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UFC 205 Gaps in the Armor: How Conor McGregor beats Eddie Alvarez

Bloody Elbow's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch details the ideal strategy for Conor McGregor to defeat lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205.

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Conor McGregor tackles a monumental task at UFC 205. His will be the first chance a UFC champion has had to take another champion's belt since UFC 94, nearly eight years ago. McGregor, the reigning (but not quite defending) featherweight champ will take on Eddie Alvarez, the self-proclaimed "Underground King" who shocked everyone but his most diehard fans when he dethroned incumbent champion Rafael Dos Anjos in July. Had things shaken out differently, Conor McGregor might have had that fight, but for a Dos Anjos injury and a subsequent, humiliating loss to skilled journeyman Nate Diaz.

One rematch and half a year later, and here we are. McGregor vs Alvarez for the lightweight strap. Interestingly, McGregor's head coach John Kavanagh has dubbed Alvarez a "slightly easier" path to the title than Dos Anjos. He's probably right. Dos Anjos' commitment to pressure fighting combined with his tremendous strength and world-class grappling--not to mention his remarkable stamina--would have made him a stiff test for The Notorious.

But "easier" and "easy" are not the same thing. Stumbling into a more fortunate matchup does not grant McGregor the wherewithal to simply wing it. Indeed, his shocking loss to Diaz may have put Conor off the idea of winging it in general for some time. Alvarez is tough, and more experienced than McGregor, both in overall quality and quantity of opposition. He has a brawler's nerve and a boxer's skill, and McGregor will have to calculate the best way to neutralize Alvarez, lest he be neutralized himself.

To that end, I have put together a basic strategy for the UFC's biggest star. In ascending order of importance, these are the keys to victory for Conor McGregor against Eddie Alvarez.

3. Pressure with positioning, not volume
2. Uppercuts and straight shots to the body
1. Make Alvarez lead, and counter his counters

To better understand the logic behind these tactics, and the strategy they comprise, we have to take a long hard look at both Alvarez and McGregor. Let's start with key number three.

3. Pressure with Positioning, not Volume

There is little doubt that Conor McGregor will attempt to pressure Eddie Alvarez. Aggression has become the tone of every McGregor fight since his UFC debut, three and a half years ago. It makes sense. McGregor is tremendously powerful, with a remarkable 74 percent knockout rate. Of the two UFC performances in which McGregor did not knock his opponent out, one saw his adversary hit the deck three times, and the other saw McGregor grapple his way to a win after a total ACL tear in the second round. In other words, there are two ways to keep Conor McGregor from knocking you out: 1) be inhumanly tough, or 2) hope his knee explodes.

Power doesn't guarantee victory, however, and Eddie Alvarez already proved himself capable of defusing a fighter with many of McGregor's attributes. In Rafael Dos Anjos, Alvarez bested a heavy-handed southpaw with a penchant for pressure fighting. That sounds a lot like Conor McGregor, but for a few important distinctions.

For one, McGregor is an inch taller than Dos Anjos with four more inches of reach. His legs, too, are longer than those of the former lightweight champion by two inches. Frame isn't everything, of course, but McGregor does have the style to complement his dimensions. He is considerably faster than Dos Anjos, not only lighter on his feet but significantly quicker of arm. His kicks too, a valuable weapon for corralling and pecking away at his opponent from a safe distance, are less powerful than RDA's, but quicker and more precise.

Even outside the featherweight division, McGregor is an impressive physical specimen. His dimensions are just about ideal for a combat athlete, with broad shoulders, a narrow torso, and long limbs. And if there is any truth to the notion that a big head means a solid chin, then McGregor's durability is a genetic guarantee. Compared to Alvarez, McGregor will be the bigger man. The UFC lists both men at 5'9", but McGregor appears to be at least an inch taller than The Underground King, and he outreaches him by about five inches--a massive advantage.

That body type--and the know-how to make it work--will be key to McGregor's pressure tactics, and should make this fight a very different one from Alvarez's last.

Thus, the first part of our strategy: McGregor needs to do everything in his power to pressure Alvarez without sacrificing his innate advantages. To best understand this, let's first look at the way that Rafael Dos Anjos applied pressure to Eddie Alvarez.

1. As Alvarez's back nears the fence, Dos Anjos steps right into range.

2. Dos Anjos flashes the jab.

3. And quickly brings up a left high kick, just clipping Alvarez on the top of the skull.

4. Alvarez, always ready with a counter, responds with a glancing right hand down the pipe.

5. Dos Anjos isn't done yet, of course: he clips Alvarez with a jab.

6. Which only prompts Alvarez to fire back with another punch, this one a slipping wide right. Dos Anjos manages to block it.

7. Before whiffing on a left of his own.

I usually make a point of choosing decisive examples for my articles, which makes this sequence, in which neither fighter lands a particularly clean shot, an odd duck. What matters here, however, are the not the punches and kicks, but the distance, and the approach. If you look at the fight clock in those frames, you will see that this entire exchange lasts less than two seconds. In that time, both fighters stand toe-to-toe, guaranteeing one another at least a decent chance of finding the mark, and trade blows. Neither man makes himself an easy target, but it's fair to say that both get a few good chances to get their licks in. In other words, it is an equal playing field.

It is no accident that this sequence occurs mere seconds before Alvarez staggers Dos Anjos and successively beats him into oblivion in the form of a standing TKO.

The distance and the volume made sense for Dos Anjos--they allowed him to constantly apply pressure to an opponent known for his quick footwork. But they also put him at risk, and the gamble failed to pay out. Now compare that to the approach McGregor took to Nate Diaz. A very different opponent from Alvarez, but one against whom McGregor was perfectly happy to pressure.

1.Having just stunned Diaz, McGregor postures to threaten him.

2. Diaz has no choice but to throw, but McGregor is far enough away that a tiny pull is all that's needed to evade his jab.

3. McGregor follows the jab back with a glancing left hand over the top.

4. Again, McGregormaintains his distance without letting Diaz off the fence.

5. Nate thinks about a lazy side kick to back McGregor off.

6. By the time he has reconsidered, however, McGregor chops away at his extended lead leg with a hard kick.

7. Realizing the enormity of his position, Diaz squares up, drops his weight . . .

8. . . . and tries for a long jab. But once again, McGregor needs only a slight pull to evade.

9. And a left hand to counter. This one, a perfectly straight shot to the chin.

10. Diaz tumbles.

Two things should jump out immediately. Firstly, McGregor's distance is considerably longer than that of Dos Anjos. This is particularly notable because Dos Anjos, a southpaw, found himself fighting an orthodox fighter--in what's called an "open stance" engagement. That arrangement tends to automatically create a larger gap between the two fighters, neither of whom can move straight forward without stumbling over one another's feet. Here, on the other hand, McGregor is faced with a fellow southpaw, both men free to step forward right between the legs of their opponent and shorten the range considerably. Despite that--and despite Diaz's reach advantage, actually an inch longer than McGregor's and therefore six longer than Alvarez's--McGregor maintained as large a gap as he could allow while still staying within a step of striking distance at all times.

The other important facet of this sequence is McGregor's volume. Namely, the fact that he doesn't throw any. Everything here is either a counter or a one-off pot-shot. Everything well-placed and timed, much of it set up by Diaz's own mistakes. This is a long-armed style of aggressive counter punching, and it makes absolute sense for McGregor against Alvarez.

McGregor does not need to rush in blindly with the aim of overwhelming Alvarez. Given the opportunity, Eddie will bite down on his mouthguard and fire back until either he or McGregor falls down. Too risky. Instead, McGregor needs to create the illusion of aggression through careful, methodical pressure. He needs to stay close enough that, looking at McGregor's gangly arms, Eddie feels a tingle at the back of his neck. Close enough that Alvarez knows he can be hit with a step-jab at any moment. On the same hand, he needs to stay far enough way that Alvarez doesn't get many chances to counter, and far enough away that McGregor can resist his own killer instinct.

Look, the Notorious is no fool, but he is human, and he has his faults. Conor struggled tremendously to avoid the ground game of Nate Diaz in their second fight at UFC 202. Despite knocking his enemy down three times, McGregor had to visibly restrain himself from diving into Diaz's guard in an attempt to finish him off. It was not a one man job, either. McGregor's corner screamed themselves hoarse urging him to back away the moment Diaz's butt hit the canvas. Clearly the entire McGregor team--including Conor himself--was well aware of his willingness to wade into enemy territory. As McGregor faces a litany of new opponents, each one in some way tougher and better prepared than the last, he will need to resist his base urges. He will need to further hone his aggressive style, from blunt tool to surgical instrument.

Essentially, McGregor needs to look threatening and feel threatening without actually being all that threatening. So long as Alvarez is convinced of the danger--an impression which McGregor should be able to enforce with a few well-placed pot-shots--McGregor will be able to control the fight without ever having to wade into his opponent's optimal range.

2. Uppercuts and Straight Shots to the Body

Point two and we're talking about stamina.

Until proven otherwise, we can safely assume that Conor McGregor is not a marathon fighter. After gassing badly in his first fight with Nate Diaz, McGregor came into the rematch with a new focus on conditioning and a gameplan built on the notion of energy conservation. He biked and ran, and managed his diet to a painfully exacting degree. In the fight, he dialed back his aggression a few notches and placed his shots more carefully. And the fruit of these efforts? Well, McGregor's stamina held up for about eight and a half minutes instead of just seven. Not a good sign for the man going forward.

There is the possibility that McGregor's stamina issues will be resolved by fighting at 155 pounds, which just might be his optimal weight, but there remains reason for concern. It is likely that McGregor, being such a dynamic, burst-oriented fighter, will simply never match men like Nate Diaz for reliable stamina.

So with no easy remedy in sight, McGregor will have to account for his shallow gas tank in other ways, especially as his opposition starts to build their strategies around the apparent flaw. The simplest solution is for McGregor to bring others down to his level. Eddie Alvarez is a proven five-round fighter, but if he starts slowing down after two rounds, then he won't be able to capitalize when McGregor does the same.

Following the logic of our first key point, the best way for McGregor to do this is to attack the body from long range, preferably using straight punches and straight kicks, which are considerably harder to catch than round kicks. In this way, McGregor can maintain the optimal range we have already discussed without sacrificing his invaluable assault of Alvarez's torso.

The added benefit of these straight shots is that they should discourage Alvarez from shooting for a takedown. Eddie may not possess a truly explosive double, but he is a dogged wrestler, and just as happy to grind his opponent up against the fence as he is to complete the initial shot. To see McGregor employing this tactic to great effect, we need look no further than McGregor's back-and-forth fight with Chad Mendes at UFC 189.

1. Pressuring again, McGregor advances as Mendes nears the fence and briefly stops circling.

2. McGregor draws Chad's eyes with a lingering jab.

3. And changes levels, stabbing Mendes square in the gut with a stiff cross.

4. Mendes is driven bodily backward by the blow.

5. A few minutes later, McGregor attempts the same set-up.

6. Only this time he attacks the head. The shot glances off and goes wide.

7. At the same time Mendes ducks under . . .

8. . . . and completes an excellent double leg takedown.

The Mendes fight, too, was one in which McGregor started to slow down after a tough first round. The breakneck pace of the fight, perhaps compounded by McGregor's nagging knee injury, does not make it particularly surprising that the Irishman faded going into the second frame. But by consistently punishing Mendes' body, he put himself in a position of strength nonetheless.

Compared to the head attack, there is no questioning the body shot's efficacy as both a energy-sapper and a first line of takedown defense. The beauty of the straight line body shot lies in its stopping power. From straight punching distance, McGregor is already a little too far away to take down easily. But by driving straight for the solar plexus, he gives Mendes an impassable obstacle--and a painful one, at that. There is no easy way for Mendes to step through that right hand, nor can he duck under it. Indeed, opponents who misjudge and attempt to duck a punch to the belly or chest often end up ducking chin-first into the strike, turning an attritive blow into a decisive one. And because the torso is a much larger target than the head, the chances of glancing off and leaving oneself exposed are significantly decreased.

1. Make Alvarez lead, and counter his counters

As you might guess, our final point is intrinsically connected to the first two. As noted above, Conor McGregor must enforce his range to win. He must pressure Eddie Alvarez without engaging in the kind of fight that would give Eddie a fair shot at his chin. But pot-shots may not be enough. McGregor needs to create exchanges that Alvarez willingly throws himself into, only to discover their true danger.

He needs to make Alvarez lead.

McGregor's effectiveness at long range is an advantage, in part, because it denies Alvarez the chance to counter and exchange on relatively equal terms. This in itself would justify the tactic of pressuring from a safe distance. The added benefit, though, is that it creates a gulf which, if he hopes to score any points whatsoever, Alvarez must cross. If McGregor diligently keeps his optimal distance, then Alvarez will have no choice but to traverse the gap in an effort to equal the playing field.

This would be huge. By far, Eddie Alvarez's best offensive skillset is his counter punching. He has excellent timing, considerable power, and a keen eye for openings. The longer the fight goes on, the better Alvarez will be able to asses McGregor's habits and identify the correct counters to them.

All of that goes out the window if Eddie is consistently made to go first. For someone who claims a boxing style, Eddie is woefully restricted to his right hand. He feints the jab, and flicks out his left hand to measure distance, but very rarely does he establish that punch with any authority. If Eddie Alvarez means to hit you cleanly, he will almost always attempt to do so with his right. See how it worked out for him against Gilbert Melendez.

1. Stuck on the end of Melendez's jab, Alvarez feels compelled to attack.

2. He drops his weight and steps forward, flashing a jab at the same time.

3. Because he has failed to inspire any respect for his jab, however, Melendez has no reason to buy the feint, and easily sees this right hand coming.

4.Perhaps converting an attempted block, Melendez chins Alvarez with an up-elbow.

5. Followed by a right hook over the shoulder as Alvarez gets his feet out of position.

The problem with a lead right is that it comes from a long way away. In boxing terms, the right hand is literally the farthest possible weapon from the opponent at any given moment, and in fighting distance equals time. The more distance that right hand has to cover, the more time the other guy has to react. And because Alvarez does not have many sophisticated set-ups for this right hand, anticipating the attack becomes easier still.

This tendency is already a problem for Alvarez against righties. Faced with the longer distance kept by a lanky southpaw opponent, it stands to be downright catastrophic. And fortunately for Conor McGregor, he too is an excellent counter puncher. In fact, even in his two breakneck fights with Nate Diaz, McGregor attacked almost entirely with counters set up by his pressure. He seems to relish making his opponent blink and then capitalizing on his mistakes. When it comes to countering, there is one beautiful punch which McGregor prefers over all others: the hop-step cross.

1. Marcus Brimage drops his weight and feints a jab; McGregor knows an attack is incoming.

2. Brimage leaps forward with a wild right hook. McGregor first slides back to evade the strike.

3. As the punch goes wide, McGregor begins his hop-step. It is a two-step process in one seamless motion. First, his lead foot jumps briefly toward his rear foot.

4. Then his rear foot adjusts to its proper position, at the same time driving his body weight forward into a snapping left hand, which catches Brimage right on the jaw.

5. Even better, the maneuver leaves McGregor at an angle, from which he can choose his next move at will.

The hop-step counter has been a major part of McGregor's game since the earliest days of his career. It was with this punch that he knocked out Ivan Buchinger, stunned Marcus Brimage, peppered Dennis Siver, and reduced Jose Aldo to rubble. It is a quick, decisive blow, perfectly suited to a man with McGregor's natural punching power. And the footwork involved allows McGregor a great degree of creative freedom. No matter how much or how how little his opponent advances, McGregor can adjust his feet accordingly, and always give his arm just enough room to explode straight through the target. Knockout.

Fortunately, Alvarez is not shy about leading when he feels he has no choice. When he isn't given the chance to counter, he will look to force the fight by other means. Coming forward with his chin exposed, it is easy to see Eddie Alvarez as an almost willing victim for McGregor's trademark shot. And it is with the ability to consistently land that KO punch that McGregor's whole strategy comes together.

Eddie Alvarez is no pushover, but McGregor does have a clear path to victory in this fight. What matters is that he continues to prove himself as the kind of fighter who can not only learn from past mistakes, but proactively change and grow to avoid future ones. We do not yet know who the next Nate Diaz is, but it would be utter hubris to assume that Eddie Alvarez, who attained the sport's most prestigious title after 13 years of grueling work, is unfit for the task. At this level, there are no easy fights; and if it looks easy, it's a trap.


Want a different but no less detailed look at this fight, as well as other highlights of the fantastic UFC 205 event? Check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.

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