McGregor versus Diaz: The Science of Overcoming Size

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Artwork by Gian Galang

There was a period when you could accuse the UFC of protecting the McGregor brand as he came up through the featherweight division without meeting one of its tremendous wrestlers. Maybe the UFC was concerned for their Irish cash cow, but it has become abundantly clear that Conor McGregor himself will fight just about anybody. Losing his third opponent to a late injury and taking a third last minute replacement, this time McGregor is doing it against a fighter from the weightclass above and he's not even requesting that his opponent make the lightweight limit. Gutsy does not even begin to describe it.

But going up in weight is no joke. There is a reason that every champion teases it constantly and never does it—at least in any meaningful capacity. There is a reason that professional fighters are willing to pursue such hefty weight cuts—they like being big for their division. Going up and being the smaller man in the division above is an enormous change, especially if you have been making use of their strength and length in the division you have just departed.

There are and always have been two issues with 'bigger' opponents. First there is the height and reach, and then there is weight. One can be a tremendous problem at distance, while the other is a nightmare in close, a double-edged advantage to be levered against the smaller man.

Before we get into the match up specifics lets take a look at the few notable fighters who have broken the laws of size in combat sports. But first, you should probably watch the third episode of Ringcraft to reacquaint yourself with some McGregor habits.

A Brief History of Overcoming Size

The question of size has been a constant in fighting since day one. In a case of equal skill (or as close as possible to whatever that means), the bigger man absolutely should win. The greater the gap in size and weight, the more you are relying on either the smaller man having knowledge of which the bigger man is ignorant, or the bigger man fighting exceptionally stupidly. As the fight game progresses it gets harder and harder to believe that a smaller man will bring in something unknown, but they still surprise on occasion.

Daniel Mendoza introduced all manner of dodges and ducks to the sport of pugilism. He pioneered the right-to-left and left-to-right parries which are taught in day one of every kickboxing class today, hacked at his opponent's noses with backfists, and punched opponent's arms out of flight. A hundred means to get an edge on a bigger, stronger opponent in a day when 'boxing' really was just swinging the right hand. A century and change later Royce Gracie showed the same thing with his ground game. His understanding of an area of the fight which just hadn't been considered by many, allowed him to beat much bigger, tougher men.

“Have at me, brethren.” – Daniel Mendoza

Every giant slayer you can think of since has brought something unusual to the table. Marcelo Garcia tore through competitive jiu jitsu with a previously underutilized combination of guards and his incredible use of the powerful arm drag.

That's a younger, trimmer, but still gigantic Gabriel Gonzaga.

Kazushi Sakuraba had that bizarre style where he routinely turned his back just to invite the bodylock and slap on the kimura, and those John Smith style low singles.

Sakuraba submitting former UFC heavyweight champion, Kevin Randleman.

And taking down top five heavyweight, Igor Vovchanchyn.

Manny Pacquiao is the most recent example of a smaller man who has been able to go up in weight and arguably have more success against his more aggressive, larger opponents. Pacquiao's southpaw stance and strict conformity to the pattern of offense—entering on an angle, leaving on an angle, and never doing so without moving his head—has meant that the more aggressively an opponent follows him, the more he can land his blistering combinations and weave out the side door. Antonio Margarito was the biggest fighter Pacquiao ever met in the ring and through wading forward onto Pacquiao's blows but seldom catching him along the ropes, Margarito proved to be a perfect canvas for Pacquiao's art. It was the smaller men who made him come to them that had the better success against Pacman.

The man whom will always top these lists of giant killers, however, is Henry Armstrong. Hammering Hank won boxing's featherweight title of the world, skipped up two classes to challenge for the welterweight title and won it from the great Barney Ross, then went back down to win the lightweight title, and finally lost a controversial decision to the middleweight world champion. As Bert Sugar put it, there were eight world titles in boxing at the time and Henry Armstrong owned almost half of them. Armstrong won his bouts by getting in on his man, pinning his head to their sternum, and hammering away with body blows and sneaky 'blackout' right hooks as he bumped their head up (illegally) with his shoulder.

What is the common factor between these men? Regardless of the sport they focused on two key elements: they mitigated the reach, and they kept the weight off of them—through use of an active guard, the turtle, lateral movement in the outfight, wedging the head underneath the opponent's in the infight. In any match up between men of different sizes those two issues are the entirety of the size debate: reach and weight.

Match Up Specifics

Knowing what we do about him, it's a little hard to believe that Nate Diaz is going to grab a hold of Conor McGregor and make McGregor feel his weight. Diaz can grind on opponent's in the clinch, but he isn't a cream of the crop wrestler and most of the time he will—like his elder brother—refuse to take the fight to the ground and utilize his tremendous grappling pedigree unless things really aren't going his way on the feet and he and his corner cannot even convince themselves otherwise.

What Diaz does use well is his reach. And his reach advantage against McGregor seems tremendous. Remembering that a height advantage compounds a reach advantage. To see that you need only stand in front of a wall with one of your arms extended at shoulder level so that your fingertips just touch the wall. Then hinge at the shoulder and point your arm lower or higher and you will see that your reach is greatest at shoulder level and decreases the higher or lower you go. Having an opponent with his head on a level with your shoulders is simply an absolute treat for most fighters with decent straight punches.

Nowhere has Diaz made use of his lengthy frame more than in his most recent fight against Michael Johnson. Diaz patiently waited on the outside, flicking out backhanded jabs to break Johnson's concentration and composure. Then the left straight would start sneaking in.

Diaz continued leaning well forwards at the waist to present Johnson a false distance—a classic Roy Jones Jr. ploy—and as Johnson came forwards, Diaz would straighten up, skip back, and slap Johnson with a right hook as he retreated.

Though Johnson rarely caught all of the hook, I was reminded of Alexis Arguello's terrific baiting lead hook. 

On the other end of that, when Diaz throws his left hand he will often throw it overarm and lean well forwards at the waist, presenting his chin as Jose Aldo so famously did when he rushed to chase McGregor and gave McGregor an easy knockout victory in their title fight. However, back-stepping counters are considerable harder to apply against a much taller and rangier opponent because there is such a great distance to be made up after their blow has fallen short and the retreating fighter wants to counter.

But it gets more complicated. In boxing the strike can only go as far as the listed reach, in mixed martial arts the reach only tells us about one aspect of the fight. Not only are the legs longer than the arms, the lead leg—the closest point on an opponent—is a perfectly legal target. Even with a tremendous reach and height disadvantage, a fighter can kick a pure puncher in his lead leg all day without repercussions.

The Diaz brothers' kicking games have always been pretty aimless. They'll throw out the occasional kick or two, but they seem as though they don't train with them or even that they hold contempt for low kicks. So rather than check one, they'll take it. And another. And because their lead foot is often almost directly in front of them to project their lead shoulder and maximize their reach across the shoulders on the jab, they will be knocked off balance by every kick thrown to the outside of their lead leg. Benson Henderson, Josh Thompson and Rafael Dos Anjos all had tremendous success with kicks against Nate Diaz as he sauntered towards them or stood in front of them waiting for a boxing match.

That being said, Nate has a decent front leg push kick that he will use, or fake, to land his jab.

You can't perform rapid movement without both feet being on the floor, that's a pretty basic concept in fighting. For a shorter fighter, hoofing the taller man's leg to get it off the floor (by force or by them attempting to check) will often give the shorter man a good chance to get in and punch. Melvin Manhoef was masterful at this, Demetrious Johnson has done it on occasion, Renan Barao knocked Urijah Faber down while he was on one leg worrying about the kicks, and here's Michael Bisping demonstrating the same principle the other night against Anderson Silva.

And Yoel Romero:

But McGregor's penchant in recent years has been for linear kicks. The low line side kick (not such a factor against a fellow southpaw), the front snap kick to the midsection, the back kick and the jumping back kick. Certainly Diaz seems to completely eschew defending his body much of the time, but as he fights so side on and these kicks usually aim for the center line, the floating ribs or the liver, it will be interesting to see how much of a target Diaz's severely side on stance provides.

Front snap kicks, a powerful and under-rated weapon.

To turn our focus to McGregor, you would expect some considerable adjustments to be made in his style in going up in weight and giving up his usual reach advantage. Where he could stand on the edge of his reach and lance in that beautiful left straight against Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo and so many others, he will have to move through the range of Diaz's jab to land his punches this time around. B.J. Penn is often remembered as a successful example of going up in weight, but you will remember that against competent strikers he rarely won a match when giving up a reach advantage because he relied so much on economical, jab centric boxing.

And that is part of what is so interesting about this southpaw versus southpaw match up. McGregor doesn't often use his jab all that much or all that dexterously, because he is so often able to lead with his left straight. He rarely uses his lead hook at all. When a southpaw meets another southpaw it is like a conventional orthodox versus orthodox match, it becomes all about the lead hand again and the easier opportunities for left straights down the pipe are no longer there.

Another point is that so much of McGregor's game—particularly on the counter—is about giving ground to invite over extension. Nate Diaz has shown himself to double and triple up the jab excellent when his man gives ground. Not to mention that giving ground almost straight backwards—with the occasional slight angle—is a taller man's game. Doing the same against much lengthier fighters can be dangerous.

Ideal Gameplans

I have never given a ha’penny damn about 'Greatest of All Time' titles so I can allow myself to be something of a sadist when a good fighter comes along. I get to say “Oh that was good, but I would love to see him fight someone with x and y”. And to Conor McGregor's enormous credit he seems willing to do that against nearly anyone.

Yes, this fight is last minute, and yes his opponent is not the kind of grappling sandbag who we all know will provide the real test in going up in weight, but McGregor is also a fighter who loves his reach and his retreating counters. Nate Diaz's boxing is a tremendous challenge to those two of McGregor's favorite toys. Of course, McGregor's adaptability has always been his most admirable quality. It took him the best part of a minute to work out the last southpaw he fought, Dustin Poirer. Poirier was raising his forearm to catch the left straights, so McGregor started pitching wide left hooks behind the crook of Poirier's elbow. Diaz is nothing like Poirier of course, but that fight was a show of something we haven't seen in McGregor since applied in just the right instance.

From McGregor I would want to see the body kicks he is so proud of and successful with, but with that lead leg sitting there so ready to be kick it would be daft to not throw out some belting low kicks from beyond Diaz's boxing range. Diaz has proven susceptible to the old low-high before, when Josh Thompson head kicked him. With enough focus on the low kicks and on convincing Diaz to roll away from left hands, McGregor's ever present left high kick could prove to be a force. Furthermore both Diaz's hate opponents using lateral movement. Their long stance makes them slow to pivot, just as B.J. Penn found himself to be against Frankie Edgar. And of course straight punching can be made much less effective by consistent movement from side to side.

From Diaz you would hope that he has the sense to try and out muscle McGregor for a period in each round and take it to the ground if he sees a chance. Any time a man with a decent weight advantage and a respectable ground game doesn't look to get on top of his opponent, he is fighting in a questionable manner. He works well from the double collar tie with knees and that is a tremendous asset for a taller man. He doesn't hit the body even half as often as his older brother but against a fighter who relies so heavily on his speed and on timing, body work can wreak havoc and effectively disarm the threat of a meaningful counter by the later rounds.

What I would most hope to see from Diaz is the patience that he showed in his fight with Michael Johnson. There are men who struggle when you get in their face early, and doing so was perfect against Donald Cerrone. But a reach advantage is established and built upon, it is not something built for barn burners and early finishes. The mild, flicking jabs he put out against Michael Johnson, timed as Johnson stepped in or recovered from kicks, ruined the timing of the respectable kickboxer, made him flinch, and hid the powerful left hands brilliantly.

As a final note, though this fight is being fought at 170lbs please do not think that it represents what either man can do in the elite of the welterweight division in its current state. There is talk of it being used to sell a McGregor—Lawler fight on UFC 200, and that would be fun, but the welterweight top ten is stacked with enormous fighters who dry themselves out to make 170lbs. The difference between Johny Hendricks and Tyron Woodley turning themselves into raisins to get to 170lbs and McGregor and Diaz when they just aren't cutting weight is substantial and this bout should be treated as a last minute catchweight bout more than a bout 'in the welterweight division'. That being said, Nate Diaz had a respectable career at welterweight, and is a very respectable current lightweight—McGregor pulling off the win would certainly be a statement and more than justify the bout with Rafael dos Anjos which we are all still dying to see.

Regardless of the victor, get back to Fightland on Monday and we'll talk about all the ins and outs.

Pick up Jack's new kindle book, Finding the Art, or find him at his blog, Fights Gone By.

See more of the Gian Galang's amazing art on his website.


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