Saturday October 31, 2020

Oh, brother! John and James Kavanagh

They inhabit two different worlds - MMA and social media influencing - but the brothers are bonded by a ferocious drive to be the best at what they do

20th August, 2017
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James and John Kavanagh Pic: Beta Bajgartova
Conor McGregor and John Kavanagh Pic’; Sportsfile/Getty

One of them is responsible for turning mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor into a worldwide sensation. The other is a Snapchat superstar, known for his obsession with Princess Diana.

They are both huge successes in completely different worlds, but they grew up in the same house. Sitting in front of me in the sunshine at the back of the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin are MMA coach John Kavanagh and his brother James, a social media influencer with a 100,000-strong following who is in the process of launching a food business.

The al fresco interview was supposed to take place in a café around the corner, but after John declares that its coffee machine is the loudest he has ever heard, we agree to return to the site of their earlier photoshoot for this magazine. James does a quick wardrobe change, I supply him with a plaster for a cut on his ankle (a good journalist is prepared for every eventuality), we decant our beverages into takeaway cups and walk 50 yards around the corner as men in vans beep their horns and shout “Conor McGregor!” in John’s general direction. Make no mistake, we are in the presence of considerable celebrity.

Despite growing close in recent times, John (40) and James (28) agree that their very different personalities meant their relationship was almost non-existent for many years.

“We’d walk past each other at Christmas dinner and be like: ‘Oh, that’s my brother there, isn’t it’,” John says.

Besides John teaching karate to James and his friends in primary school – “I’d be the one he’d practise the moves on for the class, see how far he could bend an arm back, how much he can choke before I passed out,” James says, with a smile – a 13-year age gap didn’t help matters. As James puts it, John was already “building his empire”, while he was still a terribly annoying teenager that ended up being shipped off to boarding school.

The brothers grew closer as James matured, but their friendship really grew when James left his full-time job in public relations in February 2016 to work for himself as an online influencer and as a food entrepreneur through Currabinny, the business he runs with his boyfriend William Murray. As John was an established businessman, running the Straight Blast Gym Ireland franchise, entrepreneurship was to become their common ground.

Like James’s, John’s career path was not exactly straightforward. He holds a 2.1 degree in engineering from Dublin Institute of Technology, and even interviewed for a position with Boston Scientific after graduating, but his passion lay elsewhere.

While still in college in 1996, he rented a video about Ultimate Fighting Championship, the premier organisation that runs mixed martial arts, from the Laser video store on South Great George’s Street. He was immediately hooked but, mainly due to his mother’s insistence, he continued studying for his degree, training in MMA in the evenings and working as a doorman at night.

He became Ireland’s first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and first MMA fighter in the cage, but after a few years he realised that coaching was his true passion. He opened up his first gym in 2001, and the following year became a member of Matt Thornton’s international association of gyms, Straight Blast Gym, which trains athletes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing and MMA.

Then, one afternoon in 2006, “a scrawny 18-year-old lad with a shaved head walked into the gym”, as Kavanagh put it in his best-selling book, Win Or Learn. That 18-year-old was Conor McGregor, and during that first meeting he told Kavanagh he would be a future UFC champion. He was not wrong. Under Kavanagh’s mentorship, McGregor became UFC Lightweight Champion and UFC Featherweight Champion, gained millions of fans and is the 24th highest-paid athlete in the world according to Forbes, which reported that he made €29 million in 2016.

McGregor’s next battle will be against US boxer Floyd Mayweather on Saturday night, in a bout that has been dubbed “the showdown of the century” and will earn both of them over €85 million. It will see McGregor leave his comfort zone of MMA to take part in a boxing match against the undefeated 11-time five-division professional boxing world champion in Las Vegas. John left Dublin a few hours after our interview to join McGregor for fight camp, during which he has religiously stuck to the same training and nutrition schedule as the fighter.

Brothers in arms: James and John Kavanagh Pic Beta Bajgartova

John might have had a very busy few weeks since the interview, but James has been kept occupied too. He has spent the past month tasting wine for a Centra ad campaign, exploring the passenger tunnel under the Guinness Storehouse with his parents, attending music festival Body and Soul with Bulmers, watching the premiere of the film Atomic Blonde in Berlin, and checking out how other cafés are run as prep for his own café, which he intends to open next year.

All of this, plus his random musings on everything from Princess Diana’s stepmother to the merits of a Wispa chocolate bar, has been documented through his various social media channels: Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The brothers, who grew up on Nutgrove Avenue in Rathfarnham, Dublin, attribute their professional success to a work ethic they inherited from their father Alan, who works in construction. During the interview, John points to a man working on a roof nearby and says: “I actually thought that was him. I looked up and thought “Is that Da?” Because that’s what he’d be doing.” Their father is 67 now, and they say he will never retire.

“He wants to be taken off a building site. That’s where he wants to die,” John says.

Alan never allowed John, James or their older sister Ann to sleep in on weekends or during their school holidays, John says.

“Compared to my friends’ parents,” says James, “Dad was so strict. My friends would get their pocket money and they’d go to Dundrum [shopping centre] for the day and they’d have these glorious summers. I had to go out and work.”

John says his father’s attitude was always to be busy and to work hard. “If that’s your foundation, no matter what you’ll go into, you will do well.”

Even now, James, who is one of Ireland’s best-known and best-paid social media stars, still receives phonecalls from his father, enquiring as to his day. “He’ll ring me and be like: ‘What are you up to? Are you working today?’,” James says, in exaggerated tones.

“I got another speech about you on Sunday,” John says to James. “They [their parents] were like: ‘How long is this going to last? What’s he going to do next?’, and I said: ‘I don’t know, but he knows it’s not going to last forever, and more importantly, he’ll go onto the next thing’.”

While their parents might have reservations regarding James’s future, John has set a solid plan in place for his own. It involves . . . chickens.

“I’ll always be a coach, but the professional side of mixed martial arts Saturday night razzamatazz, there is a time limit on that. I don’t think I’ll be doing it in my 50s. I’ve just turned 40 and I’ve just bought a biggish house with a lot of land . . . I want to start farming,” he says. “John, the farmer.”

John says he is not a millionaire, and when asked if he’ll be a millionaire after the Mayweather fight, he says: “I don’t know. I’m comfortable. I don’t want for anything. I’ll say that.

“I’m not a car guy. I’m not a suits guy, though I’m wearing one right now. I never wear jewellery. I have no watches. My luxury item, and I’ve always wanted it, was to have a big house that stands on its own. I didn’t want to be in an estate or have neighbours. I wanted to have my own little place. That’s what I’ve saved for for 20 years, and now, thankfully, I’ve been able to buy one.”

John has big plans for the house, which is located in the Walkinstown area of Dublin. He wants to install a wind turbine, to draw water from a well, to grow his own vegetables and “loads of berries”, and to raise chickens.

“I was a chicken butcher at one point, believe it or not,” he says. “When I was 18, an Australian company called Lenard’s came to Ireland and I was their first butcher.”

James chimes in. He thinks John can supply eggs and vegetables to his café.

“That would be perfect. My retirement plan,” John responds.

John has been in a relationship with fiancée Orlagh Hunter for several years now, but when it comes to actually getting married, he says: “We keep kind of having a date in mind and then Conor announces a big fight. Earlier this year, we were talking about getting married in September, but as the year went on, the September date kind of slipped away.”

James and Conor McGregor are the only two people I’ve ever seen with the ability to walk into a room and own it

He says his dream wedding would be “Elvis in Vegas”, so who knows, they might get hitched after the Mayweather fight if the mood hits them.

“I’ve threatened to do that a few times, but then she chickens out. I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’d then love to come home and have a party on my estate.”

James says he is not a “mad believer in marriage”, and that he and his partner William are focused on getting their business up and running first. He would like children, he says.

“I was always really against the idea of kids as I didn’t want to spend money on something that wasn’t me, but I’ve got kind of broody over the past three years because some of my friends are having babies,” James says.

John’s family plans are much more certain. “Three kids. I aim to have Orlagh barefoot and pregnant this time next year. That’s my goal.”

In the meantime, John has the Mayweather fight to contend with, and McGregor does not seem keen to take a break after that.

John says: “I read online that he wants to fight a really tough guy in our division, Khabib. He’s like this star of Russia . . . I read in this article that Conor wants to fight him in Moscow in December. I said: ‘Who the hell is this talking now? We will fight in Vegas, or Ireland maybe, but we are not going to Russia in the height of winter to fight this bear’.”

John dismissed it as a rumour. A few weeks later, however, he was in McGregor’s house and remembered the article.

“I turned to him and I said: ‘This is a bullshit story. We’re not going to Russia.’ But he was like: ‘Yeah, fuck it. Let’s go to Russia.’ It was true. That’s what he wants to do and he wants [Vladimir] Putin in the front row,” John says.

“I want to go to Russia to see that,” James says, to which his brother responds: “I can see you swishing around like a polar bear in a massive fur coat.”

“Yeah, and a huge hat!” James says.

Whatever about Russia, John says he does not think McGregor will fight in Croke Park.

“Taxes. Torturous,” he says. “The fight would generate a nine-figure sum, and in Ireland half of that would go on taxes, while in Las Vegas, they only have to pay a 10 per cent tax.”

It would also have to be done on Las Vegas time, which is eight hours ahead of Ireland, so the event would have to start at midnight here and finish at 6am. This would cause conflict with local residents and the government, he says.

But never say never. McGregor would love to fight in Dublin, according to John, if they could come to “some kind of reasonable agreement” with the powers that be.

It is guaranteed that if McGregor did fight in Ireland, it would be a sell out. But while MMA has many fans in Ireland, it also has many critics. Earlier this month, the Irish Times ran a column headlined ‘Conor McGregor is what we teach our sons not to be’, and criticised the language McGregor used in a recent press conference, which included him claiming he was “half black from the bellybutton down” and encouraging the crowd to chant: “Fuck the Mayweathers”.

John has a simple response to criticism: if you do not like MMA, do not watch it.

“Thankfully, we live in a free society. I always made the analogy that I find horseriding really strange when you see undersized men whipping horses and horses dying and everything. It just seems barbaric to me, but people enjoy it. I don’t watch it. I do my own sport.”

While he admits he did not understand MMA initially, James said he thinks it is “a perfectly acceptable sport”.

“I would completely accept two consenting adults getting into a ring to fight each other, over a non-consenting horse beaten down the track. At least the two adults are making money, they’re passionate about it and they’re happy doing it,” he says.

John says that MMA has had “nothing but support” from Sport Ireland and the government in relation to having it recognised as a sport by the Irish Sports Council.

“MMA is an unusual sport. The professional side of it came first and the amateur side is catching up, so that’s a bit strange. Now we’re actually going back on ourselves and saying: ‘Let’s build a strong foundation in the amateur scene. Let’s get proper rules and regulations in place’.”

He does not see any reason why MMA would not become an Olympic sport, although he says there seems to be some movement in the Olympics to remove combat sports.

“If it was to become an Olympic sport, it would be great. I guarantee Ireland would have medals, like we do in the boxing,” he says.

Preempting the next question, John says he is frequently asked about perceived safety concerns around MMA, with people asking him to compare it to rugby or boxing.

“I find it bizarre. I can smoke 40 cigarettes, and drink a bottle of whiskey every day. That’s accepted in society, but if you look at some of my fighters, they’re in the best physical condition of their lives, mentally they’re very strong because they’re so confident from their training. Are you going to tell me that’s bad for you? We’ve got to get real here.”

There is a real danger facing Irish kids now, John says, and it is not about taking up one sport or another.

“It’s doing no sport. We’re seeing the first generation in Ireland that’s going to suffer really badly from obesity and diabetes. The answer to that is more sport, not trying to protect little Johnny from twisting his arm a little bit.”

McGregor has seen his fair share of arm twists, but suffered a potentially career-ending injury in 2013 when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. It prevented him from competing for a year, just as his profile was rising within the UFC. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, John says McGregor used the year to build his brand. His social media following “went through the roof” and he also worked on upper body and flexibility to keep his fitness up.

The easy side of being a coach is teaching people how to punch and kick, John says. The hard part is acting like a counsellor who people can come to with work, family or relationship problems and trying to direct them down the right path.

“I’ll have a standout like Conor. I’ll have a few more of them, I’m sure, but that is a very small percentage of my day-to-day stuff . . . If somebody went for a job and didn’t get it and they’re feeling down about it, I encourage them to try again. That’s the whole philosophy of the gym. It’s not quitting because you got one knock-back.

“That was always something about James that I really admired. He seemed to have that spine from a very young age. If you said no to him, he wasn’t going to go into a depression, blame the world and not try again. He was always going to try again.”

James has had his own major setback during his career. Three months after leaving his job to work full time as an influencer, his main source of income was threatened after his Snapchat account was stolen and deleted. He had to build up his following on the social network from scratch.

“I was surviving off the following I had, and all of a sudden it was completely gone,” he says. “I thought: ‘Someone hates me!’ but no, someone was just bored and wanted to cause havoc. I really had to up my security then. Now I change my passwords monthly, because it’s my only commodity and source of revenue.”

Although he has more than 100,000 followers on social media, James does not think that his income from influencer marketing will last forever. He sees the Currabinny business, named after the little Cork village where his boyfriend hails from, as his long-term plan. Ultimately, he says, it will be an umbrella brand, with cafés, catering and merchandise. He wants the first café open by summer 2018, and is on the lookout for a central Dublin location.

“Interest in me will fade, and that’s just how things happen. I’m not afraid I’ll run out of steam, because I’m aiming towards something else [Currabinny]. I’d be worried for other people doing what I’m doing who don’t have a back-up plan.”

James says he would “probably still be in PR” were he not in position to derive income from his social media channels, but John disagrees.

“There’s absolutely no way in hell he would have been in an office working for someone, regardless what platforms were available to him. He would have made a platform available to him. That’s what I like and admire about James.”

While people say the brothers are very different, John says that in reality they are very similar because they are hard working, can recognise trends, plan for the future but still enjoy living in the now.

“I have met two people who have a particular quality,” says John. “I don’t know what it is, but James and Conor McGregor, they’re the only two people I’ve ever seen with it. It’s just the ability to walk into a room and own it.”

Despite all of John’s success, he predicts that his little brother will be the real superstar. “When I was 28, I certainly had nothing close to what he has. He’s got 12 years to blow me out of water which I am 100 per cent sure he will.”

At this, James beams, and is rendered speechless – no mean feat. How’s that for brotherly love?

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