Conor McGregor now holds two of the UFC's coveted world titles. God help Dana White in their next negotiation.
The story of the McGregor – Alvarez bout was the same as every other in McGregor's career: the back-skipping counter left hand and the pull and counter. Most dangerous against shorter fighters with a reach disadvantage: the five foot seven Alvarez, giving up five inches of reach and so often relying on his hands to get the job done, was in for a rough night stylistically if he stuck to his usual guns. To Alvarez's credit, he came out early attempting to do something different by going to his low kicks. The inside low kick is a favorite against southpaws but can often end up hurting both men if the southpaw's lead foot is naturally slightly turned in, creating a shin-on-shin, or worse, a foot-on-foot collision.
The key to countering the McGregor counter left hand, and the reason you won't see backward moving punches score knockdowns that often in boxing, is advancing without opening up too severely. The double jab, the fake lead leg kick and slide in behind, and the double right hand are all options to achieve this task as we examined last week. Alvarez had clearly been training to do this as he attempted the double right hand several times, but was caught between the first and second punch each time. McGregor's timing was on point and Alvarez's advance seemed to be too keen to connect with his punches when he might have been better off making McGregor move, miss or hit guard, and looking to capitalize on a more cautious McGregor later on.
Alvarez himself offered a very honest and insightful account of his performance, stating that the plan had been to not box with McGregor but that he had been drawn into doing just that. We tend to take a nuts and bolts view here, but the technical game is half built on decision making under pressure and half on discipline. The 'mind games' that McGregor and others play get to be a corny cliché for those of us following the sport and hearing the term bandied around full time. But the moment a fighter forgets that encouraging a loss of composure is the point is the moment the mind games start to work. Scoring a knockout in the second round, this was another fantastic performance by the now two-weight champion, a young man who is changing the fight game as a business and in the cage.
While this was one of the most impressive performances of McGregor's career, and arguably his biggest accomplishment, it also provided some more windows into the McGregor style and his habits. Noticeable was McGregor's poise and upright posture on his counter punches, but his leaning and committing his weight with his head well in advance of his hips when attempting to throw his left hand through fast enough when working on the lead. This second habit saw him eat check hooks in the first Diaz fight when Diaz was able to use a long stance more comfortably. Drawing McGregor out into these leads might be an excellent course of action for a fighter with similar or greater height and reach, but for a shorter man standing on the end of McGregor's reach along the cage seems a terrible prospect. Though that is all for a Killing the King article when McGregor returns to defend one of his belts.
A New Challenger Approaches?
Buried on the undercard—though that is no shame on a card this good—was one of McGregor's next logical challengers, Khabib Nurmagomedov. Against Michael Johnson, Nurmagomedov looked skittish on the feet, employing a bizarre stonewall guard which did little as Johnson slotted left straights down the center. Then Nurmagomedov shot and everything changed. Johnson sprawled, Nurmagomedov pushed straight through onto the fence and tripped the American knockout artist to the floor.
Nurmagomedov battered Johnson from half guard. What’s fascinating about Khabib is that he doesn't seem to care if the opponent gets underhooks on his legs, he'll just set his weight and hit them in the head until they give it up in order to protect themselves.
In fact, most of Khabib's top game seems to be about sitting on or kneeling on his opponents arms as he tries to stave their head in with punches and elbows. Later in the fight he effortlessly stood in guard, kept an underhook, and knee slid through with Johnson's right arm already stuck between his legs. The mounted crucifix is a favorite of Nurmagomedov and he alternated between this and a position with his thigh over the opponent's head, threatening an upside down triangle choke and landing punches between his legs.
In the first round, as Johnson got up to an elbow, Nurmagomedov stood and slid his knee through to the far side to take mount. Taking a seatbelt grip across Johnson's back, he allowed Johnson to catch and keep his left leg, leaving Johnson in a strange semi-back/semi-mount position where he could neither advance to a guard nor retreat to give up back control. He just kept getting up to an elbow, being broken down, and hammered with punches. Notice also Nurmagomedov's head placement underneath the armpit or triceps whenever Johnson starts reaching to hold the punching hand.
And then Nurmy showed one of the reasons I'll always be a mark for his top game along with Minoru Suzuki and Josh Barnett. A knee on the neck ride. More accurately a double knee right, one on the throat and one on the belly. As Johnson moved to relieve the pressure from his throat, Nurmagomedov's knee came inside and began to trap Johnson's hand to the mat again before he moved again, began getting up to his elbow and exposed himself to the across the back grip, getting stuck in that same horrible position once again.
This was a position Johnson got stuck in twice and took tremendous damage in. The end came with a kimura in the third round. If Nurmagomedov winds up being the next opponent for McGregor this bout was absolutely fascinating as a case study. Nurmy ate left straights flush in the face, seemingly unable to deal with them for the first minute, then shot a takedown and brutalized his man relentlessly from the top. He seems both everything McGregor would love and hate all wrapped up in a confusing, scary and lopsided set of skills.
Everything Else That Was Great
Yoel Romero continued his strange tradition of seeming to fade as the fight progresses then exploding into an exciting stoppage in the third round. Chris Weidman did a good job of feinting out and kicking the body of Romero through much of the contest but the wrestling of Romero seemed soo far beyond even that of the great former champion that it was quite alarming to watch. Romero's first trip out of the clinch was remarkable – a trip is the moving of the opponent's weight to the point that he would step but his foot is prevented from doing so. Romero was able to move Weidmans' weight with seemingly a flick of the wrist, blocking Weidman's step with his right foot and throwing Weidman onto his front, before spinning to the back with cat-like agility.
While Romero was able to easily separate Weidman's grip and begin attacking a double wristlock when the latter had his back, Weidman struggled to shake Romero off him in the same position. The finish came as Weidman telegraphed a takedown attempt in the third round and ate a jumping knee which busted his eye wide open and left him turtled in bewildered agony.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk put on another excellent performance against Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Making use of retreat and low kicks—a tricky thing to do in tandem. Jedrzejczyk is a fighter that everyone on the UFC roster can learn from in her variety and savvy. Stiff arms into body kicks, retreating low kicks, off balancing in order to strike cleanly, and even some neat elbows. A lovely counter right elbow into left hook into step right low kick allowed the champion to angle off the fence at one point.
The champion did not escape untouched though. The same counter elbow attempt was met with Kowalkiewicz's right straight in the fourth round and sent the champion stumbling. Landing body and high kicks with her back to the fence, the champion shucked Kowalkiewicz past her when the challenger stepped in, taking the back, dragging the fight to the mat and using the time to recover.
Stephen Thompson and Tyron Woodley had a spirited contest which ended in a disappointing draw in the co-main event for the welterweight title. Woodley's choice to stand with his back to the fence proved initially frustrating for the counter fighting Thompson. Thompson is always reluctant to use the low line side kick to the knee which, though hard to catch is sometimes looked down upon as a dirty move. Instead Thomspon stepped in to throw a low round kick, it rode up Woodley's leg as the champion stepped in, got caught, and suddenly Thompson was on his back like it was 2005.
Woodley roughed Thompson up from the top of half guard for the entire first round with hard elbows, punches and hammerfists. When Thompson knocked Woodley off balance in the process of a nice guard recovery, the short elbow Woodley landed while off balanced resulted in a cut on the face of Wonderboy. Far less authoritative that any of the digs Thompson had endured through the round, this was just another reminder that you can never tell which elbows are going to cause the cuts.
The middle rounds were much more Thompson's speed as he stood back and worked with linear strikes in pot-shots and counter punches. He took a page out of Joanna Jedrzejczyk's book with the occasional rear hand straight to the body along the fence—an excellent time to employ the powerful but underused technique—adding his own twist by looking low and going high immediately afterwards.
And there was a nice back kick as Thompson anticipated Woodley changing directions along the fence, though Woodley did not circle back into the blow it seemed Thompson was hoping.
The Wonderboy two-step made an appearance as well. More an annoyance than a hurting combination, this is a dart into a southpaw stance and a side kick as the opponent attempts to follow. A neat little sequence that is fun to play with in your own training though.
Thompson's game is so effective because of his distance control, but that is something that has to be kept in mind every second of every bout. Just as with Lyoto Machida, when he gets carried away or takes his finger off the trigger a little, he can be caught flat footed in front of his man, and in this way Woodley decked him in the fourth round. When Woodley dropped Thompson a second time it was in such a way that many referees would have stopped the bout, but the extra second Dan Miragliotta gave here was enough time for Thompson to work up to an underhook and start bettering his position. A good call by Big Dan.
Woodley's attempted guillotine may well have saved Thompson who was taking a beating against the cage with over half the round remaining. Once again in a close title fight scoring has to be called into question. The first round, which was all Woodley, when scored a 10-9 would be equal to the third round which Thompson edged by a much thinner margin. Oh well, it's unlikely to ever get any better and the fight was good enough that it would be well worth a rematch.
Finally the ghost of Joe Frazier seemed to be present in Madison Square Garden where he bested Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century. As Belal Muhammad stepped in with a combination, Vincente Luque covered, caught and returned with the left hook. The king of the counter punches. A good left hooker can close his eyes, wait until he feels a punch on his forearms and throw back blind and he'll still be dangerous if the other guy hangs around to fight.
On the subject of Smokin' Joe and left hooks, Douglas Lima finally got revenge on Andrei Koreshkov at Bellator 164. Showing nice butterfly guard work to get off his back, Lima landed hard low kicks and body jabs, waiting to time the counter left hook which beat even Paul Daley to the punch. When Koreshkov finally opened up in combination along the fence, a left came back and decked him in spectacular fashion, snapping Koreshkov's win streak and securing Douglas Lima the Bellator welterweight title. With so much going on in that division in the UFC, it is well worth remembering the names of both of those men, they are among the cream of the crop.
With close to ten hours of the UFC and Bellator it was cracking weekend of fights but we're doing it all again on Saturday so get some rest and on Wednesday we'll preview all the most promising bits of upcoming action.
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