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Conor McGregor Technical Breakdown: Part 3, Grappling

The third breakdown of this series focuses on Conor McGregor’s wrestling and submission grappling skills.

The previous parts of this series of technical breakdowns analyzed the punching and kicking aspects of Conor McGregor’s fighting skills.

It is time now to examine the wrestling and grappling parts of his game. Please note that in all sequences below, rounds and time marks are included in the image captions in order to help readers locate the clips on UFC Fight Pass.


Part 1: Takedowns

Although he thrives in striking exchanges, Conor McGregor has pretty good offensive wrestling skills. He was able to take Max Holloway down four times. His weapons of choice seems to be single leg takedown variations. Two such examples can be seen below.

Example #1

Conor McGregor vs Max Holloway, Rd 3, 0:43

Example #2

In both cases above Conor is able to keep control of the leg and cut the corner in order to get the fight to the ground. Taking down Holloway is a big feather in the Irishman’s cap. ‘Blessed’ enjoys a 85% takedown defense ratio. However often he may use them, there’s no doubt that McGregor has takedowns in his arsenal.


Part 2: Takedown Defense

Conor McGregor is very athletic, with swift hip movement, flexibility and great reaction time. Taking him down is not an easy task.

It is important to note that throughout his UFC career, McGregor has usually been the larger fighter. His reach advantage and his ability to control the distance makes it very hard for opponents to shoot for takedowns or press him against the cage and take him down. His striking has been so effective due to the fact that Conor boasts a 70% takedown defense rate.

Before the fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov, Chad Mendes was the only fighter who was repeatedly able to take Conor down. Khabib was able to beat McGregor with his grappling, but getting taken down by Khabib – one the best takedown artists in the UFC – was somewhat expected. And it must be noted here that Nurmagomedov had to go through a series of chain wrestling transitions in order to secure the first takedown. In other words he had to work for it.

The problem with wrestling defense is that it requires a lot of energy. Striking cardio is not wrestling cardio. Switching from punching-to-sprawling-to-grappling requires a diverse set of skills and a special kind of stamina and durability. Once fighters get exhausted they can neither defend takedowns nor punch effectively. What this means is, that wrestling defense is also a matter of wrestling-specific fitness, not just technique.

Counter-Wrestling

Conor’s counter-wrestling skills are also underrated. For example here is an impessive exchange where he was able to reverse Diego Brandao’s takedown attempt and land on top:

Conor McGregor vs Diego Brandão, rd 2, 3:42

It is obvious that McGregor trains in wrestling.

The sprawl & left underhook

Conor is very effective in using his sprawl and left undertook defensively. In order to take McGregor down, the method that seems to work best is to duck under his left punches. This neutralizes his left underhook. On the other hand ducking under his jabs is not a good idea:

In the sequence above, Eddie Alvarez tries to duck under Conor’s right jab but the Irishman is able to sprawl and use his left underhook to stop him.

Mendes, on the other hand, was more successful by ducking under Conor’s left cross—thus compromising the Irishman’s ability to get a left underhook in time.

Chad Mendes vs Conor McGregor, Rd 2, 4:14

In order to take Conor down in the middle of the cage, Chad Mendes changed levels in an explosive manner, got a right underhook, blocked Conor’s front/right foot and kept ‘driving’ while cutting angles. However, it was lifting Conor up that got the job done. Here is the sequence:

Chad Mendes vs Conor McGregor, Rd 1, 2:48

Khabib on the other hand proved that forcing Conor to fight going backwards makes it easier to go for takedowns. Note in photo 5 bellow, that Conor tries unsuccessfully to land a left uppercut.

Successful takedowns of McGregor show there’s a formula that seems to work against him: duck under Conor’s left hand, control his right foot and, if possible, lift him up.

Another important point to consider is that Conor has great balance, but his wrestling cardio is lacking. In order to take him down, a fighter needs to grab and keep control of a limb, stick with it and cut corners or change levels. As an example of this, here’s a low single finish that Khabib had to work hard in order to get:

In photo 7 above, Khabib manages to reach his right hand across the hip and transition to a double leg takedown from the knees.


Part 3: Ground game

Bottom game

Conor has an underrated top grappling game. His bottom game however, is lacking.

In the following clip, Chad Mendes was able to pass his guard without any significant resistance from Conor.

The smaller Mendes was also able to land solid elbows despite the significant reach disadvantage:

Chad Mendes vs Conor McGregor, Rd 1, 2:27

We must note here that the SBG Ireland fighter has only been dominated from the top position by two great wrestlers in Mendes and Khabib. And he was still able to finish Chad Mendes.

Top Game

Despite his vulnerabilities when fighting from the bottom, Conor’s top game is pretty solid. This not necessarily surprising, as it’s the case with many grapplers. Pressure passing and advancing positions are skills that are easier to learn and apply. On the other hand, the MMA bottom game can be tricky. Especially when there are elbows and punches involved. The cage can also make things more difficult when fighting from the bottom.

Here are two examples of Conor’s ability to control opponents from the top position:

In the photos above Conor passes Max Holloway’s half guard and establishes the mount position. He had the chance to go for an armbar but decided to stay on top.

In the sequence bellow you can see Conor using a leg drag pass to mount against Dennis Siver:

Here is a quick instructional of this pass:


Part 4: Submission defense

The countdown videos released by the UFC show that Conor trains extensively in grappling. Although training in submission grappling and applying the techniques against high level opponents are two different things, it is obvious that he can survive against mid level competition.

In the sequence bellow Conor was able to escape a leg attack against Diego Brandão.

Conor McGregor vs Diego Brandão, rd 2, 3:05

Also, despite being exhausted from the stand-up war, McGregor was able to escape from Nate Diaz’s guillotine attempt before the final choke that ended the fight:

Diaz vs. McGregor 1, rd 2, 1:12

I’m not going to focus here on the Nate Diaz rear naked choke finish of McGregor, as I believe that this was the result of Conor getting rocked (similar to Cain Velasquez getting submitted by Fabricio Werdum). Whenever a pure striker like McGregor shoots for a takedown that tends to mean he is in trouble.

That being said here is Nate Diaz submitting McGregor:

Nate Diaz faces Leon Edwards at UFC 263 Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

On the other hand Khabib was able to choke him just by applying pressure to his jaw:

UFC 229 - Khabib v McGregor Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Whatever the path to getting there, it seems that the best way to submit Conor is to rock him or make him get exhausted by using overwhelming pressure. Take him down, take his back, and then go for a rear naked choke. As the next part of this series will show, if Donald Cerrone gets to take his back, McGregor will be in trouble. ‘Cowboy’ is very slick on the ground.


Final thoughts:

Most analysts exaggerate about Conor McGregor’s vulnerabilities in the grappling department. Most opponents failed to dominate him using wrestling tactics. Khabib is an exception to this rule, due to the fact that he is a unique fighter and Connor’s cage rust is a real thing. The outcome of the fight was predictable. Nate Diaz on the other hand had to throw 152 significant strikes and land 77 in order to rock McGregor and force him to shoot for a takedown.

A well trained and focused Conor McGregor is a dangerous fighter, and taking him down and submitting him is easier said than done. Will Donald Cerrone be able to submit him? I’ll answer this question in my next post, which will provide an analysis of the fight focusing on Cowboy’s strengths and weaknesses.

Next on Bloodyelbow: UFC 246 main event analysis and prediction.

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).