October 6th marks perhaps the most important date in the past few years of Mixed Martial Arts. Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov, the two kings of the UFC‘s most talent-rich division, will finally meet inside the Octagon.
Once every so often, a fight comes along that seems to define a generation. McGregor and Nurmagomedov have been on opposite ends of the build-up for several years, and the result seems destined to be a performance that transcends the sport itself. The undefeated whirling-dervish of takedowns and ground and pound meets perhaps the slickest boxer the sport has ever seen. Their meeting will crown the king of MMA’s strongest division. In light of the position both fighters inhabit, the title on the line is almost of secondary interest, taking a back seat to the question of legacy.
For McGregor, this fight represents his first opportunity to solidify his claim to lightweight dominance by mounting a title defense (even if it is only the lineal title) after being quickly foisted into a title shot against Eddie Alvarez two years ago.
Nurmagomedov, on the other hand, had been unduly kept out of the title picture for years due to poor timing and injury woes, before having the title thrust upon him in a win over the somehow-top-15-ranked Al Iaquinta, once again unduly. For Khabib, the fight represents his first shot at a truly legitimate title.
McGregor versus Nurmagomedov may well be that generation-defining fight. The winner may well be that generation-defining athlete.
In this series, I will examine the respective skill sets of McGregor and Nurmagomedov, and finally, the match-up itself.
McGregor vs Nurmagomedov: A Conor McGregor Primer
Conor McGregor has quickly become the hottest commodity in combat sports. After winning the lightweight title over Alvarez in 2016, McGregor held the belt hostage while campaigning for a Floyd Mayweather payday. The question of whether or not he would compete again in MMA was left up in the air.
Now, two years after he first captured the lightweight title, McGregor makes his long-awaited return to the Octagon.
In it’s simplest form, McGregor’s game is that of an aggressive counter-puncher. While fighters who primarily deliver their offense through counters often struggle to encourage their opponents to take the kind of actions they need to react to, McGregor’s pressure serves to draw the reactions he wants.
McGregor tends to come right out of the gate aggressive, eating up space and pushing his opponent toward the cage. If they concede enough ground, McGregor is happy to step in and blast them with their back to the cage, but most opponents will lash out to regain ground before running themselves onto the cage. It is precisely this reaction that McGregor wants, and his best work is done on the counter as his opponent lashes out.
His pressure also serves to tilt engagements in his favor. With his opponent nearing the fence and McGregor’s back to the Octagon, he has all the space available. McGregor can freely give ground and make his opponent miss, while his opponent remains trapped along the cage. The knowledge of this inequality is constantly bearing on the mind of a fighter experiencing pressure, and many strike out in desperation without thoughtful setup in order to hurriedly regain the ground they are losing. This too works in McGregor’s favor, as desperate reactions make opponents all the more vulnerable to his counters.
The Left Hand
McGregor is famous for a left hand as versatile as it is accurate and powerful. His ancillary skills serve to funnel opponents into the left straight, while the punch itself acts as a delivery system through which McGregor leverages positional advantages. McGregor possesses one of the more versatile rear hands in the sport, effective as both a lead and a counter. While he typically favors long-range straight punches, McGregor will close distance and land the rear hand as a short hook behind the ear when facing fellow southpaws.
The inside-angle straight has been covered extensively: McGregor will often concede outside foot position, allowing his opponent to gain what is somewhat dogmatically considered an advantageous position.
Once his opponent has stepped outside and thrown their rear hand, McGregor will take a short hop-step back or slip outside the punch and pivot to face their center-line. This gives McGregor a truly dominant angle, allowing him to face his opponent while they face away from him. The ensuing counter straight splits the opponent’s stance, distributing its force across the plain of his body. Because the stance is set up to deal with an opponent you are directly facing, a punch coming from the side will deal more damage, as it leaves you without a firmly planted rear leg with which to cushion the impact.
Another application of the inside-angle straight is as a lead while the opponent circles outside the lead foot. McGregor’s opponents will often seek to avoid the left hand by circling away from it. When they are well outside the lead foot and moving away from the power hand, they will often let their guard down, believing their positioning keeps them safe.
McGregor needs only track their movement with his lead foot in order to adjust the targeting on his straight. A slightly exaggerated pivot on the ball of his rear foot with the punch adjusts his hips, lining them up with his target.
Although the inside angle allows one to square opponents up and catch them unaware, outside foot position shortens the distance on the rear hand, making it quicker and easier to land. McGregor mixes up his footwork, stepping inside and outside the lead foot as necessary.
McGregor will often use a leaping lead uppercut to close distance and plant his foot outside his opponent’s stance, setting up the straight left. There’s an added element of concealment to his uppercut, as it uses the same preliminary motion as his straight. To set the uppercut up, he’ll fold over his lead hip as if he’s throwing the left. Here Holloway reacts to the threat of the left and widens his guard, opening up the uppercut down the middle.
When McGregor sets his straight up with the lead hand or takes a dominant angle, he’ll commit to it fully, pivoting on the ball of the rear foot and sinking his hips down into the punch. When he leads directly with the straight on an opponent standing in front of him, however, McGregor adjusts his punching form to afford him additional speed and concealment.
McGregor shortens up his straight, sacrificing power for blistering speed. Part of the delivery is completed before the straight is thrown – McGregor’s weight is on the lead leg, the ball of his foot is planted into the ground with his heel up, and his hips are already slightly turned. All that’s left is to push off the ball of the rear foot and rotate the trunk through.
Because the front foot bears weight before the punch, there is very little weight transfer involved. The punch is delivered with a spring off the rear foot rather than a sinking of the hips, which again increases speed while reducing power.
This tactic of shortening up the straight by completing part of its delivery in advance is favored by many boxing greats, such as Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Landing the Straight
Everyone knows that McGregor’s typical game revolves around landing his straight left. While such a tightly focused A-game may seem to impose a constraint on McGregor’s ability, he possesses an incredibly deep arsenal of tactics to create engagements which make the straight left viable.
McGregor’s jab has traditionally been somewhat of an afterthought in his game, but it serves its primary purpose of setting up his rear hand well.
McGregor uses a quick, back-handed jab to draw his opponent’s attention away from the rear hand and set up his straight left. This jab works in company with McGregor’s hand-fighting, as he will draw the opponent’s lead arm wide by extending his own, before drawing his forearm back and snapping it out inside his opponent’s lead hand. It isn’t a hurting jab, but its primary purpose is distraction and setup.
One the jab has been established as a threat, McGregor begins feinting it actively. Forcing the opponent to evaluate whether any twitch of the lead shoulder precedes a committed jab adds another layer of concealment onto his rear hand. The feints also allow McGregor to close distance while his opponent is distracted, sneaking his lead foot closer in order to put them right in line with his rear hand.
McGregor throws a quick jab, which prompts Eddie Alvarez to fold over his rear hip to avoid it. A slight twitch of the lead shoulder and raise of the lead hand convinces Alvarez another jab is on its way, prompting him to over-commit his weight onto his lead hip, which leaves him wide open for the straight.
Note also how McGregor closes distance off the feints. As he throws the first jab, his rear leg sneaks up slightly, which allows him to step the lead leg forward without getting too wide in his stance. The second feint is accompanied by a deep step with the lead leg which takes McGregor directly into the punching range of Alvarez, who is too worried about McGregor’s offense to land any of his own.
McGregor possesses lovely shoulder feints. He will fold over his hips and rotate his shoulder through to feint a straight punch off either side, while simultaneously covering ground to land a committed straight.
Here McGregor threatens the straight by folding over his lead hip, then rotates his lead shoulder through to threaten a jab, before landing a straight as Chad Mendes is still attempting to parse out his attack. Note also how McGregor bounces in off the jab feint, gaining enough ground to land the straight without overextending.
McGregor’s kicking game makes it even more difficult for opponents to anticipate and avoid his straight left. He employs the classic southpaw double attack, in which the rear straight and rear head kick are played off one another. Extending the rear hand to parry the straight leaves opponents open for the head kick, while keeping it in a tight guard protects against the head kick, but opens up the straight. Because the head kick and rear straight use the same preliminary motion of the hips and shoulders, defense often becomes a guessing game.
McGregor had genuine difficulty landing clean on Dennis Siver early in their fight, but the addition of head kicks enabled him to land the straight consistently. Whereas Siver would slip outside the straight early, McGregor’s head kicks started catching him as he leaned over. After slipping into a few head kicks, Siver was much more willing to keep his head stationary and eat McGregor’s straight. McGregor will add bicycle kicks and knees to further incentivize opponents to stay upright.
Along with setting up his rear hand, the kicks also serve to cut off the cage. While an opponent can slip and circle out in response to a punch aimed at the head, a kick will force them to stand still for a moment even if blocked. McGregor will allow opponents to circle past his lead foot to pivot toward them and land his rear hand, while circling toward his rear hand leads them directly into his round kicks. Either the kick lands on its target, or McGregor’s opponent is made stationary for a moment in defending it, which gives him an opening to land punches.
McGregor is well known for a unique brand of footwork that uses small bounces to adjust his positioning, allowing him to quickly take or give ground without needing to lengthen his stance.
His rhythmic bouncing aids in his ability to pressure opponents, who are often convinced to give ground by bounces that appear to be committed entries.
We covered some of the benefits of this footwork in our breakdown of flyweight Karateka, Kyogi Horiguchi, noting that:
One can set a certain rhythm in bounces to condition an opponent. Once that rhythm is broken, either by delaying or extending the tempo of bounces, or shortening or lengthening their coverage, the opponent is left reacting on the first rhythm and is unprepared for the break.
McGregor will use this concept of rhythm manipulation to disguise his entries.
After setting a rhythm with his feet, McGregor breaks it abruptly and bounces forward, catching Max Holloway off guard. Holloway is forced to hurriedly give ground, but McGregor’s entry takes him close enough to land the left while Holloway backs himself onto the cage.
Just as rhythmic bouncing helps disguise a fighter’s attacks, it can also be used to draw out attacks from their opponents. By setting a pattern, the opponent is conditioned to expect the pattern, and will attempt to exploit the pattern with their attacks. The concept of drawing works by encouraging the opponent to engage in a particular way. If a pattern is repeated or an opening is left, the opponent will likely attempt to take advantage of it. In this way, a fighter can predict his opponent’s likely course of action by remaining aware of what is available to them, or by deliberately leaving openings as bait.
The infamous knockout of Jose Aldo is a perfect example of drawing out an attack with footwork. McGregor’s bouncing took him in and out of range in sequence, and Aldo attempted to time his attack just as McGregor took a deep bounce inside. Of course, McGregor anticipates Aldo lashing out and hops backward as he lands his counter left.
More than being an excellent example of McGregor’s footwork, the Aldo knockout provides almost a perfect summation of his game. While he does his best work on the counter, McGregor’s style is all about seizing the initiative. Rather than taking what is given, McGregor actively sets about creating the openings he wants to counter. Instead of operating reactively, McGregor forces his opponents to react in ways that benefit him.
Long Distance Weapons
McGregor’s game is somewhat paradoxical, as he relies on both pressure and maintaining a long distance to draw committed and panicked reactions out of his opponents. This means that he needs to eat up his opponent’s space without taking himself directly into their punching range, whereas most pressure fighters look to crowd and smother to take away space.
In order to back opponents up without getting tangled up in exchanges, McGregor makes liberal use of linear kicks. Unlike round kicks, which can be crowded to disrupt the kicker’s base, linear kicks create a barrier through which an opponent cannot pass, which makes them incredibly valuable both for maintaining distance and taking ground.
The teep takes on such a prominent role in Muay Thai bouts particularly because of this versatility. Out-fighters rely on the teep to create distance and keep opponents at bay, while pressure fighters use it to force opponents back, push them into the ropes, and set up clinch entries.
One of McGregor’s favorite long-distance tools is the low-line side kick. Famously described by Bruce Lee as attacking the nearest target with the longest weapon, these kicks allow McGregor to score from the outside while staying completely outside his opponent’s punching range. The distance can be stretched out even more by hopping into the kicks, throwing them from beyond even the opponent’s comfortable kicking range.
McGregor also consistently works his opponent’s body with front kicks, stabbing the ball of his foot into the stomach. Repeated front kicks take an enormous toll on an opponent’s gas tank throughout a fight, as evidenced by McGregor sapping the gas tank of Chad Mendes in a round and a half.
The linear kicks serve dual purposes. They force opponents to give ground, which McGregor will then take to run them onto the fence, but they also lengthen the distance between McGregor and his opponent. As the kicks are established, the threat of the kicks looms over his opponents, who recognize that any entry might be met with a foot piercing their gut or stomping their lead leg down. Opponents often become more passive and hesitant to create openings, or more desperate, which serves to lead them onto McGregor’s counters.
Along with the linear kicks to keep opponents at bay, McGregor extends the distance by constantly controlling his opponent’s lead hand. The hand-fighting is another aspect of McGregor’s game that funnels opponents into over-extending onto his counters. Preventing opponents from being able to enter behind their lead hand forces them to lead with the rear, which gives McGregor the exact look he’s aiming to counter.
McGregor’s hand-fighting notably made Alvarez hesitant. Unable to get anything going with his lead hand, Alvarez is forced to give ground, but McGregor immediately fills the space and begins frustrating him again. Alvarez thinks about a body shot, before realizing he’s too far away from McGregor to land.
The efficacy of McGregor’s hand-fighting and sense of distance makes it an absolute nightmare for opponents to safely enter into punching range. This issue is compounded by a general lack of lead-hand and particularly jabbing skill in open-guard engagements within MMA. Many fighter neglect the lead hand when fighting a southpaw and instead engage primarily with their rear straight, which is exactly the tactic McGregor hopes to draw out.
One tactic that has proven repeatedly successful in terms of getting inside on McGregor is body shots. Alvarez was smacked upside the head nearly every time he aimed a punch at McGregor’s face, but when he initiated entries with body shots, he was largely kept safe. The natural level change denies the path of McGregor’s rear straight, although he possesses a sharp uppercut to keep opponents honest. Alvarez was largely unable to parlay his success getting inside to any meaningful offense, but the opportunity exists both to use the body to open up the head and to open up the hips for a takedown.
We’ve covered the utility of McGregor’s footwork for its primary purpose of distance management, but his lateral movement is also worth discussing. Although he does his best work moving forward, McGregor is more than capable of fighting off the back-foot when necessary.
McGregor has excellent lateral movement in open space. While he won’t bring it out so often when he gets the type of long-range fencing match he wants, McGregor is adept at pivoting around his opponents and sneaking shots in as they turn to follow him. When Nate Diaz began throwing up a high guard and walking McGregor down, McGregor responded by pivoting away and turning him into counters.
Along with his lateral movement, McGregor also tends to maintain a strong stance while backing up, which makes walking him down a daunting task. Whereas many skilled strikers will abandon stance and take themselves out of position when forced backward, McGregor remains in position to deal damage and counter an opponent’s aggression.
It is important to note, however, that McGregor is not an out-fighter. Although he is capable of fighting well moving backward, he doesn’t do it with the same level of comfort with which he pressures. If an opponent can sustain a pressure game and draw him into exchanges beyond his initial counters, they can lead him out of his comfort zone and force his stance to collapse.
McGregor’s skill in lateral movement lies in turning his opponent, rather than traversing the Octagon. While he is excellent at taking subtle angles in the pocket to create offense, he favors slight quarter pivots which are not conducive to quickly creating distance or taking his back off the cage. Many fighters who rely on creating distance will often break into a squarer stance near the cage for rapid lateral movement, but McGregor’s lateral movement slows when forced toward the cage, and he often steps across himself. These issues came to light in the second Diaz fight, in which Conor was often forced to abandon his stance through pressure.
One of the more impressive aspects of McGregor’s game is his varied shot selection. Although he’s started to pare his game back as he matures, discarding most of the wild spinning kicks, his arsenal opens up when he has an opponent hurt along the cage. He turns from one-off counters and pot-shots to devastating combinations and his lead hand takes on a new life, being used to hook behind the guard or down to the body. His impressive cognizance of which openings are available is demonstrated when he fights a fellow southpaw, as he relies more on rear hooks, overhands, and body hooks.
Every shot flows seamlessly into the next as openings become visible. Mcgregor gives ground to make Mendes’ attack fall short and pushes him to the cage with his jab and straight. As Mendes covers up and dips his head down, McGregor exploits his posture with an uppercut, before throwing a soft lead hook on the guard to guide Mendes into a body kick. Mendes flattens his stance on the cage and right as his midsection squares, presenting a wider target, Mcgregor slams a front kick into it. Finally, McGregor pivots into Mendes with the jab-straight as Mendes tries to circle outside his lead leg. Gorgeous combination striking, awareness, and accuracy on display.
Ok, But Can He Stop the Double Leg?
For a long while, the prevailing question surrounding McGregor’s career was whether or not he could deal with a strong wrestler. He emphatically answered that question in finishing Chad Mendes, but grappling remains one of the more conceivable paths to victory for McGregor’s opponents.
Like most strikers who build their grappling game around avoiding the takedown, McGregor prefers mitigation tactics to traditional takedown defense. A sprawl is the wrestler’s answer to a takedown. By sprawling, a fighter puts himself in a better position to continue the grappling exchange on his terms by breaking the opponent’s posture and providing a route to circle toward the back. The important point is that it continues the grappling exchange, giving the opponent a chance to respond and counter. For a fighter looking to avoid grappling exchanges entirely, the focus should be on keeping opponents away from the hips entirely, with a sprawl acting as a last resort.
McGregor uses frames to prevent opponents from getting in on clean takedown attempts. He will lay his forearm across the jaw or post on the face or under the chin to prevent opponents from closing distance. The frames keep opponents from comfortably shooting at distance, but they also allow McGregor to recover from pocket exchanges. After he’s shifted weight onto his lead foot to throw his straight, his hips are open for a takedown, but extending his lead hand onto the face allows McGregor to reset his hips and enforce his preferred distance.
Another way in which McGregor mitigates the threat of takedown attempts is by controlling and extending the distance. As we’ve examined in his striking, McGregor prefers to set a long distance and encourages his opponents to cover it with over-committed bursts. Takedowns generally have a limited effective range and being forced to over-extend on a shot to the point where the back rounds can severely hamper the wrestler’s ability to finish his takedown.
Unable to consistently close distance on McGregor, Alvarez is forced to try to time his shot in response to a non-committal jab. Alvarez is forced to cover enough distance that McGregor has plenty of time to react, and he withdraws the lead leg to lengthen the distance even more while lifting under Alvarez’s chin to force him off the legs. Note how Alvarez is unable to get his hips underneath McGregor’s, as well as the rounding of the back due to his over-extension, which limits his ability to drive forward.
Although McGregor’s distance control and bladed stance make it difficult for opponents to shoot double legs on him, he is open to them when his hips square while throwing his rear hand.
Mendes had plenty of success timing reactive double legs as McGregor committed to the rear straight. While the bladed stance makes double legs difficult by putting the far hip out of reach, the hips naturally square when throwing the rear hand, allowing opponents to get in on the hips cleanly.
The only recent footage of McGregor in extended clinch exchanges came from his fights with Nate Diaz. In the Diaz fights, McGregor did a good job maintaining position in the clinch, even landing a few lovely sneaker elbows on the break.
McGregor ties up Diaz’s arms with an overhook and bicep control. McGregor’s head position is key, as digging his forehead into Diaz’s face allows him to create space with which to escape. Diaz was looking to free his hands and swarm McGregor, but his use of an overhook and tight head positioning mitigated the damage Diaz was able to do on the inside.
Although McGregor makes it incredibly difficult for opponents to get in on a clean shot at striking range, his takedown defense has looked significantly worse when pressed to the cage. If you look at the best anti-wrestlers in MMA such as Robert Whittaker and Jose Aldo, the biggest thing they have in common is an incredible urgency in fighting grips. Both Whittaker and Aldo treat a pair of hands clasped around their waist, hips, or leg with the same urgency they would treat a locked-in rear naked choke.
Grip fighting is especially important in MMA, as fighters often spend long periods of time grappling against the cage. With all this time to set up a takedown, the attacker is given an opportunity to solidify a strong grip and power through frames, underhooks, and overhooks, as the defender is unable to create distance with his hips blocked by the cage.
When Diaz was able to get in on McGregor’s hips against the cage, he largely neglected hand-fighting, instead relying on a whizzer and using his free hand to half-heartedly cross-face or wrap the head.
McGregor was able to fight grips much more effectively in his most recent fight against Alvarez, but openings still exist for opponents who can press his back to the cage. Alvarez nearly succeeds in locking his hands around McGregor’s waist on the double leg and is able to force his posture up and put him off fighting grips momentarily with punches. Though McGregor’s astute defense to the single leg should also be noted, as he gets his head underneath Alvarez’s and uses it to force Alvarez toward his upper body, helping him peel the grip off his leg.
Khabib Nurmagomedov represents one of the biggest tests imaginable for McGregor, both in terms of the significance of the fight and the stylistic matchup itself. Nurmagomedov will seek to drag the fight into waters too deep for McGregor to survive in, aiming to ruthlessly exploit his greatest weaknesses.
A win for McGregor will not only require a near flawless optimization of his strengths as a striker, but also a willingness to address his shortcomings. Thankfully, McGregor has already proved himself a remarkably adaptive fighter, famously developing entirely new skills and reevaluating his strategic approach in order to defeat Nate Diaz in their rematch.
Regardless of the outcome, it will be fascinating watching the improvements McGregor has no doubt made to his game in his hiatus come to fruition. Get back here on Wednesday as we examine the skillset of lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
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