There is a peculiar phenomenon in bouts between fighters that favor the same style — whether that be kickboxing, wrestling, or jiu jitsu — in which the shared area where both athletes typically thrive is largely avoided. Such instances occur when one, or in some cases both athletes believe they are better than their opponent in another facet of combat, or simply want to avoid being defeated inside their “realm of expertise.”
We saw the initial phases of Demian Maia vs Ben Askren, two world-class grapplers, remain almost exclusively on the feet, while the expected explosive striking match between Michael “Venom” Page and Paul “Semtex” Daley played out as a slow-paced grapple fest.
Few anticipate the upcoming bout at UFC 246 between known strikers Conor McGregor and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone to feature an extensive display of jiu-jitsu, yet as we’ve seen that the least-expected area of engagement can often end up being the dictating factor in the fight, the jiu-jitsu skills of both men warrant exploration.
With 17 wins and a lone loss by submission, compared to one victory and four losses by way of submission for McGregor, the records of both combatants indicate that if the fight does go to the floor, it will be an advantage for Cowboy.
Cowboy’s submission victories tend to arise from one of two scenarios. The first path to a Cowboy submission victory typically occurs after he has knocked his opponent down (Cowboy is competent with takedowns, but knockdowns are more common as he prefers to strike).
From a dominant top position, a flurry of strikes is used to set up guard passes and mounts, ultimately leading Cowboy to his opponent’s back where the strangle is ripe for the taking. Here we see Cowboy knock Edson Barboza to the mat, quickly execute a seamless go-behind, and take the back. A lightning-fast application of the RNC forces Barboza to tap.
The other path to a submission victory — and the one we’re more likely to see against McGregor — arises when Cowboy is on his back. As a dangerous striker, opponents have sought to take Cowboy down since the onset of his career. Understanding that this would be common throughout his career, Cowboy put great effort into developing a dangerous guard game to counter over-zealous opponents. In his most recent submission victories, and perhaps arguably his most impressive, we see Cowboy pivot into an armbar on Mike Perry. Notice how Cowboy pivots immediately when Perry steps his leg into range.
Another favorite submission of Cowboy’s is the classic triangle choke. Here we see Cowboy attack with the triangle choke as soon as his opponent Evan Dunham establishes top position.
Cowboy’s urgency to attack off his back is a large component of why he has found success with the guard at a high level, while others have had their games frustrated and eventually give up on the position. Known as the “one minute guard,” the theory of aggressively attacking with sweeps and submissions for one minute, then attempting to get back up if the attacks were unsuccessful fits well into the modern MMA ruleset, as long periods of time on the bottom are harshly punished on the judges’ scorecards.
Whether he is on top seeking the rear-naked choke, or on the bottom attacking with rapid-fire submissions, Donald Cerrone is nothing but problematic for his opponent; while his striking may not rise to the level of McGregor’s, from what we’ve seen inside the Octagon, Cowboy’s jiu-jitsu game could be a threat to the Irishman.
With all four of his losses coming by way of submission, grappling has long been the chink in the armor of the “Notorious” Conor McGregor. The two that occurred during his time in the UFC have cemented the notion that submission grappling is the path to beating McGregor; in the minds of spectators and competitors alike.
While it is far from his strong suit, this narrative is a bit overplayed: the rear-naked choke loss to Nate Diaz came after McGregor had been rocked on his feet and shot in for a shoddy takedown, and if being out-grappled by the lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (McGregor’s most recent loss) is to be taken as evidence of lacking grappling skills, then large swaths of the UFC lightweight division will have to have their jiu-jitsu skills questioned as well.
Despite the one-sidedness of the Khabib bout, McGregor did achieve tactical victories that indicate his grappling is better than what we’ve seen displayed inside the cage.
Here we see Khabib explode into a shot, getting deep on McGregor’s hips. McGregor counters by pushing down on Khabib’s head, halting the Daegestani’s forward pressure. Realizing the initial shot has failed, Khabib comes up to his feet with a right-hand underhook, which will allow him to re-engage on another takedown attempt. McGregor stops any potential auxiliary attacks by establishing dominant head positioning, placing his forehead in the crook of Khabib’s neck: this severely hinders another takedown attempt, allowing McGregor to disengage.
And here we see McGregor stifle Khabib’s attack against the cage, an impressive feat that few of the Dagestani’s opponents have been able to replicate. The core of McGregor’s defense is the two-on-one grip he establishes on Khabib’s left arm. First, he pummels for inside position and establishes wrist control with both of his hands. Then, he grabs Khabib’s left elbow with his left hand, while maintaining control of the wrist with his right.
This grip prevents Khabib from locking his hands, either around McGregor’s waist for a throw or around his leg for a lower-body attack: deprived of the ability to lock his hands, Khabib’s takedowns are stifled. Conor lands a stern knee that forces Khabib to back off.
While these tactics were ultimately unsuccessful in sparing McGregor from defeat, they hint that McGregor’s grappling pedigree is higher than we’ve seen; some of the fleeting glances we’ve seen have been promising, such as the X-guard sweep he pulled off against Nate Diaz,
dope mount guard pass chain he used to set up the finish of Dennis Siver.
While the narrative that Conor McGregor is woefully lacking adequate jiu-jitsu skills is a grave exaggeration, based on what has been displayed by each man during live competition in the Octagon, it is fair to say Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone will hold a slight edge in the grappling realm.
There are many indications that McGregor’s jiu-jitsu is far superior to what has been displayed: not only are the techniques we’ve seen indicative of a high skill level, but his lineage and training partners are substantially credentialled: his head coach, John Kavanagh, is the first Irishman to receive a BJJ blackbelt, and his training partner Dillon Dannis is a highly-accredited jiu-jitsu practitioner who came up under the legendary Marcelo Garcia.
Yet, while such indications are important to acknowledge, they are not a substitute for displays of martial skill in live competition, which Donald Cerrone has in droves. With 17 wins (and only one loss) by submission, “Cowboy” has repeatedly proved that his relentless style of jiu-jitsu is well suited for modern MMA.
The most likely scenario in which we see a grappling engagement play out during the main event of UFC 246 is following a knockdown on behalf of the superior-striking of McGregor, Cerrone immediately gets to work off of his back with formidable submission attacks. In such a case, McGregor should proceed with extreme caution, as Cowboy possesses some of the most underrated jiu-jitsu in the UFC.