Coming in to 2016, Conor McGregor could not have been any bigger. He had just knocked out his arch nemesis and pound for pound kingpin of the featherweight division, José Aldo, in 13 seconds flat. Just like he said he would. For his next trick, McGregor would go up to 155 to take on the wrecking machine that is currently terrorizing the division, Rafael Dos Anjos. He predicted that he would not only beat Dos Anjos, but embarrass him. When Dos Anjos pulled out with a broken foot, many people didn’t even give a second thought to McGregor’s new opponent, Stockton bad boy Nate Diaz. From the get go this fight was treated as a showcase fight, an introduction to the idea that McGregor could and would run through anyone and everyone he was placed in front of, irregardless of such silly mortal restrictions like “weight classes”.
Needless to say, Diaz had other plans, and instead of a showcasing of McGregor’s infamous power and pin point accuracy, we got to see that, surprise surprise, McGregor is a human, just like all of us, and that MMA is not a sport that is suited to maintaining larger than life stories. There are so many ways to lose in this sport that you will always find someone out there who can prove to be the kryptonite to any potential superman.
The fact that these men have fought before, and so recently, gives me an unusually easy job when it comes to breaking down their upcoming fight, scheduled for UFC 202. While many see their first fight as the biggest upset of the since Anderson Silva had his record setting title reign ended by Chris Weidman, I find that looking back on this fight it is surprising that Diaz was as big of an underdog as he was, (closed at about 3-1).
Stylistically McGregor was always going to have a problem with a long southpaw boxer who also happens to be a legitimate Brazilian jujitsu black belt like Diaz, and now that they are a few months removed from their first fight that has become clearer to most, but there are still some people out there who think McGregor can walk right through Diaz in this rematch. That’s not likely to be the case, but it is not to say that Diaz is guaranteed a victory either. First we shall look at McGregor’s style itself, how the stylistic matchup between Diaz and McGregor caused the first fight played out, and then look at how things need to change in order for McGregor to keep history from repeating itself.
The story of the first fight was a story of range. McGregor is and always has been a man who uses his own physical gifts to maximum effect, and his distance management has always been a crucial part of his game. As a southpaw who was brought up in boxing, it is not surprising that McGregor is constantly looking to land his left straight down the centre line. This should come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t think many people fully recognize exactly how much McGregor leans on his excellent left straight. It is the centrepiece of his strategy, literally everything else in his fighting style is predicated around creating situations for him to land his left hand, which is exactly what a fighter should do to evolve their game at the highest level: to find as many ways as possible of creating opportunities to use the things they are good at. And McGregor has one of if not the best left straight in the game. The advantage of the left straight from the southpaw stance (with the right leg in front) over other punches is that against an orthodox opponent (with the left leg in front) the left straight takes the same line of entry as a jab, but has the benefit of being a power punch off the rear hand. It is also beneficial that when you step off the center line when throwing the left straight, you duck to your right, away from your opponents right hand, placing yourself in a rare position that allows you to throw a powerful blow and take yourself away from danger at the same time. This leads to many southpaws disregarding their jabs, as in an orthodox southpaw engagement the lead hands are directly in front of each other and clash often. They instead use their right hand to pull and slap at their opponents lead hand, taking away the jab that is the building block for any well trained orthodox striker and creating openings for the left straight. McGregor does this well, often using his right hand as a fake to draw a reaction that allows him to drop the right hand on his opponents exposed chin.
There are some out there who would disparage McGregor for his seemingly ‘weak’ kicking technique, as opposed to the harder hitting more common Thai style roundkicks that are predominant in MMA. While he can and does roundkick, he normally keeps his hips from turning over, bringing his leg back behind him immediately and returning to his stance as quickly as possible instead of swinging his full weight into his kicks. However what people miss is that McGregor’s kicking game should not be taken at face value, you must see how it complements his entire strategy to appreciate why he uses a lighter style of kicking than say, a José Aldo or a Rafael Dos Anjos. This is because the lighter style kicks allow McGregor to more quickly regain his stance and be in a position to punch, which is what he is always looking to do.
The crazy spinning kicks McGregor throws constantly? These are often used as a bait, thrown without the intention of landing a hurting blow (though if it does, all the better) but instead serves to create a sense of urgency in his opponents to close the distance. You will often see a McGregor opponent come out cautious and careful in the first, only to dodge a naked wheel kick or eat a spinning back kick, and all of a sudden they are rushing in with punches, either because they no longer comfortable staying at kicking range or because they think that the spin will present an opening for them to catch McGregor out of position, which runs them right on to McGregor’s waiting left hand.
McGregor’s short snap kicks to the body and side kicks to the body and legs? These serve to maintain distance and force his opponent to close the distance: if they don’t, they just stay on the end of McGregor’s kicks all night, and while they may not be knockout strikes, they are definitely enough to wind an opponent, and they serve the purpose of putting McGregor up on the scorecards until his opponent is forced to adjust to the kicks or lose the decision.
While McGregor always talks about his “phd in human movement”, his footwork is pretty simplistic, just done to a high level. It is again centered around his left straight, either as a lead or a counter. What is exceptional about McGregor is his balance, the fact that he is almost always in a position to throw with power. It may seem crazy to say it, but the majority of fighters at even the highest level of combat sports have to switch between either ‘active’ footwork or ‘static’ footwork.
Active footwork is the act of bringing you closer to or further away from your opponent, the art of moving your feet to put you in an advantageous position whether that be by turning your opponent and forcing him to face you, escaping capture against the cage, or marching your opponent to the cage where they cannot retreat.
Static footwork is the art of generating power by transferring weight from one foot to the other, of bracing the body to absorb punishment without folding, the art of hitting which has and always will start with the feet.
Dominick Cruz is a fantastic example of active footwork, he keeps his opponent turning and is never in a position to be easily hit while always dictating when and where an exchange will happen, yet he is often knocked down when he gets caught out of his stance and he rarely knocks people out because he is so rarely in a static position to transfer his weight from one foot to the other.
Roy Nelson on the other hand is a master at transferring his weight which has led him to some of the most ridiculous one punch knockouts in the heavyweight division , and he can take a punch like few other men in human history, but because he is so static in his footwork, he struggles against opponents who refuse to stand in front of him.
McGregor strikes a rare balance between the two in that he can force his opponent to engage him as he can cut the cage off better than most in the sport, but he is always in a position to throw with power. Because of this his feet tend to move in straight lines when engaging or being engaged, he will either move in on his man and cut through him with a left straight or glide just out of reach and look to land the left as a counter. You don’t see him circling to turn his opponent and keep them off balance, cutting angles or breaking the charge by escaping to the side because to do so would take him out of his stance and waste an opportunity to land his left.
What you will notice about these methods McGregor employs is that they all require the prerequisite that McGregor’s range be greater than his opponents. If his opponent is still able to strike back at him from kicking range without presenting him with an opening, McGregor’s kicks become much less effective. Certainly he would be ill advised to exchange his weaker but quicker kicks with an opponent who slams home roundkicks into anything he can reach until it stops working (like Dos Anjos). Similarly if his opponents range is greater than his own, the fact that he moves back on a straight line or even leans back makes him vulnerable to subsequent follow up shots.
Against Nate Diaz, all things conspired against McGregor. Diaz is a longer, taller, heavier man, but more importantly he knows how to use it. As McGregor would look to lean back and land a counter left, he would find himself eating counter right hands from Diaz, the infamous Stockton slap. He also largely abandoned his kicking game, as it became quiet clear early on that Diaz was going to stand right in front of McGregor and box with him, making the need to tempt him on to the left hand irrelevant. The point that this fight became a boxing match is the point where things went wrong for McGregor. While McGregor’s style is the more recognisable as a classic boxing southpaw (left hand heavy punches, right hand mostly looking to check the lead hand of the opponent or hook in combinations) Diaz is also a southpaw, but one who eschews normal southpaw advantages and instead fights like a conventional orthodox fighter, namely one who builds everything off the jab. This is probably because for his main training partner for his entire life is his brother, Nick Diaz, who is also a southpaw.
When two southpaws meet, it is a mirror image of when two orthodox fighters meet, and the same rules apply. The lead hands are no longer clashing and the path for the jab is now wide open again. The reason why good orthodox boxers don’t lead with the right straight all the time is because it is a comparatively slow and high energy movement when matched with the jab, and it has to travel further, making it easier to anticipate.
While McGregor threw left hand after left hand, looking to throw in the occasional uppercut, Diaz began landing jabs as McGregor stepped in, breaking his rhythm and concentration, or looking to catch McGregor with looping straight armed right hooks as he looked to slide/lean away and counter with the left. While the first round certainly saw McGregor do more damage, firing power shots for a full round will drain any man’s stamina, while Diaz is known for his cardio, in large part because he doesn’t put everything in to every shot.
As the fight wore on, McGregor’s shots began to carry less and less starch and Diaz began to thread his own left straight, not as a lead but off the jab in the form of the basic 1-2 that is the bread and butter of any orthodox fighter because the jab so often forces an opponent to pull back their head, leaving the chin exposed for the straight to land unimpeded, where as McGregor continued to hit shoulder, forehead and skull with his shots, not the places you want to aim for in the hope of obtaining a knockout.
The end came as Diaz caught McGregor with the 1-2 as he pulled back, wobbling him, then immediately caught him again with another 1-2, which led to some more punishment before an ill timed takedown saw McGregor reversed, mounted, pounded until he gave up his back, pounded again and then choked out. I will not dwell on the submission aspect or on the perceived weakness in McGregor’s ground game that has people shouting that he’s been ‘exposed’ because, to paraphrase Joe Rogan talking about it on his podcast: if a guy gets knocked down and gets up and he’s on qweer street, staggering all over the place, you don’t say he needs to practice walking more.
McGregor was not in full control of himself when he shot for that takedown, the Fight was lost for McGregor in his own ballpark, on the feet, in boxing range. What did him in in this contest is exactly what has won him all his other fights in the UFC so far, his love of the left straight.
When given a willing participant, he could not help but pull out his go to move at every opportunity that presented itself to him, which while numerous where never the clean shot he needed and often saw him get tagged either on the way in or while leaving the exchange by way of Diaz’s more dexterous lead hand, be it a jab, a right hook or even an open palmed slap. This led to McGregor tiring by the midway point of the second round, while Diaz was only starting to pick up the pace (a tactic which is used very often by him and his brother Nick, who as frequent triathletes are two of the most well conditioned fighters in the sport) and if he intends on winning his rematch with Diaz, it would mean discarding the weapon that he has built his entire career on.
That is not to say that McGregor didn’t have success in the fight. In fact almost everything else he attempted apart from the left straight worked a charm. His right uppercut, a normally unwieldy tool to use against a taller opponent, caught Diaz ducking on a couple of occasions, and McGregor had great success buckling Nate’s heavy front leg with kicks every time he tried. Hell at the end of the first round after being taken down McGregor even did a good job of sweeping the bjj black belt and holding him down for the remainder of the round!
And that really is the big secret to this fight. The path to beating Nate Diaz has been known for a while now. Either you take him down and smother him while you are fresh and not tired or hurt, like Rory MacDonald, Stun Gun Kim, Grey Maynard and a few others did, or you attack the lead leg, work in volume, circle the cage and don’t stand in front of Diaz , as Josh Thompson, Benson Henderson and Rafael Dos Anjos did. What you will often find with straight punchers like Diaz is that they are far less effective when they are forced to keep turning to face you before trying to throw, and boxers who keep a lot of weight on their front leg to aid in extending their jab are a prime target for low kicks, where just a few well placed kicks can see a big decrease in both mobility and punching power.
McGregor has the tools to beat Diaz. He can kick, he can move, and when he wants to be he can be a smothering top player, just ask Max Holloway. The problem is in his mentality. All facets of his game serve to allow McGregor to land the left straight, and he prioritizes this to the exclusion of everything else. Without his fixation on the left hand, McGregor has a good chance of kicking Diaz’s legs, which disrupts his boxing and can set up head kicks later, threatening a takedown if he feels comfortable holding him there, working in short bursts of hand combinations with occasional left straights to keep him honest, and obviously not trying to put Diaz away in record time. The only man who ever finished Diaz with strikes, Josh Thompson, did it by following that exact strategy, but even he didn’t expect to finish Diaz, it was just an added bonus.
However if Diaz comes out and stands in front of McGregor, doing his usual Diaz thing and literally asking to be hit, it is hard to imagine that McGregor can ignore the instincts he has spent the last decade drilling into himself and not let that left hand go every time he sees an opening for it.
UFC 202 is still some time away, but rest assured the winner of this fight will be decided long before then. This is one of the few fights out there that comes down so clearly to preparation. It is not unheard of for a fighter to tailor their style to specific opponents, but It is extremely rare to find a fighter who has made it to the top of the sport with one very specific way of fighting, to be then expected to succeed at the highest level using a style essentially foreign to him. The parts are the same, the techniques are all there, the physical obstacles are ready to be overcome, but the mentality that must lie behind McGregor’s path to victory in this rematch is so at odds with the way he fights normally that you would almost believe that to pull off this gameplan McGregor would need to alter his very being, to change something that is so fundamental to his success that without it it is almost certain he would not be here today for us to even consider how unlikely this is.
Conor McGregor has always told us he was special. That he is on another level, greater than anyone else in the sport. That he is bigger than the game, and he knows things we don’t .If he can pull off the victory against Diaz in August, against all the odds, defying everything we think we know about the world of combat sports and how it works, I may just have to believe him.