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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 229’s Conor McGregor

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Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight and Lightweight champ, Conor McGregor, will battle reigning 155-pound kingpin, Khabib Nurmagomedv, this Saturday (Oct. 6, 2018) at UFC 229 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

It’s been nearly two years since McGregor last stepped into the cage. All the same, McGregor has been busy boxing a legend, starting a whiskey company, and avoiding felony charges in New York City. Whatever your opinion of the controversial Irish star, it’s hard to argue that any of that is more interesting than his upcoming bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov. It’s the biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) fight of the year — perhaps of all time? — and it’s hard to imagine anything less than a great fight.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

It’s easy to forget among all the hype and nonsense that goes along with any McGregor fight, but the man is among the sport’s best strikers. With a background in both Taekwondo and boxing, McGregor is very adaptable and quite dangerous from just about any range.

Otherworldly calmness and timing help as well.

At times, McGregor looks to jam his foe’s offense and counter. In the last couple years, it’s been more common for the Irishman to walk down his foe and throw dozens of strikes his way. 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.

One of 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).

In the second Diaz bout, McGregor’s left low kick can be credited as the biggest factor in his victory. Diaz has never been one for checking kicks, and McGregor took advantage immediately, destroying his leg early (GIF). Diaz was still able to storm back late, but McGregor had damaged him enough that Diaz was unable to overwhelm him.

A major weapon in McGregor’s arsenal is the front snap kick. Particularly useful against wrestlers, the front snap kick allows McGregor to do damage at range while still being difficult to take down. Notably, McGregor did a lot of damage to the far shorter Chad Mendes, making it more difficult for the wrestler to close distance and sapping his energy too.

If McGregor is intending to counter, his kicks force his opponent to make a move. Very few men can match McGregor’s power or diversity of kicks, so 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 working in full effect.

Alternatively, 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.

McGregor leaves his opponent without a safe option.

McGregor’s counter punching style is generally pretty simple, but he does it masterfully. To land his brutal counter left hand, McGregor baits his opponent into attacking because of his kicks, taunts, and low hand position then capitalizes beautifully.

McGregor’s counter left is brilliant. First and foremost, he understands 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).

Regardless of what happens in the future, McGregor’s victory over Alvarez will always stand out as a masterclass performance. From the beginning, it was brilliance from the Irishman, who dug into Alvarez’s midsection with snap kicks and smacked his nose with the jab. However, McGregor’s counter left has never looked better: He landed it to interrupt the Alvarez’s darting right hand, after slipping punches, and before Alvarez could even truly begin his attack (GIF).

Everything great about McGregor’s offense was on display that night.

Regarding McGregor’s boxing, his main focus is on the left hand. 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). To his credit, McGregor’s right hand was more active than ever opposite Diaz in the second fight. He threw far more jabs than normal, and he often used the right hook to dig to the body. Of course, extra jabs makes sense opposite a fellow Southpaw, but McGregor continued that trend opposite Eddie Alvarez, controlling the lead hand before sniping him with sharp jabs.

On the whole, McGregor’s left hand was incredibly accurate in both Diaz fights. For example, McGregor repeatedly used the uppercut on his taller foe, catching Diaz ducking as he rolled off his left hand (GIF). In addition, McGregor did a nice job of nailing Diaz in the body a couple times with left hooks, as Diaz was busy guarding his jaw.

Wrestling

McGregor’s wrestling is no longer the question mark it once was. Thanks to his bouts with Chad Mendes and Nate Diaz, McGregor’s wrestling has proven to be a solid attribute, but it also cannot compare to his striking talents.

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 several 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.

McGregor’s takedown defense is a far more important factor. He’s not a technical marvel, but McGregor is nonetheless a difficult man to take down. His biggest advantage is his distance control and ability to remain balanced, which help him avoid giving up easy takedowns.

Beyond that, McGregor is able to get out of bad positions thanks to his athleticism. He’s a very strong man with a powerful sprawl, and he’s often able to stall his opponent long enough to move back into the clinch. From there, he’s difficult to take down.

All that said, both Chad Mendes and Nate Diaz found success when looking for the takedown. Mendes was able to finish each time he really committed to his shots, though he is admittedly one of the organizations most explosive wrestlers.

On the other hand, Diaz’s inability to finish the double leg against the fence was astounding. He was in perfect position to finish the shot multiple times — which is a problem on McGregor’s part — but McGregor’s strength and Diaz’s poor wrestling technique allowed him to stay standing.

Later, when Diaz switched to a clinch trip, he found easier success.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Though all three of his losses have come via submission, McGregor is a brown belt and has shown some real skill on the mat. Grappling will always be an accessory skill for the striker, but he’s still damn good.

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 jiu-jitsu 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.

In truth, McGregor’s only recent submission loss came more due to fatigue and boxing defense than any jiu-jitsu flaw.

Conclusion

Is McGregor the best Lightweight in the world? That’s a difficult question, and the best answer is that McGregor hasn’t proven it yet. His argument has deteriorated over the last couple years because of inactivity, but returning to hand Nurmagomedov his first career loss would certainly make a compelling argument.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional 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.