You have to hand it to the UFC, they know how to go big. To commemorate the legalization of MMA in New York, Dana and company have put together the best card they have ever produced. Every fight is meaningful, every fight is interesting, and every fight has the potential for greatness.
Topping off this card is the most interesting story-line in MMA today. At the first UFC event to be held in the mecca of entertainment, Madison Square Garden, Conor McGregor will attempt to become the first fighter in UFC history to hold two belts at the same time. His opponent is Eddie Alvarez, a man who has spent most of his career on the outside looking in at the UFC. Now that he is there, he plans to cement his claim to the title of best lightweight of all time.
Alvarez versus McGregor is a fight that is guaranteed to be interesting, not only from a narrative standpoint but also stylistically. Since his arrival in the UFC, people have wanted to place McGregor against certain types of fighters. People who can wrestle. Guys who can move laterally. Fighters who are bigger than his previous opponents. Alvarez is all three of those things.
That does not mean, however, that he has an easy match ahead of him. The questions that have been following McGregor for his entire career are days away from being answered, and Alvarez is within inches of the respect and recognition he has deserved for so long.
A Guide To UFC 205: Alvarez vs. McGregor
Conor McGregor: The Notorious
It is hard to write about McGregor without straying into extremes. His cult of personality is so great that people will either belittle or exaggerate his accomplishments, depending on their own bias. It is rare to find a measured opinion of McGregor. His 13 second knockout of Jose Aldo was either a “lucky punch” or some form of god like predetermination. The victory over Chad Mendes has been put forward as evidence of both his greatness and his deficiencies. It seems to be impossible to have a conversation with someone about McGregor’s abilities without coming down on one side or the other.
In actuality, as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. To call McGregor anything less than a world-class fighter is doing a disservice to the sport. To call him the greatest of all-time based on his current achievements is similarly misguided. What Conor McGregor is is a work in progress. His career is unfolding before our eyes, and he is made up of both strengths and weaknesses, like every other fighter. To acknowledge one does not mean you must ignore the other. It is McGregor’s flaws in the ring that excite us as much as his skills. His style is unusual and yet is built around basic foundations.
The Straight, and the Hook
This is a personal sticking point for me, so I am going to get it out of the way here. Conor McGregor rarely, throws a left hook. A hook is a punch which travels on an arc and lands around an opponent’s guard. Because it comes from the side, it is a slower punch. Because most variations of a hook require a bend in the elbow, the range is limited. This is why hooks are generally performed with the front hand, as it is closer to the target. Ironically enough one of the few people who actually uses a rear handed hook in MMA is McGregor’s opponent, Eddie Alvarez.
The punch McGregor has been using as the centerpiece of his entire game is called a left straight. As the name would suggest, this punch travels not around the opponents guard, but straight down the centerline. Because of his 74″ reach, McGregor holds a range advantage in almost all of his fights. This means that he can fire the left hand from a distance where his opponents punches fall short.
While McGregor is famous for his left hand, what really wins him his fights is his ability to fight on the counter. From his long stance, McGregor can glide backwards and catch people moving onto his punches as they try to close the distance.
Forcing The Counter
What is special about McGregor is not just his ability as a counter puncher. It is his ability to force situations where his opponent must walk into his left hand, even if they are aware of it. Many people point to his mind games as the reason he can pull fighters out of their games, but it is his choices in the ring that affect them even more so.
McGregor is a frequent kicker. He will throw spinning kicks, snap kicks, head kicks and has recently added leg kicks to his arsenal. The purpose of his kicks, however, are often misunderstood. When kicking, McGregor’s goal is to force a sense of urgency in closing the distance. It is not to score with the kicks. Unlike other kickers in MMA, when McGregor kicks, he rarely rotates his hips. This drains the kick of a lot of power, but it places him back into his stance quickly.
What McGregor is looking to accomplish with his kicks is to force a reaction from his opponent. They cannot simply remain at range and allow themselves to be kicked. So they are forced to try and close the distance and in doing so place themselves on the end of his left hand.
McGregor also likes to target the body frequently with linear kicks. These do a tremendous job of draining his opponents stamina. These kicks are a big part of what makes opponents so reluctant to wait on the end of his range.
Adjustments in 2016
Against Nate Diaz, McGregor adopted the same strategy, with a few adjustments. Due to Diaz’s size, McGregor’s head kicks did little to maintain range. Because Diaz could box from the same range, he could wait for McGregor to come to him, and meet him with punches as he closed the distance.
In the rematch, McGregor switched his focus to Diaz’ lead leg as opposed to his head. The principle was the same as previous fights. All of a sudden Diaz could not sit back and wait for McGregor to come to him. This was the key difference between the first and second Diaz fights. McGregor was pressing forward, but it was Diaz who was forced to close the distance if he wanted to box. In doing so he opened himself up to the counter left.
What has made McGregor stand out in my eyes is his willingness to adapt his game without changing it. The core of his game will always be the left straight, but he is constantly looking to manufacture new situations to land it. When people stopped coming to him, he developed a kicking game. Faced with a larger opponent, he adjusted to force a greater range. When facing his next opponent, he will be forced to deal with a very different type of opponent yet again.
Eddie Alvarez: The Underground King
Eddie Alvarez has had a long road to the top. Despite being only four fights into his UFC tenure, Alvarez has one of the most storied careers at lightweight. His record contains wins over some of the best fighters outside the UFC. Tatsuya Kawajiri, Shinya Aoki, Pat Curran, Katsunori Kikuno, Joachim Hansen, Patricky Freire and Michael Chandler have all been bested by Alvarez. Since coming to the UFC, he bested, long-time top ranked lightweight, Gilbert Melendez and the last two lightweight champions Anthony Pettis and Rafael Dos Anjos.
While McGregor is a guy who is constantly finding new ways to employ the same gameplan, you are never sure what to expect from Alvarez. Against Pettis he smothered him against the cage for three boring uneventful rounds. Against Hansen, he fought a wild, back and forth war of attrition. But by far his most interesting and impressive performances have come against Chandler and Dos Anjos. Many people are saying that the key to Alvarez’s victory lies in his abilities as a wrestler, but he does some things on the feet that have the potential to trouble the “Notorious One.”
Cat and Mouse
The number of competent cage cutters in MMA today are few and far between. However, there are even fewer fighters who can effectively relieve pressure when it is applied to them. Alvarez is one of those fighters. He does a fantastic job of faking his opponent out when his back is against the fence. Keeping his legs under him, he will change directions multiple times, drawing his opponent’s attack and circling off.
This is important because of McGregor’s penchant for straight blows. While a linear attack will maximize a range advantage, it does nothing to prevent an opponent from circling out. To catch an opponent who circles, you must use circular attacks. Because he stands so side on, McGregor’s range of motion is limited. You cannot hook beyond your shoulder, and a long stance does not allow much lateral movement. The only herding technique McGregor uses off the right-hand side is his spinning hook kick, which is a high energy, high risk tactic against someone who is so happy to wrestle.
The Darting Right Hand
A battle of southpaw and orthodox fighters will always be a battle of rear hands. Because the lead hands clash, the jab is rendered ineffective and the fight becomes about firing power shots from range. This is an unusual way to fight, and southpaws normally have the advantage because they train for exactly this circumstance. Alvarez is unusual in that he doesn’t rely on his jab as much as conventional orthodox fighters. Instead he likes to employ a darting right hand, sliding out to his left and angling off as he throws it.
Notice how this punch takes him past his opponent’s right shoulder. Because southpaws have their right hand in front, once you circle past it the left hand is no longer an option. You cannot punch across your centerline with any authority. The darting right hand would allow Alvarez to line his punch up with McGregor’s chin while taking him away from the left straight.
While Alvarez has great positional awareness and knows how to circle the cage and be effective, he is not a master of defense. One of his biggest weaknesses is a tendency to duck his head when under fire. Not move his head from side to side, but ducking it straight down.
This form of head movement nearly had him kissing shin in the Dos Anjos fight. The only thing that saved him was his guard.
McGregor may not be a two sided kicker, but he is great with his left high kick, and it is conceivable that he could catch Alvarez ducking just like Dos Anjos did. He has also had success with uppercuts on fighters who like to duck their heads as they move in.
Alvarez has a strange dichotomy about his fights. He can be technically brilliant and isn’t afraid to turn a fight into a wrestling match if he feels he has the advantage, but he also likes to throw all of that out the window in pursuit of a finish. After turning Dos Anjos, avoiding being trapped and landing hard shots, Alvarez wobbled Dos Anjos by walking him onto a right hook.
As soon as that happened, Alvarez’s clever footwork and disciplined boxing disappeared and he swung with reckless abandon, with his hands by his chest and his chin in the air.
This is the nature of an Alvarez fight. He has the tools to fight a number of different ways. He has some of the best ring positioning and craft of anyone in the lightweight division, and he is not afraid to spend three rounds with his opponent pressed against the fence. However, the thinking Alvarez can be shut out at the first sign of blood, and the wildman shines through. Alvarez’ early career was built on his heavy hands and his ability to take punishment. In any fight you could get the technician, the brawler, or the blanket. You just won’t know which one until the cage door closes.
McGregor and Alvarez are both top-notch competitors with very different mentalities. McGregor knows only one way to fight, and he is constantly looking to improve that method. Alvarez has many methods of fighting. Which one he chooses will greatly impact his chances in this fight.
If Alvarez is to win, he will have to keep himself off the cage and keep McGregor turning. Direction changes and feints will be key to defusing McGregor’s left hand, and the darting right hand should be the centerpiece of his offence. Alvarez has hard leg kicks that he rarely uses, but they would go a great way towards forcing McGregor to come to him so that he can walk him on to either takedowns or right hands.
For McGregor this is a big test of his abilities as a ring cutter. If he cannot prevent Alvarez from circling out, he may not be able to force the charges on his terms. The leg kicks that he debuted in the Diaz fight will help in drawing reducing Alvarez’ mobility. His kicks are going to be his tightrope between success and failure. If successful, they could drain Alvarez’ stamina and force him to either duck onto uppercuts or rush into a left straight. If not, they are liable to be caught and turned into takedowns for the gritty wrestler. His main focus however should be on preventing Alvarez from circling away from his left hand, but to do that he will have to add yet another tool to his belt, either a right roundhouse kick or a right hook.
A Quick Thank You
This wraps up our Guide To UFC 205 series. I would like to thank everyone who followed along, and hopefully this card will deliver on the potential it has. If you wish to read any of the previous pieces from the series, then give them a look.