the victorious title fight against Jose Aldo, Kavanagh has always taken that moment of solitary reflection.

Lesson: As a wise man once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” Savour your triumphs. Don’t take them for granted. Stop, look around and appreciate what you’ve done. It'll make you want to do more.

Opportunity in adversity

After tearing his ACL in victory over Max Holloway, fighting the final round with the injury, McGregor was ruled out for a year. Rather than wallow in misery, Kavanagh reminded his fighter that “champions conquer all adversity”, instructing McGregor to “embrace the challenge that came with the injury.” During his rehabilitation in Los Angeles McGregor studied fight strategy, the human anatomy, and the art of self-promotion. Kavanagh sent daily video clips and tactical questions from the gym in Ireland, ensuring McGregor still felt part of the team. According to Kavanagh, “Conor improved in absolutely every area during his recovery...his handling of the injury was the perfect example of the ‘win or learn’ philosophy.”

Lesson: Opportunity comes in many guises. A constant theme of the book is the importance of using setbacks as motivation. Whereas the young Kavanagh and defeated McGregor retreated to the gym, injury now robbed McGregor of his natural refuge. Instead, Conor trained mentally rather than physically. What you lose in one area you may gain in many others.

The most valuable lesson

In 2014 a popular coach at SBG named Kamil Rutkowski took his own life. Today SBG encourages all its members to be open about their mental health. Many subsequently came forward and talked about their struggles with the likes of depression or anxiety. SBG became involved with the charity Pieta House. Despite a membership of over 700, Kavanagh ensures a support system is in place for every member and the gym remains a family, albeit a large one. He describes Rutkowski’s suicide as the gym’s greatest loss but also “the most valuable lesson we ever learned.”

Lesson: Never lose sight of the bigger picture. Work matters. People matter infinitely more. If you feel like you need help, seek it. If you think a friend or colleague might need help, offer it.

The greatest night

Kavanagh’s greatest night? UFC Fight Night 46 in Dublin. In front of a partisan home crowd four SBG fighters recorded four victories. But more than the perfect record, Kavanagh claims it was the presence of his parents that made the night so special. After years of scepticism over a career in MMA, they could finally see their son’s accomplishments; Kavanagh’s father called it “the proudest day of his life”. After the main event, McGregor publically praised Kavanagh: “John has changed our lives. He’s been an inspiration to us all.” As Kavanagh notes, “the way I saw it [my fighters] were changing mine. I guess that’s when you know you’re doing things right as a team.”

Lesson: That good teams benefit and grow together. And you shouldn’t assume the pinnacle of achievement will be the pinnacle of satisfaction. Often it’s the seemingly lesser moments on the way up that we ultimately cherish the most. Success means little if your loved ones can’t share it.

The limits of money

Key to McGregor’s success is the fact money isn’t the sole motivator; more important is the opportunity to do something he loves. According to Kavanagh, “if money is your only incentive, your determination to succeed in competition will fade as soon as you start admiring your bank account.” For McGregor, money is only a welcome byproduct of his profession; the moment it becomes enough in itself will be the moment it starts to dry up.

Lesson: Being motivated by money is fine but you should always keep working towards new objectives. Of course, working towards something is much easier if you enjoy the process of your work. Appreciate success but never take it for granted.

Conquering the world

With each victory McGregor’s legend grew. He beat Chad Mendes to win the interim title belt, then sensationally knocked out Jose Aldo to become the undisputed UFC featherweight champion. After the thirteen-second defeat of Aldo, McGregor became an almost mythical figure. Yet Kavanagh knew "there was no magic potion or secret recipe." The success was down to hard work and nothing else. By doing the right things in the right way in the gym, McGregor fulfilled his life ambitions in the Octagon.

Lesson: As another wise man said, “The only time success comes before work is in the dictionary.” Every winner started somewhere. Every legend of their profession was once a nobody. It’s having the skill and determination to breach that divide which marks out the winners from the rest.

Learning at the top

In March 2016 McGregor moved up a weight to challenge lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. After dos Anjos pulled out, welterweight Nate Diaz took his place – McGregor jumped two weight classes to fight Diaz. He lost via second-round submission, his first defeat in UFC. Pre-fight Kavanagh noted an unusually relaxed atmosphere in the camp; he attributes it to the lack of a weight cut and an over-familiarity with the big occasions. The focus wasn’t quite there. Undeterred McGregor rematched Diaz, again at welterweight, on 20 August – and avenged his loss. Both fighter and coach attributed victory in the second fight to the lessons of the first. McGregor subsequently beat Eddie Alvarez to win the lightweight title, becoming the first fighter in UFC history to hold two belts.

Lesson: No winning streak can last forever. Be humble in your setbacks, be prepared to learn from them – regardless of your previous success. To quote Kavanagh: “Even after you’ve reached the top, you don’t stop learning. In fact, the lessons just become more valuable than they did before.”

Win or Learn is published by Penguin. To purchase a copy click here.