On August 26, Floyd Mayweather will step into the ring against Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) superstar, Conor McGregor. McGregor, in his professional boxing debut, will meet the man who briefly abandoned his seat atop the throne of boxing upon retirement in 2015.
There is no doubt that this meeting of titans marks a historic occasion. Boxers have previously ventured into other, more inclusive combat sports to test their hand. Nak Muays have made successful transitions to boxing and captured meaningful championships. However, never before has perhaps the biggest A-side in boxing met the most popular superstar in the world of MMA. The spectacle alone is a sight to behold.
Anyone looking to claw his way through the spectacle and find intrigue in the depths of this match-up is likely to be left clutching loosely onto the hypothetical. “What if” McGregor lands that left hand. “But maybe” he can overcome the odds. If the match warrants a look at the technical aspect, the tendencies of a boxer in his professional debut seem of little relevance in comparison to those of this generation’s greatest.
So we’ll pay the match-up the respect it deserves by examining the greatness of McGregor’s opponent, the 49-0 Floyd Mayweather. In this series, we’ll examine the ins and outs of Mayweather’s game, starting with his dazzling offense. Let’s take an in-depth look at exactly what McGregor is up against.
Floyd Mayweather’s Offensive Tactics
In his early days, Mayweather was a devastating combination puncher, but maturity, numerous hand injuries, and moving up in weight have altered his style. Within the last decade, he’s settled into the role of a pot-shotter. Though he hasn’t eschewed combinations entirely, they have become shorter and more reserved. Instead of overwhelming opponents with speed and aggression, Mayweather prefers to limit their offensive output.
Throughout striking sports with more open rule sets, it’s a consistent truth that volume wins fights. Often, the winner of a contest is simply the one who is able to throw more. This makes it very difficult to win with a game built largely on a low-output of single shots. It requires an incredible degree of skill to equalize your opportunities when faced with a large volume disparity.
Mayweather is excellent at denying his higher-output opponents the opportunity to deliver their volume through footwork and defense. However, relying largely on single shots presents another challenge. Fighters don’t throw combinations just because more punches thrown means more chances to land, but because combinations have logic and a process built into them. For example, if you want to land your rear straight, you can lead with it, and accept the relatively high chance that your opponent is able to defend it. Then again, you could throw a jab to move their hand closer to their center-line, follow with a lead hook to widen their guard, and square their hips, and then throw the straight, which you are now in good position to land clean.
In broad terms, the way Mayweather solves this problem is by ensuring that his opponents cannot react appropriately to what he’s about to throw. More specifically, he modifies his punching form to prioritize speed over power. The speed increase offered by his punching form, combined with his athleticism and natural hand speed, causes his punches to approach with blistering speed and prevents his opponent from responding properly. Mayweather also has deception built into his offense, as he uses a similar delivery for certain punches, and can condition the opponent to expect one before switching it up.
Let’s start with his jab:
Mayweather shoots his lead foot out in front of him as he jabs, widening his stance, but his weight remains relatively centered. As soon as his lead foot plants, he pushes off it to pull his weight onto his rear foot in anticipation of a counter, while taking an angle to the inside of his opponent’s stance. Note also how he sets it up in the first clip by sneaking his rear foot forward, allowing him to cover more distance while keeping his weight underneath him.
Mayweather’s jab is both a tool of frustration, used to pick away at his opponent, and a trap. The window to successfully counter it is so minuscule that it serves as the perfect bait. By the time his opponent attempts a counter–in both clips–he’s already pulled out of the way, and their attempt serves only to open them up for Mayweather’s counter.
The straight right is perhaps Mayweather’s most iconic punch. Though leading with a straight without first setting it up with the lead hand is often difficult, Mayweather is known for landing it nearly at will. The trick that allows Mayweather to have so much success with a punch that is traditionally lower percentage is simple: he completes most of the delivery before he throws it, shaving time off in exchange for reduced power generation.
Traditionally throwing a straight involves pivoting on the rear foot, transferring weight from the rear foot to the front foot, rotating the rear shoulder through, and sinking weight down while twisting the hips toward the target. Floyd instead starts his straight with his weight loaded onto his front foot and his rear shoulder already slightly rotated. Just before throwing it, he’ll get up on the ball of his rear foot, which serves to rotate his hips, and allows him to launch off it for quicker delivery.
This sequence demonstrates the mechanics of Mayweather’s straight and the blinding speed it produces. Juan Manuel Marquez is one of the best counter-punchers of his generation, and he is unable to even start reacting to the punch until it’s already landed. Note also how Marquez attempts to take advantage of Mayweather’s heavy lead foot by jabbing as he steps forward, but loading his weight on the front foot gives Mayweather plenty of room to pull it backwards briefly and avoid the punch.
One of the cornerstones of Mayweather’s attack is his body jab. He uses it to break his opponent’s rhythm, impede their forward movement, and wither their gas tank over the course of a 12-round fight. It also sets up his leaping lead hook perfectly.
Mayweather conditions Marquez to expect the body jab when he changes levels, before changing levels again and springing forward with the lead hook. Marquez’s rear hand drops to parry what he expects to be a body jab, leaving him wide open to the hook. Mayweather’s hook is thrown in a way that maximizes speed and minimizes power as well. By launching forward off his rear foot, and subtly turning his hips into the punch while in motion. The hook gets to the target faster, but lacks the lateral weight transfer that produces power.
Another way to conceal strikes is to convince an opponent to bite on a feint and exploit his reactions. Mayweather excels at this through several different methods. The simplest is to begin the delivery of a punch and halt it halfway through, leaving the opponent attempting to defend a strike that never comes. But feinting can also take the form of more subtle maneuvers. Whenever Mayweather shifts his weight onto his lead foot and leans forward, his opponents know to look out for his straight right. This allows him to play with their expectations.
Similarly, feints can be built into the delivery of a strike. The most obvious example is the question mark kick–a kick that starts as a front kick with the knee raised straight in front, and is turned into a round kick with a pivot on the rear foot halfway through its delivery.
Mayweather disguises his rear hook by keeping his elbow tight to his body until opening it at the last second. Until he opens the elbow, it’s difficult to tell whether his hand will come in a straight line, or curve around the guard. Robert Guerrero chooses incorrectly, closing his guard down the middle as if expecting a straight or an uppercut, as Mayweather’s hook lands outside it.
Here Jose Luis Castillo enters with a jab, which is slipped by Mayweather. As Mayweather loads his weight onto his lead leg to set up his counter uppercut, he draws his rear hand back and cocks it as if he’s throwing an overhand. Castillo reacts to the feint by dipping down further to get underneath his lead shoulder and avoid the rear hand, but ends up ducking himself onto the uppercut. Lovely stuff.
Although the brunt of Mayweather’s offense comes on the lead, he is an excellent counter-puncher as well. His counters are often used for defensive purposes, such as creating openings to move off the ropes, or to disrupt his opponent’s rhythm. His most famous offensive application of counter-punching is no doubt the pull counter.
He baits the jab from his opponent by weighting his lead foot and leaning forward. Seeing his weight forward and his head in range, it’s difficult for Shane Mosley to resist the temptation to jab at the perceived opening. Mayweather is counting on this however, as he remains ready to pull his weight back as soon as his opponent’s lead shoulder twitches. He is presenting a false distance by leaning forward, making it appear that he’s in range for a punch, when really his body is just outside jabbing range, and all he needs to do is pull his weight back.
His exits after landing the pull counter are every bit as impressive as the timing and craft that go into landing it. The instance of Marcos Maidana baiting the pull counter, and landing his own right hand while ducking under it, have been replayed time and time again, but the highlights don’t show the numerous failed attempts of every Mayweather opponent to draw it out and counter it.
Pay attention to what Mayweather does after throwing his straight right. He takes away his opponent’s ability to respond with their own offense by framing on the face, ducking their return, or hop-stepping out to a new angle.
In addition to the long straight-right after he’s pulled away from a jab, he often throws a quick, short counter straight in the pocket.
The punch shoots straight out from Mayweather’s chest with minimal telegraph or weight transfer. Thrown from in close, it’s nearly impossible to see coming. This short-straight pairs excellently with his shoulder roll, as he’ll bring it with him when he shifts his hips back to their starting position.
Though Mayweather’s combination punching has become more reserved since his “Pretty Boy Floyd” days, he hasn’t abandoned it entirely. The combinations Mayweather does throw are designed to manipulate his opponent’s guard, drawing their attention away from Mayweather’s intended target.
Mayweather uses an overhand to move Miguel Cotto’s lead hand up by his face. After Cotto’s guard widens, Mayweather splits it with an uppercut.
Here he manipulates Cotto’s guard in the opposite direction, from the inside-out. Sending straight punches up the middle causes Cotto’s guard to close in the middle, where Mayweather can send a right hook around it. Mayweather goes back to the uppercut at the end of the sequence, punishing Cotto for responding to the changing threats Mayweather is presenting him.
By reacting to one threat, Mayweather’s opponents leave themselves open for another. He’s constantly setting patterns to condition opponents to expect one combination, before breaking the pattern when they’ve acclimatized. If you expect a straight punch down the middle, Mayweather will hook around it until you’ve started to adapt, upon which he’ll go back to attacking your center-line.
We’ll cover Mayweather’s footwork in greater detail later on in the series, but for now we’ll focus on the offensive applications of his footwork.
Mayweather’s game is built on a foundation of impeccable positioning. He’s always in position to hit his opponent and respond to their attacks. If you go back and look at all the clips in this article, you’ll notice that whenever Mayweather is close enough to hit and be hit, his lead foot is almost always trained on his opponent’s center. Even when he moves or pivots out, he keeps his lead foot aimed at the center-line. This creates an ever-present threat to his opponent, and keeps him in position to react to whatever they choose to throw.
Mayweather and Mosley both step in at the same time with a jab, turning their lead foot out to face their opponent’s center as they do. Floyd is able to adjust his rear foot immediately and pivot as he steps in, which changes his angle and causes Mosley’s body jab to miss. Mosley loses his balance and takes a second to bring his feet underneath him, but by that time Floyd has pivoted even further inside, while throwing his lead hook, leaving Mosley squared up and badly out of position. Mayweather has a dominant angle with his lead foot facing Mosley’s center while Mosley isn’t facing him, and he’s able to land a clean straight as Mosley turns to recover his positioning.
Mayweather will often take an angle to his right after throwing his straight (outside angle against an orthodox opponent, or inside angle against a southpaw).
He throws the straight and hop-steps or pivots outside his opponent’s lead foot, briefly putting him in a dominant position and giving him a chance to crack his opponent as they turn to face him. These sequences also reveal a great deal about Mayweather’s cautious mindset, as he chooses not to open himself up and take advantage of the opportunity he’s created in the last two. He takes the opening against Castillo only because he has a frame on Castillo’s face, preventing him from turning into Mayweather and getting off offense of his own.
Mayweather’s offense works in perfect concert with his deep defensive system. Fighters who tend to win by racking up points run the risk of losing eventually as a result of allowing their opponents to stay in the fight and pick up late opportunities, but Mayweather has avoided this pitfall through two decades of elite competition. His proficient defense denies opponents the opportunity to convert meaningful offense on him and make those big moments happen. Once his opponents’ most dangerous weapons are nullified and their output severely limited, Mayweather picks them apart with poise and finesse.
Come back next week for part two, as we explore Floyd Mayweather’s ringcraft.