UFC 189 will be Conor McGregor's chance to prove that he is indeed one of MMA's biggest draws, especially now that featherweight champion Jose Aldo has been forced to pull out of their much anticipated fight. We won't know until the pay-per-view numbers come in whether "The Notorious" is really the economic force the UFC claims him to be.
There is no doubt, however, that McGregor is one of the MMA world's most persistent talking points. His personality and eclectic fighting style have received no end of attention and commentary from MMA fans, journalists, and analysts alike. What this means is that, on a surface level, you've probably heard everything there is to hear about McGregor at this point. You know he has great distance management. You know he's settling more and more into the role of swarmer--and if you read my piece "The Puncher's Path," you may not be certain whether or not that's a positive development. You know that he hasn't faced a wrestler, but you should also know that his counter-wrestling appears decent nonetheless.
So today I thought I'd attempt something a little different, and give you a perspective on Conor McGregor's striking prowess that you probably haven't heard before. And to best understand this unexplored facet of the Dublin destroyer's game, we have to first cross the Irish sea and travel southeast to London where, in 1599 AD, a man named George Silver published his thoughts on the art of fighting.
PARADOXES OF DEFENCE
George Silver was an English nobleman who considered himself an expert on all things combat. In 16th and early 17th Century England, this meant not only the use of the sword, but weapons such as the quarterstaff and dagger as well. Silver was also immensely proud of what he deemed an English style of fencing, and his national pride often took the form of disparaging remarks regarding the fighting practices of foreignors--particularly Italians. Silver hated Italians about as much as McGregor claims to hate Brazilians.
Amusing xenophobia aside, however, Silver was an intelligent and thoughtful teacher of martial arts. His dislike of the Italian style of fencing, for example, was largely based on the premise that it was suited only to duelling, and not efficient or safe dueling at that, while Silver himself preferred a system of fencing that was as much at home on the battlefield as it was in the gentleman's dispute. He also looked down upon fencers, whether Italian or English, who sought to identify one perfect method of attack; when it came to arguments over whether the cut or the thrust was the superior sword strike, Silver said, "This question is not propounded according to art, because there is no perfect fight without both blow and thrust." In a way, George Silver's practical mindset wasn't so different from that of the modern mixed martial artist.
Mendes vs McGregor: The Heavy Hands Breakdown
Connor Ruebusch and Patrick Wyman analyze the main event of UFC 189 from every angle, and give their predictions for the exciting matchup.
One theme stands out in Silver's manuscript, Paradoxes of Defence. This is the concept of "true time." In Silver's own words:
The true fights be these: whatsoever is done with the hand before the foot or feet is true fight. The false fights are these: whatsoever is done with the foot or feet before the hand, is false, because the hand is swifter than the foot, the foot or feet being the slower mover than the hand, the hand in that manner of fight is tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet, and therefor that fight is false.
In other words, Silver's treatise focused on the elimination of what we now call "telegraphing." He reasoned that because the hand moved quicker than the body, and because the body moved quicker than the feet, that the surest (or "truest") way to strike out at an opponent was to move the hand first, the body second, and the feet last, lest the opponent read the intent of the arm in the movements of the whole.
This idea is no less true now than it was in 1599, and one doesn't need a sword to put the concept to use. The proof of this, as you might have guessed, is in the brash black pudding: Conor McGregor.
If you've watched Conor McGregor, then you've probably already noticed how terrifically accurate he is. When the Irishman aims to land, he does so with incredible consistency. With a connect rate of 42%, McGregor is slightly less accurate than Chad Mendes, who clocks in at about 48%. When you consider just how many strikes McGregor throws, however, the picture starts to change: in his seven minute scrap with Dennis Siver, Conor attempted a whopping 120 strikes, landing 65. In comparison, Mendes threw only 74 strikes over the course of a 10 1/2 minute tangle with Clay Guida in 2013.
Both Mendes and McGregor are masters of timing, but in two very different ways. Mendes specializes in timing the opponent and then capitalizing with precise counters. McGregor, as the more aggressive fighter, focuses almost entirely on preventing the opponent from reading his own timing. A healthy dose of feints and eye-catching techniques helps him in the pursuit of this goal, but it's the "true time" of his strikes that really sets him apart from the pack.
Just one small example first, from McGregor's recent tilt with the badly outmatched Dennis Siver.
1. McGregor paws and measures with his lead hand, finding a comfortable range from which to strike.
2. A slight twitch is all that betrays the movement of his right hand, which begins its trajectory toward Dennis Siver's face.
3. McGregor's right foot follows, stepping forward and covering just enough distance for the punch to land.
4. Siver is left swatting at the punch after it has already cracked him on the chin.
McGregor has changed up his tactics somewhat in recent years, vacillating between "true" punches and full-bodied power shots. His development of the jab you see above has enabled the increased use of these "sit-down" punches; the right serves to blind and distract the opponent, effectively hiding the loading of the next shot. But nearly all of Conor's single pot shots are thrown in this manner, hand first, then body and legs. McGregor's lead left stands out in this regard.
These "true" punches are almost certainly McGregor's best hope against Chad Mendes who, in addition to his stellar wrestling, is one of the finest counter punchers on the UFC roster. With minimal telegraphing, McGregor is able to pick his shots as he pleases, keeping the opponent on the reactive while giving them very few chances to do anything about it.
Of course, no punch is impossible to time. And the very mechanics that allow McGregor to hide his punches may also leave him susceptible to a devastating counter should Mendes identify the opening he needs.
To George Silver, the perfect striking distance was one from which the fighter could strike using only the time of his hand--close enough to the opponent that no further footwork was required. In order to obtain this placement, Silver advised a defensive approach. From his Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence:
There is but one good way to gather upon your enemy, guardant. All other are dangerous & subject to the blows on the head or thrust on the body.
Silver's idea is that, until the perfect range is obtained, the attack is not to be made. In advancing upon the opponent (what he terms "gathering upon") Silver believed it best to remain on the defensive, ready to ward off an attack and counter should the need arise. Stepping in and attacking simultaneously would, in Silver's mind, tie the movement of the hand to that of the foot, and therefore give away some of the advantage of the hand's speed.
Now, there are of course times in fistfighting when it serves on well to enter with an attack. This is, in fact, one of the primary purposes of the traditional jab, a punch which serves to set up and disguise a follow-up as much as it does to harm the opponent. A stepping jab may be countered, but it may also prevent the counter, and the fact that it can be backed up by a second hand makes it a very viable weapon. Silver's adversaries were armed with sharpened steel, not fists, and so a possible counter was a far greater risk. Still, his concept of "true time" works in an unarmed context, in that a planted, well-positioned strike will always be more effective and more difficult to time than one which requires much movement to land.
Conor McGregor certainly has an idea of the distance from which to throw his strikes, but it doesn't necessarily fit Silver's idea of a perfect fight.
1. McGregor has Siver at the fence and beginning to turn away, giving the Irishman a potent angle.
2. McGregor takes a small step forward with his right foot, but fails to do the same with his left.
3. The quick left hand shoots out without hesitation . . .
4. . . . and connects with Siver's jaw.
5. Not only does McGregor's head fall forward with the punch, but his back foot leaves the ground.
6. And he drifts, unbalanced, toward Siver even after landing his blow.
Judging by the lines on the canvas, McGregor's left hand above carries him a full foot or more closer to his opponent. What's worse, his failure to bring his feet with him, or get them completely into position before unleashing his strike, means that his jaw led the journey, a ripe target for a counter. And with a newfound fondness for combination punching, McGregor has also revealed that, once his weight moves forward and his head nears the opponent, it doesn't come back willingly. Even Dennis Siver, nowhere near Mendes in the counter punching department, was able to land clean counters on Conor's chin at several points in their fight. These counters failed to produce results, and came at the cost of a sustained and very vicious beating, but the fact that they landed must be noted.
All of which presents an interesting quandary. Hand before foot is most certainly a good rule to fight by, but chin before foot? Not so much. How valuable are McGregor's impeccably timed punches if they come at the cost of responsible defense? Does the difficulty of reading those punches negate the risk of throwing them? George Silver would recognize McGregor's timing as true, but no objective observer could call his fight perfect. The question remains: is it imperfect enough for Chad Mendes to win?
I don't know the answers, but the mere existence of questions such as these is surefire evidence that McGregor vs Mendes is a fight worth watching. The rules of fighting don't change much, but year after year, century after century, the players manage to keep it interesting.
For a full, in-depth analysis of McGregor, Mendes, and the style matchup between the two, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.