In a sport where grappling is considered king, everyone knows that the big question anytime a talented striker gets to the highest levels of MMA is whether or not they can neutralize wrestling well enough to be successful with their standup. In the modern era, the greatest strikers are all highly skilled in at least one area of grappling. Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida are both incredible at forcing opponents to shoot from far away, allowing them to grab underhooks or a dominant clinch and pivot away, usually avoiding any legitimate wrestling exchanges (more on that here). Junior dos Santos will sometimes use the same method, but him and Jose Aldo have incredible scrambling ability and tend to turn their backs and limp leg to make sure that even if they go down, they only go to their knees where they can't be fully controlled before they escape. Anthony Pettis, the Diaz brothers and Carlos Conditt (who also enjoys hitting switches on Tristar fighters) are all killers off their backs with extremely active guards, hunting for submissions and sweeps. So if McGregor wants to make it to the top, he's going to have to specialize in some aspect of grappling that will allow him to be competitive with more experienced and technical opponents just enough to give him a chance of imposing his standup game. In this article, I take a look at the tangible improvements and additions McGregor has already made to his grappling.
If you haven't seen it already, you might enjoy my striking breakdown of McGregor:
We'll start out with his most recent loss against Joseph Duffy, where he was choked with an arm-triangle only 38 seconds into the fight.
Conor McGregor vs Joseph Duffy (via rip under)
This fight does not look very promising. While McGregor starts off well, he allows himself to be taken down by a very low single as he rushes in with a punching combination. In response to the takedown, he tries to reach for a guillotine but does not come close to securing the guard. As a result, Duffy is able to easily pass to side control to negate the choke before ever allowing McGregor to establish any meaningful control. Once in side control, McGregor foolishly tries to hold onto the choke. Duffy responds by flattening McGregor out and using steady pressure to weaken the grip on his neck. At the same time, he is working to isolate the left arm of McGregor and separate it from his body.
Here you can see how badly positioned that arm is. The elbow is pointed straight up with the shoulder internally rotated. You can also see how much space there is for Duffy to breathe. This is a very weak mechanical position and as a result, McGregor releases the grip on the neck soon after. However, it's already too late. Duffy capitalizes on the bad position by using his head to force McGregor's arm up further and quickly transition to mount as he sinks in an arm triangle choke. McGregor tries to roll onto his side to defend the choke but he is unable to survive and taps out quickly. Let's take this as an opportunity to discuss the guillotine choke. It's funny, because it's one of the first submissions taught to most beginners and is one of the most highly attempted ones in MMA. However, it is also one of the least successful. The problem with the guillotine is that most people learn it as a counter to the double or single leg, then start using it as a crutch when their takedown defense fails. It is a very common beginner mistake to hunt for it relentlessly and hold onto it even when it's putting you in a worse position or sapping all your strength. That's what it appears McGregor was doing in this fight. It's very tempting to go for the guillotine because there are so many times in fights where it's almost there. The basic position for the choke is one that fighters very often find themselves in, so it's very common to see people reaching for guillotines that are unlikely to succeed. Usually, it is a bad idea and a sign of someone who uses it to compensate for other skills that they have not developed. Now that isn't to say that the guillotine is a bad technique, there are plenty of fighters like Chris Weidman and Alistair Overeem who are able to skillfully set up and perform the choke. It's just that the majority of attempts you see will be people going for it as a last resort and gaining nothing but fatigue for their trouble.
Luckily, that fight was nearly three years ago and in that time, McGregor has been training with fellow UFC fighter and very talented grappler, Gunnar Nelson. During my extensive research (er...quick youtube search) I was only able to find his fifth fight after that one, so let's go fight by fight since then and talk about the improvements that he's made:
Conor McGregor vs Aaron Jahnsen:
Conor McGregor vs Aron Jahnsen - Cage Warriors Fight Night 2 (via superboxmma5)
The grappling action begins about 40 seconds into the fight, with Jahnsen backed against the cage as McGregor is looking to unload in his typical fashion. Jahnsen dives into a double leg but fails to get any penetration as McGregor backs off, so he slides his grips to the ankles of McGregor and manages to trip him while falling on his own stomach. He manages to quickly walk his legs around the back while still controlling the ankles, then get up to his knees as he tries to pick up McGregor's left leg and start working a single. He lifts the leg as McGregor stands up and tries to bully him into the cage, but Conor manages to hop back and spin him into it instead as Jahnsen fails to finish the single. He looked to have been going for a high crotch, but McGregor managed to prevent him from ducking his head under the left arm and changing levels to get his hips underneath McGregor's. It isn't exactly great that he got tripped up by such a desperate shot, but he deserves some credit for recovering and turning into the aggressor and he wasn't ever close to actually being fully taken down and controlled at any point. His work against the cage is unproductive though, and despite managing to achieve double underhooks he fails to work for any takedowns of his own as he just holds on until the ref breaks them up.
Immediately after, Conor is able to easily stuff a shot at 2:10. He simply stiff-arms Jahnsen and backs away. What needs to be acknowledged here is the fact that Conor's opponent is so desperate to take these obvious shots because he is threatened by the striking. As a result, he is unable to set up his takedown attempts and forced to shoot from a distance where Conor is easily able to react. Even though in both instances he tried to shoot as a counter to kicks, he was still completely unsuccessful. This is the type of takedown defense he needs to use more often.
The grappling begins again at around 2:20. Jahnsen gets tagged by a left on the way in and tries to shoot for a takedown but appears to completely miss McGregor's hips as his right arm goes to McGregor's right hip, instead of wrapping around his left one. McGregor is easily able to force him down to half guard and starts working to flatten him out. However, his cross face is not strong enough and Jahnsen manages to scoot his hips out to his own right and come up on his left side as he reaches for a guillotine.
In the above image, first look at the still on the left. If you look closely at Jahnsen's head, you will see that McGregor is trying to crossface him but is actually leaving a lot of room and failing to turn Jahnsen's head to the right. Instead, the pressure is light enough for Jahnsen to turn his head left and he has room to move it farther. He plants his right foot on the ground, preparing to elevate his hips so that he can create space and scoot them out. In the still to the right, Jahnsen has come up fully on his left hip and moved his head farther to his left while reaching over to threaten with the choke.
Now we see McGregor's escape. On the left, we see him using his left arm to pry open the half guard. His goal is to get to side control where the choke will be ineffective and dangerous to hold onto, so he is forcing Jahnsen's right leg down to create space for his own left leg to escape. On the right, he has escaped and successfully moved to side control, but Jahnsen is turned into him and McGregor needs to flatten him out to secure the position. The next little move is pretty cool and deserves a gif.
In that gif, watch Jahnsen's right leg closely. McGregor has stepped his own left leg forward and into Jahnsen in an attempt to block the hips and prevent him from rotating and reestablishing any type of guard. Jahnsen uses his right leg to push against McGregor's left thigh, creating just a little pocket of space as McGregor straightens the leg in response to the pressure. Jahnsen immediately slides his left knee through that space and passes his leg around Conor's as he locks up the half guard again. However, McGregor's posture is strong enough for him to resist and as Jahnsen tries to regain guard, he lets go of the choke as McGregor stands up. The rest isn't overly technical or complicated, Conor lands some ground and pound so Jahnsen rolls to his knees and Conor maintains decent control while unloading with shots. I'm a huge fan of the knees to the body he delivers, and he keeps good pressure on the head while unloading with his left hand for the finish.
What can we learn from this fight? Conor's top control isn't very heavy and leaves space for opponents to move. It's clear to see that he knows what he should be doing, but overall isn't practiced enough to have great top control or takedown defense at this point. He looked competent and not overly skilled, but already significantly better than just falling over and holding on against Duffy. It should be mentioned that he goes for his ground and pound very aggressively and is willing to sacrifice control to throw his shots since he is usually dangerous enough to finish with them.
McGregor vs O'Keeffe
In his next fight, McGregor's defensive grappling against the cage is put to the test. After badly rocking O'Keeffe early and unloading with some clinch shots, he finds himself pressed up against the cage around 4:30. The opponent tries to drive into him and attack his hips, but McGregor has his left arm threaded down and across O'keeffes body. Instead of grabbing an underhook, he is using the hand to go two-on-one and fight the grip on his right leg in order to defend the single.
The above image shows the setup of a very interesting takedown that I don't think I've ever seen before. With McGregor intent on fighting his left grip on the leg, O'Keeffe pulls McGregor's right leg across his own body, putting his right side very close to McGregor's right leg. This allows him to grab the ankle with his right hand as seen on the right. He then triangles McGregor's own legs and pulls them out, causing him to fall. Conor springs up immediately and turns to the side as he does so, while O'Keeffe stands up and quickly starts trying to sink a hook in with his left leg. McGregor tries to fight the left arm and control it, but this actually ends up allowing O'Keeffe to lock up the beginning of a standing arm triangle at 5:18. Interestingly, O'Keeffe tries to use that position to drag McGregor down to his knees, then tries to put his hooks in and take the back. This is strange because one of the most effective moves from the standing arm triangle position is to use a simple outside trip to take the opponent down, allowing you to land in side control and likely finish the choke. Instead of this, when taking the back fails, he tries to finish the choke standing and McGregor is able to push him against the cage and weaken the grip. He then bails on the position and tries to shoot another single. This time, McGregor stuffs it easily and drops some nasty elbows while stuffing the head down with his right arm, causing the knockout.
From this fight, we see again that McGregor has a decent understanding of grappling but can be put into bad positions by more experienced fighters who can stay a step ahead of him and work around his defenses. However, he also proved further that his striking is dangerous even when you're in the middle of taking him down and it doesn't take many shots for him to hurt you badly. It's still troubling that he was put in some bad positions in this fight though and it's only reasonable to conclude that more elite grapplers will be able to capitalize better than O'Keeffe and Jahnsen.
McGregor vs Hill
Cage Warriors 47: Conor McGregor v Dave Hill - Dublin, Ireland (via themmaclinic)
This is by far the most grappling-heavy fight of his career. McGregor spent a large part of the fight on the ground and was able to do much better there than the records of the two fighters would have you believe.
The action starts at 8:30. Less than 10 seconds into the bout, Hill shoots from far outside and tries to grab a single. McGregor has time to sprawl though, and despite having his right ankle momentarily controlled he is able to break free and completely stop Hill's offense. Now, where most strikers would be content to disengage and stand up, McGregor instead decides to attempt a wild guillotine. While this one doesn't turn out quite as poorly as the last one we talked about, he loses it as soon as he tries to jump into guard. This shows a lot about the mentality of McGregor and his willingness to take risks, though that may not necessarily have been the time or the place for him to be doing so. At that time, Dave Hill had never been finished and had 8 wins by submission, while McGregor had never submitted anyone. However, Conor actually does a surprisingly good job standing up.
In the first still on the right, notice first how McGregor's left leg is turned into Hill with the knee coming between their bodies. At the same time, McGregor is pushing with his right hand on Hill's shoulder. What this actually shows him doing is coming up on his right hip and creating space between his hips and Hill's hips. In the second still, McGregor has gotten fully on his side and has posted his right elbow on the ground. He uses his legs to force Hill away and pushes off with the elbow to pull his right leg out and stand up. The problem with this escape is that though it was successful, it is very basic and was not executed at a skill level that convinces me he will be able to perform it against wrestlers with heavier top pressure and a better understanding of hip control and distance management. But for now, Conor gets up and gets pressed against the fence, then manages to reverse the position after defending a trip. Hill fights to pummel for double underhooks and establishes that position, so McGregor gets his hip back and disengages.
They get back to the grappling at 10:10 when Hill tries to shoot for a single. Conor stuffs it and Hill pulls guard, but the details are lost as the ref blocks the camera. Anyway, Hill brings his leg up to mission control and starts trying to work the rubber guard. McGregor obviously has knowledge of the position, as he both tries to regain his posture by pushing on the face as he attempts to stand up, and fights to keep his left arm off the mat and out of danger. However, he is unable to fully stand at first and Hill eventually forces the hand to the mat where it can be attacked. Conor then quickly stands up as Hill tries to attack with the Omoplata. McGregor shows an interesting defense as he spins clockwise out of it and ends up in a loose reverse mounted triangle. Hill has enough space to roll over and looks like he tries to grab a single. McGregor sprawls, but gives up the postion as he tries to throw a hammerfist with his left arm. Hill avoids it and attempts to turn into McGregor, but he gets shoved down into side control and flattened out. In his eagerness to advance position, Conor tries to mount but hops onto Hills leg and gives him a free butterfly hook which Hill is able to use to transition into half guard. This really shows how unrefined Conor's game is. He's not very patient at all with his grappling attacks and never shows concern for losing position when he's on offense. In cases like this, it puts him several steps behind when he could have worked from side control and tried to mount more intelligently.
Anyway, this time Conor does a better job with his control from half guard. He establishes his underhook on the same side as the leg that's trapped and cross faces with the other shoulder. From the bottom, Hill tries to use his overhook to swing his left leg over and start attacking as Conor looks to pass. This allows Conor to stand up and land hard punches as his posture is not being controlled and Hill loses the underhook. Conor keeps attacking with ground and pound as Hill tries to close the guard. Eventually, Hill is able to push away on Conor's hips and roll over onto his knees in a desperate attempt at a single. Instead of defending that fully, Conor as usual tries to attack with more punches and this allows Hill to drive him up and into the fence.
Conor uses the same defense as in the O'Keeffe fight, with his left hand reaching down to control the left triceps of Hill and his right hand fighting the grip on his left leg. This allows him to free his leg and he quickly pivots out of the clinch.
Here, you can see that McGregor's left arm has transitioned from controlling the left arm at the triceps to underhooking the right arm. At the same time, his right hand has gone from fighting the grip to dragging the left arm across the opponent's body. This allows Conor to escape the cage to the right as he drags Hill towards the left.
The fight gets back to the ground on Conor's terms, as he drops Hill with a kick and forces him to roll on his back. McGregor goes to pounce in and do some damage, but Hill pulls off a very nice escape.
In the first still on the top left, Conor has thrown Hill's legs to the side and is preparing to leap into side control as he throws a heavy punch. However, Hill is smart enough to shoot his left leg through Conor's legs as he comes forward, forcing Conor to land in half guard on the bottom left. As a result, Hill is able to immediately get onto his side and scoot his hips out while grabbing an underhook, seen on the bottom right. With his hips free and the underhook, he is able to extract his left leg from under Conor and turns the escape into a clinch as he keeps the underhook, stands up and presses Conor against the fence. To escape, Conor takes advantage of the relatively weak pressure provided by his opponent to get out the same side (his own right but to the left of the screen). He controls Hill's left hand with his own right (similar to the escape from the cage discussed earlier) and moves away from the underhook as he pivots out with nothing to block his movement.
Near the end of the round, Conor very nearly gets taken down. Rocked pretty badly, Hill dives to his knees and desperately grabs for a single. Conor takes a knee, but doesn't try very hard to pull his right leg back and out of the grip. Instead, he tries to attack with elbows while pushing down with his right hand. Hill is able to drive into him and stand him up, then hooks his left leg around and comes close to tripping McGregor to the mat. Conor is able to stay up by stepping his left leg back and grabbing the cage, then using it to help him turn and drive his hips down and into mount. He does a very nice job of taking the back as the opponent tries to roll, but doesn't have enough time to sink in the choke.
Round 2 starts and McGregor quickly drops him with another head kick. Hill tries the exact same escape as last time, but McGregor is able to step his right knee over and pass to mount instead of getting trapped in the half guard. I really like the next sequence. McGregor locks his legs and drives his hips down, establish a position that really holds Hill in place. To escape, Hill works with his feet to try to open up McGregor's locked ankles by crossing his own ankles inside them and forcing them apart.
On the top left, Hill has just succeeded in separating the ankles. He pushed with his right foot to force them open, then used his left ankle to hook the right foot of McGregor and pull it away. This creates space for him to move and reduces McGregor's control of his hips. As soon as this is accomplished, he comes up on his sides and gets his back and hips off the mat. This gives him mobility by further increasing the amount of space he has to work with. In the last image on the bottom right, Hill shrimps and completely removes his hips from under Conor, escaping the mount. Notice that, as always, Conor is punching while this is happening.
Where Conor shows adaptation is in the following events.
First, Hill tries to use the space to sit up into a takedown. As he reaches for control of McGregor's hips, McGregor responds by standing fully up and pivoting to get his hips far away from Hill. This completely neutralizes the attack from Hill because he is in a poor position and has way too much distance to cover. As a result, he rolls back to avoid being hit instead of standing up. Conor presses the attack, and Hill again tries to sit up and grab his leg. Instead of striking from a compromised position, McGregor sprawls hard and drives Hill down, so Hill pulls guard and quickly starts going for the same attack as previously. This time, in response to the omoplata, Conor responds by posturing up hard and transitioning to side control. He frees his arm, but as he does Hill sits up and once again tries to attack with the same technique. Conor does even better this time and flattens him out into half guard as he drives forward. This is a large improvement from nearly being tripped and grabbing the cage to defend the takedown in the first round.
From the half guard, Hill gets an underhook and tries to use the same escape as before. However, Conor prevents it this time by crossfacing hard with his forearm and using a whizzer on the underhook.
Hill eventually manages to create space so McGregor stands up again and starts dropping punches. In response, Hill predictably tries to sit up and duck under for the takedown, but McGregor manages to circle out of it as he stands up. He soon finds himself in the same position, with Hill sitting up into him again.
This time, Conor reacts by threatening with the guillotine and using it to force Hill down. As he does this, Conor elevates his own left leg to get his knee high enough that he can drive it forward and pass to mount, with the guillotine still locked up.He tries to finish by posting his hand and driving down with his hips, but Hill doesn't seem close to tapping.
The above sequence shows surprising adaptation and submission hunting by McGregor. In the first still on the top left, McGregor's hand is trying to finish the guillotine. Notice how Hill is underhooking the arm that McGregor is posting with. In the second still to the right, Hill has moved that underhooking arm to McGregor's head, separating it from his body. McGregor notices this, and gives up on posting to drop his left elbow to the mat and use it to trap Hill's right arm up by his head. At the same time, he lets go of the choke and slides his right arm under, attempting to fully isolate the arm. In the last still on the bottom right, he is trying to push the arm farther forward and make room to pass his head outside, which would put him in position for the arm triangle choke. However, Hill is able to fight it off and get the underhook back. Once he does McGregor, as usual, tries to punch him.
This shows a pretty slick transition by McGregor. As Hill bucks up and rolls to his knees, McGregor quickly locks his ankles to maintain control during the roll, as seen on the top right. He then quickly reaches down with his left arm under Hill's left arm to gain more control and pull Hill backwards. As he does this, McGregor also grabs the left wrist of Hill in order to start the hand-fighting as soon as possible and get a preemptive advantage. This allows him to immediately start threading his right arm under the neck. As he tries to do that, he also starts looking to pull Hill's left arm down towards his own left leg, in order to trap it and finish the choke while Hill only has one hand to defend. He manages to momentarily do so, but never fully traps that arm with his leg. However, in the process of hunting for it, he distracts Hill enough to slide his right arm under the chin and and go for the kill. He goes palm to palm and forces the tap in a surprisingly skillful rear naked choke.
From this fight, what really stood out is McGregor's improvement during the bout. He got better and better at defending and countering Hill's techniques. And while he mostly showed a pretty loose top game and his typical strike over position mindset, his work in the second round was pretty good and I like how he chained submissions, then really secured the RNC by putting himself in a great position during the transition. There are some issues with takedown defense that will be discussed at the end of this article, but overall I think there were clear improvements made in his grappling skills.
His last fight that involved any grappling (there was none in his UFC debut) was against Ivan Buchinger, but Buchinger never went for any takedowns and there isn't much to learn from that fight other than that Conor has a lot of trouble controlling guys from top position, but that has already been firmly established and this article is already way too long.
Summary and Final Verdict:
So, this far into his career, here's what we know for sure about McGregor's grappling:
1. He's always looking for the finish and is willing to take large, sometimes completely unnecessary risks.
2. His top control is very loose and opponents often get out from under him quickly.
3. He has shown the ability to escape from the bottom position with a basic technical stand up.
4. He is often able to fight his way out of bad positions, and usually comes out on top during scrambles, even securing a nice submission win is his best grappling performance against Dave Hill.
Unfortunately, most of those things have negative aspects that I believe will be exploited by better grapplers for the following reasons:
1. Always trying to finish can be a blessing or a curse. It's extremely exciting to watch and ensures that your fights end early, but can result in you getting knocked out or submitted if done carelessly. McGregor has one hell of a killer instinct, but it isn't as refined on the ground as on the feet. When striking, he's always dangerous and constantly pressuring without leaving too many openings that he isn't prepared to defend with counters. On the ground, he's also always dangerous and pressuring but leaves a lot more openings that he is much less prepared to defend.
2. This is related to number 1. Conor is simply not good at holding people down, but he still tries to. I would not be surprised at all to see him rock an opponent, follow them to the ground and get submitted as they tie him up. Also, if he does meet someone who can match him striking, it is unlikely that he will be able to take them down and keep them there for long.
3. The only time McGregor was put on his back after the Duffy fight, he got up immediately with a pretty standard move. However, against grapplers with better hip control, he will be unable to simply execute that technique. He will first have to disrupt their base and control of him, then shrimp his hips away and stand up. It is unclear whether or not he has this capability, since in his fight he simply went for the move and pulled it off, thought not too cleanly.
4. Escaping from bad positions is not something you want to be known for. In high level grappling, it becomes extremely important to defend everything preemptively. The best way to defend a submission is to never give your opponent the grips and controls he needs to put you in it. If you want to defend a takedown, the best way is to keep turning your opponent and forcing them to stand up taller so that they can't ever shoot from close enough or from a good position. If you want to stop your opponent from holding you down, the best way is to never let yourself get flat on the mat in the first place. What I'm getting at here is that against the most dangerous ground fighters in the world, success and failure of a technique are determined long before that technique is actually attempted. McGregor has not consistently shown the ability to neutralize grappling offense in the beginning stages. While against lesser opposition it's been fine for McGregor to ignore positional threats and just keep attacking, soon he's going to be competing with guys who he won't be able to beat from bad positions; he'll only be able to beat them by completely avoiding those positions in the first place.
One of the best examples of something that has been good enough that won't be for much longer is his takedown defense. McGregor pretty consistently lets his opponents get a hold of a single leg (he won't have to worry about doubles as much, since he's a southpaw) and while his balance has been good, his affinity for striking while trying to sprawl is going to get him taken off his feet by more skilled wrestlers. His current method of defending takedowns is simply not going to hold up much longer. The way I see it, he either needs to get better at grabbing underhooks early and pivoting away before the opponent gets their hips deep and low enough to force him to sprawl (like Machida and Silva), or he needs to learn to turn away and limp leg/scramble like Aldo and dos Santos. Failing that, he needs to develop some serious guard work, though his focus should probably be on escapes, while only using submissions to off balance his opponents to create openings for sweeps and stand ups. It's unlikely that his guard will ever be dangerous enough to submit the better wrestlers in the division or even straight up sweep them, but he very well might be able to get out from under them by creating enough space to scramble out if he threatens with those techniques.
The good news for those on the hype train, he's absolutely getting better. His work in the fight against Hill really inspires hope. And we haven't seen enough of Conor off his back to know if he has a good game from there, but it's always possible that he's been putting a lot of work into that. Plus, his excellent footwork and distance control while standing should give him an edge in defending takedowns, because he'll have time to see them and will hopefully be using his uppercuts and front kicks to threaten the level change and defend preemptively (by the way I'll be posting an article about striking against grapplers on here in the future) instead of sprawling at the last minute.
So at this point in his career, McGregor wouldn't stand a change against guys in his division like Mendes and Edgar. He probably wouldn't be able to get out from under Siver either, and he'd almost definitely be submitted by aggressive grapplers like Swanson or the Korean Zombie if those fights went to the ground. That said, Conor McGregor is getting better. He has the striking tools to make opponents work harder to put him in bad positions and his work in transitions and scrambles is noticeably improving. He learns as fights progress and is dangerous at almost all times. It's gonna take a lot of thought, a lot of work and a lot of experience, but maybe in a few years McGregor's grappling will be almost as notorious as his striking.