Violent knockout artist, Conor McGregor, is set to scrap with two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title challenger, Chad Mendes, for the interim belt this Saturday (July 11, 2015) inside MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
McGregor's rise to the top has been nothing short of meteoric. In just a couple years, he's gone from a complete unknown to perhaps UFC's biggest star. A big part of that upswing was thanks to his beef with long-time Featherweight kingpin, Jose Aldo, which was set to be the most high-profile headliner of the year.
Luckily, Chad Mendes was willing to step in on short-notice for an Interim title. As far as replacement goes, that's about as good as it gets. Mendes will finally test his opponent's wrestling ability, something his doubters have brought up frequently.
Let's take a closer look at the Irishman's skill set and see how he's ready to go:
McGregor has a very deep striking background. He was a national boxing champion as a teenage and also has a base in Karate and Tae Kwon Doe. He fights out of a karate stance quite well, and when he is allowed to play his game, McGregor lives up to his promise of making his opponent's movement look basic.
McGregor commonly stalks his opponent. Despite his aggression -- and the Irishman does keep up a pretty high output at range -- McGregor is at his best when pulling or slipping punches and returning with a nasty counter punch (usually the straight left).
Sometimes, McGregor's low hand placement and taunting are enough to force his opponent to reach for him, such as in the Marcus Brimage fight, but normally it's McGregor's violent kicking offense that draws his opponent towards him.
Otherwise, they're stuck trading kicks with McGregor, which won't end well for the vast majority of the division.
A big part of McGregor's effectiveness with his kicks is his diversity. McGregor attacks with a wide variety of kicks, ranging from front kicks, side kicks, spinning attacks, and roundhouse kicks. Some of these kicks are more style than substance, but they still serve the purpose of keeping his opponent hesitant or causing him to push towards McGregor into a slip and counter.
The most effective of McGregor's kicks is his left roundhouse. To the mid-section of head, McGregor does an excellent job forcing his opponent to circle into the kick. When he goes high, the kick also plays off the threat of his left cross, as McGregor can cause his opponent's to slip into the strike.
McGregor will also build from his kicks. For example, he commonly will use front leg side kicks and stomps to keep his opponent at distance. Once his opponent is reacting to this strikes -- which doesn't take long, as they can cause serious damage if a fighter's leg is stiff and extended -- McGregor will instead attack with jumping switch kicks. After lifting his lead leg and causing a reaction, McGregor will slam home a left shin or knee.
Regardless of what kick McGregor throws, his leg returns back to its original stance immediately after. Many of his opponents, having just dodged some unusual piece of offense, are eager to return some violence of their own. However, McGregor understands and expects this reaction, meaning he's usually more than ready to avoid the punches and violently counter.
One of the best examples of McGregor's pure counter striking ability came in his debut against Marcus Brimage. Incensed by the Irishman's trash talk and general bravado, Brimage wasted little time in biting down on his mouth piece and swinging for the fences.
Early on, both fighters were landing cleanly. Once McGregor -- the more powerful and taller man -- connected on a strong uppercut counter, the fight was largely over. It clearly affected "The Bama Beast," and McGregor ruthlessly took advantage by feinting with the strike, cracking Brimage with straight shots, and returning to the uppercut seconds later.
Against a shorter man looking for the takedown in "Money," expect McGregor to look for the uppercut.
Unlike many counter punches, McGregor is more than willing to lead with his hands as well. This is particularly true if his opponent is biting on the majority of McGregor's feints or has simply gone into a defensive shell to hide from the Irishman's kicking game.
When he's leading, it's really all about McGregor's left cross. He often sets the strike up with a preceding jab or lead uppercut. In addition, McGregor will throw out feeler jabs or simply occupy his opponent's lead hand before firing his a powerful and accurate left hand.
Defensively, McGregor is a tough man to hit. He makes it very difficult for his opponent to move into the pocket, and his head movement is quite good even if they do. However, fighters out of his stance historically struggle with low kicks, and the few thrown at McGregor have landed.
Usually, the Irishman just knocks his opponent out before that becomes an issue.
Both offensively and defensively, McGregor's wrestling is rather unproven inside the Octagon. He's never really faced off with a strong wrestler before, so everything defensively has to be taken with a grain of salt. However, he has more than proven his athleticism against less accomplished grapplers.
On the rare occasion that McGregor wants to take the fight to the mat, he'll usually look for a double leg takedown. He doesn't really have to make any adjustments to his game to land it, as McGregor's habit of keeping himself balanced to counter punch can easily be translated into a reactive takedown.
Additionally, McGregor has attempted some single leg takedowns across his career, including a finished one on Max Holloway. That's a fairly impressive accomplishment, considering McGregor's injured knee and Holloway's above average defensive wrestling.
It's far from proven at the moment, but McGregor has plenty of the signs of a good defensive wrestler. For one, his striking style rarely leaves him off-balance, unless his opponent attempts to duck under spinning kicks, a risky strategy. Plus, the amount of distance he usually keeps means that his opponent absolutely must set up the shot perfectly, otherwise he'll be too far out.
In addition, McGregor's athleticism and physicality are very big factors in wrestling exchanges. His sprawl is quick and strong, which is enough to shut down grapplers who don't chain wrestling particularly well. Similarly, his physical strength is a big help in the clinch, where the stronger fighter almost always wins unless there's a significant technical edge in either direction.
Another positive for McGregor's takedown defense is his ability to do damage as he defends. The Irishman is always looking to slam home hammer fists as he sprawls and will also throw punches as his opponent stands back up from a failed shot. In addition, McGregor finished one of his opponents on the regional scene with a series of elbows while defending the double leg against the fence.
Though both of his career losses came via submission, that was some time ago. McGregor is now a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and one of the main training partners of an absolutely phenomenal jiu-jitsu player in Gunnar Nelson.
The best part of McGregor's grappling -- or at least the only thing he's really had a chance to show -- is his guard passing. He's very heavy from top position and really weighs on his opponent using the head and arm control grip, driving into his opponent's chest and neck. Once he gets to half guard, he'll apply heavy shoulder pressure and cut through the guard. After he gets around the guard, McGregor does not settle, as he likes to slide his knee across the stomach for the mount.
Another guard passing technique in McGregor's guard passing arsenal in the smash pass. Once his opponent's guard is open, McGregor will look to drive both of his legs underneath one of his opponent's legs. This stacks his opponent's legs on top of each other, smashing the hips down and preventing both offense and movement. It's an incredibly effective pass that suits mixed martial arts (MMA) perfectly.
In addition, McGregor did a very nice job stacking up Brandao. When the BJJ black belt's ankles were stuck up by his head, McGregor slammed what are essentially free punches through his legs to his opponent's face. Plus, McGregor did an excellent job defending a couple of leg locks that Brandao looked to roll into, escaping the holds and punishing his opponent for the attempt.
It's not much, but there simply isn't a lot of footage of McGregor's ground work during live fights.
Best Chance For Success
To defeat Mendes, McGregor absolutely needs to keep his range. If that means circling a bit more than usual, that's okay, as it's vitally important that he doesn't allow Mendes to close the distance early on.
Otherwise, McGregor's improvements to his wrestling probably won't matter all that much, as Mendes very rarely fails to take his opponent down.
From the outside, McGregor's strategy should be to accumulate damage over time and run Mendes into a strikes. Each time the Irishman lands a body kick or forces Mendes to block/absorb a high kick, it's fatiguing his opponent and slowing his reactions just a touch. If McGregor is constantly chipping away at Mendes from the start of this five round fight, it could greatly payoff for him later on.
Beyond that, McGregor simply needs to find his big connection. McGregor is a power punching counter striker, while Mendes needs to get in close both to land punches and takedowns. Mendes must brave the fire in order to win, and it's up to McGregor to burn him badly enough to turn him away.
Can Conor McGregor complete his rise to the top or will Chad Mendes finally secure a UFC title?