From the time Conor McGregor broke into major mixed martial arts, his main source of fuel has been an unshakeable, almost irrational belief in himself. An outspoken proponent of “The Secret,” a book that espouses the laws of attraction as a means of generating achievement, McGregor has ridden a wave of momentum — along with an indefatigable work ethic and a powerful left hand — to what may prove to be the richest fight in combat sports history.
It is a dizzying rise, one that has almost served to reinforce his belief in this theory that anything he conceives is achievable. In just over four years time, McGregor went from being on welfare in his native Ireland, to beating MMA’s greatest featherweight ever, to becoming the sport’s top box-office draw, to becoming the UFC’s first simultaneous two-division champion.
That rapid arc is almost inconceivable, but all of those accomplishments would pale in comparison to beating the greatest boxer of the last 20 years at his own game.
Having the gall to step into the ring and attempting to beat Floyd Mayweather is, in a word, preposterous. Mixed martial artists are certainly well-versed in boxing, but because of all the practices and techniques involved in wrestling, jiu-jitsu, the clinch game other elements of MMA, they lack the time to focus and drill exclusively on the minute details related to footwork and positioning that make the difference in elite-level boxing.
Still, McGregor’s should ambition should not be dismissed or criticized; it should be admired. As a rookie boxer, he is attempting one of the greatest feats in boxing history.
When he agreed to the match, he and his camp had one major decision to make: whether they would hire an experienced and dedicated boxing coach. In the end, there wasn’t even a debate. The answer was a decisive no.
The reasoning was simple. The camp’s focus would spotlight his strengths.
An outside coach would attempt to correct a litany of small technical errors, a useful function in an ordinary training setting, but this camp is highly out of the ordinary, with McGregor effectively having just over two months from the time he signed the contract to the moment he steps in the ring to engage Mayweather.
Anyone, even McGregor, would acknowledge that’s not nearly enough time to navigate the learning curve between his existing skill set and what’s needed to compete with the 49-0 Mayweather on a purely technical basis. So why deal with it at all? Focus on strengths.
At his core, McGregor (21-3 MMA) is a gifted offensive fighter who prefers to stand on the outside, upright and just out of punching range. Fighting out of his southpaw stance, the 29-year-old tends to use left kicks as distance indicators as well as to to funnel opponents toward his dominant side. The kicks serve multiple purposes, including dissuading opponents from circling out of trouble.
Under boxing rules, the elimination of that foundational weapon from his regular arsenal is a grave loss. Without it, he will have to find a way to coax Mayweather toward his power hand, a straight and sharp left. Most likely, he’ll try to do it by changing his attack rhythms. One advantage McGregor has always had in MMA is his unique movement patterns, often hesitating an extra beat before throwing a strike to generate confusion within opponents.
As a weapon, that straight left will remain McGregor’s bread and butter. By comparison, his right hand has rarely factored into his power, and his hook seems fairly ordinary, sometimes going wide and lacking the same kind of pop as his trail hand.
McGregor innately understands the tendency of fighters within MMA to overextend, and has mastered a step-back left counter that he’s used throughout his UFC career, including in his championship performances against both Jose Aldo and Eddie Alvarez.
This, too, is another weapon that may prove fairly useless on Saturday, if only because Mayweather shows incredible patience on shot selection and rarely, if ever, charges forward out of balance.
So where does that leave McGregor? Well, with a few adjustments to make. As many have noted, the fighters who have given Mayweather the most trouble — Marcos Maidana and Jose Luis Castillo among them — have focused on inside aggression, crowding Mayweather while working the body.
In these positions, particularly in the latter part of his career, Mayweather has focused more on defense and neutralization through clinch work than searching for offense. As such, any punches landed by his opponent tend to rile up the crowd. Still, he’s a capable infighter when he wants to be.
This will be a position where McGregor needs to capitalize. For one thing, he can explode into a left hand without the same fear of clinching that he might have in MMA. There will be no attempt at a takedown coming, so at worst, Mayweather will try to tie him up or lean on him in hopes of sapping him of energy. That’s a small risk considering the potential reward. Of course, offensive explosions and power punches do contain the danger of generating fatigue for the offensive fighter, something McGregor has to be cognizant of.
After all, in MMA, the longest he’s ever gone is 25 minutes, a single time. Now, he has to be ready to go 36 minutes. Does McGregor know how to pace himself to go the distance? Through his MMA experience, he hasn’t shown a mastery of time management. See Nate Diaz vs. McGregor 1 for evidence. By contrast, Mayweather has been fighting 12-round bouts since 1998 and rarely looks like he’s even breathing hard.
One other thing worth noting in regards to McGregor’s chances: an often-parroted belief is that Mayweather struggles with southpaws. It’s simply not true.
He’s routed each of his last three lefty opponents: Manny Pacquiao, Robert Guerrero and Vitor Ortiz. Worse, none of them had much luck touching him. Pacquiao landed 89 of 429 punches, Guerrero went 113 of 581, and Ortiz 26 of 148. Together, they combined for a woeful 19 percent clip.
Mayweather’s most recent fight against a southpaw — in this case, Pacquiao — has to be instructive here. Mayweather used two things to effectively halt Pacquiao’s offense, a jab and foot movement.
First, he kept Pacquiao at bay with a jab, sometimes pawing, sometimes sharp, that kept him honest. Then, he made use of plenty of lateral movement, sometimes a subtle step, sometimes a few steps to the center of the ring, to force Pacquiao into resetting himself. Those timing disruptors — including fakes and escapes — are an example of Mayweather’s wily ringcraft, allowing him to take control of the fight’s pace.
Much of Mayweather’s offense is generated by his defense. He’s sublime at baiting punches in order to counter his right hand, using straights or uppercuts, or escaping tight spaces with a check hook. In short, he likes being pressured. He trusts himself to outthink his opponent and out-execute him, and he has full cause for such unwavering belief.
Still, Mayweather has been most vulnerable when he’s being offensive. When he’s being defensive in his angled Philly shell stance — lead arm low and across the body, right hand high — he sees everything coming and either deflects or avoids incoming fire.
The shoulder roll is Mayweather's favored style, but it loses much of its effectiveness against southpaws due to the different body positioning. Specifically, it can leave an orthodox fighter susceptible to a straight left, something Mayweather has experienced in early fights against Zab Judah and DeMarcus Corley.
So this, at least in theory, is a bit of a setback for Mayweather and a plus for McGregor. Most likely, Mayweather will scale back his use of the shell and use a more traditional guard. With it, McGregor might be well served by removing his focus on Mayweather’s chin and instead hitting whatever target is available, even if it’s just his opponent’s arms and shoulders. Get physical and get inside, and work himself into the clinch where he can turn it into more of a fight than a classic boxing match.
For this bout, the Nevada athletic commission chose Robert Byrd as the referee. In theory, that might be a good thing for McGregor, as Byrd has a reputation as an official who will let boxers fight out of the clinch. If Byrd follows form, McGregor will have a chance to use his size advantage to bully Mayweather and wear on him.
In the end, what will matter the most? It’s hard to ignore the fact that Mayweather almost never gets hit cleanly by the most seasoned boxers. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that McGregor himself gets hit more than most have acknowledged. According to Fox Sports stats, opponents land at a 47.7% clip against him. Mayweather may not have the greatest output, but he knows how to capitalize on holes, and McGregor is bound to have some.
The last significant thing worth noting is age. Mayweather is now 40 and hasn’t fought in two years, but this is not a man who has taken punishment. He does not have a body with excess wear and tear; he’s not a smoker or a drinker. He’s the rare boxer who hasn’t been compromised by time.
McGregor notably predicted a knockout inside of four rounds, and his intense self-belief is to be admired, but this is one time Mystic Mac is likely to be proven wrong. While he deserves credit for his audacious attempt and for his incredible rise through combat sports, reality has a way of finding level. Each passing round will see Mayweather uploading more data, and pushing and pulling the fight’s pace and style to his liking. As McGregor tires, the punches will add up, and somewhere around the seventh round, either the referee or his corner will have seen enough. There’s valiance in the effort, but in the end, it’s Mayweather via TKO.