Written by DJ Bolton
“I could rest my balls on your forehead”
Conor McGregor is known to be fond of a quip, as Chad Mendes found out when he had the temerity to question ‘The Notorious’ on his knowledge of wrestling.
Low-key is not something McGregor specializes in yet often it provides his most illuminating comments.
November 7th, 2015. It’s a typical winter Saturday in Dublin. Overcast, dreary, dull with intermittent drizzle. Darkness falls by early evening. ‘Town’, as the city is colloquially referred to, starts to fill up. Cars start arriving to the National Boxing Stadium on the South Circular Road. This intimate 2,000 seater stadium was built in 1939 – the only purpose-built amateur boxing stadium in the world. Many Irish champions have passed through these corridors.
In action this night, amongst others, are 4 boxers originally from Crumlin Boxing Club. It’s a packed house for the fights.
That all four are friends of McGregor comes as little surprise, as he spent much of his teenage years sparring with the same young men in that gym. That all four were friends as children and teenagers was equally no surprise. The degree of separation between people in Crumlin, and the wider area of suburban Dublin, is relatively small.
Jamie “The Nuisance” Kavanagh, one such friend (and no relation to McGregor’s coach), faced off against the Hungarian banger Oszkar Fiko in a Lightweight bout. The first three rounds saw crisp, clean work from the Dubliner resulting in his outmatched opponent being docked a point for holding on. By the 5th, Kavanagh grew restless that Fiko was even still standing. He planted his feet and traded with the Hungarian looking to secure a finish for the strong Crumlin crowd in attendance. A good counter-right-hand from the Hungarian brawler opened a huge cut over Kavanaghs left eye. This alarm bell seemed to ring some sense into the Crumlin man and he reverted to using his superior footwork to eventually stop his opponent in the 7th.
Conor McGregor, ringside, showed his appreciation for the scrap and the crowd rose to acclaim Kavanagh.
BoxNation were covering the event and managed to get McGregor on camera, ringside, for a very brief interview. He was calm, composed and relaxed but his words still carried the authority of a man who believed he was about to stop the pound-for-pound King, Jose Aldo Jr, in his own sport some 5 weeks later.
This interview produced one very understated, and illuminating, answer to the following question:
“How have you got to where you are, from where you were, on these streets as a plumber many years ago?”
“Isolation. Hard work. Dedication. Motivation. Just having a vision that this will pay off. Finding something that I’m passionate about – the fight game – every aspect I love dearly and am very passionate about. If you can find that and isolate yourself from temptation and your surroundings……”
The answer trailed off and morphed into McGregor musing “will the Brazilian show up this time” (hint: he would). At first glance, this looks a standard McGregor answer – albeit delivered with restraint. On second look, it’s possible to take a wider interpretation.
“isolate yourself from temptation and your surroundings”
McGregor was ringside to support Jamie Kavanagh – His childhood friend and neighbour. To understand what Conor meant by isolating himself from the temptations of his surroundings; you really need to know a little bit more about where Conor came from and the fine line young men there often walk between productive and destructive paths.
September 22nd 2014, Las Vegas. UFC 178 fight week has arrived and, with it, another chance for the sole Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson to reassert his vice-like grip on the division, against a contender on a 3-0 hot streak. Whilst Chris Cariaso contemplates that task at hand; the Notorious swaggers into town, bringing with him his own 3-0 streak and arsenal of mental warfare for Dustin Poirier. Before the week is out he would let the world know, in no uncertain terms, that he would dismantle the “quiet little hillbilly (with a likely cousin named Cletus)” in dominant fashion.
Meanwhile, before the week was out in Dublin, Jamie Kavanagh would bury his father.
Gerard “Hatchet” Kavanagh was a convicted criminal, mobster and part of the infamous Kinahan gang – a Dublin criminal gang. He had emigrated to Spain, where the now Kinahan cartel operated from, and played a role in flooding drugs into the Irish market. Like many gangsters, the man sought out an air of respectability in his new surroundings. His daughter became a successful Show Jumper and achieved good results in Equestrian competitions in Europe. His wife shared a passion for horses.
Gerard provided the finances for his son, Jamie, to go train with world-renowned boxing coach Freddy Roach from the relatively early age of 18. Relocation to California would provide his son with the best possible training and, presumably, the best chance of staying out of trouble.
The opportunity of ever seeing his son becoming a world champion ended for “Hatchet” in an Irish bar in Spain in September 2014. Having just taken his seat 2 masked men burst in to the bar, in broad daylight, and shot him 37 times. Respected Irish journalists, with connections in the criminal underworld, reported that the hit was related to a money dispute in the gang – apparently Hatchet was on the take.
Pictured: Jamie & Gerard Kavanagh
The winter of 2014 rolled through and life moved on.
Conor McGregor set his sights on advancing his push towards the summit of the Featherweight division of the UFC. Jamie Kavanagh set his sights on recovering from the death of his father.
Both fighters took on new challenges in very different circumstances.
Boston called for a buoyant McGregor and he answered that call in January, 2015 with a one-sided demolition of the durable Denis Siver. It was a wild night in Boston stacked with Irish talent, in front of an overwhelmingly positive, raucous crowd; 4 Irish-born fighters fought, emerging 3-1 on the night.
McGregor, top of the card, did not disappoint – albeit against an opponent on the downside of a mediocre career.
Jamie Kavanagh, meanwhile, was beginning Fight Camp for a March 20th, 2015 bout with Mexican Miguel Zamudio at the Fantasy Springs Resort in California. Despite the recent murder of his father, an enormous ordeal for any young man, he endured the camp and withstood an early onslaught from the gritty Mexican, recovering well to KO his opponent late in the 5th round.
March 26th, 2015. Dublin. Mere days after Jamie had floored his Mexican opponent in California, Paul Kavanagh was sitting in the driver’s seat of his car outside his house in North Dublin. His car was suddenly, violently rammed from the side. Before he had the chance to flee, a hail of bullets swept his car killing him. He was 27 years old.
Paul, despite being only 2 years older, was Jamie Kavanaghs uncle, brother of Gerard and, according to news reports, also heavily involved in organised crime and the drug trade in Dublin. The funeral was well-attended by the local community including then-UFC-contender Conor McGregor, who happily posed for selfies with some local fans.
February 5th, 2016. Dublin. 11 months have passed. Conor McGregor is now the undisputed UFC Featherweight Champion having delivered on his promise in style in Las Vegas, December, 2015. His prediction to BoxNation that Aldo would not last 4 minutes was cemented in 13 seconds with an accurate, short counter-left-hook to the chin from the on-rushing Brazilian. He returned home and was enjoying the fresh air that his North Kildare home offers, a mere 25 minutes from his childhood home.
While Conor was at home basking in the fruits of his labour; Jamie Kavanagh was at the Regency Hotel in north Dublin 20 miles away stripping down to his boxers for the weigh-ins for his upcoming fight in his home town.
Three people dressed in Police Emergency Response Unit (ERU – Irish version of SWAT team) clothing entered the Regency hotel. This seemingly innocuous situation quickly unravelled when an AK-47 was brandished and multiple shots fired. One man died and 2 more were critically injured by what turned out to be proverbial wolves in sheep clothing – imposters. It was one of the most audacious, and shocking, incidents in the recent history of Ireland. Audacious criminal acts were often attempted in Dublin by The General, Martin Cahill, but never before had such a brazen, murderous plot been executed in this fashion. Unheard of.
The dead man was 34-year-old David Byrne – formerly of Crumlin Boxing Club. He had been in attendance for McGregor v Aldo in Las Vegas and had been pictured with Conor during previous Jamie Kavanagh fights. Byrne, like both of the murdered Kavanagh’s, was heavily involved in drugs and organized crime and was the specific target of this organized hit.
The execution of Byrne, and the Kavanagh brother’s, was the first phase of a new dawn in a bloody Dublin gangland feud. The Kinahan Cartel, from their base in Spain, was now at war with the domestic-based Hutch group. This feud, intrinsically a power-struggle, between gangs based out of Crumlin and Drimnagh – 2 neighbouring suburbs of Dublin – would grip the country for much of 2016.
When a demure, reserved Conor McGregor spoke those words to BoxNation, ringside at the Jamie Kavanagh fight, in late 2015
– “isolate yourself from temptation and your surroundings” –
I’ve no doubt he was referring, at least on some level, to a path he could easily have ended up on himself.
Part of the mass appeal of Conor McGregor to the youth of Ireland, in particular, is that this is a guy who is proud of his heritage – a tough, working class suburb of Dublin – but somehow managed to elevate himself to a better place; financially, physically and mentally.
Conor McGregor could very easily have ended up another number, another statistic, another sad-story, a sub-plot of an even sadder story that a lot of his childhood peers ended up part of. David Byrne and Paul Kavanagh are just 2 of the names of peers of Conor McGregor in Crumlin, who passed through the same Boxing club, who met an untimely demise. It’s often hinted by his coach John Kavanagh that Conor was mixing with the wrong people in the early years of their blossoming partnership.
The path into organised crime has become a well-trodden one for many teenagers in ‘tough’ suburbs of Dublin. The collapse of the Irish economy in the late 2000’s, coupled with high youth unemployment, and (perversely) a hit TV show about Dublin gangland crime (“Love/Hate”), made this alternative lifestyle seem almost glamorous. Organised crime and drug dealing became a temptation for many disenfranchised young men and women; offering them a sense of power, control and money that would otherwise be well out of reach.
Mixed Martial Arts became McGregor’s beacon, Boxing became Jamie Kavanagh’s.
Conor’s family moved him away from Crumlin at 16 to nearby Lucan; not far in distance yet plenty far enough in the mind of a non-driving 16 year-old. Conor found a loyal, patient girlfriend, a friend in Tom Egan who introduced him to his pioneer coach, and formed strong bonds with training partners and the rest, as we say, is history.
It’s hard to say to what extent the gangland feud and murder of his peers has affected Conor over the years but it’s worth noting that he has a constant, armed security presence in public in America and bodyguards when out in Ireland and he’s on record as saying he always sits with his back to a wall in a venue he is unfamiliar with.
Jamie clearly suffered multiple personal tragedies and has found the dark shadow of crime lingering over him – losing both his father and uncle in horrific circumstances – although most accept he has played no part in crime himself. There are not many families in Crumlin or Drimnagh who have not been touched in some capacity by the shadow of this gangland feud.
By a combination of luck, timing and dedication, Conor emerged from this shadow towards his destination as UFC Champion. Many years of struggling to make ends-meet, accepting €100 a fight, eventually culminated in a heady-rise to the UFC. He is the standard-bearer in Ireland for the 18-35 generation.
Though he is indeed a World Champion, athlete and sportsman, he represents much more than this to the community who aspire to him. He is the man who gives hope to the vulnerable and disillusioned; to those whom doing well in school is not a realistic option, with college out of the question, apprenticeships hard to come by. He is the man who gives a very relevant example of what hard work and determination can achieve.
Of course, not all young men and women can simply work hard and find success but the core message of perseverance in spite of adversity is a noble one. It’s also a message that often gets lost in his pre-fight bluster.
With the help of his parents, girlfriend and Coach, and most importantly a determined work ethic and willingness to learn, Conor McGregor chose a virtuous path into combat sports. Many of the young men he boxed with in Crumlin are now dead, others have found themselves mixed up in a life of crime.
The road less-travelled, whilst harder, is still much easier than “the road never-travelled”
The sad reality is a lot of these under-privileged, disillusioned young men in inner-city and suburban Dublin have a clear road into a life of crime. When all it takes is a friend-of-a-friend to get you weed/coke on tick, the path into debt and subsequent dealing is a well-trodden one. It’s an easy road to go down, yet often reveals itself to be a one-way street difficult to reverse out of. Men of the stature of Christy Kinahan don’t tend to let you deal drugs for them part-time and walk away into the sunset.
Conor McGregor didn’t have a known-road to success in his chosen sport. No Irish man or woman had shown a road even existed. Through hard work, blood, sweat, tears, failures and setbacks, he ploughed a new road.
Part of his legacy will be creating this road; showing thousands of vulnerable kids that there are plenty of reasons to dedicate yourself to your passion – whatever that may be, sporting or otherwise. He showed them that hard work can pay. Not one training camp finishes without McGregor championing hard work and sacrifice.
2016 is the year in which 7 families have buried loves ones from this vicious gang feud in Dublin.
It is also the year in which Conor McGregor showed the attitude of a champion in accepting a high-profile defeat with humility – without an overt reliance on excuses – and in returning from this defeat to face the same adversity. His contemporary Michael Bisping revealed the psychological doubt and fear going through a fighters mind in attempting to avenge a brutal loss. It is to Conor’s massive credit that he sought out the re-match and backed up his long-held belief in facing adversity head-on.
The tale of these two Crumlin men offers a pretty stark contrast.
On the one hand, we have young men being laid to rest with heartbroken family and friends standing by a gravestone.
On the other hand, we have a young man from the very same area of Dublin standing beside a swimming pool in Las Vegas with his friends, family, girlfriend, Coaches, wearing a $50,000 watch, driving a Rolls Royce Phantom and wearing the most ridiculous over-sized glasses, that surely even he knows are self-mocking.
The difference between the two images could not be starker.
No man has done more to show the youth of inner-city and suburban Dublin that finding a passion, in anything, and working hard is a very real, tangible alternative to the darkness of the “easy road” into crime. The millennial generation needed “one of their own” to aspire to; someone who talked like them and walked like them, not a politician or ageing rock-star preaching down to them.
In Jamie Kavanagh, they have an example of a promising athlete riddled by the effects of crime and violence, with his life intertwined forever with the effects of criminality – he can never escape the impact of his father and uncles murders, He lives in London, has associations to the infamous MGM Gym in Marbella, keeps a low-profile on social media and, generally, has had a horrific few years for any young man.
In Conor McGregor, they have the epitome of “local boy done good”. It is to his eternal credit, intentional or otherwise, that he has given a constant, daily reminder to the youth of Ireland that hard work is the biggest ingredient to success in whatever they choose to do with their life.
It turns out there is more than one road out of Crumlin and hard, honest work and sacrifice can pay if you persevere with your passion.