Conor McGregor v Jose Aldo: Five talking points ahead of fight
McGregor faces biggest challenge as he bids to become undisputed featherweight champions
1. Jose – gone in 60 seconds?
John Kavanagh not only teaches Conor McGregor but learns from him too. His gut feeling that the fight could be over within a minute is a call to roll up, roll up and witness the greatest show the world has ever seen.
McGregor is an expert in the philosophy that has driven prizefighting from the very beginning and has shown what’s possible with elegant knockout power and unbridled backchat. But he seems bored to have solved the money-making equation so easily and is poring over new formulas that many believe are simply illusory. He wants to revolutionise our understanding of the mixed martial arts cosmos. He’s claiming he’s not a company man. He is the company. And his next UFC contract? He says it will have a one, followed by eight zeros. Predictions are blinding flashes of insight if they are made flesh and McGregor’s have been eerily accurate so far. This time he’s going for four minutes. Less audacious than coach Kavanagh.
But still. This weekend in Las Vegas, he is fighting a man who was once a boy in a favela; who as a teenager seeking some semblance of a future left Manaus for Rio and slept on a gym floor; who believes there’s something sleeping inside him – a dragon that breathes fire when awoken; who has not lost in the octagon since he was 18; whose right leg opponents describe as a baseball bat; who is the only undisputed featherweight champion in UFC history, with seven title defences; who, according to T-shirts in Brazil, detonates in the cage; and who is ranked number one in the promotion’s pound-for-pound rankings.
So, 60 seconds or four minutes? The Dubliner boasts bulletproof conviction and a famous left hand, but any class of victory will suffice or that paradigm shift will be interstellar dust. And in the interests of accuracy, Kavanagh did hedge his bets by mentioning the second round. You get the feeling he believes that one.
2. Stance battle: the southpaw advantage
Jose Aldo has faced only one southpaw, Kenny Florian, in his last 11 fights. Florian was a tactically astute fighter but was overmatched in a stand-up battle and the conclusion was foregone when he was unable to initiate grappling exchanges with Aldo. This time Aldo faces McGregor, whose striking is top of the food chain.
While there is no theoretical reason left-handed fighters should have an advantage facing their opposites, reality tells a different story. Southpaws spend their lives fighting right-handed opponents and an open-stance match-up is their default setting. For an orthodox fighter, it’s goodbye familiarity. For an orthodox fighter, whose lead lefts are his offensive bedrock, confronting a lead right can feel as disorienting as reading a clock through a mirror. As analyst Conor Ruebusch has pointed out, the danger is that they start fighting in a completely different way.
Aldo’s lead lefts, including his jab, are viciously potent, but what normally is a clear route to the opponent’s face will be obstructed by McGregor’s outstretched right hand, pawing, measuring, nullifying, as the Irishman pushes forward and seeks to put his opponent’s back to the cage. Aldo may feel like the brainbox in primary school who one day finds himself sharing a small desk with a leftie, who writes with his elbow sticking out. But as one of the most adaptable fighters in MMA, he is unlikely to be slow in passing a message across the desk.
3. There, not there: distance management
It was McGregor’s precise ability to manipulate distance that most impressed Denis Siver last January. McGregor’s adversaries generally seek to circle left, away from that pulverising left hand; being on the back foot has never ended well, however.
McGregor supplements the reach advantage he brings into every featherweight fight with a wide unorthodox stance, his lead leg stretched forward and head far away. The stance can trick opponent’s into believing they are safe from harm before McGregor’s beautifully clean straight left, carrying all his body weight, violently reveals the deception.
Opponents know that being forced backwards by McGregor is a precursor of doom but what offers little choice is the pressure being exerted; mental and physical pressure based on cage-cutting footwork, beguiling movement and the sheer volume of his strikes. Analyst Robin Black put it best in his breakdown of the fight: “McGregor is the master of the flimflam and in this he is a category of one. The flimflam is a unique blend of alpha posture, broken rhythms and a steady stream of kick traffic to overload your CPU. When you retreat, he gets that left hand ringing.”
So the million-dollar question: how to not retreat? One option is to chop McGregor’s legs with kicks. Another is to wrestle him as Chad Mendes managed in July. Is wrestling really McGregor’s kryptonite? The small sample size prohibits a definitive conclusion, though many are highlighting top control as one of the keys to an Aldo victory.
A third way is to stand and bang in the pocket. That’s easier said than done. Manny Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach has said that in his experience the aspect of boxing MMA athletes find hardest to learn is closing the distance, “getting them to be more comfortable closer to their opponent”. The pocket is the mouth of the volcano. But Aldo has a high tolerance for heat. His footwork is beautifully clean and efficient. His ability to pivot and cut tight angles helps him fire off nasty counter strikes.
Aldo, who is regarded by analyst Patrick Wyman as the best defensive fighter ever in MMA, has never been outmanoeuvred in the octagon. He has never lacked an answer and should he avoid stumbling when McGregor is the interrogator, Wyman believes he will establish his legacy as one of the two or three greatest fighters of all time.
4. I can go all night, Joe: Can McGregor’s pace exhaust Aldo
Diego Brandao couldn’t stop bouncing nor Chad Mendes pacing. As Dustin Poirier waited for the cage door to close, the look of contempt on his face was unwashable. And when the bell rang, Marcus Brimage charged forward with rank indiscipline and was KO’d by backfoot uppercuts within 67 seconds. All were McGregor’s victims, both psychologically and physically.
Writing in The Irish Times recently, Sonia O’Sullivan explained what it takes to be a successful athlete. “There are a number of factors involved: talent is a good starting point, dedication and a good work ethic also help, but the ability to relax is perhaps the most underrated factor of all.”Despite commanding the world’s attention as MMA’s most outrageous heel, McGregor’s most precious gift is being able to relax when it’s time to go to work. While there’s nothing deceptive about the power of Aldo or Mendes – both are muscular and stupendously fast and explosive –- McGregor’s power almost registers as shock on his opponents’ faces. His movement is long and languid. He’s not supposed to hit like a truck. However, he not only possesses a power advantage over his rivals; his striking volume is unprecedented and it is the economy and smoothness of his movement – his ability to stay relaxed – that allow him to work so fast and not seem tired.
Against Siver, in a bout that lasted just under seven minutes, McGregor threw 119 significant strikes. Against Mendes, despite spending almost four minutes of the second round on his back, he threw 92. Conversely, in 25 minutes against Ricardo Lamas, Aldo threw 119 significant strikes; and in 22 minutes against Chan Sung Jung he threw only 87, the same number McGregor fired off in one round against Max Holloway.
One of the criticisms aimed at the Brazilian is that he is susceptible to gassing early and coasts when he can. He certainly loves to coast, which helps explain both his durability as a champion and his failure to capture the public’s imagination. But is it true he is vulnerable to running out of puff?
In 2014’s fight of the year, Mendes was determined to test that stamina. From the first bell he pushed Aldo as Aldo had never been pushed before and that first round became one of the greatest stanzas in MMA history, as Mendes brought fire and found an inferno. Good morning, dragon.
In the third round Mendes landed a devastating left uppercut and two left hooks. Time almost stood still after the first blow as Aldo stared at Mendes and shook his head clear like an astonished Elmer Fudd. It was the two hooks that sent him reeling. The end of the fight seemed nigh. However, it was just then, when he was most damaged, that he proved most dangerous. Seconds later it was Mendes who was on the canvas trying to survive. Aldo threw 269 significant strikes over the course of five rounds and went on to retain his belt for a seventh time, with a dapper McGregor ringside. After such a war, the question ‘did he look tired?’ seems silly. Of course he did. But he looked slightly less worn out than Mendes, whose squat muscular frame is built for 100 metres and not the marathon.
The true test will come when he meets a man who infuriates him. Will Aldo become snared in his own emotion and drift from his gameplan? Or will it drive him to unprecedented heights?
McGregor, who has promised “a masterpiece”, may adopt a similar strategy to July, when he winded Mendes with repeated kicks to the midsection. What he also did in that fight was prove that he loves the smell of napalm in the morning as he walked through bombs from the Californian and smiled. It’s inevitable McGregor will move relentlessly forward against a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase backward step and whose counter punching is ferocious. What’s not, is the outcome.
“I don’t predict fights,” said UFC president Dana White, “but I predict this: the first round of Aldo-McGregor will be one of the sickest first rounds of any fight you’ve ever seen.”
5. Say hello to my little friend: Aldo’s kicks
The best piece of journalism in the build-up to UFC 194 was written by Shaun Al-Shatti. It is not for the faint-hearted. Al-Shatti spoke to the majority of Aldo’s previous opponents and the main topic was the Muay Thai specialist’s venomous low kicks. Shin bone on thigh. Here’s Urijah Faber: “I’ve never been hit with a bat. But I think [that experience] would be kind of like how it feels to get hit with a bat. Like somebody aiming at you with a bat. That’s the best way to describe it. Over and over and over.”
Aldo’s low kick will have further to travel to connect with the inside of a southpaw fighter’s lead leg. McGregor will have more time to check the kick and checked kicks can result in broken bones for the assailant. McGregor has history there. An Aldo with his back to the cage will find his best weapon decommissioned and in the centre of the octagon the Irishman will seek to counter with high interest rates. How did Aldo’s last southpaw opponent fare? “I didn’t get full feeling in my legs back for months,” Kenny Florian told Al-Shatti. “He was kicking the inside of my leg, which affected the nerves in my legs so much that it took about a full two months to really get the feeling back.”
Tristar coach Firas Zahabi sees the fight as 50/50 battle. However, he is quite clear about the importance of Aldo’s leg kick – and McGregor’s left hand. “If his leg kick gets going, it will be the beginning of the end. How do you stop that pressure? Aldo needs to land that leg kick and he needs to land it hard and often. He needs to punish the wide stance of McGregor. When McGregor is in his wide stance, he’s accentuating his reach and Aldo needs to take away that reach to take away the pressure, and the way you do that is you chop that leg down like a tree.
“McGregor has to check, or land that left. That left hand of McGregor is so powerful that it would maybe make it too risky for Aldo to kick if that left hand is always ready to counter.”
We wait for the cage door to close.