On Friday night, Sinéad “KO” Kavanagh (7-4) will enter the Bellator cage in an attempt to dethrone one of the greatest female fighters of all time, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino (24-2). In doing so, not only would Kavanagh be crowned Bellator featherweight queen, but she would also become the first Irish fighter to win a world title in the organisation.
While a coronation may be on the horizon for the former five-time national boxing champion, it is Kavanagh’s story of perseverance through hardship and adversity that has preordained the 35-year-old SBG Ireland fighter as a winner, not just in sport but in life itself. Simply put, it is nothing short of a miracle that Kavanagh has risen to the stage that is set for her in the main event of Bellator 271 in Miami, Florida.
Kavanagh grew up in a family of five in Inchicore; a working class Dublin suburb, which straddles the banks of the capital’s Grand Canal. More notable for its prominent football club St. Patrick’s Athletic—where Irish footballing legend Paul McGrath learned his trade—it was Inchicore where Kavanagh’s warrior spirit was born.
In interviews leading up to the Cyborg fight, Kavanagh has peeled back the curtain on what life was like for her growing up, revealing a journey shaped by trauma and struggle.
“We didn’t have much. There were five of us. It was the same for everyone at that time in Dublin, no one had money. No one had anything!” Kavanagh said in an interview with Sherdog.com.
Speaking on the Talking Bollox Podcast, Kavanagh described how she would get into trouble in her teen years:
“I was a wagon in school. Going on ‘the mitch’. I remember I got arrested in a robbed car in my uniform”
Having first entered combat sports through Karate at the age of 8, Kavanagh first transitioned to kickboxing and then on to boxing by the age of 16 where she found a new home at Drimnagh Boxing Club. It was the sweet science where she began to excel, but shortly after her life turned upside down. At just 17 years old, Kavanagh became pregnant with her son Leon.
It was the years that followed when times truly became tough for Kavanagh. The pain and trauma as a result of lost loved ones would face Kavanagh and her young child with an uphill battle just to survive:
“I had Leon, and then everything was up in turmoil. His Dad passed away then. And then I became homeless myself. So, life wasn’t easy to be honest. My Ma was in a car crash. Her brother and sister died, and my Ma survived the car crash. It’s like a domino effect what happened. We suffered, she suffered. I love my Ma, that was the path we were given. That was the cards she was dealt, and she dealt with it. She’s the warrior.” Kavanagh said on the Talking Bollox Podcast.
However, the traumatic effects of that car crash had a lasting impact on Kavanagh’s family.
“Obviously, she went a bit AWOL. I couldn’t live there anymore. I became homeless” Kavanagh told Sherdog.com.
No longer having the basic human needs of a roof over their heads and a place to call home met, Kavanagh was forced to stay in hostels and B&Bs to survive. Aside from the unstable nature of such an arrangement, it also introduced new challenges as drugs were routinely available and presented an avenue of escape at a vulnerable time for Kavanagh:
“I was in hostels and stuff with Leon. That was very tough. I was only a kid, and they put me in with drug addicts. I could have gone either way. It was in my face constantly. There were many times where I was thinking ‘fuck this, just do it’, but I kept strong. It was only for the combat sport that I had that kept me going. It kept me wanting to push myself, because I got such a buzz off training! It brought me to a place where I could forget everything” Kavanagh recalled to Sherdog.com.
Despite now finding herself homeless with a small child, Kavanagh never lost her fighting spirit or determination to overcome the obstacles in her way. She still had hopes of realizing her dreams to become a champion. Years later, Kavanagh herself is dismayed at how far she has come and how she managed to persevere to where she is now
“It was tough. I was dealing with my own demons and life itself. Then, trying to keep a dream alive was the hardest. I still wanted to be a world champion. Everything was against me. Nothing in life was handed to me. I’ve worked my ass off for this moment, to keep this dream” Kavanagh told Sherdog.com
Remarkably, throughout this period of uncertainty Kavanagh managed to keep her boxing dream alive. She continued to train while navigating a world where she and her son didn’t have a place to truly call home. Not only that, but she was succeeding. Kavanagh
“I took a few months off and kept boxing. I was in B&Bs and hostels with my young fella. I kept boxing. I won titles for boxing, 5 senior titles [while homeless]. My Ma would take him sometimes, it depended on what way she was” Kavanagh detailed to the Talking Bollox Podcast.
Boxing became an escape for Kavanagh. A way to deal with life. A place where she could find her flow state amidst the turmoil of her surroundings. However, that’s easier said than done, and often times it was impossible for her to screen out the world outside the ropes:
“I was always carrying that weight on my shoulders for many years. I don’t know how I got in there. My performance showed sometimes where my head was away with the fairies. It was on something else, something that happened, trying to get my life together. I won the [amateur boxing] titles when I was going through hell in life” Kavanagh told Sherdog.com
Kavanagh went on to become a five-time National Elite champion in boxing. She trained routinely with the likes of now Olympic champions Katie Taylor and Kellie Harrington amongst others such as Michael Conlan at the High Performance Unit over the years. Under the tutelage of coach Tony Davitt, Kavanagh represented Ireland in multiple World Championships. In 2012, Kavanagh travelled to China to compete in the qualifiers for the London 2012 Olympics, but ultimately she was unsuccessful in her attempt.
After 10 years in boxing, Kavanagh was left feeling dejected and disappointed with the sport she had given so much to through her most difficult years. “Boxing was not good to me”, Kavanagh has repeated in multiple interviews. Having arrived at the end of that path in combat sports, it was time to move on. At 28 years old, a sunken presence arrived at the doors of SBG Ireland to meet famed head coach John Kavanagh.
“Head down and looking at the ground” Kavanagh was escorted by her friend who advocated to her namesake to take a chance on Sinéad and agree to coach her in MMA.
“I walked into John’s and I was broken. I was down on my luck, and life was shit!” Kavanagh told the Talking Bollox Podcast.
7 years on, Kavanagh credits John Kavanagh for getting her to where she is now in MMA.
“I wouldn’t have got this moment only for John. He’s been so nice. He looked after me from day 1!” Kavanagh reiterated to Sherdog.com.
After pursuing her new career in MMA, Kavanagh went on to win a gold medal at the IMMAF World Championships in 2015, after her loss to Jamie Herrington was overturned following a failed drugs test. The Dubliner then turned professional, amassing an undefeated 4-0 record before suffering her first loss.
Despite her now 7-4 pro record, Kavanagh’s striking repertoire has garnered praise throughout her career, and her former boxing experience is clear to see for anyone who watches. A 7-4 record is a mixed bag on paper, but it does not speak to the reality of where Kavanagh is as a fighter. Contentious decisions and a cut stoppage have added ‘L’s to her record where perhaps they shouldn’t be. It seems that the Bellator brass feel the same, as Kavanagh is poised for the biggest challenge of her career to date.
And so, here we are, just hours from Cris Cyborg vs Sinéad Kavanagh. Kavanagh is appropriately the betting underdog. She is not expected to win tonight in Miami. Cyborg has long been heralded as one of, if not the greatest of all time at 145lbs. Undefeated under the Bellator MMA promotional banner, the Brazilian will defend her belt for the third time when the pair step inside the locked cage to headline Bellator 271. Kavanagh may have the boxing pedigree, but Cyborg is the total package. To dethrone the champion, Kavanagh will need to perfect and then some.
But this isn’t a story about Mixed Martial Arts. This isn’t about boxing, MMA, becoming a champion, or anything like that.
Sinéad Kavanagh’s story is about much more than any of that. It is one of hardship, struggle, and above all else, never giving up. Because whatever happens inside the Bellator cage tonight, whoever emerges victorious with a shiny gold belt wrapped around their waist, the following will still be true.
Sinéad Kavanagh is already a winner. She was never meant to get to this spot, but yet here she is. So forget about the sport for a moment, and focus on the human. Win, lose, or draw on Friday night, Sinéad Kavanagh will pick herself up, march forward, and continue swinging. For Sinéad Kavanagh is a champion at life.
Andy Stevenson is an MMA writer, interviewer, and occasional podcaster based in Dublin, Ireland.