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McGregor vs. Mendes: Distance and Movement - A striking breakdown

Analyst Connor Ruebusch examines the UFC 189 main event.

Conor McGregor in action against Dennis Siver in January.
Conor McGregor in action against Dennis Siver in January.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

WHEN WE TALK about fighting styles, distance and movement are often at the top of the list.

Is he a counter fighter by nature, or an out-fighter? Is she a pressure fighter, or just a brawler?

Aside from the complex and sometimes utterly unfathomable depths of the human personality, distance and movement are at the top of the list of defining characteristics.

In other words, if you want to understand a fighter, get to know him — I mean really get to know him. And if that’s not possible, look at his fights and ask: how far does he like to stand from his opponent, and which way does he like to be moving? And why?

For Conor McGregor and Chad Mendes, these questions will likely be at the heart of their conflict. The UFC has attempted to drum up some interest in Mendes as a short-notice replacement by calling the bout an ‘interim title fight’, but let’s not disrespect the quality of the match-up by pretending that any kind of meaningful title is at stake; what matters here is that Mendes and McGregor make for a positively fascinating style clash, and one that seems almost guaranteed to produce fireworks.

So let’s first look at our two combatants and ask: which way do they like to move, and how close do they like to be? Because their attempts to satisfy those questions will determine who wins the fight.

First, McGregor. Though his earlier bouts showed something of a patient counter puncher, McGregor’s style has changed as his confidence and comfort in the cage have grown. ‘The Notorious’ still likes to counter, but in all other aspects he has revealed himself to be a quintessential pressure fighter, forcing the engagements rather than accepting them as a counter fighter might.

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As his faith in his punching power grows stronger -- and how couldn’t it, with a string of knockouts as impressive as his? -- McGregor has shown more and more willingness to wade into his opponent’s range. He doesn’t do this recklessly, per se, but he throws more volume than ever before, showing his opponent a multitude of attacks in an attempt to seize and hold onto the initiative from the outset. In his pursuit of pressure, the destroyer from Dublin moves forward almost constantly.

Mendes, on the other hand, is a little more flexible when it comes to movement. In fact, Mendes is about as close as MMA fighters get to a pure counter puncher. Mendes has pressured in the past, as in the first round against Jose Aldo.

In that fight, the stocky wrestler-boxer was determined to close the gap early, and forced Aldo to open himself up. He even managed to knock Aldo down with a beautiful counter left hook, shot over a blocked uppercut before the champion could fully withdraw his hand to block.

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After taking some heat from the champion, however, 'Money' Mendes reconsidered his approach and spent most of the remainder of the bout moving around, with Aldo at range rather than forcing him to back up. He still performed admirably in this new role, but the change revealed that pressure alone isn’t really the crux of Mendes’ style.

So how do these two men win the battle of movement and distance, and contend the fight on their own terms?

Conor's angles

For McGregor, his pressuring style is enhanced by the small angles with which he lands his damaging shots. A hard punch affects the body more when there’s nothing stable opposing it. That is to say, bad balance makes for a weak chin, and no matter how skilled the fighter, the human body can always be off balanced. It just comes down to the angles involved.

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Attacked head-on, for example, a fighter has very little chance of being knocked down. As you can see, McGregor’s rear foot is positioned firmly behind his body, opposing the force of any straight-on blows and keeping him balanced. An opponent throwing strikes at him like this would be attacking a "strong plane". 

By moving to one side or the other, however, the stability of that stance is compromised.

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Without a third foot, attacks from the sides (or the front, were the fighter to square his feet) end up hitting a "weak plane". The closer an opponent can come to “splitting the feet” of his target with his strike, the more susceptible his target becomes to being hurt and/or knocked down. To avoid being hit from these angles, fighters adjust to their opponents constantly.

If you’ve ever watched high-level boxing and wondered why the two fighters spend so long shuffling around one another, doing nothing but feinting and taking small steps, now you know the reason. This dance is a complex battle of angles, with each fighter trying not only to protect his own weak plane, but to expose his opponent’s as well.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to the way McGregor approaches this dilemma.

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McGregor often fights counter to the bog-standard southpaw wisdom. Normally an orthodox fighter faced with a southpaw opponent (or vice versa, the mirror works both ways) is told to place his lead foot outside that of his opponent, ostensibly securing the superior angle from which to land his straight right. There are, of course, many ways to skin a cat, goofy-footed though it may be, but the majority of orthodox fighters don’t face lefties very often, and so the rote lesson has been able to stick.

McGregor prefers the exact opposite approach. Rather than engaging in a potentially futile battle for outside position, he often lets his opponent take the angle they want, and then strikes just as they think they’ve escaped.

In the clip above, you can see McGregor feinting a squared-up Dennis Siver in order to coax him back and to the left. With his back to the fence, Siver’s options for movement are limited, and it’s an easy thing for McGregor to take a small step forward -- a step which, by the way, having fallen inside Siver’s own foot, the German kickboxer feels completely unthreatened by -- right up until McGregor introduces his shin to Siver’s face.

Like many southpaw kickfighters, McGregor fancies the tricky combination of left kick and left straight, the similar movements behind both strikes allowing him to hide his intentions until the last possible instant.

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In this, McGregor takes full advantage of his reach which, at a reported 74 inches, is among the longest in the UFC’s featherweight division. Thanks to his long arms, McGregor can afford to take some shortcuts, throwing his left hand across his body just as his opponent thinks they’ve successfully side-stepped it, and then moving his feet into position to put weight in the follow-through.

The hand-first, body-second punching style makes McGregor’s strikes very difficult to read. In fact, there is almost no telegraph. But it also leaves him open to being countered should an opponent correctly predict his attack, since he leaves himself standing on one leg mid-strike, when every fighter is at his most vulnerable.

Chad's feints

For Mendes, the angles are less important than the distance. With a 66 inch wingspan and a natural desire to punch with his opponents, he is incapable of fighting at the long range to which McGregor is accustomed. When opponents come to him, as McGregor is liable to do, Mendes does an excellent job of using their own strikes to measure the distance for him.

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Here, he catches the jab of Clay Guida in his right hand, which tells him that he is just one short step away from a counter hook, which he immediately throws. When opponents are more reluctant to throw, however, Mendes gets to show off his excellent feinting.

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With small twitches, flicks, and steps, Mendes convinces his opponents that he is about to throw. Basic self-preservation tells the other man that he doesn’t want to get hit by Mendes’ sledgehammer fists, so one of two things happens: either the opponent backs up and traps himself against the fence, where Mendes happily steps into the role of pressure fighter, or the opponent attempts to time what he thinks is a strike and catch Mendes with a counter. In the clip above, Ricardo Lamas does both.

By feinting and rapidly closing the distance, Mendes convinces Lamas that he needs to throw if he wants to escape. Lamas chooses to counter what he believes to be a Mendes jab with a short overhand right, and Mendes steps into and outside the path of this attempt with an even shorter and straighter right hand of his own. And because Lamas is in the midst of throwing himself into a punch, he inadvertently adds his own weight to Mendes’ punch, turning a glancing strike to the forehead into a knockout blow.

Coming to scratch

So, we end up with a difficult battle on our hands -- for both men. If McGregor can stop Mendes’ wrestling (and that is a definite “if”), he finds himself faced with an opponent ready and willing to catch him with thunderous counters the moment he leaves himself open.

McGregor may attempt to manage the distance a little more carefully and exacerbate Mendes’ reach disadvantage, but Mendes will almost certainly have a range of distance-closing tricks prepared, even on just three weeks’ notice.

Of course, if Mendes gives up the fight for initiative he may very well give McGregor the momentum he needs to run off with a win. He has proven willing in the past to adjust his tactics to the opponent in front of him.

This inherent flexibility can be a curse, but so can rigidity, and for all his talk of fighting with “no style,” and “no opponent,” McGregor has shown an increasingly strict adherence to the style that works for him: he comes forward, walks through what you throw at him, and tries to knock you out.

There are, quite frankly, too many questions in the air for us to accurately predict the outcome of this fight. And that’s what makes it so compelling. McGregor versus Mendes may not be quite as great as Aldo versus McGregor could’ve been, but it’s undeniably the second most interesting match-up in the featherweight division, and a battle of punchers like we rarely see in any combat sport.

I won’t belabour this write-up by predicting the winner, but I feel pretty safe saying this: whoever wins this fight will almost certainly do it by knockout, and every hard-fought second until then should be fireworks.

What’s not to like about that?

Connor Ruebusch is a striking analyst for Bloody Elbow and Bad Left Hook.

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Connor Ruebusch

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