I really did want to leave this review at JUST the title above. Why? Because it really does perfectly sum up the winning performance of UFC 205’s main event in New York.
Win or Learn…that’s the mantra of Conor McGregor’s coach and by extension their whole team.
Well…how about both?
On November 12th 2016, in Madison Square Garden, Conor McGregor knocked out Eddie Alvarez to become the first fighter in UFC history to hold world titles in two different weight classes simultaneously. He won and the rest of us learned. By the rest of us I mean the thousands in attendance and the millions watching around the world.
But before I get into all that…let’s back things up a little bit.
I’ve always felt that McGregor’s most optimal weight class would be lightweight. So when he signed to fight Rafael Dos Anjos immediately following the Aldo win I thought it was the best possible move. But, as we all know, that fight fell through due to Dos Anjos getting injured then Conor ending up spending most of the year training for and fighting Nate Diaz at 170lbs.
Meanwhile Dos Anjos, who was one hell of a fighter and UFC Lightweight Champion, gets totally destroyed by a ferocious ball of muscle named Eddie Alvarez.
After first watching clips of Alvarez V Dos Anjos I remember thinking…
“Good, this is actually far better now, this guy’s a beast, but he loves a stand up brawl, which will play right into Conor’s hands as he counter punches him into oblivion with his big left hand”.
Now, at this point I could try to look all smart, cool and prophetic by stating that I remained steadfast to this initial analysis right up to the buzzer on Saturday night…but nothing could be further from the truth!
The truth, what was the truth? Well, the truth was that I didn’t know much of anything about Eddie Alvarez at all. In fact, my entire opinion was based solely on what I’d seen in the highlight reel of the Dos Anjos fight. I had him pinned as a slugger with explosive power who would get drawn onto one of Conor’s counters as he charged forward like a bull in a china shop.
But, the closer the fight got I began to hear things about this guy like “he’s a phenomenal wrestler” and “he’s been a world champion in every organisation he’s ever fought in, including the UFC”! At this point I thought I’d better take a closer look at this Alvarez fella and the closer I looked the more I realised…this is EASILY Conor’s toughest test to date!
A phenomenal wrestler indeed! Looking at Eddie’s ability to manhandle people to the floor I was reminded of Conor’s featherweight clash with Chad Mendes. Conor suffered several takedowns in the Mendes fight and if it wasn’t for an incredible heart coupled with devastating power he was surely on his way to a wide defeat on points because of it. So this Alvarez guy was now shaping up to look like a bigger, stronger and quite frankly tougher version of Chad Mendes. Someone who is not only devastating in every aspect of his game, but also someone who shows a tremendous ability to comeback after being hurt and still win…all of which was not good news!
But, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. My quick research of the new lightweight champ also revealed a significant silver lining. I noticed that he gets hit, and further more…he gets hurt when he gets hit! While he always showed an admirable ability to recover, fight back, and usually win after he’d been hit and hurt…he’d never been caught by someone with their finger more firmly on the ‘Lights Out’ switch than McGregor!
Of course the big fear, for anyone who knew anything about fighting, was what if he chose to simply make takedowns his main objective. Would it go the same way as the Mendes fight only worse because Alvarez is a bigger, stronger and more resilient version of the same thing? If this turned out to be the case, could Conor’s power bail him out again or would the bull necked, larger champion, take the blows better than the much smaller framed Mendes did?
Well, in my head the answers to those questions, while not certain, were easily estimated.
1) McGregor showed vastly improved takedown defence in his second fight with Diaz and while Alvarez is clearly a superior wrestler to Diaz, the improvement was noteworthy. Also in this regard, I suspected that Conor, who seems to always be working to eradicate weaknesses, would have identified this as his main one, and subsequently left no stone unturned to improve it as it’s the sole thing that might prevent him from winning every fight he ever has!
2) It wasn’t just Mendes’s wrestling ability that led to McGregor being taken down with impunity during their fight. Conor was also suffering from quite a severe knee injury and was unable to wrestle for several weeks in training. Seeing as he was supposed to be fighting striker Jose Aldo, that probably didn’t seem like a huge problem…until the opponent got switched to the best wrestler in the division on just 10 days notice! This was not the case for Alvarez though. Coming into this fight Conor had plenty of time to prepare his ever improving takedown defence.
3) I saw several instances where Eddie got hit and hurt by people who couldn’t hit nearly as hard as McGregor. Plus, McGregor showed that while a little bit blunted, his power DID carry up considerably to Welterweight, let alone Lightweight, when he moved up 25lbs and dropped the impossibly tough Nate Diaz several times in their rematch.
This is why I believed that McGregor would ultimately do a number on Alvarez…but it was far from a foregone conclusion. In fact, opinions were split right down the middle and from what I could see, a slight majority felt Alvarez would be too much for McGregor overall.
Beyond the fight, the opponents and the potential outcome, the event itself was one of major historical significance in MMA history. The first ever UFC took place twenty three years to the day that UFC 205 did, and it took place…in Madison Square Garden!!
Staging the UFC in THIS venue of all places was a tremendous landmark achievement in the sport’s short history. The New York State Athletic Commision has infamously referred to MMA and the UFC in particular as “human cockfighting” in the past. Yet now, after 23 years (exactly) of lobbying, the UFC entered what’s arguably the worlds greatest event venue, and undisputedly the worlds most prestigious and historical boxing venue, New York’s very own Madison Square Garden!
The list of boxing royalty that’s fought here in the ‘Ring of Honour’ with it’s famous red ropes, is simply astronomical, and now, ‘The Garden’ has taken a step into the next chapter of it’s combat sport history by playing host to the greatest Mixed Martial Arts promotion on earth.
Also for me, seeing this most historic event headlined by an Irishman was an almost pinch yourself type moment, truly!
Even more so because the show being here and an Irishman headlining it wasn’t the only history being made. McGregor was after his own slice. He was attempting to become the first and only fighter in UFC history to win, and simultaneously hold, the UFC belt in two different weight classes! To boxing fans this may seem, at least on face value, to be a fairly tame goal when compared to the best efforts of boxers like Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Roy Jones, Pacman or Mayweather.
But like most misunderstandings, a full appreciation is only gained when the situation is viewed from the correct perspective. To understand the magnitude of what McGregor has accomplished it must first be understood that the UFC’s title belts, weight classes, and rankings more closely resemble that of boxing’s bygone era than today’s alphabet soup shambles.
Today boxing has 17 weight classes with as little 3-4lbs separating divisions, about 6 ‘World Titles’ per weight class and the rankings are often made up of fighters with padded records who have had very carefully selected opposition. Top contenders actively seeking each other out and fighting when it’s not either a title eliminator or the title fight itself is now almost unheard of for business reasons.
But, once upon a time, in the golden age of Madison Square Garden for example, boxing only had 8 weight classes with 10, 12 or 15lbs separating divisions, 1 world title belt per class and rankings that saw top fighters fighting each other every month! Today’s UFC has quite overtly modelled itself on this with it’s 8 weight classes separated by 10,15 and even 20lbs and one World Title belt per weight class! Plus all the top fighters fight each other with unprecedented regularity for the modern era of combat sport!
The second thing that must be considered, and it’s a HUGE thing, is the fact that all other things being equal it’s WAY easier to lose in MMA than it is in boxing. What do I mean by this blanket statement? Well, in boxing the best fighter on the night wins about 90% of the time at least. Yes there have been quite a number of ‘Hail Mary’ punches that have landed over the years, turning an otherwise dominant performance into a losing one in the blink of an eye. But, in MMA, it could be argued that the best fighter wins about 70% of the time. Why? It’s simple…because there’s SO many damn ways to lose! One silly mistake and it’s not just a punch you have to worry about, but a kick, a knee, an elbow or any innumerable amount of submissions you could get caught with at any time.
For all these reasons and more, what McGregor accomplished is approaching comparability with what ‘Hurricane’ Henry Armstrong did in boxing back in the 1930’s. The supernatural Armstrong, who threw 300 punches a round and had a resting heart rate of 30 bpm, held world titles in 3 weight classes simultaneously that had a weight range of 21lbs! However ‘Homicide Hank’ also remained as world champion of the heaviest of his weight classes and defended his title NINETEEN times in just two years!!!! So The Notorious One still has a ways to go, even in relative terms, but if anyone can it’s him. Oh, and another parallel between McGregor and Armstrong is the fact that all 3 of Armstrong’s world title winning efforts took place in, (drum roll) you’ve guessed it…Madison Square Garden!
So yes, let there be no mistake here, what McGregor achieved on this night was truly historical and utterly remarkable.
So naturally, after something incredible is achieved, a small fraction of critics pop out of the woodwork with…”reasons WHY this could happen”? Of course, ok, let’s hear it. Well it’s to be expected that Eddie Alvarez himself would be searching for reasons, I get that I honestly do. It’s how a fighter’s mind works, it’s how a fighter attempts to make sense of things. If something went wrong then it can be corrected, improvements can be made, a way back to the top exists and fortunes can be reversed. However if it’s simply a case of…”I was perfectly prepared, I attempted all I could to execute the game plan, but I was just vastly not good enough to do it” then that’s a much tougher pill to swallow.
But…other people jumping on the same excuse bandwagon as the defeated fighter, THAT I have zero time for! So let’s actually look at what Alvarez’s alleged reasons for defeat were, then analyse the fight itself, and see if the bandwagon jumpers case holds water?
Eddie said, and I’m obviously paraphrasing here, “I just boxed too much, the plan was to kick more to the legs and wrestle, it was just too much boxing”.
Ok, kicks and wrestling…got it. Now let’s objectively breakdown the actual fight blow by blow.
The first thing Alvarez does is open up with 3 back to back inside leg kicks, it’s the very first thing he does! McGregor maintains composure and poise as he initiates a pace control tactic that would be the signature theme of his entire performance (which is clearly a knew weapon/tactic he’s developed as a result of his two encounters with Diaz).
From his position of complete control, McGregor slips a fast right hand from Alvarez beautifully and drops him with two precision perfect left hands over the top. At this point I notice something that actually shocks me a little bit…McGregor looks HUGE in comparison to Alvarez! He is the man who’s supposedly coming up in weight class, yet he looks like a welterweight by comparison to the lightweight champ!
I know McGregor isn’t a natural featherweight and makes quite a dramatic weight cut to get down to 145lbs but to look THIS big next to the UFC Lightweight World Champ was something else entirely. It was then that I realised that along with his knew found pacing patience, this extra physical robustness is also a cross over benefit of his time spent preparing for his 170lbs rematch with Diaz.
Alvarez attempts a takedown, but McGregor quickly stuffs it and it’s obvious that Alvarez’s wrestling has been heavily inhibited after he’s now first felt the punching power of McGregor. Which seems justified in the next few moments as McGregor effortlessly slips 3 punches from Alvarez and drops him again with another left.
Eddie rises quickly however and soon lands a flush, very hard, right hand of his own. This was a quality shot right on the money, the same kind of shot that had Dos Anjos at sixes and sevens! To my surprise it received no air time from the commentators, which was understandable…because it also received zero recognition from The Notorious One!
It appeared to have been received like a pea shooter bouncing off a blackboard. It was then that I realised yet ANOTHER benefit that Conor has gained from this time spent training for and fighting Nate Diaz at welterweight. Conor famously employed top class Irish boxers to spar in preparation for his winning rematch with Diaz. That plus the time spent training with and fighting heavier men has made the power of UFC lightweights, even ones who can hit like Alvarez, seem like nothing!
McGregor continues to measure Alvarez with his right hand lead from the southpaw stance, placing it over Alvarez’s own orthodox left hand lead thus successfully stifling Alvarez’s jab. Doing this essentially negates Eddie’s right hand also, as it makes it far harder to get off, plus forces him to use the cross as a lead, which has to travel twice the distance and is therefore less likely to land. But that’s not all, it also sets McGregor up perfectly to land his own left hand, which he did…and dropped Eddie again!
Next McGregor follows Alvarez to the ground, which didn’t make sense to me initially due to the fact that the unprecedented success he was having on his feet was the reason Alvarez was on the deck in the first place. Plus, Eddie has excellent BJJ and although having been dropped 3 times in as many minutes, his eyes were clear. A finish on the ground at this stage seemed unlikely. It then occurred to me that what MIGHT be happening is that Conor was taking this opportunity to silence some critics of his ground game? Maybe this was him saying…”I don’t mind going here, even with a guy like this, I’m good here”. And he was right!
Alvarez escaped eventually and got back to his feet, Conor continues to dominate at range and Alvarez goes for another failed takedown attempt. McGregor’s reaction time to these shots is VASTLY improved over that which we saw during the Mendes fight! After the failed takedown Eddie throws another kick and Conor nails him with another jab. After missing a few punches Alvarez throws another kick and the round ends the way it began and remained throughout, with McGregor in complete control of the action.
Alvarez opens the outing with another kick. McGregor continues to control the range, Alvarez quickly level changes but McGregor is on it like a flash and nails him with another huge left hand. This time Eddie manages to remain upright…but not for long!
Alvarez throws another kick and goes for another takedown and is stuffed AGAIN! McGregor controls the pace masterfully and begins to put his hands behind his back while making Alvarez miss! McGregor then scores with three of his signature side kicks. I believe these seemly inoffensive kicks hurt Alvarez more than would appear as he lashed back like a wounded tiger with three vicious right hands back to back, the third of which hit it’s target squarely on the chin…but to no effect.
Alvarez clearly realises at this point that he can’t hurt Conor with single shots, and doesn’t have the ability to land with combinations so he makes his biggest play so far for a takedown and really utilises all his considerable strength and power to bull Conor up against the cage and REALLY force the goal for all he was worth!
McGregor was flawless in his technical reactions to this takedown attempt and defended it perfectly…no dice for Alvarez…AGAIN!
As they disengage Alvarez must’ve been understandably disheartened, perplexed and at odds as to what to try next? After all, wasn’t this the guy that couldn’t wrestle? Wasn’t this the guy that had no ground game? Wasn’t this the guy that gasses out? Wasn’t this the guy that wouldn’t be strong enough at the higher weight?
Well, Eddie, and several others, may have been expecting that guy, but someone else showed up on Saturday night…and he didn’t get the memo!
McGregor started throwing, and landing, heavy front kicks mixed with a variety of punches as Alvarez didn’t seem to know where any of it was coming from. Then, with the timing of a Swiss watch, McGregor landed a four punch combination that sent Alvarez down for the forth and final time in less than two rounds. Moments after hitting the mat, McGregor was on his prey like a big cat as he delivered a HUGE left square to the face of his downed opponent. Big John had seen enough and called a halt to the contest on the spot.
Initially, watching from the live TV camera angle, I thought the stoppage was premature. But upon seeing the slow motion replay from the correct angle it was obvious that the fight was over when it ended. Some people are still contending that the fight was stopped too soon. I’m a former fighter myself and would always have quite a liberal view on the amount of punishment a fighter should take before the fight is stopped as I STILL have a tendency to view it from a “what would I want if it was me fighting” perspective. But the more I look at the finish of this fight the more I’m of the opinion that the only thing more perfect than McGregor’s performance this night was McCarthy’s stoppage call.
As I hope you can now see from the above analysis, (and I encourage anyone to watch the fight again and point out if I’ve been inaccurate in any way), it becomes quite obvious that Alvarez did everything in his power to execute his original game plan to the best of his ability. The simple fact of the matter was…McGregor was just too good in every way.
So, that was it, history was made, McGregor had won, but when the dust had settled, what did WE learn?
Well, I’m glad you asked…we learned this:
1) I personally feel we learned that 155lbs is Conor McGregor’s optimal weight class.
2) We Learned that the single best thing that’s ever happened to Conor McGregor was his loss to Nate Diaz. The lessons he learned in losing the first fight, coupled with the subsequent improvements he made in order to win the rematch has made him a FAR better fighter. In fact, in my opinion this victory over Alvarez wouldn’t have been anywhere near as emphatic if it hadn’t been for the whole Diaz journey preceding it.
3) We learned that Conor McGregor now has genuinely formidable takedown defence…which is TERRIBLE news for the entire UFC Roster! His wrestling has improved immensely, and he’s still very young so can only get better. Following on from wrestling we also learned that his confidence in his ground game is growing.
4) We learned that Conor can hit the best lightweights in the world and knock them out! So his power did carry up very completely. Although this was the least surprising to me as he’d already shown the ability to repeatedly drop a very tough man at an even higher weight class during the Diaz fights.
The question on everyone’s lips now is…what’s next?
Well, I think it could go one of three ways:
1) A boxing match with Floyd Mayweather (and why not! Even though he has nothing but the very slimmest of chances of winning, he also can’t lose, even if he gets KO’d…think about it, it’s true)!
2) A stint in the WWE. (Again…why not! Nothing to lose, lots of money to be made, fun to have, a profile to raise even higher etc)
3) A fight verses Tyrone Woodley for a third belt at a third weight. This might seem crazy but I think if properly prepared McGregor could win this fight. I think the evidence exist in Woodley’s fight vs Wonderboy on this very same card. BUT…McGregor would have to FULLY commit to the idea of doing this, leave behind featherweight for good (maybe not lightweight) and properly build some serious functional size and strength. Then, more importantly, spend the correct amount of time making this extra muscle and power as endurable as it needs to be. To be realistically achieved he would need to build the size and power required as quickly as possible while simultaneously maintaining or even IMPROVING his CV conditioning levels along the way. Contrary to popular belief this isn’t actually that hard to do if you go about it optimally.
What’s my prediction? Well, I don’t know about a straight up prediction but I’d like to combine two of those options and see him take on Mayweather IN the WWE in a staged affair that saw the outcome as a draw or something like that…why not?
But, one things for sure, The Notorious One made history here at Madison Square Garden, and as my 4 year old son, who had once looked at McGregor after the Diaz fight and said “daddy he looks like you”, turned to me this time and said…”look Daddy, there’s Conor McGregor”, I realised…it won’t stop here!
By Paul McIlroy