Nothing feels quite like a big UFC fight week. Every year around the Fourth of July, the world’s largest mixed martial arts organization rolls out its premier fighters on one stacked card as a showcase of what it can be at its best.
Unfortunately, for much of the time outside this one week, cards mean relatively little. The UFC doesn’t make cards – it makes two or three important fights a month, then throws a bunch of guys (and gals) with potential underneath them to prop it up. Often, those beneath the main or co-main event don’t even have potential, they’re just bodies. If you’ve ever seen a Royston Wee fight, you’d know why this pandemic of watered-down fight cards fatigues even the hardest of hardcore fans.
But we’re not here to talk about the negatives, like lamentably small fighter pay or the recent dissolution of independent sponsorships or chronic injuries or draconian wellness policies. We’re talking UFC 189, the biggest fight card of the year.
In the main event, Irish loudmouth Conor McGregor finally plunges into the deep end of his division against perennial #2 featherweight Chad Mendes. The two face off for the interim UFC featherweight championship, with Mendes replacing reigning divisional king Jose Aldo after the champ suffered a possible broken rib in training.
Let’s break down this stellar bout.
Interim UFC Featherweight Championship
Conor McGregor (17-2, #3 FW) vs. Chad Mendes (17-2, #1 FW)
This contest, like the original main event of Aldo vs. McGregor, has been some time in the making. McGregor has long belittled Mendes, a Team Alpha Male standout, for his short stature and perceived limited skillset. When Aldo was first rumored to suffer an injury in training, the UFC announced that should he be unable to compete, longtime second fiddle Mendes would be his replacement. Sure enough, last week Aldo announced he would not be able to compete, and the hype machine rolled on.
What makes the proud Irishman Conor McGregor so special are not his fists and feet, but his mouth. In just a handful of fights, “The Notorious One” has risen from complete obscurity to the toast of the town thanks to his outspoken demeanor, his almost obsessive devotion to movement, and a fanbase that laps up every insult and pseudo-mystical remark.
Despite his 5-fight winning streak in the UFC, it’s still hard to know what Conor McGregor will bring to the table on Saturday night. Part of this is due to the UFC’s favorable matchmaking. In those five fights, McGregor stopped unranked fighters Marcus Brimage and Diego Brandão, soundly pummeled future top 5 featherweight Max Holloway despite a torn ACL, and knocked out top 10 fighters Dennis Siver and Dustin Poirier.
It would be an understatement to say McGregor is a striking specialist. McGregor relies almost solely on his hypnotizing movement and unorthodox techniques to dispatch his opponents. In almost every fight, McGregor takes the center of the octagon and begins throwing wild spinning heel kicks or hook kicks to the head. All of this throws his opponents off balance, leaving them open to vicious combinations of straight lefts, lead hooks, thunderous body punches and vicious uppercuts. Combined with shuffle kicks to the knees in a tae kwon do presentation, McGregor overwhelms his opponents mentally before breaking them down physically.
There are two fundamental unknowns about McGregor: his takedown defense and his jiu jitsu. In the list of fighters he’s beaten above, not one possess elite wrestling skills. Simply put, he hasn’t been challenged on the mat in his UFC career. His two losses have come by submission, but both came within his first six fights. Since then, he has looked unstoppable, but what will happen when he is taken down by an elite featherweight? What will happen when he has to fight from his back, when he has to recover guard, when he needs to get to his feet? No one, not even McGregor, could give you a straight answer.
In stark contrast, two-time title challenger Chad Mendes is a known commodity to both fans and analysts. Thus far in his UFC career, “Money” has been stuck with the label of “second best.” He dominates everyone in the featherweight division not named Jose Aldo. A former All-American at Cal Poly, Mendes came into MMA relying heavily on his wrestling to win him fights. It was a successful strategy, winning him a shot at the title, but against Jose Aldo’s stout takedown defense, it proved fruitless.
Following that first loss, Mendes returned to the drawing board and came back with a highly improved boxing game. He knocked out his next four opponents, including the notoriously durable Clay Guida, before dominating Nik Lentz in a bout where Mendes fought a nasty stomach bug. In his second fight against Aldo, Mendes’ standup fully came into focus, dropping the champion in the first round with a left hook. Ultimately, Aldo outworked him on the feet for a decision victory, but Mendes proved he could hang with the best of the best on his feet.
Mendes is anything but one-dimensional now. An elite grappler with stiffening power and good leg kicks, he is a complete martial artist. In his last bout, a stoppage win against Ricardo Lamas, Mendes showed both his crushing power, sending Lamas tumbling all over the octagon, and his veteran savvy, choosing position over flailing power shots before forcing the referee’s hand.
Mendes does his best work when he can establish both his powerful hands and his dominant wrestling. With both weapons firmly planted in the opponent’s mind, it opens them up to a variety of attacks. He can fake like he’s looking for a shot, then come with his powerful hooks. He can feint with low kicks, then shoot for a single. With the solid chin and durability he showed in the second Aldo fight, Mendes is a fighter with no weakness, save for the champion’s laser-focused power counterstrikes.
This fight will come down to two things: distance management and wrestling. Much is made of Conor McGregor’s size advantage. He is a huge featherweight, while Mendes is short and stocky for the weight class; as such, he will have a three inch height advantage and a staggering 8-inch reach advantage. However, if he doesn’t use his lengthy arms and legs to keep Mendes on the outside, he will get hit by the smaller man. Given Mendes’ power, one small slip could cost McGregor in more ways than one.
The second determining factor will rest on the shoulders of Mendes. Given McGregor’s creative arsenal and unpredictable angles, Mendes will most likely have to get the fight to the floor. He has all the tools to do so, but McGregor’s takedown defense has yet to be tested. He can’t rush in with his head down, but if Mendes can’t corral McGregor in the open, he’ll have to rely on his hands to match McGregor’s, something no one has had success with.
In picking a winner for this fight, we can’t apply theory to unknowns. One can only judge what one has seen, and in this case, we have seen much more of Mendes. He has taken down elite wrestlers in Guida and Lentz, and fought much stiffer competition in his career. McGregor has all the potential in the world, but until we see it, that’s all it is. Dennis Siver was able to plant McGregor for the briefest of moments; if Siver can manage that feat, one imagines Mendes can at least do that.
Expect McGregor to establish his pace early, forcing Mendes to explode from the outside. Eventually, Mendes will drag McGregor to the ground; while he may not hold McGregor there. That threat will open McGregor up to Mendes’ hands. While McGregor has the power and the finishing instinct to stop anybody, Mendes’ durability and experience will win him that battle. It seems more likely that Mendes will wear McGregor down in the clinch and on the ground en route to a late stoppage or a clear decision victory, setting up another rematch with a healthy Jose Aldo.
UFC Welterweight Championship
Robbie Lawler (25-10-1, champion) vs. Rory MacDonald (18-2, #2 WW)
And now, a few words on the welterweight championship fight between Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald. The two fought in 2013, with Lawler winning a split decision thanks to his hooks and excellent trapping of Rory’s stifling jab. Both men have gone on to greater success; Lawler took a narrow decision from Johny Hendricks to summit his decade-long journey from also-ran to champion, and MacDonald knocked out Tarec Saffiedine in convincing fashion to secure his title opportunity.
Despite the time since their last bout, there is no reason to believe the result will be any different. While MacDonald has undoubtedly tightened up his striking and top control, so too has Lawler sharpened his takedown defense and underrated kicking game. The two have improved, but neither has improved dramatically more than the other. Expect MacDonald to work his jab and put combinations and takedown attempts behind them. This will work initially, but as MacDonald tires, Lawler will find his second gear, landing solid low kicks and staying off the ground. Ultimately, Lawler’s hooks will triumph over MacDonald’s jabs and front kicks, scoring him a close but clear decision win.
UFC 189 Quick Picks
Chad Mendes vs. Conor McGregor
Robbie Lawler (c) vs. Rory MacDonald
Dennis Bermudez vs. Jeremy Stephens
Gunnar Nelson vs. Brandon Thatch
Brad Pickett vs. Thomas Almeida
Matt Brown vs. Tim Means
Mike Swick vs. Alex Garcia
Cathal Pendred vs. John Howard
Cody Garbrandt vs. Henry Briones
Neil Seery vs. Louis Smolka
Yosdenis Cedeno vs. Cody Pfister