Crash Course to UFC 194: Previewing the Conor McGregor-Jose Aldo fight
Everything you need to know about tonight's UFC 194 main event fight between Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo.
The fight was over, but the night’s work was not done.
Conor McGregor had just vanquished a UFC steppingstone named Dennis Siver, walking him down impassively for the better part of two one-sided rounds before an efficient TKO finish. When the fight was mercifully stopped by the referee, the Irishman calmly climbed off his conquest and slowly stepped away while soaking in the roaring vibe of the Boston crowd. Then, suddenly, the featherweight phenom sprung to life and made a run for the octagon fence.
This is standard stuff for a victory celebration. Fighter wins. Climbs atop cage. Pounds chest. Makes like Aaron Rodgers with the strap-that-title-belt-around-me-right-here motion. Raises arms triumphantly.
But that’s not where McGregor was headed. He didn’t settle on top of the fence. He bounded straight over it like a contestant on Irish Ninja Warrior, landing on the canvas apron right in front of the first row of seats.
And there sat José Aldo, UFC featherweight champion of the world.
McGregor leaped down to the arena floor and lunged at the Brazilian. Security personnel swooped in to ensure that no fight would take place without tickets being sold, but “The Notorious” persisted, leaning in toward Aldo with his mouth wide open like Clay taunting Liston, his eyes darting Manson craziness toward his target.
Aldo didn’t flinch, not even a little. He stood stone-cold still until a smile spread across his face like a brushfire. Maybe he was enjoying the show. Maybe he was quietly counting all the reais that he knew would soon be appearing in his bank account.
Aldo vs. McGregor is money. It’s glory, too, as the 29-year-old Brazilian has gone undefeated for a dozen and a half bouts spanning a full decade, and the fighter who smites him will be a champion among champions. McGregor, 27, set his sights on that glory—and that money—long before he entered the UFC some two and a half years ago. The mental warfare began in earnest on that night last January at TD Garden. It was scheduled to get physical in September, but Aldo pulled out of the bout with a rib injury. Now, finally, it’s on again.
When Aldo and McGregor meet on Saturday night in the main event of UFC 194 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, PPV), it will be the Brazilian’s 10th defense of the belt he won way back in 2009, when the 145-pound weight class was still in the UFC’s now-defunct sister promotion, the WEC. Aldo (25–1) has slayed all of the featherweights who aspire to the top of the mountain, from Chad Mendes to Urijah Faber, Kenny Florian to former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar—everyone but Conor McGregor. Aldo is No. 2 in the SI.com pound-for-pound MMA fighter rankings, behind only light heavyweight Jon Jones.
McGregor (18–2) put himself on the title contention map by talking a good game, but he’s walked the walk, too. Initially, the UFC gave him matchups tailored to his flashy standup while steering him clear of grapplers who might slow the hype train. He vanquished everyone who stood in front of him, including Top 10 contender Dustin Poirier, an eye-opening win that earned McGregor a shot at the belt. Then, when Aldo dropped out of their scheduled UFC 189 meeting, his replacement was Chad Mendes, an explosive wrestler thought to be the embodiment of Conor kryptonite. And while McGregor did get taken down and beaten up for over a round, he rose late in the second and used a precise flurry of punches to score the TKO. McGregor still talks a lot, but by now he’s established that he’s not all talk. He sits at No. 3 in the SI.com featherweight tally.
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 three bouts will be available on the UFC Fight Pass online service at 7 p.m ET.
“I’m in a state of Zen right now.”
These were the first words out of the mouth of McGregor at a press conference on Wednesday in Las Vegas, with Aldo and other UFC 194 competitors also on the dais—including middleweight champ Chris Weidman and his challenger in the overshadowed gem of a co-main event, Luke Rockhold. No one among the group of weight-cutting athletes had much bluster in him, not even McGregor.
Perhaps McGregor was all blustered out. In the lead up to his original September date with Aldo, which ended up being scuttled by the champ’s rib injury, the UFC had jetted the two fighters on a so-called “World Championship Tour,” with joint appearances in eight cities in five countries over 12 days. Aldo was along for the ride, mostly just sitting through the Q&A sessions like a statue and giving rudimentary answers through a translator. McGregor talked and talked, played to the crowds and against them. From Rio de Janeiro, where he was told by the masses that he was going to die, to Dublin, where he was showered with homeland love, the promotion was all McGregor. At one point, he tried to trigger a reaction from Aldo by grabbing away the title belt. Vintage mental warfare.
The initial target of McGregor’s mental warfare was not Aldo, though. It was McGregor himself. From the time he first stepped into a Dublin cage to compete in a small MMA promotion, he began building toward this momentous collision by fortifying his own self-belief. A documentary called The Rise of Conor McGregor aired on MTV in the UK in 2013, and even though it was filmed before the fighter signed with the UFC, the up-and-coming fighter was asked about Aldo as a potential opponent. His answer spoke to his mental approach to the game.
“There is no opponent; there is no José Aldo,” he said. “Who the [expletive] is José Aldo? There is no one. You’re against yourself.”
And every step of the way since, McGregor has maintained his focus where it needed to be. Sure, he engaged Aldo, but in the same way a boxer might paw with a jab, just putting it out there to measure distance and bother an opponent with a face full of leather. The bulk of McGregor’s talk, however, has been about himself, not in a self-congratulatory way but in a check-the-oil self-assessment. He talks movement. Freedom. Feeling. Ask him how he’s going to win the fight, and he paints a picture of what he visualizes. He is a new-age athlete, guided by the law of attraction.
Look how far this approach has taken him already. Can McGregor take one more step and become a champion?
Last Five Fights
|10/25/14 - W (UD 5)||7/11/15 - W (TKO 2)|
|2/1/14 - W (UD 5)||1/18/15 - W (TKO 2)|
|8/3/13 - W (TKO 4)||9/27/14 - W (TKO 1)|
|2/2/13 - W (UD 5)||7/19/14 - W (TKO 1)|
|1/14/12 - W (TKO 1)||8/17/13 - W (UD 3)|
Tale of the Tape
Sept. 9, 1986
July 14, 1988
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
*Official weights announced at the weigh-in (Friday, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1).
Other Numbers to Count On
3,668: Days it will have been, on fight night, since Aldo suffered his only career defeat. In that time, which adds up to 10 years and 16 days, the champ has won 18 straight fights. (McGregor is on a 14-fight winning streak covering the last five years.)
21:00: Aldo’s average fight time, in minutes and seconds, which is the longest in the UFC among fighters with five bouts in the promotion, according to FightMetric. Though he has 16 finishes among his 25 career victories, six of his last nine wins have gone the distance.
5.44: Significant strikes per minute by McGregor, No. 10 in the UFC. His 2.43 strike differential—the difference between what he lands and what his opponents land—is eight in the promotion. However, Aldo successfully defends 69.9% of his opponents’ significant strikes, ninth-best in the UFC.
José Aldo turns another challenger into a zombie:
Conor McGregor gets his first Top 10 victory:
Aldo hasn’t lost a fight in 10 years. You know what else he hasn’t done in 10 years? Win by submission. Among his 25 career victories are just two subs, both in 2005, and in one of them his opponent tapped out while being struck with soccer kicks. So while he does own a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he tends to utilize it defensively, as an adjunct to his sublime ability to fend off opponents’ takedowns.
However, when in with a striker, Aldo has sometimes sought ground battle. He had five takedowns on nine attempts in a 2011 bout with kickboxer Mark Hominick. He had five (on six tries) against tae kwon do black belt Chan Sung Jung in 2013. He even had a couple versus Ricardo Lamas, a wrestler, last year. So will he seek to take McGregor, a dynamic striker, off his feet and out of his comfort zone?
If not, we’ll finally get to see McGregor in a strength-versus-strength showdown. Aldo is among the best in the game at tenderizing an opponent’s lead leg, and McGregor’s lead—the right leg, in his southpaw stance—will be there for the hammering. But the Irishman and his team are well aware of this vulnerability, so it will be interesting to see what they have planned. Perhaps McGregor will counter by not countering—that is, committing himself to being first in every exchange, and coming forward behind his leads. We’ve yet to see anyone back up Aldo for a sustained period. How much steam will be left in his kicks and punches if they’re launched while he’s moving backward?
That question might not have to be answered if Aldo can deftly move from side to side, staying on the offensive while avoiding the kind of retreat that whets McGregor’s appetite for finishes. Then again, the champ might choose to simply stand his ground, match his strikes with the challenger’s, trusting his power, chin and will. That would be quite a fight, an exhilarating conclusion to the fight card of the year.
McGregor, the challenger, is a slight favorite, with a money line ranging from -117 (bet $117 to win $100) to -135 (bet $135 to win $100) at various sportsbooks. The line on Aldo ranges from -110 (bet $110 to win $100) to +111 (bet $100 to win $111).
Aldo is the greatest featherweight in the sport’s history, one of the best fighters ever in any weight class. He still embodies those accolades, with no discernable career downslide. So how do you pick against him?
Well, maybe you view McGregor as a once-in-a-generation talent, a sublime striker whose from-all-angles offensive pressure is something the Brazilian has not seen. Or maybe you look beneath physical capabilities to the mental game, which the Irishman plays like a grandmaster. He’s confident in himself and has worked every angle to poison Aldo’s mindset with anger and other self-destructive emotions. Plus, the champ has seen the unexpected fall of another unbeatable Brazilian, his friend and teammate Renan Barão. So maybe there’s a place deep inside his mind where Aldo is asking himself, “Am I next?”
But I just can’t go there. McGregor will not be a pushover, but Aldo has a way of taking away the offense of opponents and wearing them down, eventually rendering them toothless. If he does this to McGregor, it’ll be the first time we’ve seen that happen. But there’s a first time for everything, and given the choice between two opposite firsts—the demise of Aldo vs. the derailing of the McGregor express train—I’ve got to go with the latter. Will it be a hit-the-wall finish? I don’t think so. Expect more of a losing-steam slow down. Aldo by decision.
“I will KO José Aldo and I will face the winner of the lightweight belt, which takes place a week after, and then I will fight for that. So within the next two fights I will be a two-weight world champion.” —McGregor, speaking to reporters on a UFC media conference call, referring to the Rafael dos Anjos vs. Donald Cerrone lightweight title fight on Dec. 19
“You’re going to see me go in there and get the win. I don’t really care how I win; I care about winning. Really, the only difference is I always beat Americans and this time I’m going to beat an Irishman.” —Aldo during the same conference call
“If he can give me a war and he can handle a rematch, well, then we can do a rematch. But I just don’t see him answering the bell for the second round. I can’t see his face or his body at the beginning of the second round. I see him KO’d inside one. And when you KO a man inside one, there’s no need for a rematch.” —McGregor
“The guy’s working for me. He’s basically making me money, so how could I be angry with him? I think he did very good for the weight class, so I’m happy with that.” —Aldo, referring to McGregor’s attention-grabbing pre-fight hype
The Rest of the Card
Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold, middleweight championship; Ronaldo Souza vs. Yoel Romero, middleweight; Demian Maia vs. Gunnar Nelson, welterweight; Max Holloway vs. Jeremy Stephens, featherweight.
Preliminary card (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1): Urijah Faber vs. Frankie Saenz, bantamweight; Tecia Torres vs. Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger, strawweight; Warlley Alves vs. Colby Covington, welterweight; Leonardo Santos vs. Kevin Lee, lightweight.
Online prelims (7 p.m., UFC Fight Pass): Joe Proctor vs. Magomed Mustafaev, lightweight; John Makdessi vs. Yancy Medeiros, lightweight; Court McGee vs. Márcio Alexandre Jr.
Mike Goldberg will handle blow-by-blow and Joe Rogan will do 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 post-fight show on Fox Sports 1, starting at 1:30 a.m. ET.