Most in the know figured that Conor McGregor would get outclassed by Floyd Mayweather Jr. when they met on Saturday night, but few saw it happening in quite the way that it did. Mayweather is an elusive defensive genius, to the point that his conservative performances against world class boxers have alienated many a fan of the sport, yet he walked McGregor down and stopped him in the tenth round. The curious performance raised as many questions as it answered.
From the opening bell Mayweather looked cautious in taking the measure of his man. McGregor opened up immediately and Mayweather hit the ropes with his gloves up—a position we discussed in pre-fight analysis as one that he usually adopts only when in trouble. Most pundits expected McGregor to get after it early, when his power would be able to make the difference but McGregor surprised everyone by working for volume and measuring himself. Working in tap-tap combinations that he rarely shows in his mixed martial arts career, McGregor did a fantastic impression of a much more experienced boxer.
In the aftermath of the fight, the focus of McGregor's legion of fans has been on the 100-plus punches he landed on Mayweather. Expect this statistic to be revisited in every UFC promo package, Joe Rogan Experience, and McGregor fight commentary until he retires because this is more than genuine world class boxers like Canelo Alvarez and Manny Pacquiao were able to lay their gloves on Mayweather. But Mayweather went out of his way to measure exchanges with those men. He never stood close enough for Pacquiao to put two punches together. Against McGregor, however, Mayweather seemed to encourage the UFC lightweight champion to show what he had. Of the 100 or so apparently connected punches, out of 400 thrown, the vast majority seemed to accomplish nothing.
Every future McGregor opponent should watch this fight and study exactly what it is that made Mayweather so effective against him. Granted, a lot of it is to do with the 20 years of world class boxing experience he has under his belt. But important for our purposes is that Mayweather only punched when he was in range to do so. McGregor maintains a lengthy distance in mixed martial arts and when opponents rush to close it they reach out ahead of themselves, jut out their jawline, and offer him the kind of counter punches he thrives off.
Mayweather, meanwhile, made sure that the only time he threw his right hand was when he was close enough to hit the target and he believed he could get it in before McGregor retreated. That "extra step" that McGregor, Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, and many other counter punchers have drawn out of frustrated opponents in MMA was nowhere in sight in this fight. Mayweather's right hand lead, to the solar plexus and to the face, became the story of this fight and it was beautiful to watch. When McGregor threw his left it fell short, or connected on Mayweather's forearms, or Mayweather crunched to take it on his abdomen.
When Mayweather landed his right hand lead he was always either too close to McGregor for the latter to retaliate, or already moving his head in anticipation of a counter.
And his feints consistently had McGregor leaning or pulling away before Mayweather snapped off the real punch.
The most celebrated punch of the fight was McGregor's left uppercut. Though it only connected meaningfully once, it slotted in perfectly as an answer on the inside as Mayweather closed to land the right hand lead.
Before the fight we examined Mayweather's use of the clinch to waste time, limit exchanges, and conserve his energy. We wondered if McGregor could stifle these clinches with proper head position, and use the overhook to tire Mayweather out, roughing him up on the inside. Instead it was McGregor who went to the clinch more and more after he began to tire in the fourth round. Interestingly, Mayweather rarely even attempted a proper tie up, never giving McGregor the opportunity to use the overhook. In every previous fight he has used a classical over-under tie up on the inside. Here he made sure that his arms were on the inside, or over McGregor's.
It is also worth noting that while referee Robert Byrd broke the clinches very quickly, Mayweather's head position—particularly once McGregor was wobbling in the later rounds—was beneath McGregor's in the correct style for freeing the hands and continuing to work on the inside. As we mentioned before the fight, Miguel Cotto forced Mayweather into his toughest fight by denying him the clinch with this head placement, while the stronger Canelo Alvarez and faster Manny Pacquiao seemed completely clueless once Mayweather got chest-to-chest.
Before this fight we also wondered whether McGregor would be able to use Mayweather's favorite tactic of hanging on the back of his opponent's head when they duck in low—as Mayweather himself is prone to doing. While McGregor attempted this a couple of times and tried to pass Mayweather out through his armpit to line up a good left hand, Robert Byrd was having none of it. This seemed like a strange pet peeve for Byrd, who was extremely lenient with McGregor hammerfisting Mayweather in the back of the head, and Mayweather turning his back and sneaking in elbows throughout the fight. But that's boxing; you don't play by the rules, you play by the referee's interpretation of them.
Perhaps Mayweather had not studied any tape of McGregor to prepare, but it certainly seemed as though he had. From the third round onwards his game was identical to that which Nate Diaz used to take the middle rounds against McGregor: gloves up and walking him down—albeit with considerably better head movement and reactions. Diaz went to this because he was getting picked off with counters when he reached for McGregor, and the closed off guard frustrated McGregor to no end. Hiding behind their forearms and with only the hard top of their head pointing through, Mayweather and Diaz were both able to walk in on McGregor, forcing him to throw punches and keep moving. Both were able to march through the distance where back-stepping left counters would be a problem, and both were able to put it on McGregor in exchanges.
In the break before the sixth round McGregor's corner knew what was happening. Owen Roddy declared "all he wants to do is stand in front of you and make you work," while John Kavanagh reiterated "no hitting the arms." Unfortunately McGregor tired himself trying to keep Mayweather off him without finding any of his favorite targets, and Mayweather began to pour it on. The finish came in the tenth round as an exhausted McGregor took hard, unanswered shots and looked for the clinch. Floyd Mayweather's usual forearm across the face and throat prevented McGregor from simply smothering him here. This writer is struggling to think of anyone who ever put in better power punches off the cross-face than Mayweather, aside from the great heavyweight kickboxer, Badr Hari.
What do we make of McGregor?
Some are keen to say that McGregor was easily handled; others want to point to his decent work in the early rounds. The truth is somewhere in the middle. He didn't tire himself swinging for the knockout against Mayweather, he tired himself putting together neat combinations and slick little set ups to try to catch Mayweather out. He didn't look like a bum by any means, but equally he fell short in his sport specific conditioning and became the first man Mayweather had stopped (spare that controversial Ortiz finish) in a very long time.
Ahead of this fight some fans were claiming that McGregor could show Mayweather karate or taekwondo looks, and this writer was doubtful. There are only so many ways to hit a man with two fists and no backfists after all and they all fall simply under the banner of boxing. However, McGregor came out and showed a number of neat stutter-step shifts to land some jabs on Mayweather. Certainly not something anyone has done against the great boxer in a very long time. In karate these are called hikikomi or "pull push" techniques.
While this fight was a simple cash grab with the bonus of being an advertisement for the UFC, Conor McGregor was obviously deadly serious about it. It will be interesting to watch how McGregor's career continues after this experiment. No UFC champion to date has been allowed to walk away from their division to focus exclusively on their boxing for half a year with the luxury of millions of dollars to spend on their camp, the full support of the UFC, and the experience of ten rounds with an all-time great at the end of it. While McGregor tired early and Mayweather was never out of control (aside from the round nine low blow, set up off that hanging on the neck), Conor McGregor looked far better than expected. His footwork looked active and disciplined, and Mayweather—although not famous for his ring cutting—couldn't seem to corner him all that often even when the Irishman was exhausted.
A final note should be made about the scorecards. Watching the fight as a whole, particularly on repeat viewings, it is clear that Mayweather was never in trouble and that McGregor was not landing anything meaningful through the early rounds. However, a fight is scored on rounds and employing the strategy of making the opponent punch himself out should not win you the rounds in which you are just covering up. In the first two rounds Mayweather threw just a handful of punches, while McGregor worked constantly. Even if McGregor was working at a low connection rate, it seems baffling to score Mayweather rounds in which he didn't throw punches. Certainly Muhammad Ali wasn't outpointing George Foreman when he hit the ropes—that's the risk a fighter accepts in the course of using a strategy that relies on the other man punching himself out.
Floyd Mayweather seems to be out of the game, until he needs money again at least, so all that remains is the question of what is next for Conor McGregor. The word is that Nate Diaz will get a largely undeserved crack at the lightweight champion—having not fought since their second match, while the landscape of MMA's most exciting division continues to shift at breakneck speed. The fact that Diaz wasn't booked into a fight with Tony Ferguson in the meantime—which would legitimize Diaz's title shot if he won, and bring Ferguson to the main stage by getting casual eyes on him if Diaz lost—really speaks to the UFC's inability to prepare for the future and an unwillingness to compromise on fighter pay even for proven "needle movers." Now Ferguson is tied up fighting Kevin Lee for every fan's least favorite gimmick: an interim title, while Dagestani wrestler, Khabib Nurmagomedov has yet to be booked into a fight (though he may have screwed the pooch in the eyes of the promotion with his spate of pull outs from fights). It has been a pretty poor year for the UFC outside of McGregor's boxing match, but he is undoubtedly still their only superstar. It is now down to them to turn this momentum and attention into something useful.