Subtitle: A Hell of a Plan B
Like most MMA fans, I was eagerly awaiting the scheduled collision between Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor, with the extended promotional campaigning combining with the excitement at the meeting of one of the greatest mixed martial artists of our time and the fastest rising star in the sport.
Then Aldo got injured and the UFC had to look for a replacement. My immediate preference would have been for Frankie Edgar to get the call, firstly as he’s one of the biggest stars in the lighter weight classes. Secondly as he has only lost to Aldo once and has put a top notch 5-0 streak together since, he makes a more compelling potential interim champion than the eventually chosen Chad Mendes who has twice lost to the champion, with the most recent encounter coming less than a year ago.
Howevr, the more I think about it, the more I’m liking the McGregor-Mendes matchup.
Conor ‘Notorious’ McGregor (17-2, 5-0 UFC) was celebrated in Europe before ever being called up to the UFC, winning the Cage Warriors championships at both Featherweight and Lightweight to earn his call up.
Since coming to the UFC, his exciting style and personality have catapulted him up the rankings with a 5-0 UFC streak including four TKO finishes and with the one decision victory came with McGregor injured and against a fighter who has since gone 6-0 to stand close behind the Irishman in the rankings – Max Holloway. That’s a fight I’d like to see again…
McGregor’s fighting style is based around movement and angles, using a wide variety of kicks and punches to disorient his opponent before finding an opening and swarming in to earn the TKO. McGregor also displayed high level grappling skills in his bout with Holloway and in his CWFC tenure showed a Donald Cerrone like ability to translate striking dominance into a submission victory.
On the other hand, McGregor is unproven against a top level wrestler, with the likes of Darren Elkins, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Clay Guida all bypassed en route to title contention. McGregor is also willing to take a punch in pursuit of his opening and has been tagged and dropped several times in his UFC tenure (especially in his recent bout against Dennis Siver) even if he has quickly recovered and gone on to win.
Both of these potential flaws in McGregor’s arsenal are likely to be questioned by his opponent on Saturday.
Chad ‘Money’ Mendes (17-2, 8-2 UFC) started his MMA career with credentials as an All American wrestler and his initial 11-0 streak was characterized by decision victories where those wrestling skills earned the win, especially once swimming in the deeper waters of the WEC & UFC.
That led to his first challenge at Jose Aldo’s title which was lost via a highlight reel head kick knockout in the first round.
Undaunted, Mendes sought to improve his skills and the addition of Duane Ludwig as coach at Team Alpha Male had a profound affect on Mendes’ striking skills, with the power which had always informed his wrestling now turned towards knockouts and complemented by a wider variety of strikes and combinations.
The new, improved Mendes went on a 5-0 streak including four knockouts – most impressively against the tough-as-nails duo of Darren Elkins and Clay Guida – to earn a second title shot.
That title shot saw him press Aldo more than any challenger before, losing out to a decision in what proved to be the Fight of the Year for 2014 and while Mendes dropped to 0-2 against the champion and with a third title shot seeming contingent on Aldo losing the belt, he won a lot of fans in the process.
Bouncing straight back, Mendes rebounded by knocking out Ricardo Lamas – another grappler who had lost a decision to Aldo – in the first round. At that point, it was expected that Mendes would go back into the mix at featherweight, looking to face top ten fighters such as Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway or Charles Oliveira while the Aldo-McGregor showpiece went ahead as planned.
However, the injury bug and UFC brass had other plans and Mendes now finds himself close to championship gold faster than he could possibly have hoped as the decision was read out in Aldo’s favour last October.
Mendes’ main strength is his wrestling which combines a wide array of takedowns with positional sense, strength and excellent level changing to make him capable of taking down or smothering any opponent. Over the past few years this has been augmented with a dangerous striking game, with high level boxing augmented by tactical use of leg kicks and tuned to take advantage of his natural wrestling talents.
Mendes now uses the level change that was once all about the takedown to close distance for striking and force his opponent to drop their guard and if he secures the takedown his ground & pound is more effective than ever.
On the face of things, we have a striker vs. grappler matchup here, but both men possess well rounded mixed martial arts games so it’s not simply a case of McGregor getting a TKO win or decision if he keeps the fight standing or Mendes getting the win if he can get McGregor down.
I would not be surprised to see Mendes score a TKO victory or (less likely) McGregor submitting Mendes from the bottom, or even a tightly contested five round split decision…
The stakes here are huge. A win for McGregor could finally elevate the Featherweight division to the box office realms enjoyed by heavier weight classes and justify the UFC’s investment in him, while also silencing the critics who doubt his top class credentials.
A win for Mendes would be a vindication of all McGregor’s naysayers and a personal triumph for the Team Alpha Male fighter, booking a third bout with Aldo with more momentum and star power in his corner than ever before.
However it pans out and despite the late change of opponent, this is THE big fight of the summer and I can’t wait.