McGregor versus Mayweather: Substance in the Spectacle

McGregor versus Mayweather

Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather made history on August 26th.  Not only did their bout mark the first meeting between the elite of boxing and the elite of Mixed Martial Arts, but it also allegedly set a new Las Vegas gate record at $80 million.

The rough outline of what transpired in the ring looks like that of any other recent Mayweather fight. He started out slow, taking a few rounds to prod and suss out his opponent’s style. Just making him work, not focusing too hard on winning the rounds. McGregor was able to take a few of the early rounds from Mayweather on strength of activity. After that feeling-out process ended, Mayweather started widening the gap, and in typical Mayweather fashion, he would pull ahead slightly. Until inch by inch what started off as a close fight became a foregone conclusion.

If you look at the specifics, the match takes on a tone different from that of a typical “Money” fight. Where Mayweather usually would be content to sit back, he instead was aggressive. His focus shifted quickly from defense to offense.  Instead of seeking to control the fight by limiting his opponent’s opportunities, he was providing McGregor with opportunities.

After the third round, Mayweather started moving forward constantly and putting a pace on McGregor.  A break from his traditional style gave the audience a more viewer-friendly fight that saw Mayweather take blows he otherwise wouldn’t feel the need to take.

There are many potential explanations for this change of style. Perhaps Mayweather felt it was a necessary adjustment to make for his advanced age.  Maybe he felt more confident pressuring McGregor than boxing with him, or maybe he wanted to give the fans a show in his last outing.

McGregor, for his part, comported himself well. It wasn’t a close fight, nor was it particularly competitive. Of course it wasn’t, McGregor is not a professional boxer, and Floyd Mayweather is not just any professional boxer. He had some success, landed some clean punches on one of the greatest defensive boxers ever, made a ton of money, and didn’t take any career-threatening damage.  It’s hard not to call that a successful night at the office. In truth, McGregor did as well as he had any right to, perhaps even slightly better than that.

Without further ado, let’s get into the nitty gritty of what both men had to offer:

McGregor’s Craft

Conor McGregor has largely built his game around making his left hand the most dangerous, threatening weapon it can be. His kicks serve to widen the distance and lead opponents onto it. His lead hand has historically existed solely to set up the left. Considering this, it’s remarkable that he did such a good job adjusting when faced with an opponent whose face he could scarcely find with the left hand.

McGregor’s most consistently successful offense throughout the fight came from his left straight to the body.

Mayweather plays a high guard more often against southpaws, but usually not to the extent he did against McGregor. His high guard left openings to the body, and McGregor would flash his lead hand to bring the guard up before hitting the body.

The jab has historically been an afterthought for McGregor, used mostly to set up his powerful left hand. He unveiled the first signs of its development when he landed a few sharp jabs on Nate Diaz, but his lead hand looked greatly improved against Mayweather.

Look at the way he plays with rhythm. McGregor retracts and extends his lead hand in sequence, before smoothly throwing his shoulder into it and pushing it forward when Mayweather expects it to retract. Not a hurting shot by any means, but it got Mayweather’s attention.

McGregor was also able to surprise Mayweather with some quick backhanded jabs. Although McGregor has fought strictly in southpaw throughout his MMA career, he flirted with shifting stances against Mayweather.

McGregor was using a switch-step to set up orthodox jabs and lead hooks early in the fight with no success. It wasn’t until he began going to the body with the jab that he was able to convert successful offense from it.

Hand-fighting often takes on a more important role in a match between a southpaw and an orthodox fighter, as the lead hands fall on the same side.  Dominating his opponent’s lead hand has always been a big part of McGregor’s game. He had Eddie Alvarez so frustrated by controlling his lead hand that the former UFC lightweight champion was reduced to swatting at McGregor’s lead in frustration and lunging in with the rear hand. McGregor was able to successfully use his hand-fighting to score on Mayweather, but it was also interesting to see him fight an opponent that could contest and even beat him there.

Here he reaches out to touch Mayweather’s lead hand a few times, before sending a jab up the middle. This causes Mayweather to tighten his guard down the middle and McGregor attempts to hook around it, but Mayweather avoids the hook. McGregor’s cleanest punch of the fight, a counter uppercut in the first round, came from the hand-fight.

McGregor has his lead hand extended, distracting Mayweather, occupying his vision, and threatening to frame if he steps in. Mayweather swats it down, but as soon as he does, McGregor knows he’s about to attack. Before Mayweather throws his right hand, McGregor has already started slipping and has the uppercut prepared.

Mayweather was able to take that counter uppercut away later by varying the timing on his hand-fighting. He would also take his head off-line, toward McGregor’s lead hand, while falling forward to smother the uppercut.

Here Mayweather demonstrates his skill in hand-fighting. He pushes McGregor’s extended lead hand away before circling his hand inside. As McGregor reaches out to meet Mayweather’s lead hand, Mayweather circles it outside while stepping his lead foot outside and lands a straight to the body. While McGregor’s power straight left was almost nowhere to be seen, he did a good job mixing up his rhythm and landed some softer straights.

McGregor uses a soft, probing straight excellently to pick away at his opponents and create openings, but he was unable to translate that into landing his power straight on Mayweather. Here he taps the outside of Mayweather’s right glove to get him extending the hand, before shooting a soft straight up the middle. These punches are quick and difficult to react to as his body has completed most of the delivery before the punch is thrown, but this also takes most of the power off.

Pressuring Mayweather didn’t work out so well for McGregor due to the former’s aggression and disregard for McGregor’s power. Nevertheless, when McGregor was able to back Mayweather to the ropes, he stayed patient and picked his openings.

In our pre-fight breakdown of Mayweather’s ring generalship, we looked at how he draws committed punches from his opponents when his back is on the ropes. He’ll use his opponent’s attempts to land hard shots as opportunities to counter, escape, or clinch. McGregor maintained his distance and refused to step himself onto Mayweather’s clinch or over-commit. Instead McGregor would pick at Mayweather with non-committal shots and frame when he tried to close distance.

McGregor experimented with some Lomachenko-style cross hand traps. When Mayweather covered up, he’d try to smash the rear hand down with his own and hook the exposed head. Most of the shots landed through this method were choppy arm-punches, however.

Anyone fighting Mayweather needs to account for the fact that he will bend the rules of boxing. Some of his toughest fights have come against opponents who are willing to foul him right back. McGregor wasn’t able to give him one of his toughest fights, not by a long shot, but he was able to foul with the best of them.

Whenever Mayweather bent over at the waist on the inside, McGregor would drop weight on him and throw short hammer-fists to the back of his head. These aren’t legal in the slightest, and he was repeatedly warned, but why not play with legality if the only punishment is a stern talking-to.

While it wasn’t enough to give Mayweather serious problems, McGregor looked sharp and he improved a great many aspects of his game. His lead hand was far more versatile than we’ve seen before.  He was playing with rhythm and hitting the body with a higher degree of skill.  He over-extended less often on his straight. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this development carries over into his MMA fights.

Floyd Mayweather

This fight played out exactly as Mayweather planned. He gave away a few rounds early in order to make McGregor put in work and figure out his game.  After that, he was a snowball picking up momentum and adding to his presence as the fight wore on.

Like McGregor, Mayweather’s most consistent offense early in the fight came in the form of his straight to the body.

While McGregor’s straight was often blocked, parried, or made to fall short, Mayweather landed his clean nearly at will. Going to the body early and often helped Mayweather puncture McGregor’s gas tank and wear him out later on. McGregor attempted to dissuade Mayweather from hitting his body with counters, but Mayweather was too fast to time on entry and made sure to exit at an angle.

McGregor’s head movement and positioning is excellent in an MMA context, but he primarily operates at a long distance and isn’t used to exchanging on the inside. The disparity in their quality of infighting was stark. Mayweather has a systematized defensive game focused around keeping himself in position to react to any threat, though he took himself out of position and resorted to covering up more often in this fight. McGregor on the other hand, would make a committed defensive movement in reaction to an initial shot, then seem to wing his next move. His defense and positioning fell apart piece by piece the longer Mayweather stayed on the inside.

McGregor would often get stuck leaning over his rear hip, unable to transition off it before eating punches.

After the third round, Mayweather decided to end the feeling out process and started walking McGregor down with his high guard. Nate Diaz used this tactic to great effect in the later rounds of their second fight in order to close distance. Not only did walking McGregor down allow Mayweather to close the distance and land combinations in close, but it also forced McGregor to work.  Mayweather’s presence convinced McGregor to throw combinations in order to back him off and find space to escape. He was content to walk through the shots while blocking the best of them. Later in the fight McGregor’s punches came slower and Mayweather amped up the aggression.

At some points, Mayweather would walk forward throwing straights with alternating hands and shifting stance after each one. Shifting in this way lets you cover distance rapidly, but leaves you open to counters as your feet come together. Mayweather was entirely unconcerned with the threat of McGregor’s counters.

For his part, McGregor had trouble keeping his feet in position on the back-foot and was more focused on avoiding damage than returning it. This is where McGregor could do well to take a lesson from his opponent; any time Mayweather feels threatened, he’ll grab onto his opponent and hold instead of allowing his positioning to deteriorate in panic.

Mayweather threw trip-hammer straight punches off both sides while walking forward and squaring up. These punches shoot straight out from his high guard with very little weight transfer. They’re mostly arm punches, but they come extremely quickly and still carry a fair bit of pop. Note how McGregor is unable to react to the punches even while backtracking. Mayweather’s total disregard for the threat of McGregor’s counters shows through in his willingness to compromise his positioning to chase McGregor, though by this time McGregor was sucking wind hard.

McGregor was able to capitalize on some of the opportunities afforded him by Mayweather’s dogged pursuit. In Mayweather’s typical bladed stance, the body is difficult to hit. Only a small surface area is open to opponents in front of him and it’s mostly protected by his lead arm. He would repeatedly square his stance while chasing McGregor, which left a much larger surface area exposed in his midriff. Combined with his consistent use of the high guard, his body was open for McGregor.

Mayweather was able to block a lot of the body shots, but McGregor sneaked some clean punches in while Mayweather chased.

Mayweather largely failed–or neglected–to cut off the ring, instead giving linear chase to McGregor. McGregor’s ringcraft wasn’t strong enough to lead Mayweather around the ring consistently, but he had some success angling off and breaking the line of Mayweather’s attack. He goes to the body to get Mayweather ducking down, before angling off and trying to land punches from a new angle. Note that these aren’t the result of obscure “MMA angles” but boxing pivots and hop-steps, used all the time in boxing, by boxers.

As the fight dragged on, McGregor’s defensive reactions become slow, labored, and sloppy with fatigue. He would take too long to slip and eat a straight, before staying over his hip and failing to recover in time to avoid further punishment. As we explored in our breakdown of Mayweather’s infighting, he is a master at punishing sloppy head movement with frames. Near the end of the fight, Mayweather used his frames to great effect, laying his forearm across McGregor’s face whenever he tried to slip. This allowed Mayweather to keep McGregor off-balance and deliver more punishment, while preventing him from tying up.

Note how McGregor attempts to tie-up and buy recovery time at every opportunity. Mayweather keeps him at bay with his forearms and pours on the volume for a (T)KO victory.

Perhaps the greatest skill on demonstration from Mayweather was his intelligence. For all the gaps in skill, he just understands how to win a boxing match on a level that expert boxers can’t match, let alone a novice. He knows which rounds to throw away, when to push, when to sit back, and exactly how to maximize his chances of victory. As great a fighter as McGregor is, that isn’t a skill he’s had to demonstrate. The concept of throwing away rounds to ensure victory is much less present in MMA. With only 3 or 5 rounds in a contest, giving one up can often mean giving up the fight.

Brief Thoughts on the Clinch

One of the few areas some pundits expected McGregor to have success in was the clinch. The reasoning went that, because McGregor is familiar with the clinch on an intimate level from his time in MMA, he should be able to offer McGregor competition in that area. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see extended clinch exchanges. The official, Robert Byrd, was quick on the break and left no time for the fighters to free their hands or work out of underhooks. We did get to see a few crafty tactics from both men, however.

After throwing a combination with Mayweather against the ropes, McGregor pushed his head down and passed him underneath his armpit. This is a favorite of Lomachenko and Mayweather himself.

Instead of falling into an over-under position where McGregor might be able to free his hands, dig his head in, and hit, Mayweather would often keep both arms on one side of McGregor’s head. He would control the underhooking arm in his armpit, or the crook of his elbow, and pass the other arm across to block the right side of his face. This left McGregor with only the option of throwing short arm-punches at his body or the back of his head.

In our article on Mayweather’s weaknesses, we covered how his bladed stance makes him slower to turn when opponents are able to take a deep angle on him. He compensates for this by ducking down at the waist while adjusting his lead foot to pivot into his opponent. McGregor had a unique and peculiar answer to this.

McGregor would often take a deep outside angle on Mayweather with shifts or hop-steps. He prevented Mayweather from turning into him by wrapping his hip with an arm, but that defeats the whole purpose of taking the angle in the first place. In boxing, you don’t want their back like you would in MMA, you want them to turn into you (and this is why Mayweather didn’t fight hard to prevent his back from being “taken”). When your opponent is turning, his feet aren’t planted, his vision is obscured, and he’s not ready to defend or give a shot. If you watch Lomachenko fight, he lands his shots after angling out as his man turns back into him.

McGregor also hit a couple slick duck-unders by popping Mayweather’s crossfacing elbow up. Perhaps we’ll see Conor take another year-long break from MMA in order to try out for Ireland’s Greco-Roman wrestling team.

Since Mayweather will bury his head while he turns in to prevent opponents from capitalizing on the angle, McGregor’s best bet would have been letting him turn and hitting the body. In his post-fight interview with Megan Olivi, McGregor mentioned that he blew energy taking Mayweather’s back, only for the referee to separate them.

Here Mayweather demonstrates how to make use of a dominant angle, hitting McGregor as he turns in.

Overall, both men put on an entertaining performance and gave the fans a fight. Those attempting to frame McGregor’s performance as a victory for MMA over boxing may have been better served seeing him fight a boxer with the style to get him out of there early, rather than one willing to give away early rounds to ensure victory down the stretch.

Likewise, those who think McGregor has anything to be embarrassed about regarding his performance have no leg to stand on. It’s hard reference McGregor doing “well” without qualifying that statement in some way. He didn’t look like an exceptional boxer. He didn’t look like a “good” boxer on the world level. He did, however, look pretty damn fantastic for a Mixed Martial Artist venturing into an individual discipline, albeit the one that he wins his fights with.

It’s been a fun ride and a truly entertaining fight, but this writer will be happy once he’s able to cover McGregor’s fights against MMA fighters once again.

Main Photo:
Embed from Getty Images

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