Everything you need to know about this weekend's big fight between Chad Mendes and Conor McGregor.
It is what’s known as a defining moment.
When Conor McGregor steps into the octagon for the UFC 189 main event on Saturday night, he will carry with him a heavy load of sky’s-the-limit expectations as well as a good measure of show-me-don’t-tell-me doubts. It’s fair to say that most who are at the MGM Grand Garden Arena (10 p.m. ET, PPV) for the featherweight interim title fight will have come to Las Vegas mainly to watch the brash Irishman–to see if the big talker can walk the walk.
Will McGregor back up the bluster, or will Chad Mendes take him down and shut him up?
This is the test some fans and pundits have been demanding ever since the 26-year-old Dubliner began loudly climbing the ranks of UFC featherweights and being hailed as a mixed martial arts superstar in the making. There’s no questioning McGregor’s star power, but it has been generated largely on the strength of his prodigious vocal cords, with a blistering assist by his flailing fists and feet. Sure, the guy looks like a killer in the standup game, the naysayers have persisted, but what will he do when confronted by a high-level wrestler?
Now we will find out.
This is not the way the UFC planned it. The promotion carefully matched McGregor with mid-level opponents who mainly preferred to do their fighting on their feet. This made for action-packed showcases, all safely within Conor’s brightly lit comfort zone. McGregor still had to perform, though, and he walked that walk like he belonged on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His biggest splash was last year’s first-round destruction of Dustin Poirier, a credible contender ranked No. 6 at the time in the SI.com 145-pound rankings. It was an eye-opening win, but it did not drown out the grumbling about the UFC still having never exposed its golden boy to a Top 10 grappler. No Frankie Edgar. No Ricardo Lamas. No Chad Mendes.
Until now. Though not by choice ... or at least first choice.
This weekend’s big fight was to be McGregor (17-2) challenging José Aldo for the real featherweight championship. That’s the matchup that the lovers of a good story line had been anticipating ever since first catching a flashy glimpse of Conor. Aldo hasn’t lost in a decade, has defended his WEC/UFC belt nine times, all decisively, and is ranked No. 2 in the SI.com pound-for-pound tally (and No. 1 in the UFC’s media-voted ranking). Yet McGregor was talking about the Brazilian dynamo like he was just another guy.
Dana White & Co. went all out to make the title fight not simply the main event of UFC 189 but the main event of 2015, if not the decade. The fighters were whisked through eight cities in 12 days, from Rio de Janeiro to Dublin, to get the buzz going, and mainly on the strength of McGregor’s crazy-eyed antics, the buzz became resounding. Then came the buzz kill: Aldo broke a rib in training, and less than two weeks from fight night, the champ was out.
And Mendes (17-2) was in. Two-time challenger to Aldo, ranked No. 3 among 145-pounders (to McGregor’s No. 5). Two-time NCAA All-American wrestler.
In addition to the pay-per-view telecast of Saturday night’s five-fight main card, four prelims will be shown on Fox Sports 1, starting at 8 p.m. ET, and the event’s first two bouts will be available on the UFC Fight Pass online service at 7. The main card also will be screened by Fathom Events at movie theaters nationwide.
These guys have a history. This fight was made way back in June. Like, June 30. Eleven days before fight night.
Actually, Mendes and McGregor have tussled before. Verbally... which is to say it was a mismatch. (See “Fighting Words,” below.)
The first time the two had a war of words, Chad was preparing for his second challenge of José Aldo last October and was being interviewed via satellite on a British television show. In studio that night was McGregor, who was in line to take on the winner. Only he had no interest in waiting his turn.
The Irishman psych-out artist went on attack, ridiculing Mendes as a “midget”–Chad is 5-foot-6, Conor 5-9–and putting the crosshairs squarely on himself. Which is where he has always wanted them.
McGregor has made a name for himself by being been cocky with his words, and now, by agreeing to a fight with an entirely different style of fighter than he was preparing for, less than two weeks prior to fight night, he’s backing up those words. Regardless of how he does on Saturday night, the Dubliner is showing that he’s not all talk. He’s risking a title shot by venturing into the danger zone.
Conor didn’t have much choice, really, since hordes of his countrymen had plopped down thousands of Euros to journey across the pond and support their man. McGregor had to step up and fight. But that inevitability doesn’t make his bodaciousness any less impressive.
Last five fights
4/4/15 Ricardo Lamas W TKO 1
10/25/14 José Aldo L UD 5
12/14/13 Nik Lentz W UD 3
8/31/13 Clay Guida W TKO 3
4/20/13 Darren Elkins W TKO 1
1/18/15 Dennis Siver W TKO 2
9/27/14 Dustin Poirier W TKO 1
7/19/14 Diego Brandao W TKO 1
8/17/13 Max Holloway W UD 3
4/6/13 Marcus Brimage W TKO 1
|Tale of the Tape|
|May 1, 1985||Birthdate||Jul 14, 1988|
|Hanford, CA||Birthplace||Dublin, Ireland|
|Sacremento, CA||Residence||Dublin, Ireland|
* Official weights announced at the weigh-in (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, UFC Fight Pass)
Other numbers to count on
5.46: Average time of a Conor McGregor fight, the 10th shortest in UFC history, according to FightMetric statistics. Chad Mendes had had several quick finishes, but his average fight time is just under 10 minutes.
2.74: Strike differential for McGregor over his UFC career. That is, he lands 2.74 strikes for every one that connects with him. The thing is, that differential comes thanks to Conor's productive output, since he does get hit a lot. He absorbs 2.98 strikes per minute, to Mendes's 1.93.
54: Mendes's takedown accuracy percentage, which does not place him among the UFC leaders... and he has José Aldo to thank for that. In their two fights, the champ stuffed all but one of Chad's 15 attempts. Does McGregor have that level of takedown defense?
Chad Mendes in a top-of-the-rankings showdown:
Conor McGregor’s biggest win in the octagon:
Striker vs. grappler. The classic matchup. The one that has dug potholes in many a one-dimensional fighter’s road to fame and fortune.
Of course, Conor McGregor already has the fame and fortune. Many would say it’s come prematurely. That he’s talked his way to the top. That the UFC’s careful matchmaking has paved his road with gold bricks garnished with a red carpet. But that is no longer a legitimate argument, not with the Irishman having agreed to face Mendes on 11 days’ notice.
If Mendes charges across the octagon, gets an immediate takedown, and lays down a beatdown with little resistance, the McGregor Myth will be severely damaged. And Chad does have the wrestling chops to get this done. Forget his mediocre 54 percent takedown accuracy. That number was skewed by two meetings with José Aldo, who stonewalled 14 of his 15 tries. It would be shocking if McGregor turns out to be a defensive wrestler on the champ’s level.
But fights start with fighters on their feet, and for as long as this fight stays there, McGregor will have a significant advantage. Mendes has thunder in his fists, but the same command of range that Conor will use to avoid takedowns will also keep him safely away from those big right hands. And his in-and-out forays will threaten Chad from their opening exchange.
McGregor has shown himself to be a lethal striker, but to this point he’s not had to contend with a credible takedown threat. Will the same elusiveness that keeps him on his feet also rob his strikes of some of their concussive vigor? At some point he’s going to have to stand his ground, and if that sequence does not end with McGregor on the ground, it will not bode well for Mendes.
Though Mendes opened as a betting favorite when the fight was announced, the odds quickly shifted toward McGregor. The money line on the Irishman ranges from -150 (best $150 to win $100) to -160 (bet $160 to win $100) at various sportsbooks. The line on Mendes ranges from +120 (best $100 to win $120) to +138 (bet $100 to win $138).
The whole time McGregor has been rising through the ranks, the thinking has been that his kryptonite would be a high-level wrestler. That’s all in theory, of course. The UFC did not allow its golden-throated meal ticket to venture within the same time zone of anything resembling a singlet.
Some call that favoritism. Others prefer to frame it as a promoter simply recognizing stand-and-bang as a bigger sell than lay-and-pray.
But here’s the thing: McGregor has never shied away from challenging all comers, even the most decorated wrestlers in the division. He’s confident he has what it takes, no matter where a fight takes him.
Where this fight will take him is a mystery. McGregor has been a sensation, but even setting aside the absence of a wrestler on his resume, Conor has not faced the same level of competition that Mendes has. And other than the two losses to José Aldo, Chad has been unstoppable, too. He’s a terror the likes of which McGregor has not seen.
The X-factor: 11 days. That’s not sufficient time for McGregor to switch up his preparation from Muay Thai striker opponent (Aldo) to wrestler (Mendes). It’s also not adequate time for Mendes to gear up for the all-angles striking of McGregor. Or to simply gear up for a five-round fight.
Mendes says he’s always in shape, that the short notice won’t affect him. But it will. Given a full training camp, he surely would spell trouble for McGregor. He still might, but the thinking here is that Conor, given a full camp, will be the more finely tuned on fight night. McGregor by TKO.
“Conor, do you know what wrestling is?”
—Chad Mendes, addressing what’s perceived as the Achilles heel of McGregor’s fight game, during a joint appearance on BT Sport last year
“I can rest my balls on your forehead.”
The Rest of the Card
Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald, welterweight championship; Dennis Bermudez vs. Jeremy Stephens, featherweight; Gunnar Nelson vs. Brandon Thatch, welterweight; Brad Pickett vs. Thomas Almeida, bantamweight.
Preliminary card (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1): Matt Brown vs. Tim Means, welterweight; Mike Swick vs. Alex Garcia, welterweight; Cathal Pendred vs. John Howard, welterweight; Cody Garbrandt vs. Henry Briones, bantamweight.
Online prelims (7 p.m., UFC Fight Pass): Neil Seery vs. Louis Smolka, flyweight; Yosdenis Cedeno vs. Cody Pfister, lightweight.
Mike Goldberg will handle blow-by-blow and Joe Rogan analysis for the main-card telecast on pay-per-view as well as prelims on Fox Sports 1 and the UFC Fight Pass. There will be an hour-long postfight show on Fox Sports 1, starting at 1:30 a.m. ET.