USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) has confirmed that Conor McGregor has re-entered the testing pool, further igniting speculation that he will be stepping back in the Octagon in the coming months against Michael Chandler.

The former UFC champion was removed from the testing pool in 2021 after recovering from a broken leg, and has been training for his return to MMA.

MH sat down with the head coach who has worked with Conor McGregor for nearly 20 years, through injury, defeat and triumph. Monster Energy took us inside SGB (Straight Blast Gym), the home of MMA in Ireland, and a partnership that has lasted 7 years, to speak with legendary coach John Kavanagh.

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Men’s Health: How has Conor McGregor evolved over the years?

JK: There’s been some massive changes. I suppose a few things that have stayed the same, he’s been with the same girl. He’s been with Dee the whole time that I’ve known. When he joined the gym, things were very simple. It was just about trying to be the best we could be.

[The business] all exploded in the last five years or so now. It’s been interesting watching him try to juggle all of those things and keep up his training. I guess his life has gotten a hell of a lot busier.

MH: Has that changed the way that you coach him?

JK: The sport lends itself to somebody who’s hyperactive, physically and mentally, like Conor. One of the coaches describes training like being a very bright light for 45 minutes and then you turn it off. You don’t want to be a dim light for eight hours hanging around the gym, talking to people. No, it’s come in, it’s intense and then leave. That’s what Conor does.

It’s always been pretty much two sessions a day and around 45 minutes each time. Then the lights go off. We don’t come in and chat and hang out. [It’s] just go and then get the hell out, go away. Eat and get ready for it.

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MH: How has training around his injury been going?

JK: I always tell my guys MMA is not about avoiding injuries, it’s about managing injuries. So we’re always dealing with something, and there’s always something you can train with Conor.

There’s remarkable videos out there when he had that severe injury. It was horrific. The next morning he was in pubs, and that’s just always been Conor’s way. No matter what is injured, if he can’t do something – say, kick, squat, run – he’ll look at what he can do with his other set of muscles that aren’t injured. So, push-ups, pull-ups, dumbbell curls, you know, whatever. And he’s had that attitude since the beginning.

He doesn’t focus on what he can’t do, he only looks at what he can do.

MH: What are the other qualities that he brings to being an athlete that impress you as a coach?

JK: Some call it his fight IQ, I describe it as curiosity. I think we both kind of bounced off each other a little bit that way. He helped me and I helped him a little bit. I think it’s that inquisitiveness that shows his passion for it. And he’s obviously incredibly focused in the run up to fights.

MH: How do you keep him focused as a coach?

JK: You know, I actually feel sorry for the guys involved in those other businesses because I have a feeling when he’s sitting in a boardroom meeting about Proper 12 sales, he’s just dreaming about fighting.

You travel, you buy some shiny stuff, whatever, but you’re going to eventually circle back to something that you just really enjoy and Conor just really enjoys fighting. It’s a fun sport to him.

Conor was down here [SBG gym] last night. He messaged me yesterday. He was like, ‘Hey coach, what sessions are on?’ It was just a regular jiu-jitsu class with the public and then walks in this global superstar.

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MH: Has there been a moment when you feel like your coaching had a real impression on him when he was fighting?

JK: His first big loss was when he was only very young, maybe 18, 19. I remember because it was his first fight and it was only a local fight in Dublin and he brought his family and his friends and he was getting a bit of a reputation.

And then everybody came along and he lost, and I knew this was going to be devastating to them because he brought them all – to show off for them, and he gets beat and he disappeared.

In those situations many fighters give up and feel it’s not the sport for them. We both go our separate ways. But with Conor it was different. I had a bit of a connection with him. So I went to his house, which was unusual for me.

I was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? It’s enough feeling sorry for yourself. All right, you have a loss. Big deal. We fail our way up towards success. We don’t fail our way down towards quitting. Come on, I’m not just saying these things, you got to live that life. And yeah, I just basically kicked his ass, dragged him out of bed.

If we have a big win, I don’t like to overrate, and if we have a big loss, I don’t like to over commiserate you. The next day, the sun rises, you carry on. And sure enough the next day he was back in the gym and the journey continued. So, maybe if I hadn’t kicked in his bedroom door that day, who knows what would have happened.

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MH: What’s your take on the speculation around Conor gaining weight?

JK: When he was getting ready to film Roadhouse, [the nutritionist] had him on a stupid amount of calories and just lifting. Conor would do a lot of training which would naturally be high energy. A lot of calorie burning – very aerobic. A lot of sweating.

And then he went through a three-month period where he was doing no mixed martial arts training at all. Conor’s hyperactive, and overdoes whatever he’s doing. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. He does too much of it. And then suddenly he got into weight training and he just went on a three-month blast.

So you get Conor, that type of hyper-athlete and you just feed them and get them lifting heavy twice a day for three months. The weight packs on.

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MH: In preparation for the Roadhouse film, what sort of lifts was Conor doing and what was his diet like to gain weight?

JK: We’d be sticking to the simple lifts – deadlift, squat and bench. Probably he was a little bit hyper focused around the body and shoulder area because that looks good on camera. I’m sure there were a lot of shoulder presses.

The diet isn’t magic. It’s super low in sugar and getting the macros and all that kind of stuff in. But he’s a meat and potato type guy. He likes his steaks, his vegetables. He’s always been really good at that, even since way back in the day.

Even if we went out, let’s say there was a fight and we had a couple of drinks that night, a bit of a celebration. A lot of people binge on junk food the next day. Conor would wake up the next morning and he’s right back on the correct diet and getting the hydration in. He’s always been really good at that. We’d sometimes be stuck somewhere at a fast food place. He’d be like, ‘No, I’ll wait. I’ll wait two hours to get the proper nutrition in.’

MH: What are your future aspirations for Conor as a fighter?

JK: I think in the first half of next year we fight Chandler. We get a big win and then I suppose it’s like, how big of an itch does he have, will that scratch it? Is he done? Or does the itch grow and do we want to go for another belt? So I’m here for all of it.

He’s young enough. He’s healthy. He’s had the injuries and we’ve recovered. So his body is in good shape. His mind is as hyperactive and as passionate about sport as day one. So watch this space.

Headshot of Kate Neudecker

Kate is a fitness writer for Men’s Health UK where she contributes regular workouts, training tips and nutrition guides. She has a post graduate diploma in Sports Performance Nutrition and before joining Men’s Health she was a nutritionist, fitness writer and personal trainer with over 5k hours coaching on the gym floor. Kate has a keen interest in volunteering for animal shelters and when she isn’t lifting weights in her garden, she can be found walking her rescue dog.