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Friday, December 3, 2021

‘Warrior and machine’ – meet title hope Kavanagh

ART GALLERY

Sinead Kavanagh trained as a boxer before switching to MMA
Venue: Seminole Hard Rock Hotel, Hollywood in Florida, USA Date: Friday, 12 November
Coverage: Watch live coverage on BBC iPlayer from 23:55 GMT

Grit, determination, warrior. Those are the three words coach John Kavanagh uses to describe his fighter and Bellator title challenger Sinead Kavanagh.

The 35-year-old is in Florida to take on featherweight champion Cris Cyborg at Bellator 271. Kavanagh’s own assessment of herself is very similar to her coach: “A machine, never gives up, works hard.”

The two Kavanaghs are not related, but Sinead has made a home at SBG Ireland training under John. She made her professional debut just five years ago, having once been a rising star on the boxing scene alongside Olympic champions Katie Taylor and Kellie Harrington.

Sinead trained with both women, as well as British fighters Savannah Marshall and Tasha Jonas.

“Boxing wasn’t good to me. Amateur in Ireland, women weren’t getting paid,” she said.

“When I think back on it, it was very dark and I wasn’t in a good head space with that sport. I was boxing 10 years, but I had to leave and go to MMA.”

As Sinead recalled running out of a boxing gym crying when she was eight, she added: “You’re always wishing you were a boy. You were kept away from something you wanted to do. It was heartbreaking.”

Sinead became a young mother, had no money and was desperate to find somewhere she felt not only valued but financially stable.

Boxing as a woman at that time was like having “cuffs” on, Sinead explained as she admitted: “I was broke.

“I went to John’s gym, my mate was talking me up, saying I could hit hard. I was in the background with my head down.

“That’s what John said he loved about me, gave me classes to do and I done them. I got onto the pro team. John’s been very good to me. He’s looked after me, took me under his wing and told me I could be a star here [in MMA].”

Fast forward 11 pro fights and Sinead is on the cusp of making history. She will be the first Irishwoman to fight for a major MMA world title.

Taylor was Ireland’s first female Olympic champion and then world champion in the professional ranks, while Harrington is the only other woman from Ireland to win gold at the Games.

Sinead grew up in a country where women were banned from boxing and MMA was regarded as nothing more than a blood sport, but now she can join an elite group of fighters who have risen above the stigma to become role models.

“When we were kids there wasn’t women’s sport really,” she explained.

“We were forbidden. Ireland women couldn’t even drink in the pubs, that was for men. In Inchicore in the Black Lion there was a man’s part of the bar. That was me growing up, that still going on.”

“Now, the world’s at my feet,” she added. “Never give up. When you look at me, I’m 35, I’ve been fighting since I was eight years of age.

“Never give up on your dream. This is where it’s taken me, to Miami to fight the best in the world. You can’t write that, what’s happening. If I win this belt it’s going to be some story and I can do it. Definitely.”

Sinead’s bid for gold is far off what Peter Queally experienced in Dublin last week. There is no home crowd and the cost of travelling to America means Sinead will have just a few of her nearest and dearest with her on fight night.

Sinead Kavanagh soaks in the crowd as she makes her walkout
Sinead Kavanagh is 7-4 in her pro career

Cyborg is 24-2 in her pro career. She has held world titles in Invicta, Strikeforce, the UFC and now Bellator. The Brazilian is a true legend of the sport and undefeated under Bellator’s banner.

But coach Kavanagh is not worried. “The goal in MMA is to become comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” he said.

“The belt becomes vacant when the referee says fight. She’s not the champion, the belt is up for grabs.

“Any person on any given night can have a moment where they get it. Hopefully the stars have aligned and the planets are in the right position.

“Few people have earned it more than Sinead.”

Sinead cried when she was given the news by Bellator she would be fighting for the featherweight belt. She “balled” twice, as she put it, convinced Cyborg has never wanted the fight and actively tried to avoid her.

“Usually when I hit them, their whole face changes,” Sinead says – and she does not expect any different from Cyborg.

“Beating Cyborg, it can’t get any better than that. That’s why it’s so big to me. It’s not a nobody, it’s someone who has been there and done it all.

“That’s a legacy itself. Coming from Inchicore in Dublin, fighting an MMA legend who is a world champion.

“There’s loads of people doubting me. Let them. Once I perform I know no-one is going to beat me. That’s what’s going to happen.”

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