The biggest name in mixed martial arts (MMA), Conor McGregor, will return to action opposite long-time Lightweight contender, Dustin Poirier, this Saturday (Jan. 23, 2021) at UFC 257 on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
It is somewhat bizarre to remember that McGregor has only actually competed twice in the UFC Lightweight division. He’s certainly fought other Lightweights like Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone, but officially, this will be the Irishman’s first attempt to actually earn a title shot by fighting at 155 pounds. Fortunately, this match up can more than make up for the relative lack of Lightweight experience. Defeating Poirier in 2021 would be a huge accomplishment, one that immediately legitimizes McGregor as one of the absolute best Lightweights on the planet — not even the angriest McGregor hater could deny his title shot.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
McGregor is perhaps the best example of the strength of the boxing-Karate hybrid style. McGregor stands in a wide stance, bouncing in-and-out like a Karate athlete, which helps with his counter punches and distance. However, McGregor is also very sharp from the pocket, which means there are no real safe spaces when standing opposite the Irishman.
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. 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 toward 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. Against Cerrone last time out, a fast left head kick to start the fight also pretty much ended it.
In the second Diaz bout, McGregor’s left low kick can be credited as the biggest factor in his victory. Even with Diaz’s generally improved low kick defense, McGregor was able to severely hamper his foe’s lead leg (GIF). Once Diaz was over-reacting to the low kick, McGregor would step forward and drop huge punches.
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. It’s all in distance management, as McGregor understands precisely where he must stand in order to prove unreachable with just a slight hop backwards. In addition, 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).
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. However, he showed some excellent setups in the second Diaz fight, really using his lead side to set up the power shots. 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 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.
Despite a solid amount of high-level experience, it’s still somewhat difficult to know exactly how good McGregor’s wrestling is. Sure, he got out-wrestled by Nurmagomedov and Mendes, but those are two insanely decorated wrestlers. Otherwise, McGregor’s wrestling has held up quite well.
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 a young Max Holloway. Though Holloway had not yet hit his stride, that’s still an impressive enough accomplishment that other grapplers failed to pull off at the time.
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.
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 better success.
Finally, McGregor generally did an admirable job of fighting off Nurmagomedov’s takedowns — it’s just that Khabib is pretty good at the whole wrestling thing. The first wrestling exchange was likely the most interesting of the fight, so let’s break it down a bit.
Nurmagomedov shot for an outside single, and McGregor reacted well by sprawling and stuffing the head to the mat, looking to break his foe’s posture. Against most foes, that alone would have defended the shot. However, Nurmagomedov looked to sit through and elevate his foe, and McGregor did make it a bit easier to moving too much of his weight forward in an attempt to grab Nurmagomedov’s ankle.
From there, Nurmagomedov switched off to a high-crotch single from his knees. From here, McGregor really defended wonderfully. First, he grabbed a tight waist to stall movement. Then, he switched his positioning, looking to cut the corner by jamming Nurmagomedov’s head into the mat and hooking around the quad. McGregor’s defense was so effective, in fact, that he briefly put Nurmagomedov on his butt.
Unfortunately for the Irishman, Nurmagomedov didn’t capture the belt as an undefeated champion by giving up easily. He continued to drive forward, building back up to his feet. When the dump proved unavailable thanks to McGregor’s strong defense, Nurmagomedov was able to catch the second leg and instead finish a double leg takedown.
Great work from McGregor but ... it’s Khabib.
Though all four 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 pretty 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 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 Diego 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 losses came more because of fatigue than any jiu-jitsu flaw.
If McGregor actually stuck to his retirement from last year, he’d still go down as one of the all-time great MMA strikers. “Notorious” has another chance to prove his remarkable ability here, and doing so undoubtedly would set him up for a opportunity to become champion once more.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 257 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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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.