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Essence of Combat: The Signature Moves of Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz

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Bloody Elbow's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch analyzes the signature techniques of Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz ahead of their UFC 196 clash.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth time in his UFC career, Conor McGregor will have to fight a replacement. While Rafael Dos Anjos was a fascinating opponent for Conor McGregor, and one that would certainly have troubled him, Nate Diaz is no less compelling. Obviously Diaz doesn't pose the same kind of threat as Dos Anjos; his brash personality is in large part what makes him such an interesting replacement. Still, Diaz's style offers a few unique risks. Despite the journeyman numbers on his resume, he is not an opponent to be taken lightly. Not at all.

What's more, personalities can be every bit as important as techniques. In fact, the two are intrinsically linked. In the case of Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, we can go so far as to summarize their abilities by studying just two deceptively simple defensive movements.

Now of course, no single technique can tell you everything about a fighter. Martial arts are complex, and the fighters who use them even more so. Some moves, however, are so strongly connected to a fighter's individual style that they seem to embody him. These techniques find a special place in the fighter's repertoire. They are the fundamental movement that he goes to time and again, fight after fight, exchange after exchange.

Distance is the chief concern of both Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. Both men employ a rangey style of fighting that makes full use of their lanky frames. Despite this common interest, however, Diaz and McGregor go about controlling distance in very different ways. Each of them has different strengths and weaknesses, and each of them has a signature technique that perfectly illustrates those unique attributes.

No single technique can tell you everything about a fighter, but you can learn an awful lot about Conor McGregor and Nathan Diaz from these simple moves.

Conor McGregor - The Hop-Step

The first thing to look at when comparing these two combatants is footspeed. There are other differences that may stand out more--punching power for McGregor, say, and jiu-jitsu for Diaz--but the difference in footspeed has a more powerful impact on their striking styles.

If you've watched any Conor McGregor in the past, it won't surprise you when I say that "The Notorious" is much quicker and lighter on his feet than Diaz. Over the past six months he has worked infamously with "movement coach" Ido Portal, and the odd assortment of drills done by the two speaks to McGregor's confidence in his agility.

This comes through in the way that McGregor moves. He is very rarely static. Instead, he likes to bounce forward and backward on the fringe of his opponent's range, constantly toeing the invisible line between himself and his foe. There is often a predictable rhythm to this bouncing. McGregor dips in and out of range, moving forward and backward like the pendulum of a clock. He does not move at maximum speed while he does this, instead settling into a comfortable tempo while he eyes the opponent and waits for a reaction.

It's a trap, of course. McGregor only sets this easy rhythm for the purpose of breaking it, giving the opponent something to time only to change speed and strike at the last possible instant.

See how Jose Aldo reacted to McGregor after the final frame of the sequence above, and how McGregor made him pay.

1. McGregor bounces into range, measuring with his right hand.

2. Jose Aldo springs forward and McGregor quickly begins his retreat. his right foot moves first.

3. And his left foot adjust just as the right hits the ground. Aldo's right hand is a mere feint, but McGregor parries it.

4. McGregor's upper body follows his feet as he drives his left hand through the same space as Aldo's head.

5. An unconscious Aldo lands a cheeky left hook. That feint worked--kind of.

And that's the hop-step. It's a deceptively simple movement, but one that places precedence on McGregor's feather-light feet. This technique has been part of McGregor's arsenal since the early days, and it fits him like a glove.

The hop-step operates counter to traditional footwork. Normally fighters are taught to move the foot closer to their destination first. If the fighter is stepping right, he moves his right foot before his left. If he's retreating, he moves  his back foot before his front. This keeps the novice from narrowing his own stance and compromising his balance. The hop-step is such a quick movement, however, that it allows fighters to break this fundamental rule. When McGregor hop-steps, he never has both feet in the air at once. By the time the back foot lifts off, his front foot has settled down in its new position. There is a transfer of weight built into this movement, the back foot driving weight onto the front foot. And that's why the hop-step lends itself so perfectly to McGregor's favorite counter, the left cross.

Conor McGregor's hop-step is not flashy. Compared to his arsenal of spinning and jumping kicks, it tends to go unnoticed. But no technique illustrates the core of McGregor's style more completely. Light on his feet, he plays with his opponent until the perfect moment, when he darts away and sends an arrow-straight left hand to its mark. Bullseye.

Nate Diaz - The Pull and Pivot

Where Conor McGregor is quick, Nate Diaz is slow and deliberate. Diaz possesses quick hands, but his feet can seem bound in concrete by comparison, even more so when compared to McGregor.

There is a fundamental rule in fighting, however: the hand is quicker than the body, and the body is quicker than the feet. When footwork fails, head movement prevails, and parries and blocks are quicker still. Nate makes up for his heavy feet by relying on his upper body movement.

In fact, he enjoys using this movement to play with his opponent. Diaz often fights out of a forward-oriented, almost crouching stance, lining his head up directly over his lead foot. As he edges into range, his head is an obvious and seemingly wide open target.

Conor McGregor isn't he only one who knows how to set traps, of course. Because Diaz's head is so far forward, he has ample space into which to retreat. From front foot to back his head has nearly a yard of wiggle room, allowing him to quickly turn an easy target into an impossible one. Like McGregor, this technique allows Diaz to coax opponents into overextending, after which he can snipe away with counters.

Michael Johnson found himself falling for this again and again.

1. As Michael Johnson comes forward, Diaz goads him by leaning into punching range.

2. Diaz stings Johnson with a jab from this forward position . . .

3. . . . but pulls right back as Johnson counters with a left hand, swinging his back foot to the right as he does so.

4. From this small angle, Diaz has an easy target. While Johnson attempts to recover from his whiff, Diaz blinds him with another jab . . .

5. . . . and follows with the long straight left.

Diaz's pull lends itself to a wider variety of counters than McGregor's hop-step. He can drag a right hook along after him as he pulls back, or he can drive forward with the one-two as in the sequence here.

Though nowhere near as dynamic as McGregor's movements, Diaz can use simple pivots to add an angle to his preferred technique. Take a close look at his feet above. As he throws his first jab, his weight goes forward onto his right foot, which lands pronated. With his left foot light, Diaz can swing it around to the right as he pulls back, lining it back up with the right foot and giving him a subtle angle from which to launch his counter. This one-foot-at-a-time approach lends itself better to Nate's particular strengths, and adds an extra layer of depth to his tricky head movement.

Two very different fighters are illustrated by these two different techniques. On the one hand we have speed and power, a quick and dynamic movement designed for a quick pair of feet. On the other we have stability, a more efficient movement that lends itself to the mental manipulation of a well-developed boxer.

When McGregor and Diaz meet in the cage, the clash of styles will be an obvious one. As each man looks to outstrike the other, he will look to press his strengths against the other man's weaknesses. Whoever seizes victory, you can bet one of these techniques will play a key part.

For more on McGregor vs Diaz, as well as an in-depth analysis of Holly Holm vs Miesha Tate, check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.