It is a contest of uniquely high stakes, overflowing with merit. Not since 2009 has an active UFC champion moved up in weight to challenge the ruler of a higher weight class, when #BJPenn's ill-fated attempt at dual divisional dominance resulted in a one-sided drubbing at the hands of MMA's greatest welterweight, #GeorgesStPierre. The "superfight", a bout between two current UFC champions, is largely a dead concept in MMA.
Through a combination of immense ambition and the matchmaking leeway allowed by his superstar status, McGregor will attempt to become the first fighter in history to simultaneously hold two UFC championships. Even the feat of holding championships in two divisions non-concurrently has been achieved by only two men; the aforementioned BJ Penn (lightweight, welterweight), and #RandyCouture (light heavyweight, heavyweight).
Despite the monumental stakes at play, the intrigue of this fight is perhaps most present in the technical intricacies of the matchup. Two fighters with deeply layered games who, despite not being known for their countering ability, remain two of the UFC’s best and most unorthodox counter punchers. Both have shown in recent times that they are capable of tailoring varied approaches to specific opponents, and fighting out of type when necessary.
Against #AnthonyPettis, Alvarez, a fighter who generally operates best when able to work freely within the space of the Octagon, took on the role of a pressure fighter. Over the course of three rounds, Alvarez ruthlessly chased Pettis to the fence, constantly threatening with his understated takedown game while refusing to allow the former lightweight champion the distance and comfort necessary to capitalize on his vaunted kicking game.
McGregor, meanwhile, adopted a style more rooted in traditional Muay Thai sensibilities, a style which he has criticized openly in the past, to overcome #NateDiaz in their rematch at #UFC202. Avoiding prolonged exchanges, McGregor narrowly defeated a unique stylistic challenge by committing to efficient countering, evading the pocket, and chopping away at Diaz’s lead leg with Thai-style round kicks to the thigh.
Both men have defined A-games, but have also shown the capacity for improvisation on top of detailed strategic preparation. To predict how either fighter will approach the bout is difficult, but there are key tools and tactics in each fighter’s reservoir which would serve them well in this matchup.
McGregor’s approach may be somewhat easier to predict; though an unorthodox fighter, the Irishman prefers to play his A-game unless absolutely forced to do otherwise, and that A-game is predicated on pressure. McGregor likes to consistently force his opponents to the fence through volume, precise forward steps, and round kicks directed through the space of an opponent’s preferred escape routes, denying them freedom of movement. Once cornered, an opponent is forced to engage in the pocket on uneven terms. Already one of the sport’s finest pocket boxers, the spatial superiority and freedom of movement allowed to McGregor once he has herded an opponent onto the fence make his offense extremely difficult to nullify.
Long strings of punching combinations bait a foe’s return of fire, and this reaction is exactly what he is looking for. Unrivaled as a pressuring counter puncher, McGregor knows that, with nowhere to go, prospective foes are ripe for his brutal counter left straight. The counter is a strike based on reaction, but rather than predict an opponent’s attack, he intricately creates the conditions necessary for the strike he wishes to land. This highly aggressive style of counter fighting is necessarily risky, placing McGregor in constant danger and leaving him on a hair trigger.
In some regards, it is however a suitable and preferable adaptation to the meta-game of the elite levels of the UFC. Many traditional, and even highly successful counter strikers, such as #LyotoMachida and #AndersonSilva, have suffered and even lost fights simply due to a lack of output. If a fighter’s approach is entirely reactionary, they will generally find themselves throwing fewer strikes in all phases than their opponents.
Though there is a point of diminishing returns, volume wins fights, and inactivity is the great bane of fighters whose craft begins and ends with the counter. McGregor’s high volume and dedication to forcing his desired reactions allow him to not only be the more active striker, but the striker who is pressing forward consistently, a trait which is often overvalued in judges' decisions.
Together, these qualities grant him a consistent round-winning process, rather than rely on dynamism and finishing ability to win fights.
Against Alvarez, McGregor may find the legs to be an appealing target. The featherweight champion favors quick, straight low kicks, such as the front leg side kick, but has shown proficiency in round kicks as recently as the Diaz rematch. Against #DonaldCerrone, one of the few foes to make a point of targeting Alvarez’s legs, the Philadelphia-native was repeatedly staggered and almost unable to walk by the end of the third round as a result of Cerrone's barrage of low kicks. As easy as it can be for McGregor to hunt exclusively for the head, he is at his best when targeting the legs and body to create different looks and defensive considerations for an opponent.
Targeting the legs and body with straight kicks also encourages the in-fight to take place on the outskirts of the pocket, where McGregor truly shines. Possessing a five-inch reach advantage, the southpaw makes great use of his frame, frequently catching opponents on the very end of his punches. Being the taller, longer man allows a particular type of in-fighting for a fighter with the Irishman’s skillset: a fight in which the distance is measured not in feet, but in centimeters, with kicks pushing Alvarez backwards and punches colliding on the very end of their arc, where the shorter, stockier man cannot retaliate.
To topple the lightweight king, McGregor’s diversity of attack will be key. If he chooses to create the circumstances necessary for the counter in the most straightforward manner, by forcing exchanges, he opens himself up to unnecessary risk. By employing all of his tools in tandem, the featherweight champion can breathe new life into his most formidable weapon against an opponent who is focused on disarming it.
Alvarez is a fighter who has shown himself capable of dealing with elite pressure specialists. In his title-winning bid against #RafaelDosAnjos, Alvarez maneuvered deftly across the floor of the Octagon, avoiding the fence when possible, and maximizing his effectiveness when cornered. The strike which rocked dos Anjos, and eventually lead to the stoppage, was a right hook behind a left feint, timed to the exact moment of dos Anjos’ pawing jab, arcing directly behind the then-champion’s guard.
Calm and collected even when pressed to the fence by one of the sport’s premier pressure fighters, Alvarez is capable of capitalizing on the most minute of defensive openings, and the nature of pressuring ensures that such openings are present.
To defend his belt against the bigger, faster striker, diversity is also a key for Alvarez, but it is diversity of a different type. While McGregor would be best suited to vary his attack within the striking phase of the bout, a pure striking match is unfavorable to Alvarez. Instead, he must be willing and able to force engagements in other planes of the MMA game.
The key to an Eddie Alvarez victory is not to strike, or to wrestle, or to clinch, but to push McGregor into as many different terrains as possible, as often as possible. No one area of the lightweight kingpin’s game is outstandingly dangerous to McGregor, but he possesses edges in various portions of each phase. The ability to exploit these edges consistently, and contest the bout on terms favorable to him as frequently as possible, would be a maximization of Alvarez’s skillset, and would present extreme difficulty for the featherweight champion.
Momentum will play a huge role in Alvarez’s success, as his ability to contest the bout in different phases will create a snowball effect. Should he find success by initiating the clinch or attempting takedowns when McGregor plants his weight to strike, the threat of these options alone will affect the Irishman’s ability to implement his forward pressure.
Even limited wrestling success early will bolster his striking success, which will in turn open up his ability to threaten with takedowns or in the clinch. As any one option becomes more viable, every other area of Alvarez’s game will become more imposing. Smoothly transitioning between phases and creating synergy between his tools enables each of his various skills to operate with the benefit of unpredictability.
If McGregor is concerned with the double leg takedown of Alvarez, the darting right hand will be more difficult to anticipate and react to. Likewise, if McGregor is focused on avoiding the clinch, a single step out of position could open him up to the takedown.
A counter fighter, aggressive or not, is still focused on prediction and reaction. By blending his tools seamlessly, overloading McGregor with information, Alvarez can frustrate the challenger, severely limiting his capacity for striking offense.
The essence of the battle between these two elite technicians resides in their footwork. In order to initiate a threatening takedown, Alvarez must remain in position to do so. Should he find himself at the mercy of McGregor’s positioning, engaging on the terms most favorable to the Irishman, his options for attack are severely reduced. Likewise, by most frequently establishing angular dominance and out-positioning “the Underground King,” McGregor can slowly strip him of his options, forcing the fight to remain in the phase most preferable to him.
The juxtaposition between the two could not be more clear; one utilizes positioning to control and shift between the phases of the fight constantly, the other utilizes positioning to ensure that the battle is fought in the one phase most advantageous to him. Footwork can mask many deficiencies in a fighter’s game, but in this fight, it is life and death. Either man can alter the landscape of the bout dramatically simply by being the one who most effectively manipulates the space around him.
In many ways, the UFC 205 headliner captures the unique beauty of MMA in a way which no other fight has. Two world champions with drastically different frames, skillsets and approaches, waging a war which could be decided in the first exchange, or in a prolonged battle of tactical acumen, adjustments layered on top of adjustments as each fighter reacts to the corrections of the other.
There’s a certain transience inherent to a contest such as this one, where the combatants walk a razor’s edge, and the result may be decided simply by which fighter is slightly less perfect for a single moment. Such is the nature of MMA, and one of its most appealing attributes. In a sport where nothing is certain, contests like this carry with them a uniquely high sense of variance. McGregor strives for impossible greatness, while Alvarez, the perpetual underdog, seeks to continue his improbable ascension by extinguishing the sport’s brightest star.
The fates of two divisions rest on a precipice. One man’s lofty ambition could end with a single misstep, a single weave in the wrong direction, a single ill-advised engagement. For the casual onlooker, this may seem jarring, even irrational, but for those who have fallen in love with the sport, this insanity is a trait of intrinsic beauty, present only in the eyes of a beholder who appreciates the singular effort and talents cultivated over the lifetimes of these two kings.