UFC 205 Breakdown: Conor McGregor’s Double Crown

Join us as we break down the best fights and most interesting moments from UFC 205, highlighted by the performance of Conor McGregor.

UFC 205 was everything UFC 200 was supposed to be.  Not only did it have the star-studded lineup, headlined by three consecutive title fights, but the execution went off without a hitch. From Katlyn Chookagian landed a big head kick in the third round of the first Fight Pass prelim, to Conor McGregor knocking Eddie Alvarez down four times, there was not a dull moment throughout the entire card.

In a world full of fighters eager to take the mic after a big win, only to announce that they’re happy to fight whoever the UFC wants, Conor McGregor is a treasure.  Perhaps the most polarizing figure in the sport, his ability to market himself and drum up excitement is revolutionary in MMA.  As many hate him as love him, but they’ll all pay to watch him fight.

But McGregor’s antics are not the most interesting thing about him.  When the cage door closes and the referee gestures to signal the start of the fight, that’s when his true brilliance shines through.  After stopping the greatest featherweight of all time in 13 seconds, McGregor set his sights on the lightweight title.  An injury to then-champion Rafael dos Anjos sent him on a detour during which he went 1-1 against Nate Diaz, but he’s put himself back on track at UFC 205 with a dominant win over Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez.

Conor McGregor set a long distance, keeping Alvarez out of arm’s reach.  He used the threat of his punches to back Alvarez up while taking care not to drift too far into punching range.  This forced Alvarez to make up the distance himself and expose himself to McGregor’s stellar counter punching game.

McGregor famously punctured the gas tank of Chad Mendes by slamming brutal front kicks into his stomach.  Against Alvarez, he used them to maintain distance and keep Eddie outside his own punching range.  Slamming linear kicks into an opponent’s stomach will make them hesitant to rush in on a straight line and more desperate when they do rush in.  This leads right into McGregor’s counters.

In addition to maintaining a long distance, McGregor consistently took Alvarez’s lead hand away with his own.  He did this so effectively that Alvarez landed nothing significant with his lead hand throughout the fight.  This forced Alvarez to lead with his rear hand, which is exactly the punch McGregor wanted to draw out and counter, as it forces Alvarez to overextend and prevents him from jabbing into range with his feet underneath him.

Meanwhile, Conor McGregor could still land his rear hand with a small step in, as his long, bladed stance affords him more effective reach and ability to cover distance.  Alvarez was notably frustrated by McGregor’s hand-fighting and resorted to slapping and punching at his extended lead hand.

Alvarez knew he couldn’t make up enough distance to land with single shots, so he doubled up on the right hand – the first right is intended to close the distance and move him close enough to land the second.  He used this successfully against Anthony Pettis to back him up.

The problem for Alvarez was that McGregor didn’t retreat.  McGregor would take a short hop-step back and to his left to get an angle on the left hand, and hammer Alvarez with it as he squared up.

Conor McGregor would use a quick left hand at range to pick away and frustrate Alvarez.  He throws it with a subtle lean forward and almost no trunk rotation.  This takes power off of it, but makes it incredibly quick and hard to read.  Alvarez was unable to read it in time to counter, and it served to draw him forward onto McGregor’s more powerful backstepping counters.

The long distance McGregor set killed Alvarez’s wrestling game before he could even get it started.  With no reliable way to get into the pocket without taking damage, Alvarez couldn’t get himself in a position to shoot effectively.  Alvarez feinted level changes often at the end of McGregor’s reach, but failed to provide a direct threat because he was too far away.  When Alvarez did shoot, it came from outside his reach and Conor McGregor would either stuff it with ease or backstep and counter.

Alvarez was able to get in on McGregor several times by changing levels and targeting the body, but he largely failed to land clean shots and parlay those entries into successful combinations.

Alvarez had some success early using the inside leg kick to break McGregor’s balance. Conor McGregor extends too far onto his lead leg when he throws the left straight that a well-placed inside leg kick can punt his leg out from under him and break his balance.  After Alvarez landed it a couple times, McGregor started pushing him back and being more careful about the distancing of his straight.

Here, Alvarez manages to land his double right hand as a feint throws off the timing on McGregor’s backstepping counter.  Alvarez gets excited and wings a couple hooks, while McGregor ducks out the other side, taking an angle and squaring him up for the left hand.

This shows the incredible depth of McGregor’s counter game.  Most fighters are able to counter a single shot, but get flustered and need to reset when that counter is foiled.  McGregor has a deep, layered repertoire from which to draw.  If Alvarez feints him out and denies his A-game backstepping straight, he simply moves on to the next option in his never-ending flow chart.  Equally impressive is his ability to keep himself in his stance, ready to land the counter, while moving backward under the threat of punches.

The finish started with the same counter to Alvarez’s double right hand, but McGregor added the right hook as Alvarez tried to escape out towards it and pounced on him for the finish.

Although it was a dominant performance for McGregor, Alvarez deserves credit for his resilience.  He ran into the counter left and went down multiple times in the first round, but got back up and dusted himself off quickly.  If it weren’t for the prolonged beating that preceded it, I may have even had questions about the stoppage.

Now with two UFC titles in his possession, the sky is the limit for Conor McGregor.  It seems most likely that he’ll be forced to give up the featherweight title and continue defending the lightweight strap.  There’s certainly no lack of challengers, as both Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov have made convincing cases as to why they should get the next crack at McGregor.  There has also been some talk of him going for a third belt at welterweight.

Speaking of the UFC Welterweight Championship, Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson fought to a draw in an exciting, back-and-forth fight punctuated by thrilling momentum changes.

Woodley came out and immediately backed himself onto the cage, looking to draw Thompson forward so he could explode into a right hand or a takedown.  Woodley prefers to fight with his back against the cage so he can lure his man onto him, but it proved a questionable strategy against Thompson.

Putting himself on the cage allowed Thompson to set his preferred distance.  Thompson would step just close enough to land his kicks or a stepping punch, while keeping himself out of Woodley’s range.  This gave him the time and space needed to read Woodley’s forward bursts and get out of the way or counter, while Woodley had none of that time and space with his back to the cage.

When Thompson did step into the pocket and engage, he did so in a way that threw off Woodley’s timing.  Woodley couldn’t get his simultaneous counters going because Thompson was constantly feinting along the cage.  He would wave his hands around, show jabs until Woodley bit and tried to counter, pick up his lead leg as if he were about to kick and step forward with a punch, and generally made it impossible for Woodley to get his timing down.  Thompson also mixed up head and body shots wonderfully.

In the open, Woodley got in trouble backing up in straight lines and taking his feet out of position. This is especially dangerous against someone like Thompson who uses shifting blitzes to rapidly cover distance.

When Thompson blitzes forward, his head is stationary and his feet are falling forward, periodically squaring him up, leaving him ripe for a counter.  Thompson is aware of this though and would start his blitz with a probing jab to prompt a reaction from Woodley, and continue forward once Woodley had taken his feet out of position.  If Woodley didn’t react by backing up and squaring himself up, Thompson would move on to something else.

All of Woodley’s best moments came when he was pushing Thompson toward the cage.  When he sat with his back to the cage and tried to explode forward, Thompson would read it and get out of the way.  When Woodley was able to put pressure on Thompson, he took away the time and space Thompson needed to react.  He could force Thompson into making desperate movements and rash decisions.  The two biggest punches Woodley landed came through pressuring Thompson and convincing him to trade in order to back Woodley off.

I would have liked to see Thompson use more linear kicks.  He was able to create distance with the side kick a few times and dug some triangle kicks into Woodley’s body, but there were great opportunities to dig in front and side kicks with Woodley standing still along the cage.  Linear kicks are difficult to catch and prevent an opponent from moving forward – perfect for spearing an opponent looking to take you down and explode in a straight line.

For Woodley’s part, he spent the majority of the fight in an area he had little success.  He has always been most comfortable backing up to the cage and drawing opponents onto him, but his loss to Rory MacDonald demonstrated the flaws in that system when an opponent refuses to walk on.  His greatest success came through putting pressure on Thompson and forcing him to make mistakes.

Unfortunately for Demian Maia, a rematch seems inevitable given the draw, and both men have potential areas to improve on.  It’ll be very interesting to see what adjustments are made in the rematch.

There were several other impressive performances at UFC 205.

UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion, Joanna Jędrzejczyk took a dominant decision over challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz.  Karolina repeatedly got in trouble for falling forward on her punches, squaring herself up in the pocket, and eating the champion’s counters.  One of the few times she decided to sit down on a punch, however, she clipped Joanna and hurt her worse than any other opponent has.

Aside from that one hiccup and a few ensuing flurries, it was smooth sailing for Joanna, who looked as good as ever.  Her tight pivots in the pocket, sharp counters, and devastating kicks were all present.  She repeatedly speared Karolina with a teep to the chest in the early going, but Karolina began catching it and returning with counter punches.  Joanna adjusted and started adding punches off the kick to catch Karolina as she tried to counter.

Yoel Romero set himself up for a shot at Michael Bisping’s middleweight title with a perfectly timed flying knee on Chris Weidman as the latter was shooting for a takedown.

Khabib Nurmagomedov and Frankie Edgar turned in impressive performances over tough opposition.  Khabib ate a hard punch that put him on ice early against Michael Johnson, but quickly found the takedown and overwhelmed his man with devastating top control and ground-and-pound.

Edgar put on a boxing clinic on Jeremy Stephens, dancing around him at range and feinting for entries into the pocket.  Edgar looked to be in trouble after a Stephens head kick landed in the second round, but he was able to survive, find the takedown, and end the round on top.