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Tom King details split from SBG: ‘The loyalty wasn’t repaid’

James Webb, Chris Fields, Ian Garry, Tom King and Cathal Pendred celebrate victory at Cage Warriors 110.
Dolly Clew, Cage Warriors

Team KF head coach Tom King revealed the extent of his parting ways with Straight Blast Gym following the release of Patrick Holohan’s book, Hooligan, last week.

King, the first Irishman awarded a black belt by John Kavanagh, was synonymous with the SBG brand in Ireland, and in a recent interview with MMA Fighting’s Eurobash podcast, he claimed that he was made feel “like a blow-in” by Kavanagh and the SBG hierarchy when he was called to a meeting and asked for €5000 ($5509.60) for SBG affiliation.

Initially, King launched SBG Swords with another SBG frontrunner Chris Fields. However, King and Fields announced their split from the banner earlier this year claiming that the team, renamed Team FK, “ceased all association with, and affiliation to SBG Ireland and SBG international”.

Last week, King initially took to social media to clarify a paragraph in Holohan’s book. He later revealed a timeline of his parting ways with the gym.

“[The paragraph in Holohan’s book] says that a meeting happened, a five grand fee was requested and that Tom King was there,” King told Eurobash.

“So people are under the assumption, a lot of people not everyone, that I, as the second-highest black belt in Ireland, and I think the second-highest SBG black belt in Europe, would have been on the same side of the table as John [Kavanagh] and people would labor under that impression. It’s in the book, the book was released that week, so I put that out to explain exactly what happened and that I wasn’t sitting on the same side of the table as John – I was sitting on the same side of the table as Paddy.”

King’s tweets concerning his split from SBG went viral and were the talk of Irish MMA. As far as he is concerned, he was simply stating facts and doesn’t see how anyone could take offense to that.

“Really, all that I did was put a number of cold, hard facts out there: what happened, who was there, who said what. I put them [out], it was about four tweets and it took about 10 minutes. I bundled them all together so people could read them in context and that was it. The storm – if you want to call it a storm, a few people have called it a storm – that’s other people sharing it. People are digesting facts and they’re making up their own minds about it – that’s noting to do with me,” said King.

“The facts are the facts; this is the truth, that’s what happened. I have witnesses, I have messages in writing and all the rest of it, there were a dozen people in that room and no one has come out to contradict me, so the facts are the facts. I do see where the controversy is, but I don’t see why anyone would have ill will towards someone doing that.”

King revealed that he considered Kavanagh a close friend right up until the meeting was called. He highlighted that he was told he could not contact Kavanagh ahead of the meeting and was told to bring a solicitor.

“He was my coach. I was the first person he trained from white belt to black belt and he was a friend of mine. A lot of times we wouldn’t go a day without messaging each other – normally about training, not always – and it would be back and forth between us. Obviously, I had set up an SBG branch in Swords and we used to have John over for seminars, he was down for two seminars in our gym, [both were] packed out. I got on great with him, I always had a laugh with him when I met him at fights. It was a good relationship as far as I was concerned, nothing had changed and then bang a message appears in a group on social media for the SBG coaches that we were to go to a meeting on two days [notice], it was compulsory we attended and we should bring our solicitors. [We were told] that John was too busy to answer questions and that we were not to ring him – that was it, that’s how we found out.”

The reaction to King’s revelations were palpable, with former UFC fighter Aisling Daly coming out in support of him as well as another SBG black belt, Joey Breslin.

Many SBG fighters also took to social media to support Kavanagh. Conor McGregor willed King to “let it go”.

Regarding the reaction King garnered, he insisted that he still has the greatest respect for the SBG fighters and coaches and underlined that his issue is with the SBG hierarchy alone.

“For anyone who maybe is upset, or anyone who is in SBG and they’re circling the wagons, that’s what happened. That’s how I was notified of the meeting, so if they were in that situation – they can read what I’ve posted up – how would they feel? Would they agree that that’s a good way to treat someone else? A couple of other people have said that it’s an attack on their team. Listen, I’m not attacking SBG. I’ve got the utmost respect for the guys coaching there and especially the fighters, the competitors and the people training there, they were my training partners,” he said.

“I coached a lot of those people. There were one or two negative comments from people who were in my classes. I wish them the very best in their careers, the very best in their training and I hope they do well. To those in Bellator, I hope you win a Bellator belt, I hope you win a stack load of cash, enough to retire on. [I wish] the very best to you, but this is what happened, I was a coach of long standing and it’s not just me – there was me, there was Chris, there was Paddy in that room and a number of other people. Anyone who hasn’t spoken publicly, I’m not going to name them, but they were in that room as well and they were treated the same.”

The decorated black belt outlined that he felt betrayed by the SBG hierarchy having coached at the gym for many years for free, as well as covering Kavanagh’s classes when he was out of the country. King described how he felt like he was being treated like a “blow-in” at the meeting in question.

“Obviously, it does annoy me that we were put in that situation. I see it as a betrayal of what we did in SBG and what we helped to build. Between us, I had taught classes for free since 2006. I was teaching classes in 2006, and up until 2012, I was paying full membership there. I paying membership and I was teaching classes. I was paying €115 ($126.73) in tolls to get across [to the gym] each month. John moved to Iceland for three months and I taught all of his classes. Most of the time he’s away with the UFC, who do people think were teaching the classes? Again, it wasn’t just me, it was Paddy [Holohan], Chris [Fields] was taking classes and the other coaches that were in the room, the ones that came up through that system were doing that as well. We were treated as if we were blow-ins that were buying into a franchise. I was there when the team was based in a school hall, we’d put the mats out every night and put them away [afterwards] – that’s where we come from.”

King claims he was not surprised by the reaction his posts received, but refused to speculate on whether more people involved with SBG will speak out.

“I wasn’t surprised,” stated King.

“Of the old guard that were in that room, that’s up to them to decide whether they speak out or not, but I’m certainly not going to speak on their behalf,” he added. “Are they going to come out? I have no idea. I know there were a lot of conversations…between people in that room in private. There are a lot more people there that haven’t spoke out who would be very vocal in those conversations. Not everyone has come out. Will everyone come out publicly? I don’t know. Some people may not want to for whatever reason and that’s fine. To the people in the new affiliates that weren’t part of the old SBG, to the people who’ve come out and to the people who haven’t come out – I’m cool with all of those people. They shouldn’t have been put in that situation. Whether someone speaks out or doesn’t speak out, that isn’t my concern.”

Fans and media speculated that SBG Ireland’s refusal to acknowledge James Webb’s Cage Warriors title capture on social media could have led to the demise of the affiliation. King shed light on how the relationship with SBG ended.

“[Webb’s title was won] under the SBG banner. Whatever had happened before, it was done under the SBG banner and nothing was shared and nothing was said. We knew that was going to happen because at that meeting part of the five grand package was the use of social media platforms, which translates to, ‘If you don’t pay us five grand we won’t share your tweets,’ so we knew that was going to happen, we hadn’t paid the fee, so our tweets weren’t going to be shared. On the same day, someone had won a local grappling tournament and that was shared because they paid the fee, it was as simple as that,” he said.

“In terms of the name change [to Team KF], that was a coincidence in time. If it was up to Chris, Chris would’ve changed the name not quite from the start, but maybe six months into it and it was me who held him back.”

“I held it back because I was part of a tradition with SBG,” he continued. “I was a black belt with them and I was loyal to that system. As far as I’m concerned, the loyalty wasn’t repaid. When [the meeting] happened, the train was set in motion and it takes a long time for a name change. We had a professional graphic designer, it’s actually my sister Joan…it’s an amazing logo and it went down very well. It took time for her to design it and it took time to come up with the name. That coincided to fall just after James had [won the title], but it wasn’t really related, that wasn’t the last straw that broke the camel’s back. We were told that we hadn’t paid for the social media platforms, the tweets weren’t going to go out and we knew that.”

After 15 years with the gym, King revealed that walking into the meeting felt like he “landed on a different planet”.

“For me, going into that meeting, it felt like I’d landed on a different planet. To be clear, it wasn’t just John in the room, you had Matt Thornton and Travis Davison. To sit a group of cynical guys who’ve been through the mill down and give them a video presentation, it was like they were selling a time share or something…it was…you know one of those cheesy American videos…it was an American coach talking how great SBG is with a big smile and thumbs up to the camera. I was going, ‘Lads, I was here when this was in a school hall…why are you showing me this?’ Well…I know why they were showing it to me, but they were showing it to the wrong person. I thought I walked through the door to a different dimension. I didn’t know what was going on. I’m still scratching me head.”

King now believes Team KF’s parting ways with SBG was a blessing in disguise.

“I think it’s a blessing in disguise. We’re delighted with the name change. If this hadn’t happened it might not have been something we would have done. I was directly accused by the brother of the SBG vice president, Ricky Davison…he said I was a loser focusing on winners…our team has a 90 percent win rate in MMA. I don’t remember ever seeing a team like that and that’s no coincidence, it’s the systems that we’ve put in place. My own win rate – I was directly called a loser – my own win rate is 90 percent. I’ve won 14 medals this year, I’ve won eight gold medals; I have more medals than the SBG hierarchy combined. Yet, they can turnaround and call me a loser. They don’t compete. They’re putting up quotes from Marcus Aurelius, he was a guy that was on the frontline, I’m on the frontline, you’re not on the frontline, so don’t turnaround and accuse me of that. But as I said, the name change, we’re absolutely delighted with it.”

He again pointed out that his issues are with the SBG hierarchy alone and insisted he would be cordial with Kavanagh and Thornton if he saw them in public.

“For the SBG guys out there, I have no ill will against the fighters, the team, the coaches, that should be clear. If I met John at a fight tomorrow, I’d shake his hand and I’d shake Matt’s hand, but they mightn’t shake mine. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no ill will, this is me putting the truth of something that happened to put things in perspective so people wouldn’t get the wrong impression.”

King also offered support to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation to what he described.

“If there’s anyone there from any associations and any affiliates or groups that feel they’re being pushed around by a larger association, I’m there and I’m not the only one. There are plenty of black belt coaches in Ireland, but I’m there to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you, I’ll offer you support. I can offer you training with a second-degree black belt, I can give you advice and I won’t charge you for retweets. If there is anyone out there, send me a message and we’ll take it from there.”

John Kavanagh declined an offer from MMA Fighting to comment on this story.

Check out the Tom King interview from Eurobash. It begins 15:00 minutes in.

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