Sherdog.com’s 2014 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year

Breakthrough Fighter of the Year

As 2014 dawned, Conor McGregor was in a position that seems unthinkable as 2015 arrives: out of the spotlight.

He tore his ACL in his August 2013 fight with Max Holloway and was working through what felt like a stalled momentum during a rehab in Los Angeles, where the Ultimate Fighting Championship had hooked him up with a specialist. The charismatic Irish featherweight made a bit of a splash in the fight, which the UFC positioned as second homecoming in Boston -- a city with a noted Irish population.

McGregor’s career-long coach, John Kavanagh, saw a silver lining in it all.

“Of course the injury was very hard to take at the time -- he was on a nice roll, [and] we were getting some good momentum in the UFC -- but looking back, I believe it will in the long run be seen as a positive,” Kavanagh told Sherdog.com. “Conor had been training pretty much every day for 10 years at a pretty high level. It gave him a physical and a mental break from the sport, which is not a bad thing; and secondly, more importantly, it taught him the importance of ‘prehab’ and rehab, and his whole approach to training now, I believe, is a lot smarter.”

It is hard to argue with the results. McGregor stormed back onto the scene in July, knocking out Diego Brandao in four minutes atop the UFC’s second-ever event in Dublin; it was among the most intense shows in UFC history. The crowd exploded for the McGregor’s victory and those of his three teammates.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that, and it was very much an exclamation point on the past 10-plus years of what I’ve been trying to do here,” said Kavangh, who has worked with McGregor since he walked into his Straight Blast Gym one day a decade ago.

In Ireland, the event was carried live on 3e, a channel available in about three million homes in a nation of 4.59 million. At 257,000 average viewers -- peaking at 340,200 for McGregor’s fight -- the broadcast was the most-watched sports show in the history of the channel, according to the Wrestling Observer. Tickets for the fight at Dublin’s O2 sold out in minutes. Event-day signups for UFC Fight Pass, where the fight aired, reached a record high.

Two months later at UFC 178, McGregor dispatched perennial top-10 featherweight Dustin Poirier in 1:46 with another TKO stoppage. The fight may have been in Las Vegas, but the Irish were equally vociferous there, as a traveling squad bellowed support at the MGM Grand Garden Arena like a rugby crowd.

It all added up to a warp-speed campaign that earned McGregor Sherdog.com’s “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year” award for 2014.

To hear Kavanagh tell it, McGregor, the 26-year-old son of a taxi driver, is primed to reach even bigger heights in 2015. McGregor came off the injury rehab, he said, “like a highly qualified physiotherapist,” having culled invaluable knowledge about “how the human body heals itself.”

“There was so many times where he’d -- he’s not the best timekeeper in the world -- show up a few minutes late for class, just throw on his gear and be straight into full-on MMA sparring rounds. Of course, that’s not the smart way of doing things,” Kavanagh said. “Now he’s a lot more careful with taking 20 minutes, 30 minutes to properly warm up and loosen, mobilize his body before training, also taking a longer time in his cool-down process.”

McGregor’s successes have allowed him to make changes to his routine, changes that have benefited his entire circle. Once McGregor’s manager, Kavanagh was all too happy to let McGregor’s new management handle the tsunami of media requests that came as his profile rose.

“I usually just don’t even reply at this stage, because I’m getting 100 a day,” Kavanagh said.

Everyone wanted a piece in 2014. The silver-tongued McGregor lit up the headlines, as throughout the year, his quotes quickly climbed the charts of MMA clickbait. He offered lewd prognostications for a potential fight with Chad Mendes during a live television appearance in the United Kingdom and faced down legions of agitated Brazilians in a suit and shades in a Q&A session that saw him unflappably state his intent to run through Jose Aldo. While it may sound like simple bluster, Kavanagh claims McGregor’s cocksure attitude stems from his laser focus on technique and a belief that he is operating on a higher strategic plane than anyone else in his division.

“With absolutely no disrespect to him or any future opponents, I don’t think people realize just the difference of ability in Conor and any of these guys,” Kavanagh said, citing McGregor’s punching power as an example. “It’s always something I see when his opponent comes across the cage. When the first even jab lands, I see their eyes opening wider, because you’ve never felt this before; and you can clearly see that in the Dustin [Poirier] fight if you watch it back. After the first contact, he never took a forward step again, and I’ve seen it in most opponents’ fights. They’re used to fighting featherweights and maybe sparring even up to a welterweight in their gym, but they feel like a light heavyweight is making contact, and fear sets in right away … I don’t see anybody for a long time being able to beat him.”

Continue Reading » T.J. Dillashaw
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