“I earn my living from coaching people how to fight….” Writes John Kavanagh in the opening of his book Win or Learn. He continues “…it may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that until I was in my early twenties, I was terrified of fighting. I hated arguing, shouting, violence – all forms of conflict, basically. That’s not unusual, of course, but to be honest, I was a bit of a wimp – or, as some of the kids in school liked to tell me, a pussy.”
Employing the motto ‘win or learn’, Kavanagh has become a guru to young men and women seeking to master the arts of combat. His gyms have become a magnet for talented fighters from all over the globe who want to learn from the man who coached fighters including Conor McGregor, Makwan Amirkhani, and Gunnar Nelson.
In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Coach Kavanagh to learn what it takes to win, and what we can all learn from his experiences training some of the world’s top fighters.
Q: How did martial arts come into your life?
[Coach John Kavanagh]: I’ve pretty-much done martial arts at one level or another my whole life. My Dad got me started when I was 4, and I was kickboxing and doing Karate till I was 17. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a passion – it was more of a habit. I drifted away for a while, and it wasn’t long after that when I got involved in quite a brutal street-fight where (stupidly) I was trying to take-on 5 guys that were beating someone up – I wasn’t very successful in trying to do anything physical, or defending myself – I got badly beat-up – but the guy they were initially beating-up got away.
This was a low point, but eventually I realised that I could either stay in my bedroom and be safe forever, or try and get my confidence back and learn some self-defense. I came across an old copy of UFC-1 on VHS – me and my friends watched on a Friday night, and Saturday morning we rocked-up for our normal kickboxing class where we’d run around, do some cardio and our kicks. That Saturday, I said to the guys, ‘OK, that’s all out the window… we’re going to headlock each other and roll around on the ground…’ – that was the early stages of it, and I very quickly became obsessed.
It was especially through watching Royce Gracie that I got into it. He was a skinny feeble-looking guy, very quiet, demure. He came across as being intelligent in interviews; and was not the muscle-bound, intimidating, guy that I’d always thought you had to be, if you wanted to be a fighter (that wasn’t me!). I was a shy, nerdy kid – I was more interested in maths, science and Spiderman comics- then I saw this guy who I could relate to, who was calmly, and easily, beating 4 guys on the same night. Not only that, he was beating the kind of guy that I had built-up in my head as being a typical fighter, a tough-guy. Someone like Ken Shamrock– back in the day- who had a fairly intimidating physique and character, Royce took out in under a minute. His fights were almost always without blood, he took a scientific approach – clinch, take someone down, take their back, apply a choke, the person taps out… they stand up, shake hands and walk away. In martial arts movies, it’s more common to see Jiu Jitsu style moves – with people doing strangles and arm-bars… back then, all your Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude van Damme movies had people kicking each-other in the head and punching each other in the face. I didn’t even like the idea of punching someone in the face.
Royce Gracie had this beautiful way of protecting himself, and his opponents – and I figured that if he could do it, I could to. And that’s where I began my love-affair with strangling half-naked men.
Q: How did you create a method for training the best fighters?
[Coach John Kavanagh]: I studied engineering at University, and because of that – I adopted a scientific process to my coaching; I had no background in high-level sports. I never did a sports science degree and had never done any coaching courses. I approached fighting, and each contest, as an experiment. I would develop hypotheses on what strategies and techniques were winning, I would set-up experiments (or go into fights)- try them out- run tests- look at the results and try to be as unemotional as possible.
Sometimes with fights, you can want a certain technique or strategy to win- I would even watch Royce Gracie and want to use his style to win, it was beautiful – but I couldn’t ignore the evidence, and as UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) evolved, different elements started to take-over. People were learning how to avoid the groundwork, they were using Olympic Wrestling techniques and then kickboxing started making a resurgence with the early days of Chuck Liddell knocking people out. Then the whole strength, conditioning and martial arts athletics movement came with the likes of Matt Hughes, Georges St. Pierre, and Conor McGregor.
I tried to remain as emotionless as possible – remaining as much of a scientist as I could be, going with the evidence. I felt that although I didn’t have a coach on hand in Ireland, and even though the sport of MMA was very small, I had mountains of evidence I could study. I developed an approach that was based 80% around evidence from training with my fighters, and 20% on research elsewhere. My engineering training- learning to analyse statistics, study evidence… that was how I learned to coach the sport.
Q: How do you get fighters into the right mindset?
[Coach John Kavanagh]: If before a fight, a fighter said to me, ‘hey Coach! Can you warm me up in the locker room and give me some advice that means I can walk out in front of 18,000 people… perform, and deal with the emotions regardless of whether I win or lose?’ – the simple answer is no… there’s no Rocky speech, there’s no words of wisdom that I would have for you to go from no experience to one of the most traumatizing possible experiences…
You have to start preparing people early. Nobody goes from no-training to a UFC title fight – the job of a coach is to provide situations that can stress an athlete mentally and physically – enough to be uncomfortable – but not so much that they get injured. It’s like a weight-lifting programme; if you lift 1kg and do a few reps, it feels comfortable – but there’s not enough stress to cause any growth, so we have to get you to lift enough weight where it’s difficult, uncomfortable, maybe with a bit of pain – and then our muscles come back stronger.
With mental training it’s the same as physical. You’d start by doing one round in a cage, with big pads on… just taps… but enough so you feel and experience it. You’ll realise you can get through it, and then tomorrow – we’ll build it up more… and then again… and by the end of it, you’ll be surprised at the progress you’ll have made.
If you want to grow, you need to go through something uncomfortable and come out the other end. If you want to grow, you have to go forward in progressive steps. It should always be a little bit uncomfortable because otherwise there’s no growth. And that’s the secret.
It’s like playing chess but while getting punched in the face.
We all like to stay stress-free – but a stress free life doesn’t exist. Look at nature. Every day, a squirrel is trembling every time it turns around a corner. So dealing with stress is a healthy thing. We’re actually designed to take quite a lot of stress, we can take a hell of a lot more stress than we believe we can. We should learn how to fight not flight. And fight doesn’t have to be a physical thing – it can be that you feel something’s going to be uncomfortable ‘okay well let’s avoid it’. No, go through with it but go through with it in a progressive manner, and go through with it in an intelligent manner and measure your results. Keep track of it, look for best practice – you’re going to come out the other end of that okay.
Q: What is the role of ego in martial arts?
[Coach John Kavanagh]: Martial artists tend to have their ego in check. I do find it funny sometimes when you see an incident in other sports, and two guys get chest-to-chest, nose-to-nose and start pushing and shoving. It’s usually because they know they’re not actually going to fight, so they put on a show – like peacocks. It’s really common in the animal kingdom, posing and squaring-up… Bears pose and posture to try and intimidate each other, and eventually one backs down and the other carries on; they know that they could die if they fight, or get hurt and not be able to hunt.
In MMA, you’re actually going to have a fight – so what’s the point in the physical intimidation at weigh-ins? Fighting is part of your routine – you’re at the gym most days, and regardless of how good you are at one element (say, wrestling) you’ll fight someone who is incredible at another (jiu jitsu) and feel like a beginner. That’s a very strong tool for keeping fighter’s ego’s in check; they continuously win and lose at the gym, so they’re not afraid of looking ‘weak’ in life. That’s perhaps why so many fighters have been open at dealing with anxiety, stress and the challenges of professional life.
Q: What is the role of martial arts in the community?
[Coach John Kavanagh]: Fighting is in our DNA; different sports have varying followings all over the world, but you can go to anyone and say ‘who do you think is the baddest man on the planet?’ and they’ll say… Mike Tyson, Mohammed Ali…. One of the only other examples in sport is being the world’s fastest sprinter – most people know it’s Usain Bolt – and like fighting, there’s a cultural value to this, if you go back far enough, it was useful to be able to run very, very fast and to fight.
Fighting crosses demographics. You can come to one of our gyms and find a barrister rolling with a security guard. If you go to the polo club, it’s usually a single demographic.
The martial arts offer great lessons for kids – you get great with practice… you get returns from focus and discipline… and there are no shortcuts. Advertisers push shortcuts at us all day, every day, but it’s hard to trick someone who’s done 10 years of boxing into thinking that you’re competent if you’ve never done it before.
This practice and commitment leads to respect. Athletes tend to respect their coaches and each other. We’re trusting each other with our safety when we train, there’s a chance of getting really badly hurt and so you have to be humble and respectful if you want people to continue training with you – if you’re not, you’ll be asked to leave the gym.
This is nothing to do with the 0.000001% who go on to be professional fighters – it’s about the 99.9% of people who train because they enjoy it, and connect with it – and who apply the lessons they’ve learned to deal with the setbacks, failures, victories, challenges and tests they’re going to get in work and life.