When the dust settled in the early hours on a bright Sunday morning following UFC 189, I took to Twitter and my personal Facebook account and proclaimed that I wouldn’t focus on the negatives of new interim champion Conor McGregor’s performance against Chad Mendes. I would only discuss the positives; because, for me, that’s what was warranted on such a momentous night for Irish sport. I kept my candid thoughts for another time – now.
I say that as an Irishman who wants the sport to grow to new heights on our little island; but as a self-proclaimed quasi-media member, I tend to side with the style of MMA journalism of the media-outlets in the United States, which prefer to stay impartial, rather than the somewhat patriotic and biased media, which is not necessarily a bad thing, that you find in many parts of Europe and Brazil. However, there are certain times when it’s difficult to be impartial.
Saturday night was the epitome of that struggle. But I digress…
Conor McGregor’s performance on Saturday night wasn’t perfect, if we are being honest with ourselves it was far from perfect. With that being said, you have to highlight the fact that hardly anyone has explicitly mentioned when analysing the contest – he finished the previously number-one-ranked Chad Mendes within two rounds. The same Chad Mendes who would have been still undefeated were it not for that pesky pound-for-pound champion Jose Aldo.
What did he do well?
Much of what McGregor executed well in the contest was what we already knew he excels at; but what makes it more impressive this time around is that he could do it against arguably the best wrestler in the division.
The best thing that he did, and what was ultimately the key to victory, was the use of masterful cage cutting and constant pressure. Within the first few seconds of the bout, Chad Mendes was on the back-foot, stuck on the cage. McGregor constantly cut Mendes off any time he tried to circle away, with just a few movements and without chasing. This, combined with his constant forward pressure, frustrated and kept Mendes in the range that McGregor loves to be to accentuate his striking.
That leads right into his work to the body. Sure, the fight ended with his patented left straight to the head, but the constant strikes to the body of Mendes paid dividends even early on. In just one minute on the clock you could see Mendes take a deep breath. That’s effective body work for you ladies and gentlemen.
It was the grappling exchanges that intrigued everyone going in, and it was in this facet of the game where McGregor was clearly over-matched by his two-time All-American opponent… but more on that later. McGregor did show some good things on the mat; he proved that his scrambling is good enough to get back to his feet against a high level grappler, and he also proved that his submission defence is quite good, which was highlighted in the second round as he fended off Mendes’ attempted guillotine choke by blocking the hook for control and rotated out to safety.
What did he not do well?
As expected, it was in the grappling exchanges where Mendes saw most of his success. He completed an impressive 4 of 7 takedown attempts. Considering Mendes is arguably the best wrestler in the featherweight division, and one of the better wrestlers on the entire roster, so one might give McGregor somewhat of a pass on this, but it must be acknowledged that it is a clear deficiency in his game.
McGregor’s guard work, which he was forced to play with due to the takedowns, also left something to be desired – somewhat for defensive reasons, but mainly offensively. A lot of credit must be given to Mendes’ control and his ability to keep a low posture in McGregor’s guard, while landing just enough shots to keep the referee from intervening, despite McGregor’s ongoing pleas. With that said, McGregor didn’t do that much from his guard, apart from some usually fruitless hand-fighting, but luckily for McGregor, as mentioned above, his ability to scramble and his patience paid off.
Finally, he got hit, and he got hit hard on a number of occasions. McGregor does tend to leave himself a little open in striking exchanges. Granted, to be fair to him, in most cases it’s just the end of the punches that lands which won’t cause him too many problems, but there were a few instances where Mendes landed and landed hard. Luckily, McGregor proved to have a granite chin, and ultimately was never put in too much trouble during the duration of the fight, striking-wise, but it’s something that needs to be acknowledged.
What did we learn?
We learned a number of things about the Dubliner in this contest – positive and negative. We learned that he does have the ability to beat and finish a top-level fighter with phenomenal wrestling, but it might be surprising that it’s not with takedown defence or even scintillating jiu jitsu when he is inevitably taken down. It’s his ability to get back to his feet and make you pay for trying to hold him down. We still don’t have a full picture of what Conor McGregor can actually do, but it will sure as heck be interesting to continue to find out.