ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Top NFL teams have sophisticated video setups, state-of-the-art systems that allow players to pull from a collection that includes every play from every game around the league. Data operations in Major League Baseball are run by math wizards from prestigious universities, eggheads devoted to finding inefficiencies and ruthlessly capitalizing on them.
At Jackson Wink MMA, the top mixed martial arts gym in the world, they have nothing more than a PlayStation 4, institutional memories and a spindle of handmade DVD compilations—bootlegs, mostly, since the UFC has stopped providing official video to help fighters prepare for their foes.
The Jackson Wink team helped Jon Jones dispatch former Olympian Daniel Cormier twice. They prepared Holly Holm for the seemingly unbeatable Ronda Rousey. Both opponents were not just outfought. They were outthought and outcoached, too.
But even the savvy team here has never met a challenge like the one Bleacher Report presented to them in the weeks leading up to the biggest fight in modern combat sports history: guiding a neophyte boxer to an upset victory over the greatest pugilist of his generation. How, we asked MMA’s sharpest minds, can one make the impossible possible?
How would you prepare Conor McGregor to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr.?
Greg Jackson was not especially amused by the task at hand. Between training his fighters for actual, not theoretical bouts and an outside business working with military and law enforcement, Jackson is busy to the point of exhaustion. Though he loves a good puzzle, this one seemed like it was missing too many pieces to solve.
“On paper, there’s no way he can win,” Jackson says. “You have the best pro boxers, who trained their whole life, and couldn’t come close. You just have to hope that age could be the deciding factor. But [Mayweather’s] not the kind of fighter who ages poorly. He doesn’t have the mileage. A super offensive fighter who doesn’t have great defense—someone like Joe Louis—age catches up with you quick. Floyd’s defensive ability has kept him sharp. Even if his reflexes are gone, he’s so layered and smart. He’s a tricky puzzle.”
On paper, there’s no way [McGregor] can win. You have the best pro boxers, who trained their whole life, and couldn’t come close. — MMA coach Greg Jackson
Watching Mayweather is a revelation, even for a coach like Jackson who has seen it all.
On screen, Mayweather is demolishing Diego Corrales, a fighter who was supposed to push him to his limits. That version of Mayweather, still just 23 years old, darts in and out with supernatural speed, eschewing all of boxing’s orthodoxies and rules. Pure quickness is his permission slip to do whatever he wants.
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“Speed’s a big deal,” Jackson says. “It really is. For sports at this level, fast makes a big difference. He’s just so fast. Pop, pop, tie him up with both hands. And there’s no retaliation.”
Laying hands on Mayweather is a difficult proposition, even for demonstrably excellent fighters. He controls every exchange and, for much of his career, has only faced danger when he consciously has put himself at risk to throw combinations of his own.
“Floyd’s a great defensive fighter,” says Mike Winkeljohn, a former kickboxing champion and the striking coach at Jackson Wink MMA. “He spends all that time hiding behind his shoulder. It’s hard to hit him on the center line when his head is so far back. He decides when he’s fighting. He can hide in his shell, pop out to punch you, then hide again. And you can’t do anything about it. It would have no use in MMA, with kicks and takedowns, but under boxing rules, it’s a real headache to solve.
“Some people think it’s not exciting. Who’s smarter? Him, or the public that wants a war? He can make $100 million without suffering brain damage. That’s two W’s as far as I’m concerned.”
Photo by Brian Oswald
Tired of watching Mayweather dominate Corrales, we search out times in his 20-year career when he’s been hurt, hoping to find a weakness. They are so few and far between that years often separate the instances of adversity.
There’s a speed shot from Shane Mosley, still a crackerjack fighter even in his declining years, and another by Zab Judah. These are dismissed for cause, requiring a physical ability that McGregor doesn’t possess. More interestingly, DeMarcus Corley scores several times with a southpaw right hook. This piques the coaches’ interest, because McGregor, too, is left-hand dominant.
But even in his worst moments, Mayweather still shines.
“He’s so smart when he gets hurt,” Jackson says. “Floyd takes it and stays calm when he’s hurt. He ties up, he uses his footwork, he dips down—and then he turns it around. He’s so dangerous. Composed and still in the fight. That’s just a guy in the process. He’s reading. He’s looking. He’s not thinking about anything. He’s just reading the opponent.
“It’s not like Conor has a bigger punch than any of these guys. And no one has knocked [Mayweather] out with one punch. And he has all these things he can do when he gets hurt. He’s layered. Conor is not layered. He got hurt against Diaz and immediately shot for a takedown. When he got hurt and in trouble, he didn’t know what to do. It’s rare to see Conor in real trouble and able to come back from it. We’ve seen Floyd in trouble several times, and he’s always found his way back into the fight and turn it right around.”
The best boxers of this generation have tried and failed to meet the Mayweather test. He’s faced down swarmers, like a game Ricky Hatton and a persistent Jose Luis Castillo. He’s beaten the speedy technicians like Mosley and brawlers like Marcos Maidana. He even outclassed the uniquely gifted Manny Pacquiao in a manner that left little doubt of what the outcome would have been at any point in their respective careers.
“Pacquiao’s speed is insane, even now,” Jackson says. “To be able to stand there and make him look slow is insane. That’s why Conor needs to be sparring the fastest boxers they can find, even if they are a couple of weight classes lighter.
“He needs to address the speed problem and figure out what he’s going to do. Is he going to clinch? What you don’t want is that shock. Like, ‘Oh, s–t, I didn’t even see that right hand.’ Then you can’t do anything but throw caution to the wind, and Floyd is way too smart for that. Conor’s not as fast as these guys—and in MMA, he doesn’t have to be. He has so many more tools. He can be clever. But boxing is all about getting from A to B faster than your opponent.”
John Locher/Associated Press
McGregor has never stood across the ring from anyone like Mayweather. A fighter with so little formal boxing training or technical acumen typically would never come anywhere near a boxer on Mayweather’s level.
“Floyd can give Conor trouble with fast counters and little slip-offs to the side and quick punches. He has tremendous eyes,” Winkeljohn says. “It’s a gift, but it’s also the result of study, hard work and a lot of repetition.
“He knows, when a guy throws his right hand and his weight shifts a certain way, his opponent can only attack on two angles—and he’s ready to defend those or slip it. Over time, it becomes almost an unconscious competence through repetition and mitt work and just being around the gym and boxing for so long.”
When it comes down to pure boxing prowess, McGregor will be the worst fighter Mayweather has faced since he was a teenager. It’s a truth that’s hard to avoid when game-planning.
In 2007, Hatton gave Mayweather an extended challenge, pursuing him into the ropes over and over again, seemingly indefatigable. It’s an interesting, proven strategy to, at the very least, make Mayweather work hard for his 50th victory.
“Of course,” someone says, “Hatton was a professional boxer.”
The remark breaks the room up. Only in 2017 would someone reward a non-boxer with the sport’s richest prize—a bout with the champion. More than that, it’s widely believed that McGregor’s complete ignorance will be his greatest strength. The experts, however, aren’t sold.
“I think Conor’s going to find some initial success with angles, timing and tactics that Floyd hasn’t seen before,” Brandon Gibson, Jon Jones’ coach, says. “But I think Floyd will be able to make the adjustments quickly. As the fight goes on, his advantage will grow.”
I think Conor’s going to find some initial success with angles, timing and tactics that Floyd hasn’t seen before. — MMA coach Brandon Gibson
Some of the fighters who have gathered around, attracted either to the tape study or the smell of hamburgers in the air as we make it a working lunch, are less delicate in their critiques.
John Locher/Associated Press
“Conor’s going to get smoked. There’s no way,” says Lando Vannata, a rising star in the UFC’s lightweight division. “I’ve sparred with decent boxers. It’s a different f–king game. You’ve got to be a good f–king boxer to even have a chance in the ring.
“He’s too slow. He’s never fought anybody with good backwards or evasive movement. Most people he’s fought have been forward-moving fighters. Not many MMA fighters are comfortable moving back.”
“No chance,” he says in summary. “No chance in hell.”
One of the best boxers at Jackson Wink is Kevin “Cub” Swanson. Unlike most of the people offering unsolicited punditry on the fight, he’s been in the ring with the best fighters in both MMA and boxing—and he doesn’t believe the prospect of McGregor finding small pockets of success is particularly outlandish.
“In general, when I spar boxers, I give them a lot of trouble because I’m unorthodox. I throw a lot of overhands, I switch stance, I change tempos,” says Swanson, a contender in the UFC’s featherweight division. “And when I’m tired, I just grab them. And I’m the better wrestler, so I don’t mind being in the clinch and tying up hands.
“An MMA fighter has a lot of tools they aren’t used to. I land a lot of overhand rights on boxers because most boxers see it as sloppy technique because they throw straight rights. If we engage in the pocket and I see them pulling back, I’ll throw a big overhand, a loopy one, and it hits them flush. Because for them, it’s not something any other training partner throws. How is Floyd going to train for that kind of unpredictability?”
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
McGregor, though, has spent less time training with elite boxers than even Swanson, who trains regularly with top boxers like Lucas Matthysse and Tim Bradley. Would he be able to find the same level of success? If so, would it be enough?
Speaking with his trademark humility, Swanson has no illusions about his place in boxing’s pecking order.
“The top-, top-level guys, I have to be in incredible shape to give them work,” he says. “All their punches, but their jabs in particular, are a lot sharper and stiffer than an MMA fighter’s. I am at the level of sparring partner for them. I can help them out, and they aren’t putting me away. Against lower-level boxers on their way up, I’d say I win the majority of rounds.”
McGregor, of course, is aiming higher than a lower-level “sparring partner.” But the skill sets he needs, though related to those he uses to dominate in the UFC, are disparate enough that success in one field hardly prepares an athlete for elite competition in the other. Everyone in the gym has an analogy, from the hoary old “apples and oranges” to contrasting tennis and baseball players who “both hit balls.”
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
“You take the fastest wide receiver in the NFL, put them up against Usain Bolt, and suddenly they don’t look so fast at all,” Gibson says. “What makes them effective in the NFL is their ability to cut and juke and catch the ball. All the things that make Conor such a great martial artist don’t necessarily translate into the ability to become a champion boxer.
“MMA is fought at a lot different pace, and you use different muscle groups. There’s a different endurance capacity. Being a well-conditioned MMA fighter has as much to do with boxing as being a well-conditioned basketball player trying to step into the ring. I think it’s that different.”
The differences extend all the way to the equipment. While the two men will fight in non-standard eight-ounce gloves, those are still a huge departure from what McGregor is used to.
Big, padded boxing gloves don’t necessarily dull power. The main impact, in fact, isn’t offensive at all. It’s their use as a defensive tool that changes tactics completely. It’s such a dramatic difference-maker that coaches at Jackson Wink forbid a boxing-style defense in their sparring sessions.
“MMA gloves allow a lot of force in a little area and allow you to find the holes in the shell defense,” Jackson says. “A bigger glove, used defensively, disperses the force. They can hold that high guard, like Mayweather often does against southpaw fighters, and it’s difficult to land a clean punch. In MMA, it’s just a matter of time before one sneaks through the smaller gloves.”
As we watch a succession of McGregor’s greatest hits, it would be wrong to leave the impression that the coaches and fighters present don’t value his ability. To a man, there is grudging admiration for his prowess. Many have had great personal interactions with him, admitting he’s different behind the scenes than he is when on television selling a fight.
“He’s a sweetheart,” Jackson says with a smile.
Gibson recalls him bowing to the coaches as a sign of respect.
“A true martial artist,” he says.
They point out how easily he pressures his foes, turning them into little more than wild beasts at times as their back foot touches the cage. Anger, fear or frustration prods them into action. Through it all, McGregor waits patiently for an opportunity to throw his deadly left hand.
John Locher/Associated Press
“He made Aldo so mad that he gave the fight away,” Jackson said. “Conor just stepped back and said, ‘Thank you very much.’ He’s hoping to get under Mayweather’s skin and make him reckless. But this whole show, it’s normal for Floyd. He’s had guys talk s–t to him for his whole career. That’s the culture of boxing. So I’m not sure the trash talk can get Floyd out of his zone. I don’t think he can rattle him psychologically.”
In a cage, McGregor presents quite a conundrum. Any incorrect choice becomes potentially fight-ending because of his power, growing discipline and commitment to the game plans his team develops for each fight. It’s just that so much of what he uses to articulate his particular brand of violence is inapplicable inside a boxing ring.
“On the technical side, a lot of his success is built on kicks,” Vannata says. “It makes him unpredictable and make his punches easier to find. They get in people’s heads because they don’t know what’s coming. When they commit to a strike, they only half-commit.
“In boxing, he’ll only have his hands. His whole game becomes the pull left hand. Bait you, bait you, bait you, pull left hand. I think Mayweather’s defense is too good for that s–t. All those other tools disappear. None of that other s–t that makes him so good will be going on.”
The specificity of his skill set is what makes Jackson believe not bringing in a boxing trainer was the right move for McGregor, who chose to stay with his MMA coach John Kavanagh and his regular team.
“The hired-gun boxing coach would want to make so many changes. That’s not how we do it in boxing. He doesn’t know what Conor needs to do to win,” Jackson says. “He knows how to train a boxer for a boxing match, not how to train an MMA fighter for a boxing match. He’d spend eight weeks trying to teach him a decent jab. And they still wouldn’t be happy.”
Most boxing trainers would emphasize the battle of footwork, usually the defining element when a great left-handed boxer meets a great right-handed boxer. Both fighters in these kinds of style matchups will move constantly, looking to get their lead foot on the outside, opening up an angle for their power hand to find the mark.
Hybrid Shoot @HybridShoot
The battle between southpaw and orthodox fighters begins with foot positioning. Both fighters look to get their lead foot on the outside. https://t.co/BXH8Oa5ANy
It’s the basic building block for a southpaw boxer, the skill from which everything else follows. In MMA, it’s such an afterthought that you can often watch an entire fight and never hear the announcer mention that one of the fighters is left-handed.
“In MMA, it doesn’t matter if you beat his lead foot. He can still throw a side kick or any number of techniques to neutralize that angle,” Jackson says. “In boxing, it’s a huge deal because you only have a couple of tools. There’s no doubt Conor is an amazing fighter. He hits hard, he’s very confident, he has good eyes. It’s just two different sports.”
Swanson believes McGregor’s best chance lies with a template Castillo created in 2002 and Maidana refined to its essence 12 years later. Constant pressure, rough tactics and looping, almost absurdly wide punches shocked Mayweather the way pure boxing prowess never could.
I would try to expose the rules, grab him, beat up his arms and hang on him. Do the things a bigger fighter should do. — MMA fighter Kevin Swanson
“Maidana was throwing this overhand that was almost coming straight down on top of his head,” Swanson says. “Borderline illegal, but Floyd is used to catching those on his shoulder, and Floyd was going over his shoulder. Things like that make it interesting to me.
“I would try to expose the rules, grab him, beat up his arms and hang on him. Do the things a bigger fighter should do.”
Hybrid Shoot @HybridShoot
Maidana found success against Mayweather by bullying him into the ropes and landing wide, looping punches. https://t.co/u1gWyjp2n1
“This would be a great strategy,” Jackson agrees. “Go all out for three rounds and see if you can catch him. If not, oh well. You tried. If I were putting together a game plan, I’d say, ‘Cover up, stuff him and put him against his ropes.’ You’ll have to eat clean shots to get there, and it’s a strategy that degrades over time in its effectiveness. But Pacquiao had his only success there. Maidana had his only success there. You can try it on the outside, but he’s just so fast.”
This would be comfortable, well-trodden ground for most MMA fighters—a path they could gleefully take. But McGregor, despite a size advantage that will probably be at least 15 pounds by fight night, is no bruiser. He’s a careful, calculating fighter who hasn’t rushed in wildly since learning some harsh lessons early in his career.
He’s become a fistic legend doing what he does, not yielding to others or letting them dictate how or where the fight will take place. The last time he did so, a stunning loss to last-minute replacement Nate Diaz, may have cured him of that brand of hubris for all time.
“I don’t see Conor changing his style to accommodate anybody,” Swanson says. “I would imagine he is just going to pressure and counter off of Floyd’s punches. Even when I fought his training partner, Artem Lobov, I noticed he liked to try to slip to the power side and come back with a big shot.”
Winkeljohn, the gruff elder statesman of the gym, once familiar to night owls for repeated appearances on the kickboxing shows that used to populate ESPN2 in the wee hours, believes he should do exactly that.
Photo by Jonathan Snowden
Leaping up often to demonstrate his concepts on a Bleacher Report editor, Winkeljohn thinks reliance on typical boxing strategies would have disastrous consequences for the MMA star. After all, Mayweather will approach $1 billion in career earnings after this fight because of his unique ability to thrive when bouts follow a particular form.
Rather than bend to those expectations and deliver his version of a boxing match, pitting two months of training against 30 years of finely honed, hard-earned expertise, Winkeljohn believes McGregor should do what he knows best—blistering left hands from just outside the range Mayweather is used to.
“If you take 1,000 boxing coaches, 999 of them are going to say the same thing. Wouldn’t it be better to be the one doing something different? Instead of trying to get the angle on Floyd with his lead foot, I think the best way to attack him is from his live side. From Floyd’s right,” Winkeljohn says. “I would actually suggest Conor move very far to his left, just outside of where Floyd would normally look to counterpunch him. And then he should just hammer him.
“Floyd can’t hide behind his shoulder there and would have to change his entire footwork and stance to defend himself. As soon as Floyd adjusts his right foot, his right hand is out of the picture. Done. It’s useless. He can sweep a left hook, but that’s it.”
It’s a strategy that builds of something McGregor is already good at. He slipped right to dodge reckless Eddie Alvarez punches, following them with his trademark, reaching left hand to win the lightweight title.
Hybrid Shoot @HybridShoot
Conor McGregor often slips punches to his opponent’s power side before delivering his famous long left hand. https://t.co/8Pzy9AvZzp
McGregor likely will either win or lose as “The Notorious,” not some pale facsimile of what he believes a boxer should be. He will attempt to goad Mayweather into a rare mistake—a right hand, perhaps, that he will slip to his left. The left hand will follow, not from the angle preferred by most southpaw boxers, but from his opponent’s power side. It will cross 45 degrees and 74 inches, landing squarely on Mayweather’s jaw.
There’s no doubt McGregor has visualized it a million times. He’s seen it.
“It goes back to why MMA started in the first place,” Swanson says. “You have two different striking styles. Let’s see what happens when these two people square off against each other.
“It’s the same reason why people wanted to watch Brock Lesnar in MMA. ‘What if?’ It’s that curiosity that will make people need to know what’s going to happen. At the end of the day, if Conor wins, nobody wants to be the guy who says ‘I missed it.’ Because what if?”
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.