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UFC 229 breakdown: How Conor McGregor dominates his opponents

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Yesterday, we looked at the keys to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s most dominant victories. With pressure, progressive takedowns, and crushing pins, Nurmagomedov has declared himself one of the most indefatigable fighters in the sport of MMA. His record is long on one-sided beat-downs, while competitive fights are a relative rarity. The same is true of Conor McGregor, and this is what makes the main event of UFC 229 so utterly compelling.

Before McGregor and Nurmagomedov take to the cage on October 6th, let’s take a few minutes to give McGregor’s game the same treatment. As diametrically opposed as their styles may seem, the simple fact is that these two fighters are totally accustomed to having things their way. Who will get his this time remains to be seen, but this is how Conor McGregor makes elite, professional fighters look like sacrificial victims.

Finally, something on which Conor and Khabib can agree! Even more than Nurmagomedov, McGregor’s game is defined by pressure. As such, he is the far better ring general of the two; understanding exactly how to move his feet to keep his 74-inch wingspan between the opponent and the center of the cage.

But Conor is no ordinary pressure fighter – in more ways than one. To paraphrase my Heavy Hands co-host Phil Mackenzie, McGregor may in fact be the fastest starter in all of MMA. Even Nurmagomedov usually takes a minute or two to feel his opponents out before he starts sprinting toward the clinch – but not McGregor. From the very first seconds of the bout, McGregor’s striking arsenal is unbelievably sharp; something not even the greatest featherweight of all time could account for. Of his 18 career knockouts, 13 have occurred in the first round. On those occasions when an opponent is tough enough to stay awake for five minutes, it is still rare that McGregor does not at least score a knockdown in the opening frame.

Against Chad Mendes – whose phenomenal wrestling was likely the only thing that saved him from a catastrophic first round – McGregor showed off his footwork, precision, and firm grasp of striking mechanics.

(Things to highlight in this exchange: the right hook and left body kick he uses to corral Mendes. And the inside angle left hand he drops Mendes with as he thinks he’s moving away from the threat of that very punch.)

1. With seconds left in round 2, McGregor forces Mendes into the fence.

2. Mendes surges forward and McGregor reacts, preparing to pull away, while using his lead hand to get Mendes’ bearings.

3. McGregor pulls away from the incoming right, invoking a little Mayweather, compelling Mendes to bail on the punch.

4. All the same, McGregor counters, lunging forward to land a straight left.

5. Mendes abandons his stance to retreat, but McGregor finds him. A quick jab measures the distance.

6. And another snapping left hand.

7. Mendes’ footwork is a mess, still he drifts along the fence to his left, hoping to move away from the left hand. Conor cuts him off with a right hook.

8. Which leads into an uppercut, straight through the guard.

9. The next hook is more of a shove McGregor often reverts to pushing punches after the first couple. Reacting to it all the same, Mendes moves to his right.

10. So, a hook to meet him if he moves to the left, and a crippling body kick if he goes the other way.

11. And if, trapped and exhausted, he stands right in front of McGregor…

12. …the Irishman can simply put his foot through Mendes’ stomach.

13. When in doubt, move away from the southpaw’s left hand. Mendes tries one more escape, sidestepping to his left.

14. McGregor takes a short step after him. He throws a sharp jab, but more importantly, opens his hips for the follow-up.

15. That is his ‘notorious,’ inside-angle left cross. Mendes takes it right on the point of the chin and goes down.

Though most long-armed strikers in MMA view their reach as a security blanket, Conor McGregor uses it as a threat, first and foremost. This is why he starts throwing power strikes within the first few seconds of most fights, almost never allowing his adversary to draw first blood. By making his reach felt immediately, the Irishman has found that most opponents start to fade rapidly. Pressure is the reason.

If McGregor’s foe stays at long range, he will undoubtedly wander into the path of the straight left. Not only is this punch most effective from far away – the whip-crack snap of McGregor’s power really comes into effect at about 80% extension – but Conor is more than happy to lean well past his own feet to get that perfect cast. This is a risky habit, leaving him vulnerable to all manner of counters, but one that allows him to quickly, repeatedly, and savagely deter such treacherous thoughts. After all, attacking McGregor means moving toward that venomous left hand; it feels safer to simply retreat into the fence – until it doesn’t.

What stands out about McGregor’s pressure is how well he uses it. Lacking sharp combination punches, he nonetheless has a multitude of ways to get his opponent to go only where he wants him to go. Shots like the right hook and left body kick in this sequence are a perfect example – circular blows that threaten and hurt Mendes no matter which way he tries to move, coralling him into the kill-zone. The final left hand, however, is most certainly Conor’s trademark.

Normally, I would call this a straight left from an inside angle. In this instance, Chad Mendes has crossed his feet and stumbled into something resembling a southpaw stance by frame 14, which would actually make this an outside-angle left hand. Fortunately, this isn’t Judo, and we don’t have to quibble about terminology.

In effect, Mendes’ exhausted footwork has only put him in worse position to withstand the final blow. When McGregor delivers it, see how he leans to his right and pivots on the spot to keep Mendes in his sights. When an opponent fights Conor McGregor, sometimes they move away from the left hand, and take a hook, or a spinning kick, or whatever else – and sometimes, they just eat the left hand anyway.

What it means to Nurmagomedov: Plenty of opportunities, all of them potentially catastrophic. Any fighter who studies tape can see the vulnerabilities in McGregor’s style. A grappler, like Khabib, is sure to key in on his particular style of overextended punching, every strike an opening for a takedown.

But, countering McGregor can be a suicidal proposition. First, it means moving toward the left hand, which – since the earliest moments of the bout – has been landing with authority. Second, it means lunging across open space, after McGregor has done everything in his power to establish his own range while taking his opponent’s away. Finally, and most importantly, countering Conor means letting him go first – something he is positively delighted to do. McGregor’s game thrives on initiative. Every strike, every taunt, every feint, and every moment of pressure endured makes it harder and harder to reverse the momentum.

As celebrated as Nurmagomedov is for his brutally attritive style, McGregor wears on people in his own way. Aggressive and precise, he has a way of quickly dismantling even the toughest of opponents. We talk about Conor’s punching power, but most of the time, they’re done well before the last left hand lands.

As explained, Conor McGregor can lead with the best of them – using every inch of his reach to snap back heads and gore abdomens from impossibly long range. This is the fate suffered by those who wait for Conor to attack, and retreat when he does. Choosing to fight back is hardly more appealing, however. The vast gulf of space that opponents have to cross before they can attempt to capitalize on McGregor’s vulnerabilities has already been mentioned. Now imagine a minefield fills that gap. All the while they are trying to close the distance, Conor’s opponents must brave an arsenal of counter strikes – most of them coming from the left hand, and all of them unbelievably accurate and well-timed. It hardly needs to be mentioned by name, but nothing demonstrates the precision of Conor’s counter punching like his 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo.

For McGregor, pressure and counter punching work hand in hand to limit his enemy’s options, and punish his mistakes. As an example, here is one of the three knockdowns McGregor scored against then-champion Eddie Alvarez.

1. Feinting and posturing, McGregor pushes Alvarez backward an inch at a time.

2. As before, the moment Alvarez starts to move, McGregor double-checks distance.

3. Eddie’s lead is a predictable right hand. As he lunges in, McGregor slips the punch, coiling himself for a counter.

4. As this counter begins to unwind, McGregor keeps his eyes on Alvarez, who is still falling into the pocket behind his right hand.

5. Conor drops a short left directly on Eddie’s jaw, turning everything from his feet to his shoulders into the strike. Alvarez collides with the counter, still off balance.

6. As a stunned Alvarez instinctively fights back, McGregor looks to regain space. A stunted right hook becomes a frame, and he steps back with his right foot.

7. Then, adjusting the left foot to match, McGregor brings the left hand along with it. This one spins Alvarez’s head like a top, and drops him.

There are a couple of strategic problems with counter punching in general. For one, to counter an opponent you sort of have to wait on him to go first. This brings on a whole host of issues: if you have to wait, why can’t the other guy just wait longer? And if he gets to use all of that waiting time to calculate his attack, who’s to say he won’t manage to surprise you when he finally gathers the nerve to try for it? This latter point is an especially big problem in MMA, where an offensive move could be anything from a flying knee, to a spinning elbow, to an Imanari roll. Accounting for all of that potential variety is no easy task.

The pressure we talked about before is the solution to all of this confusion. As with the sweeping right-left strikes he used to corral Chad Mendes, the rest of McGregor’s game is also defined by his ability to limit his opponents’ options.

Picture yourself in the cage with Conor: he stands right in front of you. When you step back, he steps forward – every time – moving just enough to maintain the precise distance between you and him. Not coincidentally, said distance is about equivalent to the length of one lanky left arm. If you wait too long – anything more than a few seconds, even – he will simply touch you with that strike, or another. You start to flinch, and sweat. And soon you realize that your every move is somehow being manipulated by McGregor. You have no initiative of your own.

To paraphrase the legendary Mike Goldberg: at a certain point, everything you do starts to feel like a counter. Thanks to the unceasing pressure, you have no choice but to dance to McGregor’s tune.

McGregor, on the other hand, has time and space aplenty. In this sequence, readers can practically see him sighing at the touch of a gentle breeze coming off the open center of the cage. He might as well check his watch as his opponent gathers their will to throw, so thoroughly does he command the flow of the fight from that vantage. Finally, their ability to calculate distance now mutilated by constant, stinging attacks, they take a chance and lunge in with an attack. When they are about halfway to the target, McGregor glances up from whatever he has started to read, casually puts away his glasses, straightens his collar – and delivers the perfect counter left hand. Every time.

Frame 4 has got to be my favorite part of the sequence shown here. Despite the sudden outburst of aggression from Eddie Alvarez, McGregor’s eyes never leave the target. He stares at the point of Eddie’s chin even as he comes hurtling into the pocket, and meets it with a lovely, short punch just before the opportunity evaporates. McGregor likes to brag about his precision and timing, but when looking at a sequence like this, it’s hard to hold it against him. Thanks to the pressure he puts on his opponents, Conor can deliver counters like this with nonchalance – because no matter what the other guy throws at him, it is usually hesitant, halfhearted, and just slightly too far away to worry about.

What it means to Nurmagomedov: Bad. Very bad. Nurmagomedov can be surprisingly effective on the feet, but he is nobody’s idea of a kickboxing technician. What’s more, despite his wrestling prowess, he tends to fight out of a stiff, upright stance, and flinches away from incoming strikes. In these moments, Khabib is nothing if not an open target for a long left hand. That this uncertainty on the back foot will be matched by the threat of McGregor’s counters means a deadly conundrum for Khabib. He will have to choose between timing an incoming punch – any one of which could knock him out in an instant – or closing the gap on his own terms. Meanwhile, knowing that McGregor will be adjusting distance and angle the moment he starts to move, and certain that at any point in the crossing, that left hand could end it all.

If Nurmagomedov wants to lead, he will have to make liberal use of feints, and attack in layers that force McGregor to make split-second decisions more complicated than ‘throw the left hand, or don’t.’ A single feint may simply encourage McGregor to back up. A single strike after that might only invite him to counter. The takedown that comes next has a chance of working, though – so long as the most accurate puncher in MMA doesn’t get there first.

In MMA, knockouts tend to come in two parts. There are the standing strikes that send a soon-to-be-vanquished fighter to the canvas, and then there are the blows on the ground which seal the deal. Conor McGregor, like the great Anderson Silva before him, should be celebrated as much for his finishing skills on the ground as he is for the brilliant counters which lead him there.

As his number of first-round knockouts attests, McGregor is very good at finishing off his hurt opponents. Here, he puts the finishing touches on Dennis Siver in the second round – showing off the vaunted precision that accompanies him no matter where the fight leads, and the unheralded grappling skills that prevent all hope of escape.

1. After dropping Siver against the fence, McGregor sidles up to finish him.

2. First, he grips Siver’s ankle with his right hand, passing it across his body while winding up to throw his left.

3. Staying on his feet, Conor delivers the punch straight from high above Siver, ensuring both accuracy and power.

4. Siver flails to save himself, and McGregor starts to grapple. Dropping to one knee, he pushes Siver’s leg aside, again.

5. Rolling him onto one hip and sliding a knee between his legs, McGregor puts himself into a dummy mount.

6. And lays down on top of Siver to secure the position.

7. Wanting to get back to striking quickly, Conor posts his hand on the floor and starts to switch his feet…

8. …Until he’s mirrored his prior position, still pinning Siver’s hips to the floor, but now able to sprawl into mount.

9. Before that, though, McGregor tightens the position. Pinching his knees, he straightens out Siver’s right leg, preventing Siver from getting a knee between them.

10. Now the sprawl into full mount.

11. And McGregor postures up to land a series of vicious elbows, forcing the referee to step in.

When most mixed martial artists knock an opponent down, they go absolutely bananas. No, not bananas – gorillas are sort of McGregor’s thing, aren’t they? Instead, let’s say that they tend to react like a shark would to the scent of blood in the water. A feeding frenzy takes over, and the fighter starts throwing anything and everything – often including illegal strikes – in a desperate effort to end things before the other guy recovers.

There is definitely something to this approach. It has worked for an awfully long time, after all. Conor McGregor’s style of finishing, however, is something a little more unnerving and impressive to behold. As on the feet, precision and pressure are the primary concerns. One perfect punch that wastes no energy is eminently preferable to a wild flurry that drains the gas tank and hopefully doesn’t just wake the dazed fighter up. Like Nurmagomedov, McGregor likes to deliver his ground strikes from a standing position, from which he can line up his target and deliver spearing blows from above.

What really emphasizes the cool relaxation with which McGregor finishes his victims, however, is the commitment with which he grapples en route to the TKO. When it becomes clear that Siver, while hurt, is still able to cause problems and worm around, McGregor does not satisfy himself with a mere chance of finishing the fight. Instead, he calmly ceases his striking, and proceeds to grapple. He really commits to the phase-shift, transitioning smoothly from striking to passing guard. Just as smoothly, he transitions back. As soon as he has achieved mount (or some other suitably controlling position), he postures up – the next best thing to standing – and goes back to work with the strikes. Now free to rain them down, one after the other, until it’s over. Again, contrast that with the wild flurrying you see in most fights, and how often hurt fighters manage to escape, as a result.

McGregor is fond of saying that precision beats power, and timing beats speed. I think we can also conclude that, with the help of some surprisingly solid ground control, these things also make it very difficult to survive a knockdown.

What it means to Nurmagomedov: Just like the battle of wills that shall decide who gets to pressure and who has to react, the moments following a potential McGregor knockdown will be among the most exciting at UFC 229. That should go without saying, but a glimpse or two here and there has revealed that Nurmagomedov is no slouch off of his back. And after 26 fights without a single loss, we can be certain that the Dagestani is also tough as teak. Tougher, maybe.

Thus, if Khabib can survive a knockdown, he may yet have the opportunity to drag McGregor into his world. McGregor has confidence in his grappling and ground-and-pound. And for good reason. But it was not until his rematch with Nate Diaz that he had to think twice about following a wounded foe to the ground – and that only after Diaz submitted him in their first contest. Nurmagomedov’s grappling prowess may be enough to neutralize McGregor’s killer instinct in much the same way. Then again, what happens if Khabib is hurt, and Conor fearlessly, surgically settles into position and goes to work?

Both Nurmagomedov and McGregor are so shockingly dominant that it is difficult to imagine either one beating the other. Khabib’s striking cannot possibly be good enough to compete with Conor’s, can it? And yet Conor’s ground game, along with the stamina he will need to fuel it, doesn’t seem capable of matching that of Khabib.

That’s the thing about prizefighting, though. Someone has to lose.

For more on Conor vs Khabib and the rest of UFC 229, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. And tune into the same Youtube channel this Saturday for live analysis of the main card.


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