In his own words....The rise and rise of Conor McGregor
In August 2013, Jose Aldo beat Chan Sung Jung to retain the UFC featherweight title. It was his fifth defence of the title to go with his three WEC championship victories.
In the two brief years since the UFC created the featherweight division, Aldo had effectively cleaned it out.
Aldo had beaten a ‘whose who’ during his WEC/UFC title reign. Not only did he beat these men, he forced them to re-evaluate their careers.
Urijah Faber was the kingpin featherweight until Aldo beat him twice, which prompted the move to bantamweight. Kenny Florian retired. Mark Hominick couldn’t win a fight after his beating at the hands of Aldo and retired also. Chan Sung Jung dislocated his shoulder on the way to losing and hasn’t fought since.
Thanks to Aldo’s dominance the top 10 in the UFC’s featherweight division became a barren wasteland. Included in this number was Chad Mendes who Aldo KO’d in the first round of their fight in January 2012.
“The division is full of rookies and has-beens… I’m enjoying myself collecting these cheques on my way to eliminating each one” – McGregor’s assessment of the 145lbs division
Enter ‘The Notorious’.
Just four months prior to Aldo beating Jung, Conor McGregor announced himself to the UFC audience with an impressive KO victory that took a little longer than a minute. For those familiar with McGregor’s career there was nothing remarkable about the outcome. We’d seen it many times before.
Two weeks after Aldo beat Jung, Conor beat Max Holloway in a three round decision. Though he picked up a serious knee injury that required surgery and spent 11 months away from the Octagon, his presence and stature sky rocketed.
As the Crumlin man began to talk he re-energised the featherweight division as fighters scrambled to call him out for his return fight. With Aldo seemingly unbeatable, the Irish kid in the UFC’s favour will do nicely instead.
‘They all want it till they get it’ – McGregor on being called out by fighters
Since his return the wins have continued. Less and less featherweights have been calling McGregor out though. It's tended only to be those in title contention. And especially the ones that Aldo has beaten already.
McGregor’s prediction that he would make the featherweight division become a ‘one man division’ may seem a lot like egomania but its also the way things have played out. Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes and Frankie Edgar have all lost to Aldo and the only way they get a crack at the title is through Conor McGregor.
If McGregor can snatch the interim title and follow up with Aldo’s real title, it will me mission accomplished.
However, first things first. Chad Mendes and UFC 189.
“At the end of the day you have to feel some way, you may as well feel unbeatable, like a champion” McGregor on his confidence
Whether it’s the brash talking or a failure to believe or even respect what McGregor has achieved in the UFC, there are still pockets of the US MMA media that think Conor has talked his way into his lofty spot. This belief is mainly fuelled by the fact that he hasnt faced an opponent with a high calibre wrestling pedigree.
In Chad Mendes, McGregor has finally met that opponent with the level of wrestling required to answer the question. Mendes was an NCAA All American twice (the equivalent of making the GAA All-stars team) and finished second in his division in 2008.
There is no doubt that at some point Mendes will take Conor down.
The question is what then?
Once the fight hits the floor he is more likely to opt for ground and pound over submission attempts. His last submission win came in 2010.
It's clear he has spent time trying to evolve from a grappler to a striker. His record shows that it's worked to a point. Five of his last six wins have come via (T)KO.
However, it's important to note the TKO finishes came against fighters with a preference for grappling.
One common misconception in MMA is if a guy hits hard he’s a great striker. Mendes hits hard but he’s not a great striker.
Physically, Mendes is giving up three inches in height and a massive eight inches in reach. Even if we say that both men have equal knockout power, McGregor has a massive advantage in reach, speed and variety of shots to pick.
“It was never about the champion. It was about me destroying every single one of these featherweights and essentially make it a one-man division” – McGregor on rising to the top of the featherweight division
Conor’s reach advantage will mean he can pick off Mendes at range and force the wrestler to shoot from the outside giving him longer to react and wind up an uppercut that worked so effectively against Marcus Brimage.
Denis Siver had some success taking Conor down in their fight in Boston in January. This will give Mendes some hope.
However, against Siver McGregor dropped his hands after two minutes of the first round. He viewed the attacks from Siver as not worthy of a defensive guard. He opted instead for foot work and head movement to take him out of harm’s way.
Though Siver did manage to drag the fight south, McGregor was able to pop back to his feet almost straight away. While technically the takedown was completed, it should not have been scored in favour of Siver. If you’re going to take someone down you need to keep them there in order for it to make a difference on the scorecards.
We also saw The Notorious throw a lot of high kicks and ‘spinning sh1t’ as UFC welterweight Nick Diaz would say. We’re not likely to see the same volume of ‘spinning sh1t’as Mendes could easily time a takedown entry once he sees McGregor turn his hips.
The route to victory is pretty straightforward for Mendes. He just has to get McGregor down and beat him up. While the plan might be simple the execution is another thing. It won’t be pretty but he needs to stick to his strong suit if he is putting together a savvy game-plan.
Another possible route for Mendes to get his hand raised is landing a powerful overhand right. This would be a high stakes move as it would involve standing with a bigger, faster more skilled striker in McGregor.
At the end of the day, everyone has a chance in an MMA fight. There are so many routes to victory the margin for error is razor thin.
The winner will have a reunification fight with a returning Aldo in late 2015. Maybe even in Dublin on October 24th if the McGregor train keeps rolling.