Outside the Octagon is a column from UFC.com editorial director Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC encyclopedia.
UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo was never going to take Conor McGregor down on July 11, and it’s likely that the Irish challenger knew that.
There was too much drama, too much bad blood between the two 145-pound stars for the now altered UFC 189 main event to be anything but a stand-up battle for as long as it lasted.
A takedown and subsequent ground attack by the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt wasn’t going to be as satisfying as taking away McGregor’s movement with thudding leg kicks and then moving upstairs for punch after punch to the mouth that had insulted him for months.
As for McGregor, striking is his thing – it’s what led him to five UFC victories, four by knockout. So to get the opportunity to fight the fight where he wanted to fight it for five rounds or less couldn’t have been a better scenario for “The Notorious” one.
And hey, people love a stand-up war and it’s what made this fight the most anticipated in featherweight history. But when Aldo was forced out of the bout due to injury, what should have been a huge letdown turned into what could be an even more intriguing matchup between McGregor and Chad Mendes.
Don’t get me wrong, everyone wanted – and still wants – to see Aldo vs. McGregor, and if the Dubliner wins, that match will likely be next. But from a pure stylistic standpoint, no fight will show whether McGregor is the real deal or not more than this one.
Simply put, ever since he started winning and talking and talking some more, McGregor has had to deal with the barbs of those who say “yeah, he’s good, but only when he’s fighting those who fit his style.” “Where’s a wrestler," they ask.
At 145 pounds, there are no better wrestlers than Mendes and former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. Mendes, who got the call for the late-notice interim championship bout, is a two-time Division I All-American for Cal-Poly, a two-time Pac-10 champion, and a runner up for NCAA National Championship honors.
If you subscribe to the notion that McGregor will be lost against a top level wrestler, you have to wonder why the Irishman and his team even took the bout. But just as Max Schmeling shocked the world in 1936 when he defeated Joe Louis because he saw the future Hall of Famer drop his left every time he jabbed, Team McGregor must see something in either their fighter or Mendes that makes them believe they will be victorious.
McGregor’s longtime coach John Kavanagh didn’t hesitate when the bout was brought to his attention. As for his fighter’s wrestling, he’s not concerned.
“I think Mendes is a very good fighter and he's got a good skillset, [but] I know Conor's wrestling is fantastic,” he said. “It's just in his fights, he tends to have the fight over very fast because of his power. But I'm curious to see how the wrestling exchanges go. I've seen him go against many high-level wrestlers.
"We don't have a huge wrestling pedigree in Ireland, but as of the last decade, we've had a lot of Eastern Europeans move over to Ireland and we have a lot of good Russian wrestlers in the gym.”
So it’s not all boxing and striking in the Straight Blast Ireland Gym, and as Kavanagh has pointed out previously, his squad trains all year round, not just eight weeks at a time for a particular fight, making it clear that McGregor may just have more in the tool box than what people have seen.
Mendes can change a fight at a moment’s notice though, whether on the feet or the mat. The question is, what tact does “Money” take on fight night? With a short notice fight, it benefits him to end the bout as soon as possible, leaving the championship rounds up to speculation. That means a likely stand-up showdown, which could benefit the taller and longer McGregor.
Mendes has the edge in power, but he has to get close enough to use it. That’s where the threat of the takedown comes in, but McGregor is likely drilling all forms of takedown defense as the bout draws nearer.
Still, if a wrestler like Mendes wants to take you down, he will, and McGregor doesn’t have the one-punch stopping power to keep the Californian away for too long.
Will he do it though? Will Mendes take a road that may not have the crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on their feet in order to secure the win in what is his third world title shot? Or will he stand and trade, eager – like Aldo – to shut McGregor’s mouth in the most spectacular and emphatic way possible?
That decision of where the fight goes will likely decide who walks away with the interim title at the end of the night.
Somewhere, Conor McGregor is probably laughing, knowing that whether it’s Aldo or Mendes facing him on Saturday night, he’s the one still holding all the aces. He’s incensed so many of his peers that the idea of punching him in the mug could very well supersede winning. If that’s the case, this master of the psychological game may have already won.
As for the physical, the man leading McGregor to battle has every confidence that his man wins anywhere the fight goes. That doesn’t mean the world will give him his due, even if he beats a wrestler.
Bottom line though, this has all the makings of a fight to remember – for all involved.
“I can guarantee people won't be quiet,” Kavanagh laughs. “When he beats Mendes, there will be talk of a short training camp, and there's always a reason. And to be honest, I know I'm not going to be able to control what people say on social media, so it's not something I focus on, but even just for me personally, it's a matchup I'm interested in.”