John Locher/Associated Press
There is a categorical fact that’s been lost in the last year.
Lost in the sea of fancy watches and cars and suits, of yachting and wealth bellies and Diddy bread.
That fact? Conor McGregor is one of the best minds in MMA, one of the sport’s truest students.
As divisive now as he ever was, having run off to a hundred-million-dollar payday for a night trading punches with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and left MMA behind for the better part of two years as a result, McGregor’s name has drawn to one of two poles.
He’s an overrated bum who’s about to be exposed according to those at one, and he’s the greatest fighter who ever lived in the eyes of those at the other.
The truth, as it always is, is somewhere in the middle.
Conor McGregor @TheNotoriousMMA
You need to get yourself a wealth belly, kid. It’s the new six pack. https://t.co/EVs5wVqbXt
What’s also true is that, time and again, McGregor has shown a shrewdness in his preparation and a wisdom in his planning. While he takes to the cage with the rudimentary strategy of using his left hand to separate opponents from consciousness, the mechanisms by which he makes good on that strategy are impressive.
Against sharper strikers like a young Max Holloway or an underrated (if overmatched) Dennis Siver, McGregor controlled distance and pace and picked his foe apart on the feet—Holloway being a particularly remarkable accomplishment, given that he would become champion and that McGregor bettered him with a torn ACL.
Against men who posed a threat of grappling like Chad Mendes or Eddie Alvarez, McGregor was more careful in his shot selection while refusing to sacrifice aggression and pressure in the moments they suited him—McGregor trademarks that he could never win without.
Against a brawler like Nate Diaz, he engaged in a close-range, grinding affair in their second bout. This stemmed from the damage Diaz did to him at range in their first fight, where the Californian scored a knockdown combination on the feet before snatching McGregor’s neck on his way to closing the show.
The second fight remained close, but the altered strategy showed McGregor was highly capable of identifying what a foe does or might do right, and what he has to do to negate and overcome it. McGregor was awarded a tight decision for such understanding.
Against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 on October 6, McGregor will see one of his most stern tests as a professional fighter. Nurmagomedov is a vicious man with an endless gas tank and a collection of grappling tricks that is unmatched in MMA. He is the logical antithesis to McGregor in every way, shunning the nightlife for a life of religious zeal, shunning garish fashion for humble attire, shunning the spotlight in general for time in the gym.
Justin Golightly @SecretMovesMMA
Looks like @TheNotoriousMMA got rid of his “wealth belly”. Lookin’ lean and mean. ? https://t.co/cImW23ln3m
But where he will not outdo McGregor is in the mental game.
While many believe that to be as simple as trash talk and posturing at a press conference, what it truly includes is the ability to analyze an opponent, identify where he will give you problems, and build training camp towards adapting to those concerns in time to be successful on fight night.
Few are better than McGregor at that part of the sport.
Come UFC 229, you can expect to see a McGregor who is better than ever at working out of clinch range and defending takedowns against the cage, two areas Nurmagomedov excels.
You can also expect to see a McGregor who has sharpened his punching accuracy, as Nurmagomedov is highly hittable on his entries, and there will never be a better time for McGregor to stop him than when Nurmagomedov is prowling after him for a takedown.
If he connects in that space, there is no question he can leave Las Vegas with the lightweight title returned to his waist.
With a mind like McGregor’s, you can bet that he understands that pretty well, too.