Five years ago, John Kavanagh and a swarm of his students funneled through the doors of Dublin's O2 arena to watch Dan Henderson eek out a split decision over Rich Franklin at the UFC's now-infamously raucous debut in Ireland's capital. At the time, Conor McGregor was just 20 years old, a 3-1 baby to mixed martial arts and light years removed from the countrywide superstardom that awaited him.
"That night, Conor said to me he was going to main event it when [the UFC] came back," Kavanagh, who's still McGregor's head coach at SBG Ireland, reflected on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I kind of just shrugged my shoulders. Conor certainly always aims high, but I've stopped doubting anything he says."
Not only did McGregor hold true to his word, but for all intents and purposes the man they call "Notorious" became the principle reason that the Octagon will grace Dublin's halls once again this Saturday at UFC Fight Night 46, an uproarious homecoming half a decade after the fateful night that drove so many youngsters down a career path that Kavanagh could never have imagined 25 years ago.
"It's a major factor," Kavanagh said of UFC 93's influence on the current crop of Irish up-and-comers. "In Ireland we had a major explosion of rugby because one particular player two decades ago started being really good, and you fast forward, he inspired the youth to try to take up the game.
"That's why I'm back coaching kids again, because we had a huge influx of kids who are looking up to the likes of Conor McGregor. I kind of get goosebumps thinking about, what's it going to be like in five years' time, in ten years' time, when that next wave of kids are training MMA from eight, nine years of age... what are they going to be like when they get to this level? [Because] the UFC coming in 2009, I know Conor was there, Cathal (Pendred) was there, a lot of these guys now. Aisling Daly, who currently in The Ultimate Fighter house, she was at it. A lot of these people were certainly inspired to think that, hey, if I put my head down, the next time they come I'm going to be on it."
Kavanagh believes this weekend's event has the potential to be as significant as UFC 93, if not more so, in regards to driving Ireland's youth towards the sport of mixed martial arts, especially considering the level of fame McGregor has achieved in a few short years. After all, just two fights into his UFC career, the loquacious featherweight is already a bona fide name who shells potato chips and chops it up on The Tonight Show for fun.
McGregor's magnetism is difficult to ignore, and it's part of the reason he's been fast-tracked onto this stage after just two preliminary card wins and a yearlong layoff due to injury. Even the fallout of one-half of UFC Fight Night 46's headliner -- rival Cole Miller was replaced with Diego Brandao after suffering an injury to his left thumb -- has done little to affect the buzz surrounding McGregor's return. And while some observers were disappointed to see Miller out, Kavanagh actually prefers this outcome instead.
"I like this [fight] a lot better," Kavanagh admitted. "When I was kinda reading a few things online, no offense to Cole, but it seems like Diego got a much stronger reaction online. He does have stopping power on his feet, and he is very slick on the ground. He's very emotional. I'm curious to see how the guys are going to meet for the first time on Wednesday evening at the open workouts. It's going to be a face-to-face stare-off, so I'm curious how that goes, and then obviously the weigh-ins on Friday.
"All due respect to Cole," Kavanagh continued. "I really didn't even see a threat none. Whereas Diego, he has won The Ultimate Fighter show, there's been times where he's been on and he's looked really, really good. I'm sure he knows his back is against the wall in this fight. He missed weight badly for his last fight, he didn't look very good, and then he threatened the guy like a street thug after it. I'm sure you heard that story, he threatened to stab him or something like that. Obviously this is not the behavior of a professional UFC fighter, but I kinda half think he was kept on because it was an interesting match-up, him and Conor. I think he knows that."
By the time Saturday night rolls around, McGregor will have been out of action for 336 days due to the torn ACL he suffered midway through his dismantling of Max Holloway. It's a potentially worrisome length of time, and more than a few fighters have admitted to falling victim to the specter of ring rust in the past.
McGregor, however, brushes the notion off as an excuse for the lazy, while Kavanagh called today's McGregor "someone who would murder that guy in one round" in regards to the pre-injury McGregor of 2013.
"I believe it's right what he's saying: Ring rust is an excuse for those who do this part-time," Kavanagh explained.
"Now I look at Conor sparring, I look at him moving around. I actually recently watched his fight with Max Holloway about a week ago; I hadn't looked at it since August and I watched it again. He actually looked very basic in that fight compared to who he is now. I said to Conor, if you get in the ring with that Conor, he's not going to survive a round with you. His grappling his improved hugely, and in that fight I thought he was experimenting with a lot of new kicks. Now he's mastered them. He's knocking out people with them rather than just trying them.
"If you look at his teammate Gunnar Nelson," Kavanagh added, referring to the SBG welterweight who fights Zak Cummings in Saturday's co-main event. "I actually thought he came back looking a lot better than when he left. He took almost a year off after his knee surgery, and during that period he worked a lot on his stand-up.
"In his last fight ... I thought his stand-up, his understanding of range, had shot through the roof. He hit the guy with one punch, went down and guillotined him in the first round."
As it stands, Saturday night is setting up to be coming out party of sorts for SBG, as along with McGregor and Nelson, Kavanagh will pull quadruple duty cornering undefeated bantamweight Patrick Holohan and TUF 19's Cathal Pendred on the UFC Fight Night 46's undercard. Considering the level of talent between them all, a 4-0 night for Kavanagh's gang isn't at all out of the question.
And at least in Nelson's case, Kavanagh expects that one more big win will push the unbeaten Icelandic wunderkind into the conversation for a top-10 opponent -- then from there, it's all gravy to a title shot.
"I know it's a cliché, you can only fight who's put in front of you, but for me personally, in the welterweight division, I really only see Rory MacDonald standing out," Kavanagh said. "And I think the rest can be put in the same (group). On any given night, I believe the other guys could beat each other depending on how they feel on that particular night. But I only see Rory as being someone who reminds me of Gunny, in that he's excellent everywhere. I wasn't really surprised with how he dealt with Tyron Woodley in his last fight.
"Anybody who asked me, I said that's going to look very, very one-sided in Rory's favor. I think all the other guys are one-dimensional, or at most, two, whereas I believe Rory has the full package. I've said this for a long time now: I think Rory is going to get the belt, probably within the year, and then Gunny will take it off him."