Making Sense of Conor McGregor’s Controversial UFC 246 Training Camp

For most high-level MMA fighters, the announcement of a new fight means the kickstarting of an intense training camp. They typically spend the weeks prior to the fight surrounded by a stable of strategic masterminds that provide a game plan and also work to keep their athlete in peak condition. Most successful fight camps are a collaborative effort in which the athlete and coaches consult one another in order to produce the best results. However, Conor McGregor’s UFC 246 training camp for Donald Cerrone will be managed a bit differently.

In a recent interview with the MacLife that drew the ire of many critics, McGregor’s longtime head coach John Kavanagh essentially said that McGregor will be the sole captain of the ship leading into fight day. Kavanagh noted “With Conor’s fighting IQ, with Conor’s understanding of the game, really, this training camp is about all of us getting out of his way, provid[ing] him an environment where he gets different looks, different feels, and support him. Where he wants the training camp to go, with intensities, and listening to him…It’s not so much about us coaches sitting down to game plan and then filling Conor in. Conor knows more about fighting than the rest of us put together.”

The interview was concerning for much of the MMA community. Never has a coach publicly said he/she will be taking a back seat and allowing the fighter to fully manage a training camp. McGregor has long been criticized for his cardio issues, tendency to lose motivation in training/fighting, and his teasing of early retirement. Therefore, for a fighter with such issues to not have a guiding light in the form of a structured training camp is alarming.

In fact, Kavanagh blamed McGregor’s UFC 196 loss to Nate Diaz on the lack of a structured training camp and on McGregor managing his own training. On a 2016 episode of Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour, he noted “There were some times in the gym when I was walking in and he was walking out and I was kind of just nodding at him… He always went with the flow, on his own time.” He added “He’s the champion of the world…what am I going to say? That was feeling right for him for that moment. But then after the contest [UFC 196] I said well ok that doesn’t seem to be working.”

After McGregor’s UFC 202 victory against Diaz in the rematch, Kavanagh credited the reintroduction of scheduled training to McGregor’s success: “I’m not going to repeat a process that doesn’t work and expect a different outcome. We went back to scheduled sessions, a set routine and look what happened after a short length of time.”

For Kavanagh, who is a remarkably insightful coach and strategist, to be at peace with the decision to allow McGregor to fully manage his camp is utterly baffling. If McGregor is truly the greatest mind in the gym as Kavanagh notes, perhaps it is time for him to bring in greater minds or to venture to different camps. Of course, this criticism toward Kavanagh will be null and void if McGregor wins as he is favored to, but it may signal the beginning of a concerning trend as McGregor aims to challenge more difficult opponents in the future.

While a camp that caters to one specific fighter is not uncommon, as Luke Thomas noted on his Sirius XM radio show, these camps are usually collaborative efforts that include a blend of input from all parties regarding the course of training.

No other fighter at the top of the game manages their fight camp this way. Take former UFC flyweight champion and current bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo for example. With every accomplishment, Cejudo stresses the importance of Coach Eric Albarracin on guiding him throughout his career. After winning the flyweight title, Cejudo placed the belt upon Albarracin’s shoulders, saying “I wanted to present this belt to the captain, Eric, because he is the one that pushed me to not give up. This is the guy I fought for and for that reason, captain, you are also a world champion coach now.” To close out 2019, Cejudo posted a picture of Albarracin on his Instagram account, urging media members to anoint him as the 2019 coach of the year, referring to him as a man “who truly sacrifices his life for all his athletes.”

Even a striking wizard like Israel Adesanya, whose knowledge of fighting seems boundless, consistently credits the coaching methods of City Kickboxing’s Eugene Bareman. When Joe Rogan asked Adesanya for insight into his UFC success on The Joe Rogan MMA Show podcast, Adesanya said “my coach, he’s the mastermind behind all of this – Eugene Bareman. Without him, my career would be in the shitter.” Bareman recently won the “Coach of the Year” award from numerous MMA media outlets for his efforts, including coaching Adesanya and featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski to UFC gold.

Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson’s relationship with head coach Matt Hume was considered the gold standard of fighter-coach relationship during Johnson’s UFC reign. Johnson often credited Hume for sculpting him into the pound-for-pound great he would become. In a January 2019 interview on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show, Johnson said “It’s no secret that I’ve been with Matt since the beginning of my mixed martial arts career…That’s what has been making me good for all of these years. Matt and I had this ying-yang.”

The examples go on forever. Jon Jones has his stable of coaches – Greg Jackson, Brandon Gibson, Israel Martinez. Khabib Nurmagomedov and Daniel Cormier consistently laud coach Javier Mendez’s training camps. Amanda Nunes and Dustin Poirier sing the praises of coach Mike Brown. Simply put, MMA fighters seem to benefit most in the presence of a structured, well-planned training camp with specific goals and objectives. Will Conor McGregor be able to reign victorious as the commander of his own camp? Again, even a less-than-optimal McGregor can knockout any fighter on the UFC roster when he lands, but I am intrigued to see if this method of training is sustainable as his 2020 resurgence unfolds.

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