UFC 189 and a fight with Chad Mendes presented Conor McGregor the chance to answer questions that had persistently hounded him in the early stages of his career.
By that time, the Irishman had already proven himself a devastating striker, finishing four out of his first five opponents via KO/TKO. However, we hadn’t seen McGregor’s takedown defence, clinch game or guard tested by a seasoned wrestler. Before boarding ‘The Notorious’ hype train, which by this time could offer standing room only, many hardcore fans wanted to see proof that the SBG featherweight was a rounded fighter, capable of competing in every area of the game.
Mendes, one of the sport’s premier wrestlers, had the kind of skill-set needed to take McGregor to dark places and force him to display whatever abilities he had in the grappling arts.
Though McGregor finished Mendes in the second round, questions continued to be asked. In fact, his performance seemed only to fuel further doubt. Yes, he had come through a difficult test, but he had been taken down multiple times and spent lengthy periods fighting from his back. He had also been hit with a greater frequency than was expected, a fact which stimulated fresh questions about his stand-up defence.
All of this, against someone who had come in on short-notice, opined the critics.
With only days remaining until McGregor takes on Eddie Alvarez for the UFC lightweight title in New York, there has once again been a great deal of reflection on the Dubliner’s showing against Mendes. Given that Alvarez, like Mendes, is shorter than McGregor, stocky, powerful and a strong wrestler, it’s understandable that people are drawing parallels.
During last week’s UFC 205 media conference call, when Mendes was mentioned, Alvarez tried to goad his soon-to-be opponent by suggesting that he was losing that bout up until the stoppage. McGregor was dismissive, reminding the American that he had ultimately won the fight, before adding that Mendes is a better fighter than Alvarez anyway.
When he was interviewed by the42 recently, McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh also played down comparisons between the Mendes fight and the one that awaits his charge this weekend.
“We didn’t have a huge training camp for Mendes and I consider him almost a more difficult wrestler to deal with because he is so short, it’s easier for him to get underneath Conor’s shots,” said Kavanagh, from inside the octagon at SBG Concorde. “Eddie is, for some reason, on the [UFC] website he as being the same height as Conor but when you put them together they’re not [the same]. I guess Conor is about 5’10 and Eddie is maybe 5’7 but there is not that much of a height difference. If Conor just bends the knees a little, he is going to be eye-level. So, it’s a little bit easier dealing with someone closer to your own height shooting in on you than Mendes.”
“Then, of course, in the lead-up to the Mendes fight, with the knee injury, we weren’t able to do a whole lot of wrestling and, also, because we were preparing for Aldo, we didn’t do a whole lot of wrestling anyway. So, the one or two takedowns in that fight, Conor almost kind of gave them just to secure guard rather than fight them hard and possibly injure his knee. That was a strange fight.”
“Whereas this one now, [there have been] a few knocks and bruises – absolutely to be expected at the end of a tough training camp – but no injuries. There is a big difference between knocks and bruises and injuries. Any takedown that Eddie gets, he is going to have to fight tooth and nail for. And even if he does get a takedown, it’s going to be an exhausting process. Conor is very, very difficult to take down and even if you do get him down, he is very, very difficult to hold down. And then if you are holding him down, you are going to be eating big elbows, submission attempts, he is going to be talking in your ear reminding you how tough it’s getting.”
It’s injury-free nature isn’t the only feature of this camp which gives Kavanagh confidence that things will go more smoothly against Alvarez than they did against Mendes. The trainer added that the physical similarities between SBG wrestling coach, Sergey Pikulskiy, and Alvarez mean that McGregor will encounter a more familiar body-type in Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
“Sergey, his wrestling coach for the last seven or eight years, is almost physically a double for Eddie – about 5’7, similar weight,” said Kavanagh. “I would consider Sergey a much slicker wrestler but he can mimic that grinding style of wrestling as well. So, the camp has been pretty heavy wrestling orientated.”
McGregor has prepared for Alvarez’s body-type and to combat his grinding style so that he will get opportunities to do what he does best. Ultimately, Kavanagh feels that his longtime student will make the most of one of those opportunities, just as he did against Mendes.
“We know there’s going to be a lot of clinch work in this, we know there’s going to be a lot of wrestling but we know there will be separations and there will be opportunities and, as we have seen many times, Conor doesn’t need many opportunities to land that clean shot.”