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Conor McGregor: Five best in-class fighters at UFC 205 - No. 1, Featherweight

In this special five-part series to celebrate the awesomeness of UFC 205, we will look at five fighters on the marquee who are the very best in their weight class — and possibly the sport — at what they do. Five out of five-star fighters, if you will. We will examine the case for their superiority, look at what makes them so good at what they do, and give an idea of what you can expect once the cage door slams shut.

MMA: UFC 202-Diaz vs McGregor 2
McGregor headlines the most stacked card in UFC history
Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Conor McGregor may face the biggest test of his career when he takes on Lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in the main event of UFC 205, which takes place Saturday night (Nov. 12, 2016) inside Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. "Notorious," as usual, has put the historic pay-per-view (PPV) show on his Irish shoulders and, in the process, will look to extend his seven-fight bonus streak.

It goes without saying that McGregor is the biggest personality in the sport. He is a genius at making his presence felt, which extends to his in-cage style. He seems to devour the open space of the Octagon, somehow managing to force his opponents to the cage in every contest, where they are presented with a truncated flowchart of options, all of which McGregor has answers for. How is the Irishman — with his long karate-like stance and eccentric selection of preferred techniques, which is atypical for a pressure fighter -- able to accomplish this so easily and consistently?

Fighter: Conor McGregor
Division: Featherweight (champion) — 145 pounds
Top skill: Offensive striking

The key to unlocking the secret of his style is found in McGregor’s marriage of his physical abilities with intangible assets. First, McGregor is a natural Lightweight who has fought most of his career at Featherweight. He is exceptionally long-limbed, boasting a 74-inch reach. Second, he has natural power and an iron chin. More important, he throws his strikes, in particular his preferred straight left, without winding up or telegraphing his intentions. All fighters noted for their accuracy can trace this back to their lack of telegraph. Without the lag time of a wind up, he can throw at almost any target, which in turn has helped him refine his shot selection. The openings he sees aren’t just as counters -- he excels at leading with strikes that rip through an opponent’s rhythm like bullets through guitar strings. And that long karate stance? Deep, vertical stances like McGregor’s are preferred by point karate stylists and fencers because they help one cover distance more quickly. One second McGregor is loping forward almost casually — hands low — the next moment he is gliding across the Octagon with deceptive speed, snapping back an opponent’s head with a slapping right and a straight left behind it.

But, that’s not all.

Because he is a Southpaw, the straight left not only happens to be McGregor’s most dangerous power punch, but also the most efficient. McGregor didn’t even need to use his jab until he faced a longer fellow southpaw in Nate Diaz. (As a side note, his development of a functional jab in the space between the first and second Diaz fights was one of the most impressive adjustments McGregor was able to make, and the secondary stick-and-move style he showed off in the fourth round of that fight could be a tactical second option to watch for from him in the future).

Essentially, the ace in McGregor’s deck happens to be the trump card in southpaw exchanges. This — along with his accuracy, greater reach, and ability to cover distance — means that most opponents don’t like to stand in front of McGregor. They would be foolish to want that -- he has punished every fighter who has attempted it. The threat of this precision striking forces opponents to give ground and/or take an angle when he moves forward. No one wants to circle into his power hand because it moves them into danger, including McGregor’s left high kick. If instead, they try to circle outside his lead foot without giving ground — or when they are already trapped against the cage — McGregor excels at pivoting and throwing the left across himself as they move away. It’s unusual shot selection for a cage cutter, but one that ended Chad Mendes and Diego Brandao. If they circle past successfully, that’s when he throws the spinning strikes, which include hook kicks and back kicks that look so telegenic, but also persuade opponents to soon realize their choices are not wise. McGregor will then simply move laterally to keep foes from getting to open space, and next time, they will be forced to give ground again. Of course, they can also come right at McGregor, but that’s how Jose Aldo lost his belt in 13 seconds.

MMA: UFC 194-Aldo vs McGregor
The king is dead. Long live the king.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

McGregor’s kicks also play a key role in setting his preferred distance and softening up opponents for his hands. He likes to throw them karate-style, with no step or wind up, which nominally takes away some of the power, but adds to the accuracy. McGregor cycles through about 10 different kicks from range in a southpaw match up, depending on his opponent’s movement, and they each play a key role. To force opponents back, he likes a gliding side-kick to the knee, body or face with his lead foot, and a snapping front kick and oblique kick with his rear foot. If given space and a semi-stationary target, he will mix in a lead hook kick and a jumping switch roundhouse kick, going to the spinning back kicks and elaborate capoeira kicks when his opponents backs are to the cage. He will often start a sequence with a kick and end with punches, such as the jumping roundhouse to same-side left punch he hit Max Holloway with. He enjoys playing with an opponent’s expectations, kicking Diaz in the legs until Diaz started checking, then stepping in with a jab or a left hand instead, then going back to the leg kicks when Diaz expected hands.

McGregor isn’t a defensive master the way Aldo is. His defense is not terrible, but anyone who pushes the insane pace and kind of fight he does is going to get hit. But offensively, he is without equal at Featherweight ... and possibly in the sport. Really elite fighters often struggle to set the right distance to land strikes effectively, which is McGregor’s greatest strength. He excels at finishing hurt opponents, too, turning up the pace and calmly placing accurate power shots on them — on the feet and on the ground — until they go away.

His match up with Alvarez will be fascinating because the Philadelphia-based fighter is one of the best at countering pressure fighters. Indeed, his constant use of feints could put off the Irishman’s timing and his wrestling could neutralize McGregor for long stretches of time. However, Alvarez also has a lot of trust in his own ability to crack; however, he has a habit of getting rocked early, both of which could play into the featherweight champion’s best qualities. Watch in particular for the lead hand counter, his simultaneous inside slip to counter left, that McGregor used against Diaz. It turns into an outside slip, an even safer lead hand counter, in a southpaw match up. Alvarez doesn’t throw his jab much when matched with a southpaw, but he does like that lead hook, and McGregor will either block and throw a simultaneous left hand counter, or step back and then counter inside Eddie’s looping right hand with his straighter left. Alvarez will attempt to use feints and doubling up on his punches to negate these triggers.

Regardless of the outcome, know that this weekend fight fans will witness the most potent offensive Featherweight striker against a very games and dangerous Lightweight kingpin. No fighter in the 145-pound class comes close to the Irishman’s effectiveness, pace and power. No one walks through Aldo ... and McGregor shut his lights out in 13 seconds. No one has ever beaten Diaz in UFC without using takedowns. McGregor adapted to his first major loss and morphed into a stylistic nightmare to out-strike the lanky Southpaw. No one has held two UFC belts at one time. Conor McGregor has the tools — and supreme confidence — to be the first on Saturday night.