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UFC Boston - Conor McGregor: The Puncher's Path

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Conor McGregor is a true talent, gifted with natural power like few other men in his division. But they say that power corrupts . . .

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

All fighters change over time. The rigors of training, the intense highs and lows of brutal combat before thousands of screaming, bloodthirsty fans, the lasting damage which accumulates more and more with each passing bout . . . it's a grueling process, and no man comes out quite the same at the end.

There's a very particular thing that happens to fighters blessed with that most mysterious and fearsome talent: power. Most men possess enough natural power to separate an opponent from his senses, but some do it without even trying. The rare few--the truly "heavy handed"--knock men out on accident. They can finish a fight at absolutely any moment. No man is more sought after in the fight game, no talent more prized.

But is it really a gift?

~^~

It's January 24th, 1976. George Foreman stands in the ring across from Ron Lyle, a massive, powerfully built man with a record of 33-3-1.

This is the first time that Big George has challenged a credible opponent since October of ‘74, when he was famously stopped by Muhammad Ali, after battering the former heavyweight champion mercilessly for seven straight rounds.

To Foreman's mind, it wasn't Ali that beat him. It was exhaustion. Something must have been wrong with him, the way he sees it, and he is determined to prove that he is still the greatest heavyweight on earth. In 1975 he traveled to Toronto to challenge five men in one night. His opponents--Alonzo Johnson, Jerry Judge, Terry Daniels, Charley Polite, and Boone Kirkman--were journeymen, most of them with losing records aside from Kirkman, who had nonetheless experienced four straight losses leading up to the bout. Foreman beat every one of them with ease, sadistically mocking his victims as he sent blow after thundering blow crashing against their chins. Meanwhile, Ali sat ringside, and mocked Foreman just as viciously, loudly advising his opponents to lay on the ropes and tire the big man out, just as Ali himself had done six months before. This infuriated Foreman, and he took out his rage on his hapless opposition. By the end of the night, Foreman was holding his hands high as the crowd hurled their derision--in the form of jeers and empty bottles--into the ring.

The "experiment" was supposed to have proved some point about Foreman's endurance, but all it really did was reveal how highly he thinks of himself, and how little he cares for losing. This is not a man who learns lessons from his losses. This is a man who thinks himself incapable of suffering true defeat.

This man thinks he is invincible, and Ron Lyle is about to test that.

~^~

Conor McGregor is the biggest name to emerge in MMA's lower weight classes since Urijah Faber. At his weight class of featherweight, there are perhaps only two other fighters who can justifiably claim to exceed the tremendous skill that the Irish phenomenon possesses on the feet. What's rarely talked about is the fact that no one at 145 can claim to hit harder.

Perhaps the supreme smoothness of his movements has served as some kind of disguise, but the fact is that Conor McGregor is a puncher, through and through. The power in his hands is tremendous, and in 16 professional bouts he has knocked out 14 opponents. Dave Hill, one of the few to retain his consciousness during a bout with McGregor, still saw the canvas a number of times before succumbing to a rear naked choke in the second round. Of the vanquished, only Max Holloway was able to take McGregor to the final bell, in a bout that saw McGregor tear his ACL in the second round.

Before coming to the UFC, McGregor was an aggressive counter puncher. Coming forward, he would pressure his opponents, draw out an attack, and then return with one of his own. He was very, very good at it.

In December of 2012, he walked Ivan Buchinger down, peppering him with laser-accurate punches and kicks. Early on in the bout, McGregor missed with one of his eccentric spinning kicks, the fruit of some exploration into the Brazilian art of Capoeira. As the kick missed, McGregor found himself slightly off-balanced, but remained unfazed.

Leaning toward his opponent, McGregor played with elevation, feinting up and down to make himself a more difficult target. His feet well under him now, McGregor slid toward Buchinger, using his hand to cover Buchinger's left and invite the counter right. Buchinger obliged, throwing high just as McGregor popped up tall, only for the Irishman to dip right back down, latch onto his hips, and take him to the ground. A beautifully executed counter takedown--and from a vaunted striker, no less.

McGregor continued to dominate his foe, playful but professional. For nearly four minutes he put on a show. It seemed like he couldn't miss; it seemed like Buchinger couldn't do anything but. Finally, with a little more than a minute to go in the first round, McGregor ended it.

It wasn't power alone that brought Buchinger low. With masterful control, McGregor side-stepped with Buchinger, keeping himself always in front of Buchinger without ever coming too close. Taunting Buchinger with his hands in the air, the southpaw McGregor nonetheless made sure to extend his right hand, using it to feel the distance between himself and his foe.

It was with this tool that McGregor predicted what turned out to be Buchinger's final attack. His open palm invited Buchinger to jab, and jab he did, a throwaway punch designed to draw the Irishman's eye and set him up for the big finish. McGregor's eye was not drawn, and it was Buchinger who wound up finished. He lunged in with a right hand, determined to find McGregor's elusive chin. McGregor slipped, and Buchinger barely had time to realize his mistake before a short left hand came crashing into his jaw.

No artless puncher, this McGregor. Rather, he had shown himself to be a brilliant counter fighter with considerable power. Three months later, he would find himself squaring off with one Marcus Brimage in the world's biggest stage for mixed martial arts: the UFC.

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Two minutes in, and Foreman looks confident. He moves around Lyle, not quite dancing as he did in Toronto, but not picking the shorter man apart either. For a man who became heavyweight champion of the world by knocking out Joe Frazier in two rounds in 1973, this is strange. Years later, Foreman would admit that he had feared Frazier--even proclaiming that had the great Philly fighter looked down, he would have noticed Big George's big knees quivering. Now, however, it's clear that Foreman doesn't fear Lyle in the slightest. He doesn't even respect him.

With twenty seconds remaining in the first round, Lyle flashes his jab and lands a thudding overhand right that shakes Foreman's foundations. The giant stumbles, but refuses to go down. Held up by pride, he clinches, trying to tie up the arms of his aggressor in order to make it out of the round.

When the bell rings, Foreman is still on his feet. Wobbly, he returns to his corner, looking almost baffled by the turn of events. How could this man--this Ron Lyle--possibly hurt him? Not even Ali had truly been able to hurt him. No one could hurt George Foreman.

As the referee orders the seconds out, Foreman remains on his stool, his eyes fixed on the man across the ring. Just a man, and nothing more. Not invincible like himself. He chews his mouthpiece, tensing his unbreakable jaw in preparation for the work to come. Lyle is just a man, and in his seven years as a professional Foreman has knocked out 31 other men just like him.

The bell rings. Foreman rises, and resolves to do it again.

~^~

McGregor's UFC debut turned out to be a star-making performance. It didn't matter that he was matched against Marcus Brimage, a solid if mostly unimpressive featherweight. It didn't matter that the fight was set among the preliminaries and not on the main card. All that mattered was that McGregor knocked Brimage out, and looked good doing it.

McGregor's focus was superb. As Brimage charged him again and again, he pulled himself just out of range and countered, landing uppercuts and front kicks with ease. A minute into the bout, Brimage was already staggering after the bearded Irishman, who continued to punch off the back foot. And these punches, however they may look, were hard. Devastating blows.

A series of bolo-like uppercuts, and Brimage went down. McGregor pounced on him, and the fight was stopped.

As he raised his hands in victory, McGregor must have been satisfied, and even a little surprised, at how easy it was.

~^~

Foreman is hitting, hitting, hitting, but Ron Lyle is still fighting. In round two, Foreman had forced his way back into the bout. When, at the end of the round, Lyle got in with a counter, Foreman locked eyes with him. "That won't happen again," he seemed to say.

Now it's round three, and Foreman is determined to finish Lyle for good, the shame of the first round driving him on. Big George lands combinations of three and four punches apiece, but Lyle keeps responding. He's not throwing as much as George, no, but he's not quitting either. After every Foreman left hook he answers, sending that same right hand over the top and into Big George's face. Foreman keeps throwing.

Finally a shot manages to stagger Lyle, but the big man throws back all the same. And again. Foreman refuses to back down. One, two, three. They trade right hands, then left hooks. And again. Foreman is throwing everything he has into these blows, nearly upending himself in the process. This isn't boxing anymore. This is war.

At last, Lyle stumbles to the canvas, ending up in an awkward heap at Foreman's feet. The former champion walks to his corner, his chest heaving from the effort. Finally, he thinks to himself, he has done it. No one can withstand his power.

In center ring, Ron Lyle rises to his feet.

~^~

Last September, McGregor fought Dustin Poirier. The two had exchanged bitter words for weeks leading up to the bout. Evidently, Poirier felt that the size of McGregor's head exceeded his accomplishments. In the promo video before the fight, McGregor scoffs, and insists that all of this--the trash talk, the braggadocio--is just business.

When the fight began, it seemed anything but.

Poirier connected with low kicks early, aiming to wear the Irishman down. McGregor shook his head at these feeble attacks, inviting Poirer to try something more serious. Poirier threw another low kick. McGregor dropped his hands to his waist and stuck his chin out. An invitation that few men could refuse, and Poirier took the chance to fling a left hand at the Irishman's face.

For those used to McGregor's slick defensive skills, this came as a bit of a shock. There McGregor was, inching his way into range, openly inviting an attack. And yet when Poirier bit . . . he seemed unsure of what to do. Covering up with both hands, McGregor barely managed to block the brunt of Poirier's blow. Why had he given Poirier his head without planning an escape route should the man choose to strike? Unless, of course, McGregor never expected him to.

Seconds later, McGregor made an attack of his own.

McGregor stepped in first, and Poirier stepped in to meet him. Each man threw a left hand. Each man connected.

Something seemed different about McGregor. This wasn't the same fighter who had so effortlessly picked apart Ivan Buchinger just before coming to the UFC. This wasn't the same man who had danced around Marcus Brimage in his debut. No more testing and measuring range with his right hand. No more subtle manipulation of distance. No more setting and springing of traps. This Conor McGregor was here to do one thing and one thing only: put his hands on Dustin Poirier.

Less than two minutes into the first round, he succeeded.

And that's all it took. Just a glancing blow. Just one punch, right behind the ear, and Poirier collapsed. Within seconds, the fight was stopped.

McGregor cavorted around the cage, screaming his greatness into the crowd. But maybe, somewhere in the back of his mind, there was a small niggle. Not a doubt, but an itching feeling. A hint of bemusement that this fight hadn't been quite as easy as he had expected.

~^~

Foreman can't believe it, but Lyle is still conscious. More than that, he's fighting back again. His opponent's back to the ropes, Foreman smashes away, each punch more desperate than the last. His skills are waning as he grows weary, but his furious pride fuels him on. Lyle bulls into him, returning the fight to center ring. Foreman sticks his left into the enemy's chest, preparing to unleash another barrage. Ron Lyle musters his strength, and counters.

There's no holding on this time, as Foreman plummets to the canvas face-first. The big man crawls, child-like, to his feet. He is dazed, hurt, and enraged like never before. As the referee finishes the count, Foreman looks straight past him, at the man who dared to knock Big George Foreman down. The round is over, and in the commentary booth Howard Cosell mentions that there is no saving by the bell in this fight.

George Foreman knows otherwise. Beating the count, he returns to his corner, shooting a glance over his shoulder on the way. As he sits on his stool, he looks over his cornermen's heads and stares, hatefully, at Ron Lyle. Foreman's mouth is open, and he gasps for air. Just a few more seconds in the round, he seems to think, and I would've had him.

~^~

At this point, it is impossible to call Conor McGregor's UFC career anything but a resounding success. In four bouts, he's finished three opponents in the first round. With each and every win, his reputation grows, and his confidence along with it. On the surface, he seems unbeatable--a champion just waiting for his belt.

But there's a subtle change at work within.

Yes, McGregor is facing better competition than ever before. It is understandable that bonafide UFC veterans would pose more problems than veterans of the regional British circuit, and we can use this explanation to brush his increased propensity for taking shots under the rug. Still, with each successive win McGregor's approach seems to mutate, growing further and further apart from the process that brought him to the big stage in the first place.

McGregor counter punches less and less these days. He rarely measures his opponents with his lead hand anymore, and seems to frequently eschew his excellent head movement and footwork altogether.

And as all of these tricks recede from view, there is one thing that McGregor does more now than ever: punch. On the one hand, it's good to see a mixed martial artist embracing the practice of combination punching. But on the other, it's curious to see a precise and skilled striker ignoring set-ups and feints in favor of longer and longer sequences of blows.

McGregor seems to be learning that he doesn't need the full extent of his skill to win. For the most part, he's right. He can take an opponent's shot just fine, and his opponents can't take his. It seems obvious, really, to worry less about the small things and focus more on hitting the opponent, because all it takes is one to end the fight. And each time the opponent defends or counters, it just takes one more.

This is the puncher's path, and it leads to oblivion.

~^~

Foreman is hitting, and getting hit. Lyle refuses to quit of his own accord, but he is breaking. George can feel it. He hammers his foe against the ropes, just like he did to Ali back in Zaire. Lyle covers up, but the punches are getting through, one after the other. He won't stand for much more. He can't. No one can survive Foreman's power.

One, two, three, four--Foreman hurls left hook after left hook at Lyle's head. Lyle counters over some of them, but the counters don't hurt anymore. Nobody can punch like Big George. When the lefts alone don't do the trick, Foreman, adds in the right hand, mindlessly swinging, left-right, left-right, left-right. Every blow is landing. Lyle is breaking. Foreman keeps punching.

Finally Lyle collapses forward, leaning into the chest of the man who continues pounding at his skull. He falls to his knees, exhausted, and nearly unconscious. He can't take anymore. He can't even stand. The referee counts him out, and it's all over.

Foreman walks to the ropes. The audience is screaming, cheering--men and women jumping up and down in wild celebration of his great victory. He is too exhausted to raise his arms, so his gathering entourage does it for him.

Looking into the crowd, he smiles. They came for blood, and he gave it to them.

And all it took was one more punch.

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For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. This week's episode is all about aggressive counter striking, with the focus on Conor McGregor and Donald Cerrone.