On the 16th of August, us lucky fans will be treated to the second UFC fight of one of the most exciting prospects around, Conor McGregor. After making his debut with an absolute masterpiece of a striking clinic and knockout of the night win over Marcus Brimage, McGregor is suddenly being touted by some as a future champ, with the more drastic of his supporters already clamoring for top 10 fights. With 13 wins in his career, 12 by knockout and 1 by submission, McGregor is currently on a 9 fight winning (and finishing) streak with only only two of those fights even making it the second round. Today, we look at the man behind the hype and see just what kind of skills he brings from Ireland to ignite the passion of so many, myself included. I'll talk first about his game overall, then go into a detailed breakdown of the Brimage fight.
It should first be noted that McGregor is a southpaw. I know, I'm really hitting you hard with the high-level analysis. This is very important in talking about both his striking and his grappling (which is discussed in part 2!).
In the above still taken from his UFC debut, we see that McGregor has a very unique stance. He keeps his weight centered between his two legs and has very good posture with his back completely straight and shoulders relaxed. His stance is wider than most and also more bladed. It usually isn't actually as wide or as low as in this image, but this picture captures the essence of his stance pretty well despite those two exaggerations in this specific instance. The thing that varies most about his stance, however, is hand positioning. McGregor keeps anything but a static guard. His lead (right) hand is constantly extending and probing, while his rear (left) hand moves anywhere from chin to hip height. McGregor is able to do this because his stance is very defensively sound. His head is far enough back from the opponent that he has time to see shots coming, while his legs are always prepared to quickly spring in any direction. The knowledge that he is always prepared to defend with head movement or footwork frees his hands up to distract the opponent or move out of his vision, making his attacks harder to see coming and more threatening. The astute observer may also notice that his stance is very similar to Lyoto Machida's, and the two do share some tendencies that will be discussed.
As a southpaw, McGregor has done a very good job developing the ability to lead. From the start of most of his fights, he tries to take the center and control it as much as possible. This ensures that he always has room to move and also gives him the ability to trap opponents against the cage. Once he's done that, he immediately gets to work. His two favorite attacks to lead with are the left straight and the left front kick. One thing that's very interesting is that he likes to cover the lead hand of the opponent with his lead hand before throwing both the front kick and the straight punch. This takes the opponent's closest weapon out of the equation and essentially cuts their offense in half. It also discourages them from kicking, because it brings their attention to the hand-fighting and makes it more difficult to set up round kicks, while increasing Conor's ability to land his front kicks by diverting their attention. Whether covering the lead hand or not, McGregor really likes his lead straight left and throws it both to the head and to the body. On top of the front kick and the left straight, McGregor will also lead with a left high kick and a left inside leg kick.
He's very smart about using these techniques in combination to establish multiple threats, making each individual attack more difficult to see coming and more difficult to defend. All of his favorite attacks look similar to at least one of his other favorite attacks. In order to fully capitalize on this concept, McGregor likes to back his opponents up against the cage, meaning that they can not retreat from his strikes. This makes it even more unlikely that they will be able to defend each of his attacks properly, when he sets them all up the same way. For example, he is able to use his covering of the lead hand to land straight punches, then use the same set up to feint his straight punches and land head kicks. Notice at the end of this gif how Hill tries to shoot under what he believes will be a straight left, and gets dropped by a left head kick instead. This classic double threat is reminiscent of perhaps the greatest high kicker in MMA history, Mirko Cro Cop, as well as the man I consider the best high kicker currently fighting in MMA today, Anthony Pettis. Notice how in all three of those gifs, the opponents were responding to what they believed to be a straight left coming from a southpaw: McGregor's opponent tries to counter with a takedown, Pettis' opponent tries to parry and Cro Cop's opponent tries to slip. All three of those actions leave them vulnerable to be dropped by the high kick. Now McGregor is no where near the level of kicking ability of those two greats, but he uses the same concepts to set up his kicks as they do. Here's another example of him trying to use the same setup.
When McGregor throws his lead left straight, he sometimes follows it with a right hook to "close the door". However, that's not my favorite of his followups. My favorite one is the right uppercut. Check out this gif, where he leads with his left hand, but throws it as more of a "soft" left hand to hide the weight transfer, as he prepares to spring into the uppercut while taking a beautiful outside angle to land it from. The genius of this is that he eliminates his opponent's lead hand from the equation, but is still able to set up his own. And when opponents are used to having the lead arm extended against a southpaw, that sneaky lead uppercut can come right underneath it. It's even more effective with the way McGregor gets to the outside to throw it, because that causes the punch to come from a blind angle. I would love to see more of this punch from him, it's an excellent move against orthodox fighters and can work very well to counter the jab. Here's him using it again in the Buchinger fight.
So McGregor's offensive striking can be summed up as using front kicks and straight punches to force opponents against the cage, where he can unload with more straight punches to the head and body, high kicks, uppercuts and knees. He uses excellent footwork to ensure that when he's attacking, his opponent is always just inside punching range so that he can land his technical linear punches and his kicks without being caught in a brawl. He covers the lead hands of his opponents before most of his attacks, taking away their lead hand then working to set up his own. He uses intelligent pressure without being too wild, except for when he decides to throw some crazy kicks. His method of coming forward is extremely smart and he's able to beat his opponents up right in that overlap between kicking and punching range, especially when he has them cornered and can fully take advantage of his reach and boxing skills. I'm a huge fan of how frequently he throws his left straight to the body, it's a great double threat to have and straight body shots are much easier to land when you get the opponent against the cage. In a previous post, I talked about about how fighters can use their long range weapons to damage opponents who are less effective at that range. McGregor is very good at this, and his control of range both allows him to land his offense and allows him to have excellent counter-striking.
McGregor is good on offense, but he's shown some incredible footwork and striking ability while on defense as well. One trait he shares with arguably the second best counter-striker in MMA, Lyoto Machida, is his ability to move towards the power hand of orthodox fighters in order to counter with his power hand. In his last fight before being signed by the UFC against Ivan Buchinger, McGregor landed some excellent left-hand counters to his opponent's right hand. First, watch him slip outside a cross to dig a left uppercut into the exposed body of his opponent. He is able to do this because of the distance he keeps between him and his opponent. He is sure to stay far enough away that he has time to see and react to what the opponent is doing, otherwise he is covering their lead hand and limiting their offense. This is what I was talking about earlier in my description of his stance. One thing I really like about this gif is how he is able to throw a left straight immediately after the left uppercut. Following the uppercut with a straight on the same side is pretty advanced boxing (especially for an MMA fighter!) because the weight shift is pretty tricky to perform properly. If you watch from this angle, you can see how he partially shifts it to his right on the uppercut, but keeps most of his weight on the left hip until he transfers it to the right hip with the straight. The second punch doesn't land because his opponent doesn't back up enough, but I'm sure McGregor could make that work in a beautiful counter combination that his opponents would never see coming. Doubling up (also called lever punching) on the counter is great because the first counter that lands is hard enough to see, then the second strike coming from the same side is completely unexpected and also very difficult to see, because the opponent is expecting it to come from the other side and is trying to recover from the first hit. As a matter of fact, I managed to find a gif of him hitting Brimage with that exact combination, though the left straight is pretty quick and he doesn't fully commit to it.
Later in the fight, we see McGregor really punish the opponent for coming forward again. I know the gif isn't the best quality and it's hard to see, but pay very close attention to McGregor's feet in this exchange. He sees his opponent's commitment to attacking, so he hops back and observes. Notice how the opponent is stepping his lead foot forward and off to the right as he throws the right hand? While it's normally considered textbook strategy to get your lead foot outside the lead foot of someone in the opposite stance, McGregor shows what happens when you know how to work with the inside foot position. McGregor takes advantage of the fact that his opponent is stepping offline to pivot to his left (outside the right hand) as he throws a straight left. McGregor thus takes the inside angle to square Buchinger up as he lands a hard counter punch. This is incredible footwork because he is able to avoid being hit, land his own shot AND end in a great position, all while being in the right range at the right time. If the opponent didn't go down, Conor still would have had his angle to work more punches from. The reason I love this knockdown so much is that it proves once again that you CAN circle into the power hand of someone using the opposite stance with spectacular results. It really opens up a great angle to land your power hand if you face the opponent properly as McGregor does. Lyoto Machida knows this, of course!
The finish of this fight is one of the most beautiful counter-punches I've seen in MMA. Watch both men's feet. Notice how Buchinger establishes the "dominant" foot position to line up his right hand. What he doesn't realize is that to achieve this, he is partially squaring himself up again and giving McGregor the potential to take the inside angle. McGregor checks the lead glove of his opponent, then slips the predictable right hand coming behind it. He is able to do this because of his anticipation (he realizes the foot position his opponent takes and sees him load the right hand), which is possible because of his stance and control of distance as mentioned earlier. The beautiful part of this is the pivot he performs as he throws the knockout punch. When throwing a rear handed punch, the weight transfers to the lead leg as the punch extends. Similarly, to pivot properly on the lead foot, some of your weight must transfer there so you have a base to move around. McGregor combines these two movements to land his counter punch as he takes an angle, in the same way he did previously. This works even better because the opponent, desperate to land his punch, steps his right leg forward (far enough to switch stances) after missing to maintain his balance. This causes him to keep his weight forward and his head stationary, right in front of McGregor. With his chin fully exposed and his balance compromised (he's only halfway through the step when he gets hit), Buchinger collapses in a heap and the ref sprints in to stop McGregor from killing the man.
Conor McGregor's counter game looked very solid in this fight. He was easily able to exploit the same flaw in his opponent's footwork several times, leading to a brutal knockout. If you're interested in seeing the fight in full, which I highly recommend, you can find it here, along with his other previous fights that I've been talking about on the same channel.
The Brimage Fight
I decided to talk about this fight in isolation for a couple reasons: He was facing a fellow southpaw and an opponent who came forward much more recklessly than his previous opponents, yet he destroyed Brimage in an outstanding showcase of his skill. So I'm just gonna include some gifs of the fight and talk about why they're awesome.
This gif shows the beginning of the fight. We see Brimage come out in a very low stance, while already being the shorter fighter. McGregor throws his straight left and then a right hand to counter the aggressive forward movement, but Brimage is able to duck under and avoid them. As a result, McGregor pivots to his right and hops back at an angle, squaring Brimage up momentarily. Brimage tries to come forward anyway, and so McGregor attacks the low stance from underneath with a very technical standing knee. Notice how he perfroms a small step with his right leg to turn it outwards before throwing the knee. This allows his hips to come forward and really thrust into the target, though it looks to just slightly miss the head.
Seconds later, we see Conor adapting to the low stance again by leading with a straight left to set up his right uppercut. I was talking about how I love this combination against orthodox fighters before, but it can work just as well to split the guard of another southpaw. The uppercut doesn't land cleanly, but it still works to serve as a threat against the low stance. Watch Conor's footwork as he hops back out of range to avoid the brawl that Brimage wants and gets to the right range to land his front kick. This shows his control of distance and ability to dictate the range that exchanges occur at.
This next gif is incredible. Brimage is trying to use his right hook to steer McGregor into his powerful left hand. Instead, McGregor performs a hop step back and slightly to his left, with a subtle pivot. This takes him outside the left hand while changing his angle, and he is able to adapt to the range by countering with a left elbow as Brimage runs into it. This is a beautiful simultaneous counter, where both men are striking at the same time but McGregor's superior position allows him to land his strike while being nowhere near Brimage's attack. This is flawless timing, footwork and control of distance. As an end note, watch how McGregor continues to circle out to his left to ensure that Brimage can't followup and continue the attack before resetting.
Here we see McGregor really starting to have success with his uppercuts. Against an opponent that is shorter or in a lower stance, uppercuts are excellent techniques to threaten from below. This is important because it causes the opponent to stand taller, making their head an easier target and discouraging them from changing levels throughout the fight. The way he lands it is very nice. In the first exchange in this gif, we see McGregor throw a jab, left straight, right hook combination. Brimage's level change allows him to keep his head out of the way of the first two punches, and the hook misses as he pulls back out of range. However, McGregor is intelligent enough to realize that Brimage is responding to the jab by bending his knees and trying to counter. As a result, as McGregor comes in to reengage, he feints the jab and comes in with the uppercut. Notice how Brimage immediately stands up taller in response to the uppercut. This, combined with the kick Brimage tries to throw, allows McGregor to land a very solid right hook that knocks Brimage towards McGregor's left. As a result, he throws a second uppercut because Brimage's head is moving towards it, but Brimage is able to recover and avoid the shot while blocking. Still, it shows excellent punch selection and the ability to adapt his combinations to the reactions of his opponents both inbetween exchanges and during exchanges.
This front snap kick happens right after the above sequence. Brimage, still responding to everything by crouching, leaves himself wide open for one of McGregor's offensive trademarks as discussed above. There isn't too much to discuss, other than that this is a very smart attack for Conor both because it comes from underneath and allows him to strike from long range. The kick is thrown with pretty good form, and I like how he points the knee towards the target before snapping the ball of the foot into the chin, though more hip extension would have driven the kick into the chin harder. It also doesn't look to have connected ideally because it looks like his foot was slightly too far to Brimage's left, otherwise it might have done much more damage.
This counter left looks eerily similar to the counter elbow McGregor landed earlier. This is, once again, an excellent showcase of his footwork. He uses another hop step and throws the left straight as he lands. The difference between this and the elbow counter is the range. McGregor moves backwards farther and takes less of an angle, so he adapts by throwing the long left over the right hook instead of an elbow at the same time as the left hand from Brimage. The beauty in this is his ability to make Brimage pay for coming forward. Too often when a fighter attacks with that sort of wild aggression, the defender will simply cover up and back away. Instead, McGregor aggressively counters and never lets Brimage get any momentum going. The lesson here is that moving forward against McGregor is best done steadily and intelligently, not recklessly and explosively. If you leave openings as you engage, he will punish you for them.
And now, the finale:
The finish of this fight is something to behold. McGregor begins by landing a left uppercut, left straight combination from an inside angle, then pivots out to his left with the straight to avoid Brimage's attacks. Brimage tries to cut him off by hopping to his own right, but squares and lowers his stance as he does so, allowing Conor to land a brutal uppercut. Conor then pivots out the other way with a right hook to take a significant angle, essentially turning Brimage's southpaw stance into an orthodox one. Brimage tries to turn to correct this, but squares up again and turns right into another killer left uppercut. Conor outmaneuvered Brimage so badly here that he was able to take angles in both directions multiple times within a few seconds. His brilliant footwork kept Brimage a step behind and always turning or ducking into punches. Meanwhile, McGregor was always facing his opponent while moving around him to open up opportunities to strike without ever being out of position or easy to hit. Also note the hand positioning of McGregor. Since he is using constant and very technical footwork for defense, his hands are free to stay lower and move around more. Keeping them lower causes them to come from underneath the opponent's vision, increasing the offensive potential and eliminating any telegraphing of his uppercuts.
Final thoughts and concerns for the future:
For a young fighter so early in his career, Conor McGregor has already shown incredible promise on the feet. His last two fights suddenly showcased excellent counter-striking that had been missing from his previous fights where he had been the bully. With the footwork and technique to either lead or counter, there is a lot of substance behind the hype. However, don't jump on the bandwagon too eagerly. He is on a great winning streak, but several of his victims have losing records or are relatively inexperienced. Even Brimage is only 6-2, with Holloway, his next opponent, only 7-2. In the UFC, he's going to be facing much more experienced strikers and more importantly, much more talented grapplers. He has a lot of potential, but always keep in mind that he may get steamrolled at any time by a strong wrestler like so many exciting prospects before him (and stay tuned for my breakdown of his grappling skills, coming soon!). Similarly, he may lose in striking exchanges to guys who are able to pressure him more steadily and while leaving fewer openings. The level of competition hasn't been there yet, but that isn't a criticism of him so much as it is a fact of his career thus far that needs to be considered when trying to predict his future. If you're one of the frustrated fans who think he's just another hype train and can't wait to see it crash, I encourage you to consider the advanced skills he has shown despite the level of competition he's shown them against, because they're still useful against great fighters. If you're one of the hopelessly passionate fans expecting McGregor to run through the division and reign as the greatest champion of our lifetimes, I'd encourage you to take it down a notch and see how he does against a very solid striker in Max Holloway before getting completely out of hand with the hype. Either way, I hope that like me, you really look forward to watching his career unfold and witnessing how he adapts to the new challenges that await him in the Octagon.