John Kavanagh Interview

Roving European Reporter-at-Large, Carl Fisher, interviews Dublin based BJJ/MMA pioneer John KavanaghCarl: Firstly, congratulations on the black belt; what does it feel like being the first man in Ireland to be awarded the coveted belt?

John: Well it’s been a long journey and I guess in the beginning I had the black belt in mind as a ‘goal’ – something to aim for. However now I’m there I realise that wasn’t the point, if it had been I would’ve quit a long time ago. I realise now the destination was the journey. I train because I enjoy it; the belts are incidental and come with time. As one of my friends Luis Gutierrez says ‘Belts are brief indicator of where you were, where you are and where you’re going’.

It took me ten years to go from white to black belt but I can honestly say it took no ‘dedication’ or ‘will power’. I roll because I love the sport – if I was still a blue belt I’d still do it because of that reason. I’d advise anybody to quit the sport and do something else if your reason for training is just to get a belt – do it because you love it.

Carl: What did Matt have you doing on the day? Did he work you hard?

John: Well as you know the belt is earned over time. How I perform on a single day is not as important as my year in year out performance. However Matt did put me through a fairly tough ‘iron man’ session. He put me in the middle of the mat and I had to wrestle one guy after another for just under an hour with no rest. But BJJ is an art that is proven on the mat every day. Anybody can drop by and you have to be willing to roll with everybody. If your belt is not legit you will be shown up very quick!

Carl: Where did you get the belt? Who was there to witness it?

John: I had Matt over for a weekend seminar, we bring him over every February and we had a group testing on the Sunday. All my students were at it, so was nice to get it in front of them – seen as it was rolling with them day in day out that helped me develop my game.

Carl: How did it feel when you got it? Where you aware that you were up for promotion?

John: I wasn’t aware I was getting my black belt but like I said it was nice to get it, especially from someone I respect so much.

Carl: What plans do you have for BJJ in Ireland and within SBG Ireland?

John: Well Andy Ryan and I (runs another SBG gym in Dublin) have set up the Irish BJJ Association ( This is a completely separate thing to SBG and its goal is very simple – to help promote the sport of BJJ in Ireland. So regardless of what style or association you are part of you can have access to coaching courses, high level instruction and regular competition. As well as, in the long run, the chance to play for your country. It’s my goal to keep politics out and keep it just about the sport – I’ll do my best!!

Carl: How many clubs you got in Ireland?

John: Well according to the SBG website ( we have 7 Affiliated Training Groups. These are groups around the country who are interested in incorporating SBG training methods into their gyms. Usually it’s BJJ they are interested in but we also help them with clinch, conditioning, MMA, etc. If any other group would like to get involved they can contact us at

Carl: Any purple/brown belts coming through the ranks?

John: Well one of my guys received his purple belt at the same testing as me – Owen Roddy. He is also Ireland’s top featherweight MMA fighter with very good stand up and wrestling too. He runs the kids program in our gym. We also have some very sharp blue belts who are giving me hell now – with the likes of Tom King, John Donnelly due their purple belts soon. Also Andy Ryan, one of Ireland’s top Judo black belts received 3 stripes on his purple belt and is a nightmare on the mat. I’m hoping to bring a team to the Urban Gorillaz event on April 15th to see how they get on.

Carl: How often do you meet up with Matt?

John: He’s at my gym every February and I usually try to get over to his place for 2 weeks during the year.

Carl: I had the honour of being one of the referees on your first big BJJ comp in 2005 (is that correct?) and had a great weekend; how is the event progressing? You getting more numbers entering and is it on again this year?

John: Yes that was our first BJJ open and we ran it again in 2006 with a big jump in numbers. It’ll be on this year again and we are expecting our biggest turn out yet. It’ll be on sometime in October, keep an eye on for updates.

Carl: You still gonna compete MMA?

John: No, sticking to the coaching side of things.

Carl: How is MMA received in Dublin and Ireland in general?

John: Very well, for the most part; I started the ‘Ring of Truth’ series a couple of years ago and recently we had our 6th fight night. It’s amazing how much the standard has gone up in the last couple of years. I’m sure a number of the top guys will be moving onto UK competition this year and making a name for themselves.

Carl: Any upcoming MMA events scheduled?

John: Definitely the biggest is Cage Rage Contenders May 26th headlined with UFC and Pride star Chris Brennan taking on the very tough French man Samy Schiavo. Take a look at for details.

Carl: What’s your typical day of training consist of? Do you manage to get the balance right between personal training and teaching your students?

John: Well at the highest level you have to make a choice – coach or athlete. I prefer coaching so that’s what I put my energy into. I don’t compete that much but last year I managed to win the UK Supreme National Grappling Championships, Northern Ireland Submission and the Irish Submission Championships. Also I got to the 3rd round of the ADCC trials in London but had to pull out due to injury, which has left me needing surgery in my knee. I have no further plans to compete, although I may jump into some grappling competitions for fun!

To be honest I don’t consider myself a very competitive person – I enjoy rolling and hope to do that forever; however if someone comes to me and wants to be a competitive MMA fighter I’d want them to have some experience in that field so I could help them achieve their goals which is why I fought a couple of times but its not my passion. I’m also a level 2 wrestling coach and level 1 weight lifting coach which has helped me as a coach hugely.

I’m lucky enough to be in constant contact with Karl Tanswell (SBG UK) who has shown me pretty much everything I know about MMA coaching, conditioning, psychology. He is the original ‘mad scientist’ and guys in the UK are very lucky to have him there – he’s in demand all over the world.

The real pleasure for me is coaching. If I’m working with someone getting ready for a fight then it usually consists of conditioning session in the morning and then skills in the evening. I was working with Arni ‘The Ice Viking’ Isaksson for the whole of 2006 and enjoyed a lot of success with him winning the CW Enter the Wolfslair tournament – beating UFC fighter Dennis Silver in the finals. Unfortunately preparing for his Cage Rage debut v Jean Silva in December last year he badly hurt his knee and will be out of competition for 2007. There are a couple of other good prospects coming up through the ranks so we’ll see how they do this year.

Carl: Are you in the 10K Clash?

John: No.

Carl: Will we see any of your guys at SENI this year in London?

John: Yes definitely – we had a few there last year but hoping to bring a much bigger team this year and grab a few medals!

Carl: John, thanks for your time and congratulations on the black belt once again.

John: Thanks Carl

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Carl Fisher