"Only those who never stand up, never fall down.” Fedor Emelianenko
Win or Learn is a deep dive into the art of war. The two protagonists are already legendary icons in the UFC, mecca of 1 on 1 combat: Conor McGregor and his mentor John Kavanagh. This book offers a unique glimpse inside Kavanagh’s perspective on life, his journey building the Straight Blast Gym (SBG) in Dublin Ireland, training a generational athlete and the humbling winning philosophy behind their success.
Flow sparring, a distinct coaching innovation
There have been many occasions over the years when I've sat down with fighters in my office and said: "You prepare for fights in this gym. You don't win them here. The gym is a place for improvement."
At first, they're confused. Their philosophy is the harder you spar, the more prepared you are when the time comes to fight. In reality though, if a fighter is holding nothing back in sparring for six to eight weeks, the likelihood is that they won't even make it as far as the fight. Communicating that message to them is important to me, because it's a mistake I made many times myself.
You want to recreate a fight scenario as closely as you can, but you do it without the same level of impact. Throw your big shots but pull them before they connect. We call this flow sparring. It requires experience and intelligence on the part of both athletes involved. For sparing sessions, I like to replicate every aspect of a fight without the damage. Therefore, if fighters can master the concept of flow sparring, they don't need to wear any additional protection. They can spar using four-ounce gloves, which they’ll be wearing in a fight. I even encourage them to wear the same shorts. Every detail is important.
My fighters can still train hard but there's no need to take unnecessary damage while they do so. We saw significant results from this change in approach very quickly. In the last few years, I can't imagine that any other team can rival our track record for the lowest number of pull-outs from fights at all levels, from the UFC down to the domestic circuit.
Kavanagh and McGregor at SBG
Win or learn: failure is the secret ingredient to success
“Competitive fighting doesn’t last long, learning martial arts and training is for life”
In similar fashion as GSP, a fellow UFC champion, Conor is an obsessed man. He strives for knowledge to dominate in the combat game.
Healing a knee injury, he couldn't train or fight for a long time, but Conor improved in absolutely every area during his recovery. As he inched closer to full fitness each day, his mind gradually became bulletproof. In hindsight, the break was a blessing in disguise, in that it gave Conor a chance to take a step back and clearly assess the opportunities that were in front of him, which meant that he was prepared to make the most of them when they came along. His handling of the injury was a perfect example of the 'win and learn' philosophy I've encouraged at SBG. For 99 per cent of people it would have been a negative experience, but Conor turned it into a positive one. Instead of losing during his time out, he learned.
Even though he couldn't spar, I used to send questions to him by text message about how he'd respond if he were to be caught in a certain position during his fight. That kept his mind sharp and in the game. Conor studied the anatomy of the knee intensely. He became obsessed with knowing every detail of how the knee works in order to have a clearer understanding of his rehab.
Heather Milligan, an elite physical therapist, taught him a lot about the movement of the human body, and that had a significant influence on Conor's approach to training and how to get the best out of himself physically. It also encouraged him to embrace the concept of light sparring even more. Heather told Conor that his muscles were to tight, so he became fixated with making sure that he was always loose and supple. He learned the importance of massage, and came to understand that lifting heavy weights really isn't necessary for building strength. It was all about focusing on soft training.
When he wasn't in the gym or receiving treatment, Conor devoted plenty of time to learning about how the UFC is run as a business and the role of a fighter in the media. He recognized the importance of promoting himself effectively, particularly given that the injury could very easily have pushed him away from the spotlight.
It is rarely noted how efficiently McGregor has designed, crafted his mystic brand. He has crystallised his identity around confidence, a lethal weapon, and is flawless in its showcasing. Whether it be in interviews, fight promotions, social media and knock-outs in the octagon he is always authentic. Conor’s brand is also intimately linked to Ireland, the fighting Irish, the purest possible sponsor. At his first UFC fight, what would become the epitome of his character, McGregor made the walk towards the octagon smiling, with just his own shorts, the Irish tricolour and Sinéad O’Connor’s The foggy Dew. He is always greeted by a massive roar, the arena filled with Irish fans sporting green and the Irish flag.
Sinéad O'Connor and McGregor at UFC 189
Movement is life
Staying fresh and loose before a fight is crucial. Conor's work with Ido Portal, movement master, is just something fun for him to do at the end of a long training camp. Unlike some camps, we don't spar during that period. Late sparring is one of the reasons why there are so many injury pull-outs in other camps. For us, the intensity of the eyes watching us increases during the final two weeks, but the training levels decrease. People didn't see the eight-to-ten weeks beforehand when we had done some big sessions.
Frankie McConville, an excellent Muay Thai coach in Belfast, once said to me: 'Nothing is as boring as training for a fight because you know exactly how many miles you have to run and how many rounds of sparring to do. It's mind-numbing.' Every once in a while, you introduce something new and enjoyable to freshen things up. That's been Ido's role for those last couple of fights and I believe it has been a success.
Respect the rituals
Not having to cut weight for the fight against Diaz was supposedly helpful, but in hindsight it was undoubtedly a hindrance. Cutting weight may not be much fun, but it does serve as a reminder that you're preparing for a fight. It focuses the mind and has been an enormous part of what we've been doing. Without that ritual, things were just weird. If a person is starving, they're in survival mode. It focuses the mind and taps into the reptilian part of the brain. When Conor is cutting weight, he views his opponents as an obstacle in the way of his next meal. It's a primal thing.
There was substantial consolation in the knowledge that Conor would emerge stronger and wiser. One of the great things about this sport is that even after you've reached the top, you don't stop learning. In fact, the lessons just become more valuable than they've ever been before.
Nate Diaz submits Conor via rear-naked choke at UFC 196
The journey is everything – Good things take time
This has been a rollercoaster ride. There were as many low points as there were highlights along the way. At times, it might have made more sense to get off and try something else, but I'm certainly glad I never did.
Perhaps it's fitting that this tale of success against the odds has ended with a setback. At Straight Blast Gym, sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but every time we learn. That attitude was with us when we were a tiny outfit that nobody in the UFC had ever heard of. We persevered and have travelled all the way to the top. Now that we've arrived, we're staying loyal to the same mantra that got us here. It's now more important than ever, because one loss isn't going to send us back to the drawing board. There are challenges ahead that will test our capacity to absorb the lessons that. Are dealt by sport at the highest level. I know that some of those challenges will result in victory and others will end in defeat. But I'm enthusiastic about them all. Regardless of the outcome of any contest, the real winners are those who learn the most.
I always take a moment to remember the highs and lows of the journey, but mostly the lows, because without them my appetite would never have grown big enough to strive for the highs. I looked back at the tough nights of working on the doors in clubs, the struggles to find places to train, the disagreements with my parents... And I smiled, knowing that it was all worth it. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost, but every time I learned.
Five years earlier I'd been sitting beside Conor on his bed in his parents' house as he was in tears due to his life's apparent lack of direction. Yet here he was now, the talk of the UFC, with the president of the organization falling at his feet. It was hard to take it all in, so I had to escape and find a quiet room where I could have a few minutes to myself. I lay down on the floor and let the wave of emotion sweep over me. I just needed a chance to allow it all to sink in. Taking that little bit of time to myself has become a ritual that I follow after every big fight.
Enjoy the run
Kavanagh shows shades of Hall of Fame Quebec boxing coach Stéphane Larouche: Before we went out, I told him to soak the whole occasion in. That's important for fighters. Sometimes we forget that. I want all my fighters to be able to look back on there moments some day with their grandkids and have great stories to tell.
The Champ Champ
"The coincidence was that so many fighters with such an incredible work ethic and appetite for learning all came along at once. The overriding theme when I look back will be that I spent my life doing something I love. I'll be a student of the game until the day I die."
What distinguishes luck from pure success? Win or Learn is a coaching manifesto, a tale of systematically creating one’s chance. On November 12th 2017, Conor McGregor became the first simultaneous double division (Featherweight and Lightweight) champion in UFC history. Repetitive success is no fluke. Kavanagh has a stable of champs at Conor’s side to prove his legitimacy. As McGregor enters the boxing world, poaching a possible fight against Floyd Mayweather, Kavanagh has a new perfect contest to apply his learned winning formula.
By Jean-Philippe Gagnon