McGregor vs. Mayweather: A Martial Artist's Analysis
Like half of the world population, I watched the Mayweather/McGregor fight. It was one of the best technical fights I’ve ever seen as well as one of the most unorthodox.
Unlike most of the screaming fans behind me at the bar, I was watching the event through the eyes of a martial artist. I can’t help it, it’s what I do. The early half of the fight started with McGregor going on the offensive and Mayweather playing defense. Shots were landed but Mayweather never went down. It was during round six that the heat got turned up, but McGregor’s output was still good. Fatigue didn’t set in until about round seven or eight.
Now the selling point for this fight was that McGregor is a MMA fighter while Mayweather is a boxer. The styles couldn’t be more different and this event put those differences on display perfectly.
The first difference is goals. In mixed martial arts, the goal is to end the fight as quickly as possible. This is done by any means necessary and with any opening available to exploit. This often means going for a ground and pound, standing strikes, or a submission. Because of this multi-angle approach, MMA is more aggressive and arguably more reckless when compared to boxing.
MMA creates a different type of conditioning than boxing. Boxing can have its aggressive movements as well, but it arguably places more emphasis on stamina and the long game. Competitors have to endure blows for nearly an hour. They can only use the upper half of their body as a weapon and shield. During the post-fight interview, Mayweather said that his goal wasn’t to knockout McGregor immediately but to outlast him, as he is famous for doing to this opponents..
Had the fight been under MMA rules, then I believe McGregor would have killed Mayweather. The boxing stance allows for several openings to a full MMA assault. That is what his body and muscle memory have been conditioned for. Boxing regulations effectively cut McGregor’s stamina in half by limiting his arsenal. You could tell he wanted to go for takedowns. He resorted instinctively to hammer shots and varying angles of attack, but he couldn’t use them to their full effect. Even though he trained for months in boxing, his body has been conditioned to MMA for years! That’s not something you can rewire over night.
Formless Trying to Form
The next major difference is in technique. Yes, this was a boxing match through and through. However, not only was McGregor reactively resorting to open-ended MMA tactics, he was legitimately using some as well. For example, I noticed several jabs that were clear martial arts jabs because he would shoot two strikes without withdrawing the arm. He also used backfist strikes a couple of times. Mayweather noted that his opponent was striking along different avenues than what the champion boxer was accustomed to. Some of them didn’t seem to affect the boxer much or penetrate his defense. In the martial arts world, strikes like these are meant to be followed up. They were never intended to be knockout blows.
On the other hand, Mayweather’s strikes were straight forward. They were not leads into a shoot or follow-up kick. They were designed to put as much power into the jab that could be mustered. It was those strikes that wore down the MMA fighter’s defenses. He had to use his arms in a defensive manner that he was not conditioned to.
Stances were also different. Mayweather was quick as always, but if grappling had been allowed, he would have been taken down immediately because of the rigidity of his stance. In boxing, the legs are used for moving and supporting the upper body. They are not conditioned for more open-ended stances and tactics on the fly. At the same time though, boxing stances become effective when they work in conjunction with the speed and maneuverability of the upper body. Mayweather wasn’t 49-0 for nothing!
There is also a difference in finesse. Boxing is brutal in its striking, but is still structured in a way that requires the use of technique to make them effective. It allows a certain amount of grace and flair in offense if the boxer is good enough. Some of the greatest boxers are known for this balance of grace and power, a primary example being Muhammad Ali.
Since MMA is a bag of mixed tricks, it doesn’t rely on structure. Its foundation was based in having no structure. In the martial arts world, this is something that MMA is often attacked for by traditional practitioners. A kick can quickly turn into a throw, or a ground and pound might transform into an armbar, all in the span of a thought. A fighter can't be confined to a specific structuring of the body. Though graceful strikes can happen during a MMA match, competitors need to be able to adapt in a moments notice.
During the big fight, I could see the two perfectly contrast against each other. Mayweather was expertly balancing dodging and tanking McGregor’s shots, while McGregor resorted by habit to unorthodox strikes and hammer shots. The latter was not really worrying about his finesse.
The biggest difference between the two fighters was their conditioning to their methods. Several times during the match, the MMA champ slid behind or to the side of his opponent and instinctively grabbed him by the waist as if he was about to throw him. It was interesting watching McGregor constantly check himself as he did so. I think the ref had to warn him about that midway through the fight. When he realized he wasn’t allowed to throw, he just started hammer-fisting the back of Mayweather’s head, though not seemingly with much force. After Mayweather got more aggressive in round six, McGregor’s arms got worked hard from the blows the boxer was shooting. By the tenth and final round, the MMA champ couldn’t even keep them up anymore as exhaustion had completely kicked in. His opponent still had plenty of stamina to go on.
McGregor's body is primed for MMA fighting, not boxing as many said long before the fight started. It wasn’t that McGregor couldn’t beat Mayweather, but rather he wasn’t allowed to beat him in MMA fashion and he wasn’t conditioned for a battle of attrition. And while the same can be said for Mayweather and his vulnerability to MMA attacks, the fight wasn't under MMA rules, so this criticism doesn't apply.
One of the most interesting techniques I saw that was used by both fighters and went unnoticed by most people was trapping. Both fighters used an effective amount of trapping on their opponent's arms and hands to open up for strikes.
Trapping techniques are commonly associated with Chinese martial arts like Wing Chun kung fu and mixed fighting styles like Jeet Kun Do. Movies and Bruce Lee have helped create the image of fast hands deftly locking their opponents limbs gracefully and then unloading a rapid series of punches.
In reality, trapping doesn’t have to be so pretty and often isn’t, this is why it's often not recognized. The main goal of a trap is to keep the other fighter from using the targeted arm or to maneuver it away for an opening. And there were several points in the fight where this occurred. I thought it was very well done by both fighters.
Life Imitating Art
I think the funniest thing about the big fight was that it reminded me very much of the final fight scene from Ip Man 2. In the last fight sequence, Chinese martial arts master Ip Man fights a boxer named Twister. The choreographed fight was brutal. Halfway through, Ipman is warned not to use kicks, which is half his arsenal. As a result, he struggles to adapt, now fully playing in Twister’s home turf. However, he uses grapple techniques, eye gouging, nerve strikes, and a takedown to finally defeat Twister.
While it's just a movie, Donny Yen, the actor playing Ip Man, has been noted for his respect of other styles. He shows off the same strengths of boxing that Mayweather displayed in real life. The other reason I noted the similarity was because in both scenarios, the martial artist is automatically using their respective techniques in a boxing match that doesn’t allow them to do so. Both are warned not to do so. If you put choreography and the script aside, Ip Man won in the movie because he still used techniques not allowed in boxing. In contrast, Mayweather won because martial arts techniques were not allowed.
I’m not sure if this will go down as one of the greatest bouts in history. A lot of people are pretty disgusted by the whole affair because of the money thrown into it and the non-stop hype train. From a technical standpoint, as well as the culture shock presented, it was a superb display of the differences in human conditioning.