Over the course of his last seven years with the promotion, we’ve become accustomed to a varying number of versions of Conor McGregor. The ultra-focused, collected and confident McGregor which toyed with José Aldo before an eventual thirteen-second victory. A similarly sparkling best which battered Eddie Alvarez from pillar to post for a round and a half on his way to Octagon history. Sandwiched in between those victories, we’ve got his first affair with Nate Diaz. A short-notice contest where McGregor, making his welterweight bow loaded up over and over again before lethargically dropping a second-round rear-naked choke defeat. In his last Octagon affair, a flat-footed, rust ridden McGregor who made his first Octagon walk in just less than two years. On that night in October 2018, Khabib Nurmagomedov dominated majorly before a fourth-round submission win.
Based on recent footage, McGregor ‘appears’ to have regained that laser vision on success, and ultimately, legacy. Make no mistake, Saturday’s main event against Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone is more than likely a ‘win or bust’ matchup for the Dubliner. Sure, he’s only lost twice inside the Octagon – but for someone of his stardom and character, a third defeat would be, simply put, detrimental. On these shores, McGregor’s lost a tonne of support – in a country where major sports stars are a rarity. Losses to Diaz, Khabib and his venture into boxing against Floyd Mayweather Jr. are partly to blame, but his antics outside the Octagon are more telling – despite what the Dubliner may think himself. A victory on Saturday night may go some distance toward rebuilding that support.
Question’s of McGregor’s ability is ridiculous. Questions of commitment and focus are warranted. I’ve held the belief for an extended period of time that the worse thing to happen for fans of McGregor – was his involvement in that lucrative August 2017 meeting with Floyd Mayweather Jr. Earning north of $100 million in many expert’s estimations, McGregor was more than set for the future. For aficionados of the Dubliner’s presence inside the Octagon – they were denied two years of McGregor at his very best. He can’t be blamed. Money like that is truly life-changing – but the hard graft required to remain at the top of your game becomes all that more difficult when you can now surround yourself with life’s luxuries. Coach John Kavanagh has reiterated time and time again that McGregor is now fighting for legacy – a victory over Cerrone goes a long way to solidify that ever-evolving legacy.
The SBG star is predominantly known for his striking exploits. A masterful counter striker, with impeccable timing, distance-maintenance, and accuracy – rivaled maybe by welterweight kicking ace, Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. He’s been billed as a kickboxer throughout his career, and yes, he does possess damaging kicks, but the utilization of teeps and front kicks to the body in matches against Chad Mendes and Eddie Alvarez in recent outings have stifled progression considerably. Where McGregor really finds his groove, is in his counter boxing. Joe Rogan refers to McGregor left straight as a “piston” whenever possible. Tristar head-honcho Firas Zahabi has labeled it, “the touch of death“. It’s ‘The Notorious’ one’s greatest weapon. It’s sat down Dustin Poirier, Dennis Siver, Chad Mendes, José Aldo, Nate Diaz, and Eddie Alvarez a combined eleven separate times. Avoidance of this shot is pivotal for ‘Cowboy’ early if he wants to exit the Octagon with his hand raised. Easier said than done of course.
Another belief I’ve held is that if an opponent can force McGregor to the fence – or fight off his back foot, his offense becomes severely nullified. Whether it’s a comfort that McGregor has been allowed due to his forward-pressure we’ve been shown so often, it seems the two opponents that have had the most success against the Crumlin native has forced him backward. In his first contest with the aforementioned Nathan Diaz, McGregor was pressured in the second round, which proved debilitating for him. Even in his rematch victory, McGregor was delt trouble in the form of a pressuring Diaz from the second round onwards. Against Nurmagomedov, McGregor was taken down three times – smothering no doubt. Clinching and forward momentum from the Dagestani proved hugely successful as he remained undefeated. Forward pressure is key for Cerrone on Saturday night.
In all of Conor McGregor’s four professional defeats – he’s been submitted. Joseph Duffy, Nate Diaz, and Khabib Nurmagomedov have all found the neck of the Dubliner – while Artemij Sitenkov managed a kneebar. Against someone as proficiently traveled off his back as Cerrone, that stat becomes alarming for McGregor. I noted in my Fighter Profile feature on ‘Cowboy’ yesterday how he’s managed a staggering sixteen victories via submission. McGregor rarely enters an opponent’s guard after a knockdown, where Cerrone is most dangerous with his triangle – but in his win over ‘Cowboy’ Oliveria, Cerrone setup the finishing triangle from full mount.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article, we’ve been shown a number of versions of the 31-year-old over previous years; the version which enters the early exchanges in the Octagon on Saturday night will give us a huge inkling to how the contest with Cerrone will play out.
It’s the McGregor effect taking shape once again – even in 2020. Along with record-breaking gates, the Dubliner, through no fault of his own, seems to bring a certain group who overlook his opponent’s ability. Against someone like Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone, it may be the rock they perish on. The Denver born Muay Thai specialist has dropped two stoppage defeats in a row – against two of the scariest challengers at lightweight today.
Let’s get things straight. Cerrone is still to this day, one of the most dangerous strikers that the entire UFC roster has to offer. A myth that’s been dispelled recently by the veteran, is his ability, or apparent lack thereof, to perform on the biggest stages. Take a look at his last three victories. Against Mike Perry, at welterweight, Cerrone was paired with a durable, heavy-handed boxer – and managed an opening round armbar. In his return to lightweight, Cerrone met the young prospect, Alexander Hernandez, and inside eight minutes, finished the grappler with a now patented high kick. Lastly, when paired with the gritty, Al Iaquinta, managed a flawless unanimous decision victory. Before the defeat, Iaquinta has just beaten Kevin Lee yet again – someone who many within the community has tipped to eventually wear UFC gold. Saturday presents the biggest stage Cerrone has ever step foot on – put his back against the wall and into a corner and he may be at his most menacing.
It’s a monstrous test for Cerrone – who will enter the Octagon as a conceivable underdog, but the fact that proceedings will play-out at the welterweight limit rather than the lightweight mark makes this occasion all the more interesting. Cerrone has spent the majority of his storied career competing in the shark tank of the 155-pound ranks but made a brief excursion to 170-pounds after a 2015 defeat to Rafael dos Anjos. Winning four straight with finishes, Cerrone bested some of the larger contenders in the division. Overthrowing the likes of Alex Oliveira, Rick Story, Matt Brown and Patrick Cote – ‘Cowboy’ reassured audiences that he was here to stay. Even against former division best, ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler, Cerrone looked fantastic, before finding himself on the wrong end of a unanimous decision judging.
It’s a pairing of two strikers first and foremost – but it’s certainly Cerrone who holds the advantage in any possible grappling scenarios. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt has one of the most tricky guards in modern mixed-martial-arts, right up there with lightweight counter-part Tony Ferguson, and former heavyweight champion, Frank Mir. We’ve all seen the highlight-reel head kick knockouts, but the BMF ranch owner is also the proprietor of a staggering seventeen separate submission stoppages. McGregor has goaded Cerrone against shooting for a takedown over the course of the contest, claiming the first to do so will be labeled a “cowb**ch” – but this is fighting at the end of the day. If the opportunity presents itself, expect Cerrone to wrap up one of those taught armbars or triangle attempts.
In terms of how both of these men matchup on paper, Conor McGregor is undeniably Donald Cerrone’s kryptonite. McGregor’s a southpaw, counter-striker with massive power and accuracy – but it’s his rocket start which causes some concern for Team ‘Cowboy’. The Dubliner has notoriously pushed the pace throughout his Octagon stint, even in his defeats. The fast-paced approach forces return from opponents, ultimately setting up his counter-offense. On the other side of the equation, Cerrone is known for his methodical but somewhat measured start. He’s even admitted himself that sometimes he takes the opening frame to really get going – case study; his bout with the aforementioned Al Iaquinta.
We can draw a lot from Cerrone’s defeat to Darren Till back in 2017. Despite explaining how he never really researched the background of Till before the main event in Gdansk – the style of the now middleweight Liverpudlian and McGregor share some notable similarities. Two extremely long strikers, with forward pressure, and a stinging straight counter. The straight is a shot that sat Cerrone down toward the end of the opening round – and it’s a weapon McGregor has had major success with against Chad Mendes, Eddie Alvarez, Nate Diaz, Diego Brandao, and Dennis Siver.
There’s also a strange narrative currently broadcasted that Cerrone may have a suspect ability to take a shot. The former Jackson-Wink MMA trainee has only been stopped six times via strikes, and twice by body shots for that fact. The other four occasions, Cerrone has been stopped by far more technical boxers. Till has massive power. Jorge Masvidal has arguably the best all-round boxing in mixed-martial-arts today. Justin Gaethje has always been a punishing puncher – but has reined in his recklessness recently. Tony Ferguson has some of the most unorthodox standup we’ve ever seen inside the Octagon, as well as truly devastating elbow strikes. Although against someone as technically proficient as McGregor – Cerrone must exercise caution which was cast aside during those aforementioned meetings.