More Than A Left Hand: The Weapons Of Conor McGregor
This weekend brings us the biggest event in quite some time in the Ultimate Fighting Championship- the return to the Octagon of Conor McGregor. At UFC 229, he challenges for the Lightweight Championship against a significant challenge, the undefeated Russian who claimed the vacated 155lb title in April, Khabib Nurmagomedov. Many MMA pundits and fans see Khabib as a monster, and are picking him to run through McGregor.
While Khabib absolutely has the capability and skill set to beat Conor, I do not envision it being as easy as some of McGregor's detractors see it, if indeed it happens at all. Even a large portion of Conor's fans see the fight playing out as "if he doesn't land that big left hand early, Khabib's going to give him a rough night". In this article, I'm going to examine the other weapons/attributes that Conor McGregor possesses, and list them as evidence that, in my opinion, Conor McGregor is going to win back the title that he never lost inside the cage.
In looking at ways to beat a fighter such as Khabib, who has been such a dominant force in his UFC fights, it stands to reason that we would look at how Conor has dealt with adversity in the Octagon. His first setback came to Nate Diaz at UFC 196. His gas tank ran out dealing with the larger man, his punches lacked the usual KO power that saw him tear through the featherweight division, and he found himself lost on the ground and succumbed to a submission, losing by rear naked choke in the second round. It's worth noting that the fight took place on around 10 days notice, and Conor jumped up two weight classes to accommodate an out-of-camp Diaz.
But rather than simply point to those factors and move on, Conor isolated himself from the world, going to Iceland to train extensively. He reportedly spent thousands on a fight camp, training with the best, and famously shunned the media obligations he was so well known for using to promote his fights. The result? A far more prepared and disciplined McGregor, who was able to last 5 rounds and drop the larger Nate Diaz en route to a decision. Conor is no fool. He understands that Khabib poses similar problems to Nate; although not as large, he is naturally heavier (especially after tiramisu) and has an excellent, imposing ground game. A quick look back through McGregor's Instagram shows that he has returned to MMA training and putting in intense work long before the UFC 229 main event was announced. He will have studied tape and picked up on the tendencies and weaknesses of Nurmagomedov, and would have worked with his coaches and training partners to find methods of counteracting his strengths.
Critics of McGregor may take issue with this one. On the surface, you could see why. All three of his MMA losses came via submission. He was saved by the referee in the Mayweather boxing fight. But those things can be explained for reasons other than lacking heart or fortitude- inexperience, lack of technique, facing the best boxer ever in his debut pro boxing fight (no big deal).
I would contend that Conor has plenty of heart, and this was exhibited in fine fashion in his second UFC fight, in Boston vs. current 145 kingpin, Max Holloway. Early in the fight, McGregor blew out his ACL in a freak accident during a transition. Rather than letting the injury deter him, Conor quickly switched his strategy to a more ground-based approach, controlling Holloway for three rounds to get the unanimous decision victory. That's showing heart and overcoming adversity.
"I just don't give a fook!" That sums up Conor McGregor in a nutshell. He's still a Dublin boy at heart, despite the Ric Flair-esque persona he puts out to the media. He has the confidence to take on anything, and it allows him to be successful more often than not. It's a true fighter's mentality. This was best exhibited at UFC 189. McGregor was meant to face Jose Aldo, Aldo got injured in the final hour, in steps Chad Mendes. Conor accepts without hesitation. It was a big risk. Completely different opponent and style, many fighters would say no to a last minute proposition like that (and have. Hi, Jon Jones). McGregor did similar with the first Nate Diaz fight. Because the McGregor-Diaz rivalry became so iconic, it's easy to forget that the originally scheduled fight was McGregor vs. Rafael dos Anjos for the lightweight title. It's that attitude that endeared him to fans (and Dana White), but it's also part of what makes him dangerous, that unshakable belief in himself.
UFC boss Dana White recently said that Conor McGregor was "bettter at mental warfare than Ali". Now, it's sacrilege in some fight fans minds to compare anyone to Muhammad Ali, but I believe in this case, specifically referring to how Conor gets inside the minds of his opponents, the comparison is apt. Probably McGregor's biggest win in the UFC was over Jose Aldo. Aldo was defeated in 13 seconds, breaking an undefeated streak that spanned a decade. And technically, yeah, it was the big left hand that got the job done, but Aldo did not look his usual self mentally as that fight began. Head down, showing little confidence... I hate to say a pro fighter looked scared, but perhaps apprehensive would be a better word. I attribute that to the world tour McGregor and Aldo did. Conor toyed with Jose Aldo for weeks, taunting him, making jokes, stealing his belt, and telling him in Portuguese, "I'm going to kill you." And while a lot of it was undoubtedly showmanship, the intensity and fire he displayed when staring down Aldo looked all too real. Jose Aldo looked beat before the fight with McGregor even started.
Khabib is typically a very stoic individual. But in the first press conference he did with McGregor, the emotion started to show more and more as time went on. McGregor went for more and more personal attacks, referencing Khabib's father, his heritage, Vladmir Putin, anything that he felt could get a rise out of the proud Russian. Come fight time, emotions can play a factor and cause fighters to deviate from their gameplan. This could cause Khabib to make mistakes and create openings for Conor.
This is a big one. The saying goes, "fools rush in". We've seen people try to engage too quickly many times in MMA fights, without properly gauging distance and making reads on the timing of their opponents. It usually ends in them getting sparked out pretty quickly (sorry, Jose Aldo). Khabib employs a very aggressive style, and I expect Conor to show patience and use that against him.
Looking back at the Chad Mendes fight. The formula for Mendes was always going to be to get the takedown against the talented striker McGregor. In the first round, Mendes achieved just that. Rather than panicking, McGregor kept his defence tight until there was an opportunity to escape and work his own game on the feet.
In the first Nate Diaz fight, Conor showed a lack of patience. He put big power into every punch he threw, and was spamming spinning wheel kicks to the head of Diaz like it was a video game. Obviously, putting all your power into every shot takes its toll, and Conor was gassed a little while into round 2 of a 5 round fight. However, McGregor learnt from his mistakes in the second Diaz fight. His strategy involved using leg kicks to gradually weaken and slow down Diaz. He also picked his punches which resulted in multiple knockdowns.
Conor will not rush in on Khabib. Rushing in leaves him open to grappling opportunities for the lightweight champ. A patient McGregor will take his time, exhibit the counter-striking which is one of his greatest strengths, and also be prepared to defend the takedown.
Based on what we have seen previously from Conor McGregor in the Octagon, the above attributes are why I feel that he will defeat Khabib Nurmagomedov in Las Vegas this weekend at UFC 229. Very interested to see how the two best lightweights in the world do battle! Khabib is no easy task, and Conor winning is absolutely not a foregone conclusion. However, I think the Irishman hands the Russian his very first loss in MMA. My prediction... #AndNew.
Until next time, take care,