The originally scheduled UFC 189 main event, featuring Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor, was one of the most highly anticipated fights in the recent history of the promotion. From the moment the fight was announced in January, there has been a lot of debate surrounding the fight. Betting markets had the fight roughly even as a lot of people picked the matchup apart, looking to figure out who would come out on top, and wondering whether McGregor was really deserving of so much hype.
Naturally, because good things don’t happen in MMA, Aldo suffered a broken rib and has been forced out of the fight. I was quite a bit disappointed at the way the situation was handled by the UFC, first lying about the nature of Aldo’s injury (presumably to earn approval from the state commission) and then throwing Aldo under the bus when he ultimately withdrew. The only cowardly thing Aldo could have done was show up in the cage, take a dive, and collect a paycheck.
(As a quick aside, the Aldo injury should be motivation for the UFC to do something I’ve suggested multiple times before on this blog. That is, to collaborate with some of the top gyms in the sport and team up with an injury prevention firm (like the San Antonio Spurs have done with Apollo M.I.S. for basketball) to research MMA, research the most effective training methods, and work on developing training standards that can best balance proper fight preparation with injury prevention. It’s impossible to eliminate injuries altogether but I absolutely think the rate of injuries can be significantly reduced.)
Fortunately, Chad Mendes was ready to serve as a back-up plan, and the replacement fight of McGregor vs. Mendes is every bit as compelling in my view. It’s a fight that should serve to answer lingering questions about McGregor’s true ability. Will his style hold up against a top-tier opponent? Can he defend takedowns against a powerful wrestler? McGregor can end any doubts people have about him in this fight against Mendes.
Now, Mendes isn’t just a power wrestler. He’s developed a very effective striking game as well, and does a terrific job of manipulating distance to keep opponents off balance. Mendes had some very good moments against Aldo in their second fight, landing a few haymakers and some sharp leg kicks early, combining power with decent volume. The ability to control distance also helps Mendes absorb fewer strikes than anybody McGregor has faced before. Mendes should be far more difficult to hit than guys like Dennis Siver, Dustin Poirier, or Diego Brandao.
Of course, I firmly believe the threat of a takedown is a big part of that. Fighters can’t be too aggressive with strikes against Mendes because spamming kicks against him is a great way to get taken down. The power wrestler model – a wrestler with plus athleticism, a great power double-leg takedown, and a big punch – is one of the most successful fighter models in the sport for a reason. Mendes is the epitome of that type of fighter.
Even so, if Mendes settles for a kickboxing match against McGregor, I firmly believe he’s going to get knocked out. As good as Mendes is, McGregor is simply on a different level with his movement, setups, feints, and combinations. McGregor engages opponents in such a way that he’s constantly in the better position to land clean, hard strikes. Mendes doesn’t have the same skill with lateral movement and creating angles.
I also don’t think Mendes will succeed if he spams double-leg takedowns, like Demian Maia tried to do against Rory MacDonald. McGregor is too good an athlete for that. It’s worth mentioning that McGregor hasn’t been taken down in the UFC yet (he hasn’t faced a wrestler yet, either, but it’s still significant). If it’s McGregor who proves to have the better effective movement, it will be tough for Mendes to just land a double-leg with no setup.
In my mind, Mendes has two approaches he can try. One is to turn the fight into a good, old-fashioned wrestling match, similar to what Daniel Cormier did to Rumble Johnson. In other words, to stick to McGregor like glue, constantly pressuring and working for takedowns and positional improvements. McGregor has never been tested in this way and it’s quite possible that this style of fight would break him down. After all, how many hard-nosed wrestlers are there to train with in Ireland?
The other approach – the one I find most likely to happen – is for Mendes to throw the kitchen sink at McGregor. That means a little bit of boxing, a little bit of clinch work, a little bit of wrestling/grappling, and then back to striking. If Mendes can establish the threat of hard, effective strikes to go along with the threat of the takedown, it should make his whole game more effective.
That’s what I would tell Mendes if I was in his corner. Whatever you do, never settle for a striking match at distance. If that’s the type of fight we get, I see McGregor fulfilling the hype, winning the interim title, and making a match against Aldo even more exciting and anticipated than it already was. But if Mendes attacks McGregor with his full range of skills, and can ultimately take McGregor out of his element, I think he can play the spoiler in this one.
Pick: Chad Mendes by decision