John Kavanagh exclusive: “When the Poirier fight is over, let’s get lunch and that evening we’ll pick the next date!”

Conor McGregor’s long-time coach lifts the lid on his team’s preparation as The Notorious gears up for his first appearance inside the Octagon for more than a year when he faces Dustin Poirier at UFC 257 exclusively live this Saturday night on BT Sport Box Office HD.

By George Mills Published: 19 January 2021 - 12.49pm

“There’s a difference when there’s a McGregor fight in town,” admits John Kavanagh.

The eyes of the sporting world will descend on Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, this weekend as ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor strides into the Octagon for the 13th time under the banner of the UFC.

Alongside Kavanagh, his long-time coach and founder of the Straight Blast Gym stable, McGregor’s star has soared higher than any other in the sport of MMA.

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Watch Poirier vs McGregor 2, Hooker vs Chandler and more exclusively live on BT Sport Box Office from 1am on Saturday night.

During a pulsating run that took him from a UFC debut in early 2013 to an unforgettable night at UFC 205 in 2016, the 32-year-old conquered two different weight divisions simultaneously, defeating a who’s who of legendary fighters along the way.

But since then, the Irish fighter has graced the Octagon just twice, enduring an infamous defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 before bouncing back with last year’s stunning 40-second knockout of Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone at UFC 246.

The recent lengthy absences that have punctuated his later years provide an intriguing contrast to the pace of a career that moved in hyper speed until 2016.

But which version of McGregor is the most dangerous – the busy, battle-hardened brawler or the one well-rested and hungry to return?

“That’s a good question. I suppose there’s a bit of both in it,” Kavanagh responds when it's put to him by BTSport.com.

“In terms of training for this, the last few months have been absolute heaven”
- John Kavanagh

“I will say this time we’ve had a year and he really did take the time to just let everything heal. He’s always just been carrying the odd niggle here and there and right now he’s really finely tuned. No aches and pains.

“His weight is on target for a very gentle and light water cut. So from that perspective it’s been great.

“From my perspective, as a fan wanting to see him in there as often as possible, it’s not been great. But look, that’s the past here’s the future. We’re ready for Saturday 23 January and we’re ready for a busy year.

“I hope you and everybody else are harassing the UFC to give us a date straight away. When the fight is over that morning, let’s go for lunch and that evening we’ll pick the next date.”

Like many of us, McGregor had grand plans for 2020; he spoke consistently of his desire to fight at least twice more following his demolition job on Cerrone, but when the coronavirus crisis took hold across the globe in March, all plans went out of the window. 

It is an issue that McGregor and the rest of the team have been forced to confront on their first training camp since the pandemic struck – but Kavanagh suggests that the impact of their enforced solitude has not all been bad.

“I actually feel very guilty because the last couple of months have been tough in other aspects [of life] but in terms of training for this, it’s been absolute heaven,” he continues.

“We’ve had a couple of months in beautiful Lagos in Portugal. We’ve really been able to isolate ourselves and we’ve only had one task. My gym is shut down like a lot of other guys out there so I didn’t have anything else to think about other than this. 

370 days
Between the Cowboy fight and Poirier rematch

“You wake up in a nice warm, sunny place, you train; you go down to the beach, you have nice food, you stretch, you relax and then you go back in the evening and do it [train] again. We had that for months and now we’ve been in Dubai for a couple of weeks and it’s been of the same.

“It’s a little bit warmer here, a little bit drier. Conor has us staying in an unbelievable five-star hotel, I have my own swimming pool in the back garden here!

“The environment has been incredible, nothing else really to think about other than that. We have a whole medical team with us as well to ensure the [Covid-secure] bubble is tight and we’re having things shoved up our nose every day to make sure we’re on top of all that.

“He has a great team of guys that take care of the logistics of all this… all these guys do incredible 20-hour days to make sure that we as the training team - and especially Conor as the athlete - have only one thing to think about and that is competing and performing.”

After just 18 minutes and 43 seconds inside the cage since 12 November 2016, preparation to face former foe Dustin Poirier this weekend has been focused around restoring McGregor’s sharpness.

“It’s about making sure that the sparring you do has a fight feel to it,” Kavanagh adds.

“Some gyms don’t even have an Octagon and there are ten pairs on the mat all doing MMA sparring. That will have a very different feel than if it’s just one pair and you’re walking into the gym that has an elevated Octagon and you have to walk up into that with a bit of a crowd watching. As you can imagine that’s a very different feel.

“To go from that to a UFC Fight Night is another level again but at least we’ve been able to do that part for months now. He’s got a full-sized UFC Octagon in the back garden of his house! We’ve been up there night after night, going in there for I what I would say are more like simulated fights than sparring sessions.

“You have a crowd, there’s a referee and so on. We really make it feel like a fight. I think if you really take control of that side of things and really try to bring all aspects of it, not just the physical side but the visualisation, having cornermen and so on, it will give you as close a feel to fight night as possible.”

Kavanagh knows McGregor will need to be on top of his game if he is to deliver a repeat performance in Saturday’s rematch of his UFC 178 victory over Dustin Poirier

It took just 106 seconds for Notorious to render Poirier helpless in the eyes of the referee at the MGM Grand during their first encounter, but since that night, “The Diamond” has established himself as one of the major players in the 155lb division.

A former interim king, the 32-year-old’s only loss in the last four years came, like McGregor, at the hands of Khabib Nurmagomedov.

“The first few contacts will be made and it’s not going to look a whole lot different than the first time”
- Kavanagh on UFC 257

Known for his all-action style and his propensity for maximum violence, Poirier’s most recent outing saw him bounce back from that defeat against Khabib in a Fight of the Year contender against New Zealand’s Dan Hooker last summer.

Hooker, who coincidentally tees up the main event at UFC 257 in a must-see clash against UFC debutant against Michael Chandler, enjoyed great success against Poirier with his striking during the early rounds, punishing his opponent’s recklessness with alarming frequency.

The American would show championship heart to battle back into contention as he took a deserved decision on the night – but it was a performance that left Kavanagh with much to chew on as the pair prepare to lock horns again this weekend.

“Look at his last few performances prior to the Hooker win, look at the fight with Eddie Alvarez, the Justin Gaethje fight. It’s why he’s always up there in the top five, in the title mix all the time. He’s incredibly exciting,” Kavanagh says.

“It’s almost a waste of a word to call a UFC top ten fighter ‘tough’ but he is tough amongst a tough group of people.

“He has a lot of great qualities. He’s a solid human being, look at all the charity work he does too. But it’s going to be the same [as UFC 178] come 23 January.

“The first few contacts will be made and it’s not going to look a whole lot different than the first time.”

Watch UFC 257: Poirier vs McGregor 2 exclusively live on BT Sport Box Office HD this Saturday night. Click here to find out more information on how to order this unmissable event.