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Takedown breakdown: How shoulder strikes can impact cage wrestling (and maybe the UFC 264 main event)

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Before Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier meet for the third time, take a look at an example of how fighters can utilize shoulder strikes to set up takedowns.

UFC 257: Dustin Poirier v Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor’s use of shoulder strikes could lead to an unexpected adaptation in the trilogy.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

A great deal of the buildup to Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 3 has revolved around the tactics Poirier utilized to defeat McGregor in their rematch. Ideas such as “wrestling,” “kicking” and “defense” were ridiculed by McGregor, the former two-weight champion has made a point of attempting to shame Poirier for these strategies.

Fans on social media have reacted predictably, but one unique idea that has popped up was, “what if it’s misdirection, what if McGregor is actually going to wrestle Poirier?” At face value it comes across as a very silly suggestion - McGregor hasn’t actively wrestled very much in his UFC career, and even less at lightweight. His most intentional and consistent wrestling performance was against Max Holloway back in 2013, and he did hit a nice lateral drop on Diego Brandao in the following year. Other than a desperation double leg attempt vs. Nate Diaz, that is the extent of McGregor’s offensive wrestling in his UFC career.

Is Conor McGregor going to wrestle with Dustin Poirier? Probably not. But, as a fun thought experiment, let’s take a look at one dynamic from their rematch that he could theoretically build off of to score takedowns.

How the shoulder strike can set up takedowns in MMA

At the very basic level - McGregor wrestling Poirier is possible because of ringcraft. In their rematch, McGregor pressured, as he typically does, and Poirier deferred, taking the backfoot to counterpunch and kick the lead leg. Although they ended up in a prolonged clinch exchange because of Poirier taking initiative and wrestling (to be covered in the next article), McGregor put himself in position to enter the clinch on a number of occasions. Poirier backed himself right up to the cage to simplify his counters, McGregor could have jabbed in, entered to the body, or even level changed and taken a noncommittal shot to stick Poirier on the fence.

VIDEO CLIP: Conor McGregor standing Dustin Poirier up against the cage

Once McGregor stood up against the cage, he was able to frame, then pivot out to the whizzer side and reverse their positions. One huge factor in McGregor’s cage pummeling is his use of wrist control, which will be an important note when examining takedown opportunities.

Dustin Poirier is not a particular great clinch fighter, many of his fundamental holes were exposed vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov. Against McGregor he attempted to work basics like digging his head in to manipulate McGregor’s posture and fight for wrist control. This lead to McGregor’s application of the shoulder strike.

Conor McGregor Dustin Poirier shoulder strike
Against other strikers, McGregor can be quite frustrating in tie-ups.

Dustin Poirier used his head to push McGregor’s to the outside, making it difficult for him to pressure in and use strong tie-ups. To answer this, McGregor changed levels and swam his head to the opposite side, rolled back underneath Poirier’s head, and exploded up into the shoulder strike.

This is essentially just a violent way of pummeling for head position, but that violence is what makes it so discouraging for the defending fighter. They become increasingly aware that the power of the strike comes from distance traveled, meaning the more they try to lower themselves and use their head as a buffer, the harder that shoulder is going to land.

That dynamic is what encourages the fighter against the cage to stand up tall, with their feet closer together. Take a look at how that position can be exploited by a wrestling-minded fighter.

Jon Jones Anthony Smith shoulder strike takedown
Yes I’m suggesting that Conor McGregor emulate Jon Jones.

Against Anthony Smith, Jon Jones was fairly averse to exerting large amounts of effort. He went to his easiest, most accessible techniques, it was similar to how he approached the Ovince Saint Preux fight. He had no problem pressuring Anthony Smith to the cage, and began to work on him with short, non-committal clinch attacks like stomps and shoulder strikes.

In this example, Jon Jones is using his upper body to press Smith against the cage, while his hands are working to tie up the wrists and disable Smith from pummeling. Usually this also neuters the offensive fighter, but Jones’ strikes do not require the use of his hands. Jones prompts Smith to fight for head positioning, then squats and explodes up into a shoulder strike, just like McGregor has been doing.

What differs in this clip is that as soon as Smith is stood up tall by the shoulder strike, Jones changes levels and releases the wrists to attack a double leg. Smith’s feet were close together and he did not have time to react and form a wide base, Jones was easily able to lock his hands and hit a lift finish. With wrist control, Jones’ path to the double is unimpeded by any potential blocks like underhooks or a whizzer.

While Conor McGregor is not the level of wrestler that Jon Jones is, and Dustin Poirier is likely more skilled in that area than Anthony Smith, the same dynamic is still available.

Conor McGregor shoulder strike takedown Dustin Poirier
He could, if he wanted to.

In this example, Conor McGregor was able to use inside bicep ties and wrist control to reverse position against the cage. From this new position, McGregor was able to head pummel and use shoulder strikes to weaken Poirier’s base once again. His tie-ups are still on the wrist and bicep - meaning there is really nothing stopping him from changing levels, releasing that grip and shooting a double leg.

If we are truly entertaining this scenario, then a counter argument may be - “what if Dustin Poirier tries to hit a guillotine choke?” That is the beauty of this setup - if the defending fighter’s base is narrow and their feet are together, the attacking fighter should be able to connect their hands and prevent any sort of guard from being established. A lift finish would be great to counter chokes, but an explosive “pull” finish where the attacking fighter retains height and can immediately cover and pass would also work.

In their last meeting, Dustin Poirier got the better of the wrestling exchanges. However, if Conor McGregor truly wants to “mix the martial arts,” this is one small detail that could be integrated into a new gameplan. For the most part, it’s just a fun thought experiment which allowed me to describe the utility of shoulder strikes for wrestlers.