Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight kingpin, Conor McGregor, will make a return trip to Welterweight for a chance at revenge opposite lanky bruiser, Nate Diaz, this Saturday (Aug. 20, 2016) at UFC 202 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s safe to say this wasn’t the plan.
When McGregor accepted bout with Diaz on short-notice back in March, it seemed like something of a step down. After all, Rafael dos Anjos — McGregor’s original dance partner — had beaten Diaz from pillar-to-post, and the younger Diaz brother seemed a bit pudgy and out of shape.
Nonetheless, McGregor wound up battered and finished in less than two rounds.
With a full camp revolving around Diaz behind him, McGregor intends to prove that the last result was a fluke and that he's the better man. We’ll have to wait for Saturday night to learn if there’s any truth to those beliefs, but in the mean time, let’s take a look at the skills McGregor has shown thus far.
McGregor has a deep background in striking martial arts — both boxing and Taekwondo — which helps explain his diverse skill set. While it’s never easy to predict which path he intends to follow, McGregor’s striking can most easily be broken down into the categories of range kicking, counter punching, and all-out offense.
Regardless of whether McGregor is attempting to counter or hunt his foe, kicks are a hugely important aspect to McGregor's offense. 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 or 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 (GIF).
When going to the body, McGregor will also utilize the front snap kick, which is a very exhausting strike. Against an opponent shorter than him (i.e. almost every Featherweight on the roster), it’s a difficult strike to avoid and is particularly damaging.
If McGregor is intending to counter, his kicks force his opponent to make a move. Since few men at Featherweight have McGregor’s size or diversity of kicks, they cannot keep up with him at that distance. Since the pressure is now on to close the distance, his counter boxing game is suddenly on in full effect.
Additionally, McGregor's kicks are very useful when walking his foe down and cutting off the cage. If his opponent tries to escape into McGregor's power side, the left kick or cross awaits him. Should his opponent try to circle in the opposite direction, McGregor can instead meet him with a hard spinning back kick.
Either way, it guarantees his opponent eats a hard shot, and those add up quickly.
McGregor’s counter punching style is generally pretty simple, but he does it masterfully. In order to land his brutal counter left hand, McGregor baits his opponent into attacking due to his kicks and taunts then capitalizes beautifully (GIF).
It sounds simple largely because it is. However, McGregor does do a couple things very well that allows it to look so easy. First and foremost, he does understand distance very well. McGregor knows when his opponent can land with punches, and when a short hop backwards will leave him short.
Secondly, McGregor stays in position to punch at all times. Whether he’s moving backwards or slipping, McGregor’s weight remains centered and he’s able to fire his left hand hard given any opportunity (GIF).
Regarding McGregor's boxing, he's all about the left hand either way. If he's on the offensive, McGregor is usually hand fighting with his lead hand or tossing out the occasional right hook, simply trying to get the right angle to cleanly connect with his cross (GIF).
McGregor has also shown some variety on the counter. Notably, his used the uppercut expertly opposite the shorter man in Marcus Brimage, getting his foe to duck into the strike multiple times (GIF).
It’s all about the left hand when McGregor is looking to counter, and that’s true when he’s pressing the fight as well. McGregor will throw his right, but it’s primarily to move his opponent’s hands around and set up the left.
McGregor may have lost the first fight with Diaz, but his left hand was pretty damn sharp nonetheless. McGregor has always done a nice job of utilizing the cross or overhand depending on how his opponent is blocking, but he was more varied than ever opposite the Stockton-native.
For example, McGregor repeatedly used the uppercut on his taller foe, catching Diaz ducking as he rolled off his left hand (GIF). Additionally, McGregor did a nice job of nailing Diaz in the body a couple times, as Diaz was used to the punches flying towards his jaw.
Despite all of his success, the Diaz fight did show some of the flaws in McGregor’s game. Namely, he does rely on his size quite a bit. Since he’s usually the bigger man, McGregor gets away without using his right hand all that much. Even when closing the distance on a tall fighter like Diaz, McGregor was still leaping in with lefts. That’s an exhausting way to fight, and it tired McGregor pretty quickly.
It’s taken quite a few fights, but it’s clear now where McGregor’s wrestling abilities stand. He’s not the most skilled wrestler around, but his combination of size, athleticism, and distance management make him a difficult fighter to drag to the mat.
Well, that’s the case when fighting Featherweights at least.
Offensively, McGregor has found success with the reactive double leg, which he can always utilize as an alternative to the counter left. Like his counter punches, McGregor's offensive takedowns are aided by the fact that he stays in his stance and controls range quite well.
In addition, McGregor did finish a couple of nice single-leg takedowns on Max Holloway. Though Holloway had not yet hit his stride, that's still an impressive enough accomplishment that other grapplers failed to pull off.
Defensively, McGregor has been solid thus far. He's got a powerful sprawl and does a nice job maintaining distance on his feet. Plus, his athleticism is a huge benefit, as that really does aid him in scrambles.
Still, fighters like Chad Mendes and Nate Diaz did successfully take him down. Mendes had little trouble finishing the shot, though McGregor did nice work with his scrambles back to the feet. On the other hand, Diaz only really tried for a single shot, which he finished rather easily.
Though all three of his losses have come via submission, McGregor is a brown belt and has shown some real skill on the mat. It’s not likely to become his main strategy any time soon, but McGregor can definitely grapple.
The best part of McGregor's grappling that he’s shown 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 knee slide into mount.
Another guard passing technique in McGregor's guard passing arsenal in the smash pass, which he utilized well against Max Holloway. 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 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 defended his foe’s leg lock attempts well, escaping the holds and punishing his opponent for the attempt.
McGregor’s last bout showed a couple of interesting things. For one, he immediately swept Diaz when put on his back. Diaz didn’t really try to defend the sweep, but it was still nice to see McGregor work from his back, something he failed to do opposite Mendes.
On the other hand, McGregor’s submission loss was due to cardio and boxing more than anything else. When a Diaz is swarming on a wounded foe, there’s really no answer, and McGregor’s takedown attempt essentially meant that he would be choked rather than knocked out.
McGregor may still be the Featherweight champion, but his aura of invincibility has been shattered. That’s particularly true if McGregor comes up short once again, as then he would have no choice but to return to Featherweight and defend his strap. Meanwhile, a victory gives McGregor and his followers a chance to yell "FLUKE!" regarding the first loss, allowing the Irishman to continue his conquest of 155 or 170 pounds if he so chooses.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.