A few days before UFC Boston, I wrote a piece called “The Puncher’s Path.” It was something of a departure from my usual technical analysis, comprising more of a narrative-driven exploration of the mentality of a puncher. The thesis: that Conor McGregor, a skilled technician, is slowly learning to rely more on his power, and less on his skill to beat his opponents.
As far as I can tell, it was the most popular article I have ever written. That alone speaks volumes about the interest that McGregor has drummed up in the MMA community, and that is most certainly a good thing. Today, in the aftermath of McGregor-Siver, I’d like to expand on some of the points I made in that article, and also address the responses I’ve gotten, and acknowledge some of the implications of the fight itself.
Here’s a funny story: a few months ago I wrote an article about boxer Gennady Golovkin. Though it was based on more hard analysis, it came to the exact same conclusion as my McGregor piece: that Golovkin is falling in love with his power, and slowly unlearning the defensive aspects of his style as a result. The funny part was the reader response. While my McGregor piece was largely applauded, the Golovkin one was panned. My analysis was wrong. Golovkin wasn’t regressing, he was becoming a better version of himself. He was still a great defensive fighter. And so on and so forth.
Photo by Joe Camporeale / USA Today Sports
For those of you who don’t follow boxing, Golovkin is a darling of the community. Everybody loves him, and with good reason. He’s currently riding an 18-fight knockout streak. He’s incredibly likeable, with a propensity for lovably distorted English in post-fight interviews. He’s shown immense respect for every opponent he’s ever faced. He’s a nice guy who puts on great fights. To make a long story short, it’s hard to hate him. It’s also difficult to believe that he may be perilously close to losing his strategic edge.
Conor McGregor, on the other hand, is not a community darling. Loved as he is by the UFC brass, he is an incredibly divisive character. Thus, as you might have expected, the response to “The Puncher’s Path” was remarkably positive. I received a lot of thank-yous and well-dones from the MMA community for offering what was seen as a unique new perspective on a fascinating fighter–because even those who appreciate McGregor’s skill often don’t like him as a person.
So what’s my point? To be honest, I’m not completely sure. I certainly don’t want to insult the boxing community by insinuating that they can’t think objectively, nor do I want to imply that the MMA crowd will only support a critical thesis if they already dislike the fighter in question. Rather, I want to put out there the notion that fighting, whether you’re a fan or an athlete, is very much a mental sport. Our perceptions as fans are less concrete than we would like to think, and the fighters themselves are very rarely making career decisions using objective analysis.
The parallels between my Golovkin piece and the McGregor one are uncanny. In particular, I have received the exact same objections to both, though certainly in far greater number for the Golovkin one. I’d like to go through those reader comments one by one. I don’t mean to call out any commenter in particular–I’ll just be using a sort of “abstract” of the four most frequent responses to “The Puncher’s Path” that I’ve seen.
“McGregor knew he was that much better than Siver. He didn’t have to use his full skillset to beat him, but he’ll definitely use it against Aldo.”
This one is everywhere in the afterglow of McGregor-Siver. A version of it was also common after my Golovkin piece–something along the lines of “Golovkin doesn’t use his defense now because he doesn’t have to. When he faces someone really tough he’ll show those skills again.”
There are two issues with this line of thought.
1. Skills don’t materialize out of thin air. Nor do they regenerate if left to rot. They must be constantly honed. Without use, they become dull, and rust. Lately, McGregor has shown less and less of the slick footwork and head movement that brought him to the UFC, which strongly suggests that he is training those skills less frequently than before. There is decidedly little chance that McGregor is training skills in secret that don’t come through in his bouts, and even if he is, the fact that he isn’t using them implies that . . .
2. McGregor’s mentality will be his downfall. By suggesting that McGregor is deliberately eschewing certain aspects of his game because he thinks himself superior to his opponent, we are only acknowledging that he is, in fact, starting to favor offensive destruction over defensive savvy. If McGregor is really that much better than Dennis Siver (which he is), then why didn’t he take him to school, methodically taking him apart and artfully avoiding every one of his counter shots? Why did he allow himself to be hit while chasing after ten-punch combinations, and walk disdainfully through Siver’s kicks rather than blocking or avoiding them?
The answer is that McGregor truly didn’t think that he needed his defensive skills to beat Siver, and he was right. Siver is not good enough to demand the best of McGregor. Neither were Dustin Poirier nor Max Holloway. Then again, neither was Ivan Buchinger, and yet that bout remains one of McGregor’s most technically impressive performances.
Fighters aren’t meant to do only what is necessary to win. The fact that McGregor hits hard enough to knock Siver out, and takes a shot well enough to walk through his counters, does not automatically mean that he should pursue offensive opportunities at every breath. The more that approach works for McGregor, however, the harder it will be for him to change his ways. When you don’t have to try to put away some of the best in the world, it becomes hard to believe that you’ll ever have to try again.
“McGregor’s recent tendency toward knockout punching is a calculated change meant to drive fan interest.”
Again, I received the same response to my Golovkin write-up. It’s likely true. In the case of the Kazahk, his trainer has been open about his intentions to turn Golovkin into a crowd-pleaser. And if Conor McGregor understands one thing, it’s publicity. The man is an eyeball magnet, in part due to his out-of-cage bravado, but also due to his impressive ability to obliterate talented fighters as if they were amateur debutantes.
“It’s too soon to predict McGregor’s decline. He’s still winning convincingly, and no one is really giving him trouble.”
This comment smacks of complacency to me.
In “The Puncher’s Path,” I drew comparisons between McGregor and George Foreman–specifically the George Foreman that fought Ron Lyle, in a bout that saw Foreman abandoning his defensive boxing in favor of trading heavy punches with a famously tough and heavy-handed opponent. That wasn’t really the start of Foreman’s decline, however–merely the most telling moment.
You could perhaps trace the roots of Foreman’s decline to his first title defense, a two-round KO of Ken Norton. Starting the bout with a smart, scientific approach, Foreman became less and less concerned with defense the more he was able to land on his opponent. And Foreman’s next bout, against Muhammad Ali, would prove to be his undoing, as he spent so much energy battering Ali against the ropes that he never considered the possibility of comeback, nor that he might not be able to knock the other man out before his stamina evaporated. Ali, too, was at the start of a decline in that fight, his legs unable to carry him as they once did and his style becoming gradually more dependent on a legendary chin.
These things are clear to us now, though you might have been laughed at had you called Foreman and Ali “fading” fighters at the time. They were the two best heavyweights on earth at the time, and yet they were regressing all the same.
The past makes an excellent teacher. Just as there are no truly new techniques in martial arts, so too are there no new narratives. Every story that fighting is able to tell has already been told a hundred times over. Conor McGregor may seem new, but he sits comfortably in a long line of punchers who, with very few exceptions, have walked the same path that Foreman trod–the exact same path that I expect McGregor to follow in time.
“Conor showed tons of skill against Siver/Poirier/Brandao; it doesn’t look like he’s turning into a brawler.”
This comment is pretty common, too, but it misses my initial point. Unfortunately, I have to claim responsibility for that, as I don’t think I explained my point adequately, neither in “The Puncher’s Path” nor in my Golovkin piece. I will step to do so here.
You see, McGregor is still a phenomenal technician. In fact, certain areas of his game are still evolving and improving. His combination punching, for example, is worlds better than it was even a year ago, when he was still largely a one-handed fighter. His kicks are also improving dramatically, and the wild spinning attacks that were once just instruments of pressure and intimidation are now weapons to be respected by even the most experienced of opponents. The fact is that Conor McGregor is a special talent, and everything he aims to do, he does well.
However, you may have noticed a trend in the improvements that I noted above. Without exception, McGregor’s recent developments are offensive in nature. He invariably achieves his aims, but the fact remains that he is becoming continually more single-minded in his approach.
Rather than the aggressive counter striker who dominated the British regional circuit, McGregor is now much more of a pure pressure fighter. His focus is almost entirely offensive, and it gets easier and easier to hit him with each and every fight.
With the exception of Comment #4, all of these responses are explanatory, not contradictory to my analysis. The most delusional fans aside, anyone who’s followed McGregor’s career can acknowledge two things: 1) McGregor gets hit more now than he used to, and 2) McGregor hits hard enough to knock out anyone in the featherweight division.
Given these facts, I encourage you to draw your own conclusions. In fact, I would love to discuss your thoughts in the comments below.
But for me, the conclusion is inescapable: Conor McGregor is falling in love with his own power. Over time, he’s converting himself to the Cult of Conor. It’s not surprising, either. The man spends his free time being worshiped by his countrymen, and pallin’ around with the president of the company under whose banner he fights. Even his own head coach has a tendency to act more fan than trainer–when McGregor predicted a two-minute victory over Siver, Kavanagh was only too happy to suggest that one minute was more likely. And he’s charismatic enough to have half the UFC roster talking more about him than they do themselves. All of this, combined with an unmatched ability to render opponents unconscious, puts McGregor’s feet firmly on the puncher’s path, and once astride that is a very difficult road to leave.
So what do you think?
For more analysis and in-depth fight discussion, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. Tomorrow’s new episode explores the aftermath of McGregor-Siver and takes a good hard look at next week’s number one contender’s bout between Anthony Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson.
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