Jack Slack: Conor McGregor Is the Future of Mixed Martial Arts

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

There is a great schism in the mixed martial arts community.

Some say Conor McGregor, Ireland's great featherweight hope, is a champion in the making—Jose Aldo's kryptonite. Others say that he's being fed easy wins. Wherever fans fall on the issue they tend to be vocal.

Of course, both sides are caricatures of the truth. McGregor hasn't met a single great wrestler in a sport built around them, and that is unlikely to be a coincidence this far into his UFC tenure. However, this is a combat sport and McGregor is a cash cow. If you cannot, as an adult with a healthy sense of cynicism, realize that matchmaking is as much about brand management as it is about putting on entertaining fights, you're not going to enjoy the fight game as much as you can once you realize that fact and get over it.

And who could begrudge the UFC for not putting McGregor in with a takedown dynamo like Clay Guida, Tatsuya Kawajiri or Chad Mendes just yet? It's a postponement of having to deal with the great wrestlers if anything, you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride as McGregor moves an entire country's population to involve themselves in a niche sport. I was visiting friends out in the sticks of Ireland last week and was astounded that even they knew about “that cage fighter”. McGregor as an icon has worked marvels for the sport.

But as a fighter? Well, McGregor is just sublime.

In this writer's humble opinion, McGregor embodies everything that the sport of mixed martial arts needs. And I don't mean the smack talking and the call outs. Nor am I talking about the man who can absorb the attention of the whole room when sat between two fighters twice his size at the press conferences. I don't even mean the surprisingly understated and thoughtful guy who quietly mingled and chatted with press before watching his friend Gunnar Nelson fight at the O2.

Conor McGregor represents the future of the sport because he is a man who fought his way into the big league, and hasn't stopped growing since. He doesn't sit back and repeat the same things that got him there, nor does he attempt to diversify so much that he forgets his best trained tools. If you cannot recognize his fighting skill and the changes in McGregor from just a year ago, please allow me to elaborate.

Meat and Potatoes

A year ago I released a short, simple video called “Conor McGregor in Five Techniques”. It was cobbled together pretty quickly as an excuse to do something different. McGregor had taken part in just one fight in the UFC at the time, and little footage of him was available. I settled on five elements of McGregor's game which seemed to either act as staple in his work, or were noticeable characteristics or quirks of his personality in the Octagon.

To recap quickly, a lot of what McGregor does—or did before he really hit the big time and had the freedom to train as much as he wanted—is basic, thoughtful boxing with a bit of karate / taekwondo stuff mixed in. Of course the beauty of it is that it isn't any one discipline, he just plays around and makes eclectic elements work together.

I'm assuming that—as this is a Conor McGregor article—I will have a few new readers who aren't familiar with some of the concepts we discuss regularly. For a start, McGregor is a southpaw—a left hander—and so stands with his right foot forward, the reverse of the norm. A southpaw versus orthodox engagement is a completely different dynamic to an orthodox versus orthodox or southpaw versus southpaw engagement. The most important point is that both men will find it easier to sneak their rear hand straights in than they would their jab.

This is because of the hand fight. The lead hands of the fighters get in the way of each other and create what some term “crossed swords”. Consequently, what we call the hand fight is more important. The man who has the outside hand position usually has control—allowing him to slap his opponent's lead hand down, across or sometimes upwards. You will see McGregor supressing his opponent's hands a great deal.

The important point is that it doesn't just cut off the lead hand, it is very difficult to step in and throw a good rear hand strike while the opponent is controlling your lead hand and looking to step outside your lead leg. Certainly, few people feel truly comfortable lunging in and punching with their back hand while their lead hand is still out in front of them, under the opponent's control.

This is a basic southpaw strategy that we looked at in good detail when studying Lyoto Machida, and Manny Pacquiao. Hand control kills the options of the opponent.

When McGregor's hand isn't on his opponent's, it's usually because he wants them to step in and commit to a punch.

If you are constantly suppressing an opponent's lead hand, then release it for a moment, they will often step in and throw without realizing that there's probably a reason you're letting them.

The karate style front snap kicks of McGregor have always been a joy to watch. Front snap kicks are similar to the jab in boxing in that they can be thrown a number of ways. They can be thrown heavy—snapping out hard into the opponent's ribcage and then dropping back to the floor—as Katsunori Kikuno was famous for before he discarded his guard altogether and committed career seppuku.

They can also snap out more rapidly, as one would flick out a jab. If you catch an opponent under the chin with this it can be enough to put him down for the count. It takes little commitment so I cannot believe we don't see this more from every mixed martial arts fighter.

So that's McGregor at a quick glance. Snappy kicks, good hand fighting, wicked counter left. But in recent fights, McGregor has shown some new stuff. Some stuff that makes me glad that a man like this can now afford to train full time and bring himself to his fullest potential.

The Art of Flamboyant Leads

So we know he likes the counter left straight, so far so normal for a southpaw. He likes the front snap kick? That's pretty unusual, but the technique is gaining popularity among young fighters. What makes McGregor fascinating is that he takes to other, more spectacular techniques and those set up the basics which he has down to an art.

Fighting competent opponents, you aren't going to get them to swing wildly at you when they know you're just waiting to let them fall short and come back in with a counter left straight. Especially if you're getting as much public attention as the Notorious Conor McGregor. But seconds into his bout with Diego Brandao, McGregor had convinced the Brazilian to swing clumsily at him and landed a stinging counter left straight. How did he accomplish it? Baited Brandao with the fancy stuff!

Now if you watched that opening, it looks like McGregor is jumping in arrogantly, thinking he can get stuff done with leaping, spinning nonsense. But notice where his feet land after the wheel kick. Perfectly back into his stance.

That stance has attracted a lot of attention because it is so much wider than the norm. It's often likened to a karate stance. No surprises there—he likes to move back and then spring in, and he doesn't move to the side all that much. The way you specialize your stance to move quickly to the front or rear is to make it longer and thinner so that you have a foot to drive off of in front of you and one behind you at all times. It's the same in karate, as it is in fencing, as it is for a boxer who really likes to use in and out movement on a line. There's no specific name for it, it's just how the human body accomplishes that goal best.

And that is the theme in Conor McGregor's fights. There's a lot of flash and dazzle, but he's always on the hair trigger, waiting to dart back and then in again with his left straight. Smoke and mirrors—that's all the fight game is about after all. If you're a counter fighter, you might as well find some weird, spectacular offense that's going to ruffle some feathers and convince people that they want to throw back at you, rather than have you spinning all around and gurning at them while they do nothing and fall behind on points.

McGregor's boxing is actually pretty meat and potatoes. Not much razzle dazzle there—just a great left straight and split second timing. When he's working on offense he'll use the handfight (as demonstrated  above) to smother the opponent until he reckons he can sneak through one of those venemous lefts. Other times he's used the classic Marvin Hagler / Prince Naseem lead hand uppercut to rear straight—a real dangerous set up on any southpaw.

Lean out the window, sneak the right hand under then hop past and into the straight. Just lovely.

Other times, when the opponent is reaching for dominant hand positioning to check McGregor's lead hand, he'll change tempo and shoot it up the inside. This is working at a mechanical disadvantage because you're shooting inside an opponent's parry, but again it's a matter of timing and McGregor uses it well.

One of the techniques which McGregor has begun using is the hook kick. The hook kick was a vitally important technique in the days of early American kickboxing and you'll remember Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis and Chuck Norris using it in the seventies. The problem is that generally, it doesn't carry a lot of power because it is difficult to get the hips into, and when it misses by an inch, you've kindly placed your leg on your opponent's shoulder.

From the Open Guard (southpaw vs orthodox or vice versa) position it is certainly more applicable, and that is, of course, where McGregor attempts it from. He's yet to land it decently, but it's certainly another thing to think about!

And there have been a few instances of the hook kick being used successfully in mixed martial arts, so as always we can't write it off outright. Shannon Ritch pulled off a tasty knockout with it, Holly Holm landed a great one against Nikki Knudsen, and Cung Le will regularly throw one, then spin into a backfist (he did this against Frank Shamrock and knocked down Wanderlei Silva in this manner).

And of course the great Larry Kelley, whom I wouldn't have known about if Joe Rogan hadn't mentioned him during McGregor's bout with Holloway.

Here's McGregor channelling the spirit of Andy Hug as he attempts a hook kick, a hook kick to the inner leg (which can be pretty darn painful), and a wheel kick to the leg—the famous Hug Tornado.

The Notorious One's kicking arsenal has evolved in other ways though. The big change is McGregor's pairing of his lead leg side kick with a bicycle kick. I don't know what McGregor gets up to in his spare time, but as he's a student of the game I would be surprised if he hadn't watched some Saenchai.

Saenchai, who might well be remembered in generations to come as a minor deity or the patron saint of Muay Thai, adores his bicycle teep. Saenchai, also a southpaw, utilizes his lead leg teep not to do damage, but to knock opponents off balance and score points. The thing about any kind of bicycle kick / jumping switch kick is that you have to convince the opponent that the faking leg is worth worrying about.

Look at the difference between Lyoto Machida's nidan-geri against Randy Couture and the numerous attempts at it that Dong Hyun Kim made in his bout with Sean Pierson. Machida's worked because he had been throwing left kicks and knees all fight—he had Couture concerned about that kick, feinted it, and leapt in with a kick from the other leg. Couture fell for it hook line and sinker.

Notice how Couture leans towards the left kick, ready for the impact, before the right sails into his chin.

Meanwhile Kim dived through the air a dozen times, missing every time, until finally Pierson had a brain fart and managed to get caught by it.

In mixed martial arts, the lead leg teep or side kick to the body which Saenchai loves so much can  be conceding an easy leg to anyone who wanted to grab it. So McGregor utilizes the low line kicks we are now used to seeing in mixed martial arts. Kick at the knee or below and it's pretty hard to pick up a leg—kick at the thigh and your leg can ride up the opponent's quad and gift him a takedown attempt he hasn't earned.

Notice the glide in of the standing leg. This is something you'll see combined with round kicks a lot in karate, and followed by a knee in Muay Thai. In karate it is an application of tobi-komi—leaping in.

Now if you get an opponent used to this hopping in motion, you can quickly graduate to those beautiful bicycle kicks. Saenchai does his winding body work with his rear leg, McGregor seems to moving towards that method too.

Here are McGregor's beautiful bicycle kicks and knees in action. Notice that he uses it as an entry and is immediately controlling his opponent's lead hand when he lands.

And this is what I mean when I say that McGregor represents the future. He learns techniques from everywhere. He attempted a kaiten-geri or “Rolling Thunder” kick against Max Holloway, and just the other day footage went up of him training the jumping, spinning roundhouse kick on a taekwondo kicking pad.

You can never have enough Rolling Thunder!

There's a ton more to talk about—that weird looking high forearm guard that reminds us all of the old Boston Celtics logo, for instance—but I hope that I've made my case well enough that you'll be convinced to come back before UFC 178, when we'll look at the specifics of his match up with Poirier, and the main event.

Pick up Jack Slack's ebook, Fighting Karate at his blog Fights Gone By. Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.



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