The Big Breakdown: McGregor vs. Mendes

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After months and months of build-up, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s annual international fight week is finally here. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, you probably know by now that Jose Aldo was injured in training and had to pull out of the UFC-189-headlining defence of his featherweight title against Conor McGregor and was replaced by Chad Mendes who will now battle the Dubliner on just two weeks notice for the interim 145 lbs strap. Although it’s not what was planned, or what most people hoped for, McGregor vs. Mendes is still a wonderful fight with many different factors at play, many questions to be answered and much skillful excellence on show.

The Careers

For Chad Mendes, his birth as an MMA fighter was one we are very familiar with in the sport. As a super-athletic, all-American collegiate wrestler, Mendes was recruited by Urijah Faber’s “Team Alpha Male” gym where he still trains today. The California native made his mixed martial arts debut in 2008 and won five fights in a row to kick off his career before entering the big leagues with the, now defunct, WEC. There, he defeated the likes of Erik Koch and Cub Swanson before entering the UFC following its takeover of the WEC as a 9-0 top prospect.

Two wins after that, though, and Mendes’ streak was brought to a shuddering halt as, in his first title fight, “Money” was controversially knocked out by the aforementioned champion Jose Aldo after a blatant fence grab seconds earlier. Five bounce-back wins followed that devastating loss before a second title fight against Aldo saw Mendes put up much of a better fight but still lose a unanimous decision to the champion. Now, he fights for the featherweight title for the third time (although it’s the interim version on this occasion) with just a April KO win over Ricardo Lamas in his back pocket since his last championship try.

As an MMA fighter in Ireland, unsurprisingly, Conor McGregor‘s career took a lot different of a path to that of Mendes. Like the American, McGregor started out his career in 2008 but entered the cage with more of a striking background than anything else. In his first six fights, McGregor was still learning the game and was quickly exposed as he gave up two submission losses. One of those was to Artemji Sitenkov via kneebar while the other came at the hands of current UFC lightweight Joseph Duffy via arm-triangle in McGregor’s Cage Warriors debut in 2010.

Under the stewardship of SBG Ireland’s John Kavanagh (with whom he also still trains today) McGregor has yet to register a loss since and immediately followed up the defeat to Duffy by going on a run of eight consecutive finishes which saw him pick up the Cage Warriors featherweight and lightweight belts. In his ninth finished fight in a row, McGregor made his UFC debut in 2013 as Marcus Brimage fell foul of his thunderous uppercuts in the first round to earn the Dubliner many new fans and a $60,000 bonus. McGregor’s second UFC fight, a unanimous decision win over Max Holloway, saw the SBG man tear his anterior cruciate knee ligament which put him on the sidelines for almost a year. Upon his return, McGregor headlined UFC Dublin to start a run of three KO victories over Diego Brandao, top-5 ranked Dustin Poirier and top-10 ranked Dennis Siver which earned him a shot at the title.

The Styles

When looking at Conor McGregor’s style of fighting two words come to mind: complex and unknown. The latter, in this case, is basically brought about by the former. McGregor’s style, as a huge 5 foot 9 inch featherweight with a 74 inch reach, is very technically sound but also extremely unusual in modern mixed martial arts. He is a languid, quick, intelligent, precise power hitter who throws strikes at a huge output. Starting fights, McGregor usually likes to walk his opponent down while throwing leg, head and spinning kicks to set up his rapid hand combinations – the best of which is his jab lead and straight left follower. If McGregor’s pushed back he is equally happy to dodge the attack, sort out his feet and counter with shots off of both hands, although, as a southpaw, the left hook is his lethal weapon. All of those shots might be fairly common in MMA but the frequency and booming power with which McGregor lands is not often seen. So far McGregor hasn’t shown much weakness on the feet but a couple of straight shots as he retreats straight backwards with his head in the air, like the one from Dustin Poirier which knocked out his tooth, have found the target.

It’s when we talk about McGregor’s ground game, and more specifically wrestling, that the unknown comes into play. As someone who has never faced a top class wrestler, it’s tough to tell how he will fare against those attacks. What we do know is, despite them not being on the level of Mendes, when Siver, Brandao and Brimage tried to hold him on the floor, none were successful. We also know McGregor has pretty good offensive wrestling (which he showed with a torn ACL against Max Holloway and against Ivan Buchinger) and a well groomed jiu-jitsu passing game, although we have only seen one submission win in his career (to win the Cage Warriors featherweight title against Dave Hill) mostly down to the fact he has been knocking everybody out.

Although undoubtedly one of the top-4 featherweights in the world, Chad Mendes’ style is a lot different and much less complex than McGregor’s. With his wrestling expertise it wouldn’t be too hard to label “Money” as a wrestler but he is much more than that. Everything Mendes does is predicated on his power and athleticism. As a striker he isn’t that output orientated but he is up there with the hardest hitting pound-for-pound in the UFC. As a small (5 foot 6 inch, 66 inch reach), powerfully-built man for the 145 lbs division Mendes uses his physique well on the feet as he likes to hang out on the outside, counter, hand fight and slip underneath shots. Once he gets on the inside, Mendes throws with absolutely ferocious uppercuts and hooks from both hands similar to those with which he knocked out Clay Guida and Ricardo Lamas. The Team Alpha Male man also has some very good kicks to the body and legs but tends to drop his hands as he throws and struggles to defend counters. Like McGregor, Mendes’ biggest issue on the feet is getting caught backing up straight rather than sideways while in fights with a size disadvantage, like against Jose Aldo many times, he can also get caught badly when the fists start flying in close exchanges.

In the wrestling department is where Mendes really shines, though. The American is an absolute beast of an athlete and can get inside to finish a double leg from the middle of the cage in the blink of an eye. His clinch work is also extremely good and has lead to takedowns, although he does prefer to get to the floor in open water. Once it hits the deck Mendes will control and settle in a position rather than passing too often and is more of a ground and pound guy than a submission artist but is extremely dangerous at all times and throws with fight defining power.

The Fight

Like any battle between truly elite MMA fighters this one has many factors at play. The first of which, as every fight starts on the feet, is the striking. From past fights it’s pretty fair to say both of these guys like to be on the front foot from the start, especially the Irishman. Up until now, McGregor has had no trouble pushing fights to where he wants them to take place and will again try to utilize his wide-legged karate stance to push Mendes back with stabbing jabs and straight left hands into his face following an initial barrage of fancy, but effective, kicks. Mendes needs to stop this from happening at all costs. In his first fight with Jose Aldo, and also against Clay Guida, Mendes struggled to get going when put under pressure early. In the second Aldo fight, though, he did a much better job of putting himself on the front foot by being brave and eating a couple to get inside. Against McGregor’s one-punch knockout power; that’s a risky strategy.

Instead, Mendes will, more than likely, test out the takedown defence of the Dub as soon as the gets the opportunity. As an extremely muscular 145 lbs fighter with just two weeks preparation time, the effort put into those takedown attempts from Mendes could be the winning and losing of his one. If he can get McGregor to the floor and, importantly, hold him there, it could be a long night for the SBG man. But if McGregor can stop that initial takedown, and stop a few after it, he will grow in confidence and the weighty frame of Mendes could tire.

If it does hit the floor, the big initial battle will be to keep it there. McGregor has a knack of bouncing back up when taken down (like he did against Dennis Siver multiple times) but Mendes, with his tremendous top control, is a different animal to anything he has faced before. Although neither man is known as a jiu-jitsu practitioner per se, both probably have a few tricks up their sleeves with the guillotine being a favoured attack from both camps – something which might come into play, especially for McGregor, on the way to the floor.

Going on past fights, both of these guys usually like to finish early but the longer this fight goes, although he lacks the experience over the championship rounds which Mendes has, the more it should suit McGregor with the full camp behind him. Look for Mendes to stay loyal to the takedown for as long as he can while also trying to get McGregor’s back to the cage where he does most of his knocking out. For McGregor, as always, it’s about putting on pressure while remaining calm no matter how long the fight goes. Whether he is pushed back or moving forward and cutting off the cage, his fists will be flying and looking for openings to catch the chin of Mendes, while remaining ready to sprawl, at all times. That high output from McGregor should see him favorably looked upon by the judges if the bout remains standing while a successful Mendes wrestling display would also see him through. Either way, this one, touch wood, shouldn’t end in a controversial decision – if it goes that far.

In the end, a fight like this between two powerful, dangerous competitors, is often an issue of who lands the big strike first wins – whether that be a KO, submission or a fight altering move which turns the tide in one person’s favour. That could very well be the case on Saturday night. After the opening exchanges are complete we will have a very good idea of who will be leaving with the interim featherweight championship belt and, thankfully, by the time it ends, all those nagging questions will have been answered….. one way or the other.

Podcaster, lead MMA writer and analyst for SevereMMA. Host of the SevereMMA podcast, out every Sunday. Economics and Mathematics graduate from UCC. Also write for Sherdog. Previously of hov-mma and fightbooth. As heard on 2FM, Red FM, Today FM and more. Follow me on twitter for updates @SeanSheehanBA and on Facebook Facebook.com/seansheehanmma