Firas Zahabi’s advice for Conor McGregor ahead of his super-fight with lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 – revert to type.
It was McGregor’s faith in his punching power, specifically that which is contained within his vaunted left-hand, that seemed to get him into trouble when he fought Nate Diaz back in March. The featherweight king, competing at welterweight for the first time in his career, threw one heavy shot after another, expecting Diaz to fall unconscious at his feet like so many others.
But the Stockton native devoured the punches like some sort of bloodied, grizzled, indefatigable, powered-up Pac-Man.
After relentlessly battering the adamantium that lines Diaz’s jaw for eight minutes or so, McGregor was left confused, demoralised and spent.
Gasping for air, he was hurt badly by a left-hand. A brutal follow-up attack didn’t allow him any time to recover and he eventually shot for a takedown in an attempt to stem the tide. It was stuffed, he was mounted, forced to give up his back, and subsequently choked into submission by a defiant Diaz.
Heading into the rematch at UFC 202, changes were made in McGregor’s planning, preparation and attitude. He had to be ready for the possibility that Diaz would once again stand up to his ‘Notorious’ artillery. The Irishman focused on improving his cardiovascular conditioning, liaised with his coaches to come up with a specific gameplan to combat Diaz, and readied himself psychologically for a five round war.
On fight night, McGregor’s cardio was better, he was composed when confronted with adversity and his pacing was far more sensible. The pure puncher’s mentality that was evident in the first bout was restrained.
Against Alvarez, who, like Diaz, is also very durable, strong, experienced, willful and well conditioned, one might assume that the SBG representative will use a similar approach.
Zahabi, one of the most respected coaches in the game, is advising against that however. He feels McGregor should embrace that puncher’s mindset in this fight.
“I think if he does win this fight, it’s how he has always won his big fights – early,” Zahabi recently said during a Q & A session on the Tristar Gym YouTube channel.
“He needs to go back to that. Forget about pacing. It’s do or die. Round one or two. You either become two-division champion in round one or two, or you are going to go down.
“It’s all happening for McGregor in round one and two. That’s where his talent is, that’s what brought him to the top, that’s what made him famous, that’s what made him successful. Rounds one and two – he is super dangerous. Later on it’s going to be an Eddie Alvarez fight.”
One of the key aspects of McGregor’s gameplan in the Diaz rematch was the utilisation of Muay Thai-style leg-kicks, a weapon that he had not frequently used in the past. These kicks kept Diaz thinking and, according to Zahabi, allowed McGregor to control the pace at vital times throughout the contest.
“If you guys remember the Diaz fight…Diaz has a high pace,” said the Tristar head coach. “He starts slow and finishes strong, but the leg-kicks of Conor killed all that. Conor lost round three. It looked like Conor was done. It looked like Diaz was ramping it up. Round four, [McGregor] started to go back to kicking that leg and Diaz started to back away, which gave Conor a lot of breathing room.
“What [McGregor] did in round one and two saved him in round four, because when he started kicking that leg again, that was money in the bank from round one and two. He was adding on to the damage. You saw Diaz back-off. I was thinking ‘He’s backing off and Conor is recovering’. Even though they worked really hard in round four, [McGregor] had a minute break and then he had the first minute of round four to relax and rest. And he kept punishing that leg.”
However, Zahabi doesn’t see this approach working against Alvarez.
Though the former ‘Underground King’ has shown susceptibility to leg-kicks in the past, like when Donald Cerrone damn-near stopped him in the third round of their fight at UFC 178, Zahabi believes that McGregor’s kicking game isn’t on a par with the Colorado ‘Cowboy’ and that trying to implement a kick-heavy strategy would leave the charismatic Dubliner open to takedowns.
“Does Conor McGregor have the leg-kicking ability of Donald Cerrone? I don’t believe it’s even close. I think Donald’s leg-kicks are far more advanced, far more punishing. Conor has great kicking but not the same kind of kicking as a Thai guy. So, if he kicks Eddie Alvarez, I think Eddie Alvarez will get in the at the legs and take him down. It’s just too high of a risk. [Eddie] is very good at countering and he is very good at getting at the legs – shooting on you if you kick him.”
Zahabi still has doubts over McGregor’s ability to do five rounds comfortably. At several times during the Q & A he spoke about the fact that Conor’s energy dipped dramatically in the second round of the Diaz rematch – the same point at which it dipped in the pair’s first duel – and added that he expects this to happen again at UFC 205.
Without an instrument, like the leg-kicks, with which to control the pace and intensity of the action during such difficult spells, Zahabi feels as though McGregor will struggle desperately in the later rounds.
“I don’t think [Conor] is going to be able to slow down the pace against an Eddie Alvarez. It’s going to be a hard, punishing fight in rounds three, four and five. If they go to rounds three, four and five, the pace is going to be very high and it’s going to be Eddie pushing the pace.”
“McGregor needs to win this in round one or early in round two.”
Something that is worth noting in the context of Zahabi’s suggestion, is that Alvarez has often shown vulnerability at the beginning of fights. He has been hurt early on many occasions. Thus, jumping on him from the get-go might be a smart idea.
However, the teak-tough Philadelphia fighter tends to recover and roar back. Over the course of 13-year pro career, Alvarez has been stopped via KO/TKO on just one occasion – when Nick Thompson blasted him out in two rounds at a Bodog Fights event. That was over seven years ago though and Thompson was a much bigger man, who would go on to compete as high up as 185lbs.
Zahabi acknowledged Alvarez’s durability, saying that he put the 155-pound champ’s chin on a par with Diaz’s. Needless to say then, the Montreal-based trainer seems to be leaning towards Alvarez at UFC 205.
You can watch Zahabi’s entire pre-fight analysis below…