Conor McGregor is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic fighters in the history of the UFC. He is an asset for the Las Vegas based promotion company as he brings to the table a rare combination of showmanship and fighting ability. This makes him one of the most marketable fighters in modern MMA.
After his submission loss against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229, McGregor is now scheduled to face Donald Cerrone in a welterweight bout on January 18, 2020 at UFC 246.
In order to prepare for this highly anticipated fight, we will provide a technical analysis of Conor’s game in order to help the MMA fan-base appreciate his unique fighting style. This two part series will focus in various aspects of his game and will conclude with a prediction and short analysis of the upcoming clash of fighting styles that will take place when the two fighters face each other.
That being said, it’s time to start analyzing the Irishman’s distinct fighting style. In all sequences below where a video clip is not provided, round numbers and time marks are included in the image captions in order to help you locate the clips on UFC Fight Pass.
This is a short list of topics covered below to be used as a quick reference guide:
Part 1: Natural sports related attributes
Part 2: Punching game:
a. Conor’s Fighting Stance
b. Examples of Pressure fighting and closing the distance
c. Examples of defensive boxing and counter-punching.
Part 1: Natural sports related attributes
Conor’s unique body type, muscular physique, reach and tall frame help him get the job done. Techniques is only as effective as sports related attributes enable them to be. More on sports related attributes here.
Let’s examine Conor’s significant physical advantages and a possible weakness.
Size and reach
Conor McGregor’s fighting ability is a combination of technique and natural sports related attributes. He’s fast, athletic and knows how to take advantage of his reach using his southpaw stance. His size and reach are important as he is big, strong and long for both featherweight and lightweight divisions. Unfortunately for him, this advantage is non-existent in heavier weight divisions.
Speed, timing and accuracy
In my humble opinion Conor’s ability to knockout opponents is based on speed, accuracy and timing and not raw power. His skills are more like Anderson Silva’s, where he is able to hit the right spot at the right time. Conor is not a power-puncher by boxing standards.
Generally, boxers punch harder and Thai Boxers kick harder than MMA fighters. This does not necessary apply to former boxers or kickboxers turned MMA fighters like Mark Hunt – and of course there are other exceptions – but fighters who have only competed in MMA typically don’t carry the same one-shot power. This is due to specialized boxing and kickboxing training and the result of an evolutionary process where boxers who do not punch hard enough and cannot take punches, do not get to have a great career. The ones who make it to the top (again, with exceptions) can generally punch hard.
Conor is so powerful in MMA because he is a better boxer than most UFC fighters, and also due to the fact that MMA fighters do not use head movement and cannot take a punch the way boxers do. This does not mean that Conor lacks boxing power. His left hand is a devastating punch, especially with MMA gloves.
Conor’s solid chin
As you can see in the screen-cap above, Conor fights with his chin up and he can take a punch. He seemed to have a solid chin before the Mayweather and Diaz fights. Floyd had to connect several times in a row in order to stop him but was nevertheless, able to get the job done. Nate Diaz was able to rock him several times. McGregor does not seem as invincible as he used to be, especially in heavier weight classes, but is still very durable and highly ranked for a reason.
Conor’s alleged cardio issues and inability to handle body punches
Conor is fast, flexible and explosive but many fight analysts insist that he has a cardio/endurance problem. This is not necessarily the case.
If you examine both the Mayweather and the two Diaz fights, you will notice that he starts fading when he is repeatedly punched in the body or when he is forced to fight going backwards.
Many fighters with great chins are not as durable when they get hit in the body. Chad Mendes himself was doing great against McGregor until Conor’s relentless straight kicks to the belly started wearing him down.
Body strikes cannot be ignored, they are difficult to recover from and are known to break fighters down mentally.
Here is a video of Mayweather working on Conor’s body. Watch McGregor’s facial expression when he gets hit:
Mayweather's bodywork against Conor McGregor pic.twitter.com/PmZsWTKEBL— embracingthegrind (@embracing_grind) December 29, 2019
You can read more about Conor’s vulnerability when fighting going backwards in the counterpunching part of this post.
Part 2: Punching game
a. Conor’s Fighting Stance
McGregor’s striking style is not that of a boxer or a kickboxer. Conor has a unique style influenced by several disciplines. As you can see below his stance is more of a karate stance, or similar to the stances of old school boxers.
The Irishman is a unique fighter in that from this stance, he can be both a counter-puncher and a pressure fighter. He can either close the distance and overwhelm opponents with a diverse arsenal of attacks or make them pay for missing with ferocious counter-punching combos. When opponents attack McGregor in a reckless manner it does not end well for them.
b. Pressure fighting and closing the distance
In order to close the distance and pressure their opponents, fighters need to use certain techniques that enable them to “feel” the distance and keep opponents where they need to be. These techniques are called “range-finders”.
Generally Conor uses five “rangefinders”:
a. Left kicks (roundhouse and snap kicks to the body).
b. Right sidekicks to the thigh
c. Right jabs or jabs to the body
d. Right uppercuts
e. Touching opponent’s front hand
Here are some examples and variations of these range-finding techniques:
Left kick to the body.
Conor’s awesome left snap kick enables him to keep opponents at bay and forces them to focus on lower strikes and drop their guard. In this example Conor presses Mendes with his left kick and follows up his attacks with a double jab, left hand, right hook and a left uppercut.
Another range-finding kick that Conor uses is the left kick to the body and the right sidekick to the thigh. More on kicks in the second part of this series.
Conor often combines left snap kicks with superman punches as you can see in the sequence below.
In this instance you can see how McGregor mixes things up by combining his left snap kick to the body with a follow up left superman punch. The superman punch works like a fake left kick because the initial movement is lifting the left knee up, often making opponents drop their guard. This enables the superman punch to land.
Jabs, superman punches and snap kicks work very well together.
Conor’s backfist jab
Connor is very effective when he is able to “feel” the distance by touching his opponent’s front arm with his jab. He uses a modified version of the jab that looks like a backfist (a jab thrown with the elbow up). This is used to make opponents cover up and enable Conor to close the distance and open their defenses up for his left hand. In the photos above Conor uses a double jab. Poirier parries the first jab and covers up for the second. Then McGregor clips him with a left hook.
Here is another example of this jab:
In this instance Dennis Siver pushes the jab down with his left hand and leaves himself open for Conor’s left hand. Notice the difference in reach as Siver throws a left hook (photo 6). Conor is just too far away.
Upward jab to force opponents to move to their right
In the photos above, Conor throws an exaggerated version of a jab (or a jab to the body) launched from waist height in an upward trajectory. This is used to force Nate Diaz to move to the right and enable Conor to catch him with a right hook. This jab works better when the opponent is with his back against the cage.
Touching the opponent’s front hand
Conor loves to play with his opponent’s front hand. In the example above McGregor extends his hand and as Chad Mendes tries to touch it, Conor pulls his hand back, launches a fake jab to close the distance and lands a left cross.
Below is a more advanced sequence:
Here is a great example showcasing how Conor mixes his touch-hand-to-jab with a follow up left cross and then continues with a fake jab to a right hook. McGregor finishes the sequence with a left hand to the body (photo 7). This rapid fire jab-to-left-hand combo has been very effective for McGregor.
Touch hand to right pivot
In the sequence above, Conor is able to jab/touch Maywerather’s left hand, step his right foot to the outside of Floyd’s left foot, pivot right and move forward closing the distance. This enables Conor to reach Floyd’s blind side. While doing so, he attacks with a right overhand and a left uppercut which seem to connect. This is a very technical move by McGregor. Here is a clip:
Southpaw, jab-touch opponent's left hand, pivot right and to the front, right hand, left cross pic.twitter.com/9tzzTqHv8H— embracingthegrind (@embracing_grind) December 27, 2019
Closing the distance with a right uppercut to a left cross
A signature combination that Conor often uses in order to close the distance, is a right slip to a right uppercut to a left cross. McGregor has been very successful in using this technique. Here is an example against Max Holloway:
Conor uses a variation of this technique by launching a right uppercut to the body and then attacking with a left hook or overhand. This is the case in the photos below against Nate Diaz:
Lead left uppercuts
The following example is not as commonly used by Conor as the right uppercut. In the photos below, Conor uses a lead left uppercut to force Khabib Nurmagomedov to move to his left with his chin up as he is pressured with his back against the cage. Conor barely misses with a follow-up right hand.
The sequence below is an excellent example of Conor’s ability to mix things up. A rule of thumb in “mixing things up” is to mix lefts with rights, uppercuts and hooks, attacks to the head with attacks to the body, constant movement and changing of angles.
In this example Conor throws a fake upward jab to make Marcus cover, a left uppercut, pivots right and continues with a right hook. Marcus Brimage resets in order to face him and Conor lands a left uppercut, a right hand and a left cross that drops Marcus.
Conor’s change of stances
After the Mayweather fight, many analysts complimented Conor McGregor’s stance switching. But, truthfully, he did so quite ineffectively. He used a Taekwondo-like switch which is great for kicking but insignificant in boxing as your feet land in the same area. And besides, Floyd is more effective with orthodox fighters, so switching gained no advantage.
Conor’s best punch when switching stances was a left jab to the body. This move helped him close the distance and gain leverage as he landed the punch.
As shown above and below, Conor faked a right jab, switched stance, landed his foot forward and connected with a left jab to the body taking advantage of the momentum:
Southpaw, scissor-change stance to orthodox, jab to the body pic.twitter.com/hpjEySNzuE— embracingthegrind (@embracing_grind) December 27, 2019
McGregor often uses this switch following with punches to the head.
We must note here that it is almost impossible to hurt Floyd Mayweather Jr. with attacks to the body. Many great boxers have tried with no success.
c. Defensive boxing and counter-punching.
McGregor’s defense is solid when fighting from a distance and against smaller opponents. Conor uses a karate style footwork from a wide stance. His hips are always loaded with power and he can explode back and forth without over-committing.
Conor can be an aggressive pressure fighter and a sharpshooting counter puncher. Below you can see some of Conor’s defensive drills that he had been working on before the Mayweather fight. You can examine how his defense is based on pulling back and rolling under punches.
Conor McGregor's defensive drills for the Mayweather fight— embracingthegrind (@embracing_grind) December 29, 2019
Source: All Access: Mayweather vs. McGregor pic.twitter.com/BRjVbVEgyV
Limits of Conor’s defensive abilities as exposed by Floyd and Khabib.
Conor is not as efficient fighting backwards when his opponent is dictating the pace. Floyd Mayweather was able to cut off the ring and make him fight moving backwards. In boxing this can be described by cutting off the ring and walking your opponent down. This requires application of constant pressure to the opponent. Walking opponents down is an art of intimidation that makes them doubt their power and stamina. Boxers achieve this by throwing punches in bunches and just covering up without worrying too much about about counters. This takes away the opponents’ ability to rest and their confidence. Here is a video explaining how to cut off the ring:
Keep in mind that Floyd Mayweather was able to walk Canelo Alvarez down who is a devastating powerpuncher.
The fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov also showed that Conor is hittable when he has to worry about takedowns. This is why Khabib Nurmagomedov is able to catch Conor McGregor in the sequence below (the speed of the punch also helped). You can see in the middle photos that Conor momentarily looks down, not knowing what is coming his way.
Lead right hands can easily get countered. It is preferable to set them up with other strikes. MMA fighters, however, can catch the best strikers if they manage to establish the threat of the takedown. Once this happens, their opponents’ defense can get compromised as their attention is focused on two different tasks at the same time: sprawling and defending strikes.
That being said, attacking McGregor with powers shots from a distance, especially lead right hands is not a good idea. We will examine below some of Conor’s signature counterpunching combos against lead right hands.
Conor’s defensive footwork
McGregor defensive skills are all connected to his footwork, his unique mastery of angles and distance, slipping and pulling back. In the example above Marcus Brimage in a southpaw stance, rushes towards Conor and throws a right hook followed by a left cross. Conor just moves back and at a left angle and lands a left cross.
Countering right hands
In the sequence below, Conor left-slips Ivan Buchinger’s right hand and makes him pay with a left hook over the top. Conor is very good at landing on the chin.
Here is the clip:
The photos below focus on a sequence from his fight against Eddie Alvarez. In applying one of the worst game plans of all time, Eddie keeps attacking with lead right hands and pays for it, time after time. In this instance Conor pulls back, slightly slips the right hand and lands a left hook, right hook, left hook combo.
Here is another angle:
In the next sequence, Alvarez attacks with two right hands in a row against the taller, longer counterpuncher (spoiler alert: never a good idea). Conor is able to catch him between punches with a left hand. Notice in photo 3 how McGregor’s hips are loaded with power before launching the left hand.
Champions make adjustments according to Floyd Mayweather, but unfortunately for Eddie Alvarez, he is not that kind of a fighter. After getting countered while attacking with right hands several times, he attacks one last time with the same punch. Conor uses a vicious four-punch combo to make him pay; a left cross, right hook, left cross, right hook/uppercut.
Here is another angle:
Example #5: the “Mayweather” counter
In my article Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor: Moves to Remember, I analyzed Conor’s most impressive punch against the seemingly untouchable defensive master, Floyd Mayweather. The fact that “Mystic Mac” was successful in catching Floyd with this counter, is a big feather in Conor’s cap. In my classes, I teach this as the “Mayweather” counter.
Floyd attacks with a lead right hand. McGregor is able to move his head to his left and land a left uppercut. Unfortunately for Conor, Mayweather is moving in the same direction as the follow-up right hook, thus minimizing its impact. This is a great technique as shown in two angles below:
Here is a clip:
The Conor McGregor southpaw counter to an orthodox right hand. pic.twitter.com/CMR09ZxevX— embracingthegrind (@embracing_grind) December 29, 2019
Example #6: Slip right hand and attack the body
McGregor also uses a similar counter to slip the right hand and land a left body shot instead of a left uppercut:
Conor landed a significant number of body-shots on Mayweather throughout the fight, but did not seem to do any damage.
Southpaw [lead right hand], slip left, right uppercut to the body pic.twitter.com/tFvB5Anhlr— embracingthegrind (@embracing_grind) December 29, 2019
Rolling under right hands
Eddie Alvarez uses a lead right to an overhand combo in the following exchange. This time he has more success, as he almost lands the overhand and then decides to go for a left hook (photo 4) to a right haymaker (photo 5). Conor rolls under the right hand and hits Alvarez with a left hook.
Countering left hooks
In Conor’s fight against Jose Aldo, the Brazilian tries to use a fake lead right to close the distance in order to land a left hook. He almost succeeds (as can be seen in the clip and photos below), but Conor is able to time a beautiful short left hook and knock Aldo out cold.
As pictured in the angle bellow, Aldo connects with his left hook. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, Conor lands first and has a solid chin.
The video in the tweet below shows how Aldo made the mistake of not using head movement in attacking against a longer taller fighter. It also shows how accurate Conor is in landing on the chin against a moving target.
Conor’s “pull counter” against a southpaw jab.
Conor often uses a Mayweather style pull-counter against an incoming southpaw jab. This counter (when both fighters are in a southpaw stance) is: [jab], pull back, left cross. In the photos above Conor catches Nate Diaz with this counter. Here is Floyd applying this counter against fighters in an orthodox stance:
Pull counter to a right hook
When his pull counter fails to connect, Conor is ready to follow up with a right hook. In the photos above, Diaz throws a southpaw jab and Conor pulls back, misses with a left hand but is able to connect with a right hook.
Final thoughts: It is obvious that Conor is a student of the boxing game and this is why he has been so successful in his punching exchanges. Overall, Conor McGregor is a very technical puncher. Will he able to be as competitive against bigger opponents? This remains to be seen.
That’s all for now. See you soon with the second part of this breakdown focusing on Conor McGregor’s kicking and overall MMA game.
For a list of the author’s previous technique breakdowns on Bloody Elbow, check out this link.
About the Author: Kostas Fantaousakis is a researcher of fighting concepts, tactics, and techniques, and a state-certified MMA, grappling, and wrestling coach in Greece. He teaches his unique Speedforce MMA mittwork system © which combines strikes, takedowns, knees, and elbows applied in the Continuous Feedback © mittwork system of the Mayweather family. Kostas is a black belt in BJJ under MMA veteran and BJJ world champion Wander Braga (the teacher of Gabriel Napao Gonzaga).