Artwork by Gian Galang
The two sides of the Conor McGregor debate are equally loud and similarly cartoonish.
To one side, he's one of the best striking talents to ever enter MMA. To the opposition, he's been fed up on tailor made match ups, hidden from wrestlers, and pushed into a title shot to exploit his selling power and appeal to a whole nation of non-MMA fans. If you are passionately arguing one side of this debate and not recognizing the other, you're blinding yourself with either your adoration or hatred of McGregor.
I'm going to address this awkward truth right now and annoy any hardcore McGregor fans in my audience: Conor McGregor has been very carefully led towards his title shot. I'll wait while you regain your breath from the shock of a fight promoter actively trying to deceive you.
For every great kickboxer / boxer / knockout artist who enters MMA, we see nine out of ten fall at their first elite wrestler. Paul Daley, Dan Hardy, Alexander Gustafsson, Michael Bisping, the list goes on and on. It had become a very familiar reality for MMA fans. Many of these fighters grow and come back better, after all, but their hype took a fairly severe knock.
Conor McGregor, however, has fought Marcus Brimage, Max Holloway, Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier, and Denis Siver in the UFC. Everyone knows the Siver match was a showcase bout, it's already pretty much accepted (which is sad enough to begin with). His takedown defense in the UFC has been superb:
He's straight up S-ranking it.
But consider that if you throw a dart at the UFC featherweight rankings, you have a high chance of hitting a strong takedown artist—Frankie Edgar, Chad Mendes, Ricardo Lamas, Dennis Bermudez, Nik Lentz, Clay Guida, hell, even Jeremy Stephens, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Darren Elkins would be a test—then realize that McGregor has met exclusively opponents whose modus operandi is to 'stand and bang'. Brandao has that BJJ black belt, but he's pretty much the modern day Jorge Gurgel, in love with his hands and not great at getting guys to the floor anyway.
The UFC featherweight top 15. Fighters with strong wrestling pedigrees in red, fighters who have met McGregor in green. And this isn't even classing the terrifically strong grapplers, Charles Oliveira and Hacran Dias as takedown artists.
Are those easy fights? No, don't be stupid. It's simply that what we know about Conor McGregor's MMA game is about even with what we knew about Nick Diaz's when he was being fed one dimensional stand up fighters in Strikeforce. He's great in kickboxing matches with four ounce gloves on. If you are five fights into your UFC contract, and fighting for a UFC title, we should know if you can stop a decently set up double leg takedown, or deal with a fighter who is at least threatening them.
Of course, we can point to the title paths of men like Ricardo Lamas or even Chad Mendes himself to evidence the lack of impressive wins over a selection of competition needed to justify a title fight. Certainly, Mendes was almost exclusively fighting grapplers and knocking them out on the feet. But then, the ability to stop a takedown from an elite wrestler has always been the watershed in MMA. Realistically, if you're still pretending that it is some kind of coincidence that McGregor hasn't met a strong takedown artist in a division which is jam packed with them, you're flat out delusional.
Do I believe McGregor is scared of wrestlers? Not one bit. He believes he can beat anyone in the world at his weight. His coaches have full faith in his wrestling too. The only thing we know is the UFC didn't have that confidence in him.
To counter that though, McGregor was never going to be steered clear of wrestlers forever. Maybe if he beat Aldo they could have pushed Max Holloway into a rushed title shot and flogged the grudge match angle like a dead horse, but then who? The rush to the title shot was a money grab by the UFC, but he'd have been in at the deep end once he got there, meeting the best wrestlers in the division in men like Frankie Edgar and Chad Mendes.
Neither Bum Nor GOAT
Now on the other side of the coin, if you're still pretending that Conor McGregor is nothing special, you're letting your skepticism blind you to something wonderful. It's my job to watch men throw blows at each other and I can say without reservation that Conor McGregor is one of the most unique and intelligent strikers to ever grace mixed martial arts. Whether he gets crushed in future or not, his past performances serve as evidence of this.
When he arrived in the UFC, McGregor was only just beginning to introduce the taekwondo elements to his game. The front snap kick was the only indication of McGregor's kicking game against Marcus Brimage, but Brimage was the only fighter in McGregor's UFC tenure to really drive forward and expose himself to McGregor's counter punches. McGregor drew him on to counter blows, and finishing him with looping, bolo-punch-esque uppercuts.
Then it was Max Holloway, against whom Conor McGregor premièred his switch kicks / bicycle kicks / nidan-geri. We discussed this at length last week in Conor McGregor's Irish Taekwondo, but it really is a revolution in the MMA kicking game. The double kick has appeared before, as a kamikaze measure, but McGregor is using it as a bread-and-butter combination to get in and use his left hand. Furthermore, unlike so many useless, flailing attempts at jumping switch kicks in MMA,
McGregor's is perfectly set up by that long, non-committal low side kick to the front of the knee and shin.
Also a great weapon against takedown artists because it gives the opponent the leg nowhere near as easily as a round kick to the thigh does. He starts by throwing out the long, low side kick to stop his opponent stepping in, then he starts using the raise of the lead knee to fake the side kick and jump in with the left knee or kick to the body or head, beautiful.
Next was Diego Brandao. Brandao is a wild, sloppy brawler with a BJJ black belt. His fiery encounters outside of the cage tell you all you need to know about how easy he is to bait into firefights inside of it. He's a featherweight Thiago Silva, held back by his own emotions and machismo. Of course, most have realized that McGregor is twice the man on the counter that he is on the lead, so they refuse to just run at him. How do you get someone to rush in and exchange with you? Try to wheel kick them. These kind of techniques produce such a reaction of “I can't believe he'd try that against me!” in many fighters, and straight up panic in others, that they almost invariably rush to return.
This is the beauty of McGregor's game. The seemingly wild kicks almost always leave him in a position to bounce away and come back in with his perfect left straight. Later in the fight, he was able to drop Brandao with a wheel kick and that highlighted the other facet of its importance—if you just stand there and take them you're going to get hurt. The so-called 'hipster kicks' demand the action which McGregor, a counter puncher at heart, thrives off of.
Then came Dustin Poirier. And Poirier got to work with the low kicks we expected to trouble McGregor. McGregor did little to prevent them, but soon realized that every time he threw his hands, the fellow southpaw's lead elbow came up and in to cover up against McGregor's infamous left straight. It took McGregor the best part of a minute to work this out before he started to throw the left hook. McGregor is a straight hitter, we hadn't seen him attacking with the rear hook before, but he went to it several times against Poirier. He recognized Poirier's narrowing guard, immediately adapted to the occasion and exploited it.
Last of all was poor Dennis Siver. The less said about that deliberate and exploitative mismatch, the better. But the left straight, the lean back right hook, the switch knee—all were present.
Chad Mendes and the Wrestling Question
So after some mishaps, McGregor steps into the cage with Chad Mendes this weekend. While you might think the question is whether McGregor can fight such a high-level wrestler with zero experience against others, there are just as significant question marks over Mendes. He's been knocking out grapplers left, right, and center—but when he needs to take a man down, what will he do?
Though he certainly surprised Aldo with his significantly crisper striking than in their first meeting.
McGregor has a significant reach on Mendes, not to mention that he is a southpaw who fights from a long stance—so Mendes' favorite double leg will not be nearly so readily available. Remember that Jose Aldo's go to against Mendes has been to widen his stance and feed Mendes the single leg when he shoots.
Aldo also found success against an improved Mendes' stand up by throwing straight jabs in twos and threes, then suddenly looping the left hook around Mendes' parrying hand. For all Mendes' improvement on the feet, Aldo was still able to catch him with some simple set ups.
However, Mendes' tricks on the feet cannot be underestimated. In his second bout with Aldo he fully expected to struggle getting the champion down, and used level changes to beautifully set up his strikes.
The double hand trap, releases to force Aldo to strike, ducks in as if to shoot, comes up with the uppercut. Also an excellent way to force an uppercut on an upright opponent.
And that really highlights the crux of this bout. Mendes could come out swinging, or charge for a double straight out of the gate and get smoked in thirty seconds. Would that answer our “can McGregor wrestle” question? Not really. In this day and age no one should be getting taken down by the simple jab to power double. What I want to see is how McGregor holds up against a wrestler who will punch into his wrestling and use his wrestling to set up his punches.
Typically, Mendes likes to move forward striking and pressure his opponent towards the fence.
He likes to use vertical head movement to evade blows as he looks to chuck in overhands and left hooks, and he'll occasionally dart off to a side in the manner that his team mate, T. J. Dillashaw does so successfully.
When he wants to shoot, Mendes will typically let up the pressure, take a step back, and let his opponent step forward. This is when he ducks in on their hips, and this simple matter of getting them to walk on—as one would with a simultaneous counter on the feet (more on that soon Ringcraft fans)—Mendes significantly reduces the window in which his opponent can react.
McGregor has been the forward moving, pressuring party in the majority of his UFC bouts. He moves forward, attempting to draw the opponent into a panicked lead. Then he back steps and counters. But Mendes, similarly, doesn't like to give ground except to set up his takedowns.
With Mendes looking to move in and using his head movement, one would have to think that the uppercuts of the Brimage fight and the left knee are going to be of great significance to McGregor's gameplan. Meanwhile, Mendes is fighting a southpaw rather unusually, and will probably be looking to dart out to his left, land the right hook, and step in on the takedowns or clinch.
Realistically, this fight is a nightmare for UFC management. McGregor is putting his hype and momentum on the line in exactly the kind of match the UFC wanted to avoided until he had either beaten or lost to Jose Aldo. If he loses, the UFC is locked in for Aldo—Mendes III, and McGregor is no longer the miracle for MMA that he seems. For that, Conor McGregor deserves enormous respect.
Win or lose, love him or hate him, McGregor is bringing more eyes to MMA. Doesn't matter to me if they're screaming about the UFC's playing of favorites, or trying to convince me he's the best thing since sliced bread—they're watching MMA, they're forming opinions, and that is how real fight fans are made.
See more of the Gian Galang's amazing art (and buy prints) on his website.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.