Mayweather-McGregor Showed What Boxing Has To Offer MMA

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Floyd Mayweather beat Conor McGregor’s ass; McGregor put on a respectable effort against an elite boxer, winning a moral victory. McGregor looked as sharp as he could have, and showcased improved skills; Mayweather was a faded husk of his former self. The fight was competitive in stretches; the fight wasn’t close.

In the aftermath of a fight—or any event, really—there’s a battle to decide which single narrative that explains the outcome will win out over the others. This is an act of pruning that serves the general human inability to hold two even slightly contradictory thoughts in mind simultaneously.

Of the competing narratives, the story with the most to offer as an analytical interpretation of events isn’t even necessarily the one that emerges victorious. Being right in a factual sense is less important than picking a story that makes the arguers feel justified in their prior beliefs. These fights over narrative are less about the event in question than they are about how the people fighting them see themselves, and their power to push that narrative in public discourse.

All of the Mayweather-McGregor narratives have, to a greater or lesser extent, some validity. How much is a matter of debate, and that debate—complex, and with no objectively “correct” answers—is where that inability to simultaneously consider two contradictory arguments comes into play. It’s just so much easier to pick one. Right now, the “moral victory” narrative seems to be winning by a landslide. If that helps wrap things up with a neat, tidy bow for viewers who felt they got their money’s worth, I suppose that’s fine.

But there’s something broader we can take from the fight itself: the depth and the complexity of boxing as a sport, how Mayweather used that, and what it has to offer fighters like McGregor.

On a technical level, Mayweather essentially fought a more extreme version of his fight. In the first three rounds, as he usually does, he gathered information. The pace McGregor pushed—he routinely threw 20 or more punches per minute—was superficially impressive. In the absence of offense from Mayweather, that was enough to win the rounds.

Very few of those shots landed cleanly, or at all. Mayweather is a defensive maestro not because he doesn’t get hit—he does—but because it’s nearly impossible to hit him hard enough that it matters, and enough times to clearly win a round. McGregor’s head shots bounced off Mayweather’s gloves, caught him from a glancing angle, and landed at the very end of McGregor’s reach, where the force had already dissipated. His body shots hit Mayweather’s elbows and gloves. The only real success McGregor found was on the counter, nailing Mayweather with a fantastic left uppercut and then occasionally thereafter.

Consider the defensive difference between the two fighters. Mayweather uses a layered system consisting of slips, rolls, parries, blocks, distance, and angles to avoid his opponents’ shots. McGregor, by contrast, has defensive moves, including a nice slip and roll, but doesn’t put them together into a coherent whole that’s worth more than the sum of its individual parts.

Now consider the strategic difference between the two. Mayweather doesn’t mind giving away early rounds in order to gather information. By working at that quick pace and throwing a ton of shots, McGregor happily gave Mayweather all the data he needed on his preferred distance, timing, shot selection, and footwork. Even if he were thinking about the long run of the fight, McGregor didn’t have the tools to modulate himself.

A cynic might say Mayweather let McGregor look good early. That’s certainly possible. I think it’s more likely that he was rusty: He said he didn’t spar in the month prior to the fight to save himself from potential hand injuries. He hadn’t fought in more than two years. He’s 40 years old. If taking some time to get rolling and figure out an unknown opponent had the added benefit of making McGregor look like a viable foe to a huge audience, so much the better. Sometimes two seemingly contradictory narratives can have a whole lot of overlap.

By the fourth round, Mayweather had adjusted. He figured out McGregor’s distance and timing. He started to come forward and pressure, something he has done in bursts but rarely committed to for this long since his much younger days.

Mayweather’s key discovery was that by crowding McGregor, he could take away his power and therefore his already slim chance of winning the fight.

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McGregor isn’t an accomplished puncher because he throws with enormous, shocking force, like Shane Mosley, Mike Tyson, or any number of MMA knockout artists. Instead, he’s a snappy puncher who has a knack for catching his opponents cleanly, from odd angles, and at the point in the arc of the punch where it has the greatest amount of force.

When Mayweather pressured McGregor, he took away his ability to land from angles and at the snappy part of the punch’s arc. He saw McGregor’s shots coming. Even though McGregor still landed at a comparatively high rate, his shots were devoid of power, and few landed without being deflected. McGregor simply doesn’t have the clean, fundamental punching technique to generate power in tight spaces.

So while the punch stats look impressive on paper, Mayweather pressured McGregor like a fighter who wasn’t worried about getting hit back. Once he figured that out, the finish was simply a matter of time. Doing that required the kind of strategic sense that’s hard to find in MMA, though a few fighters have it. The kind of experience that allows fighters to develop that sense is hard to acquire, and the fewer rounds in any MMA fight makes it unwise to give away rounds to serve a greater purpose. Still, there’s a lesson in Mayweather’s strategic brilliance and information-gathering.

McGregor showed off two good things: a much-improved jab and strong footwork, both of which kept him at distance, moving, and stepping to angles in ways that papered over some of his other technical deficiencies, of which (by boxing standards) there were many. He did a couple of unorthodox things, including switching stances and working back-takes in the clinch.

For the most part, though, McGregor’s improvements and the limited success he had were due not to some mystical MMA wizardry but to boxing. He pivoted, turned, sidestepped, worked a jab, measured distance, and threw combinations.

A particularly insufferable segment of the MMA world got very into the idea that McGregor was going to “disrupt” the stagnant sport of boxing like some new killer app to an industry like taxis or grocery delivery. This was bullshit before the fight; it employed the same tricks and analytical fallacies as the marketing and PR campaigns for a Theranos or Juicero, full of buzzwords like “angles” and “innovation.” In reality, it was based almost entirely on a proud ignorance of the diversity and technical acumen that boxing already contains, and has contained for generations.

It’s even more bullshit afterward. McGregor didn’t disrupt anything. He spent a few months boxing, had a boxing match, and now he’ll presumably go back to MMA.

The irony here is that boxing technique is what’s currently disrupting the metagame of MMA, not the other way around. Don’t be fooled by the spinning kicks and occasional strange stance: McGregor’s success in his native sport is built mostly on his command of a few pieces of the sweet science, especially the angles on his counterpunching and his basic footwork. His trademark punch, the inside-angle counter left hand, is a boxing staple.

UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt is a former amateur boxer. So is heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic. Both the middleweight champion and the interim titleholder, Michael Bisping and Robert Whittaker, are mostly boxers in the cage. Former longtime featherweight champion Jose Aldo has gone heavy on the boxing training as he’s aged out of his prime, probably because punching and footwork go a long way for a fighter who needs to worry about his gas tank. Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva spent a lot of time boxing in the later stages of their careers.

And that’s just at the elite level. If you wanted to dig down into the contenders and prospects, you’d find still more evidence of the vast overall improvements in basic footwork and fundamentals. Boxing is an art with centuries of know-how about efficient, effective technique and in-fight strategy. Its best practices exist for that compelling reason.

That doesn’t mean boxing never changes, or that it doesn’t have innovators—watching Terence Crawford, Andre Ward, and especially the incredible Vasyl Lomachenko fight should disabuse folks of that notion. Inside fighting in boxing has deteriorated over the past few decades, and maybe a little cross-training wouldn’t hurt to remind boxers of what’s possible in the clinch.

But the vast majority of the borrowing is going the other direction. That’s fitting, and it’s entirely in keeping with MMA as an amalgam of best practices. It doesn’t make MMA boxing’s little brother; it makes it what it’s always been, a flexible and adaptable sport that pulls inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. Maybe it’s disappointing to martial arts enthusiasts that seemingly mundane fundamentals are the site of MMA innovation rather than the mystical or the exotic, but it’s inarguable fact.

Expertise is a real thing. Mayweather is a master of his craft, with depths and layers of skill that are impossible to explain or even see to anyone who hasn’t watched a ton of boxing. McGregor discovered that firsthand in the ring on Saturday, and assuming he fights in the octagon again, hopefully he’ll carry some measure of that craft back to MMA with him. It will make him a better mixed martial artist.

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