Over a year after his largely disastrous attempt to wrest the UFC Lightweight Championship from (or, in another sense, defend his lineal title against) Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor returns in a fight that’s fairly close to being utter nonsense. The return of McGregor this time is little but an easy pay-per-view main event for the UFC, one that allows them to open up 2020 with maximum return on a top-heavy card; with the criminal allegations surrounding McGregor that haven’t been dismissed (even if they also haven’t been proven), it may even end up being a net negative for the company to book despite the assuredly high buyrate.
McGregor’s long layoffs have ended his tenure as a legitimate contender, even if his last showing showed that he’s probably still skilled enough to be; a win over Donald Cerrone is just a return to winning ways by any means possible, at a weight class that isn’t really his, expressly to set up a meeting with the streaking Jorge Masvidal for what would be the UFC’s equivalent of the Money Belt. If the UFC had their way, McGregor would step right back in with Nurmagomedov, a selling bout if there has ever been one.
While Donald Cerrone isn’t in the position to be facing a real contender the way McGregor has been painted upon his return, one would be hard-pressed to consider a pay-per-view main event undeserved for “Cowboy” on the basis of seniority alone. For many years, Cerrone has essentially been a lower-level but more charismatic Rafael dos Anjos; he’s been the man to call when a fight falls through, or when someone important needs someone to fight, or when a prospect needs a step up, and (unlike many others) he’s effectively built a brand around being the man who shows up unconditionally at any time.
More importantly, he’s managed to stay reasonably close to the top-tier despite a fight schedule and matchmaking that seems downright reckless (in comparison to someone like Michael Johnson, who took everyone he could but declined quickly because of the wars it entailed). It’s difficult to begrudge him his fight at UFC 246, when the call was a lucrative fight and not just one that only Cerrone would take; while his current two-fight skid is apparently just being entirely ignored for these purposes, a win over McGregor (even the version of 2020) is momentous.
While mitigated a bit by an array of underhanded tactics (outright cheating, but done with a light-enough hand that the commentary would likely consider it “veteran craft”), Conor McGregor looked about as good as anyone has against the lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov; he didn’t avoid a loss nor a beating, but had enough moments to justify a fairly narrow line going in.
That said, the situation for McGregor is a bit direr going into Vegas for the first PPV main of the decade; a loss to Cerrone would be exponentially worse than the loss to Nate Diaz at UFC 196 was, and with his fights growing sparse since his prime (the legendary stretch leading into his bout against Alvarez in 2016), it may signal the end of his career. A win doesn’t mean much to his division, whatever that would be, as it would likely just lead to a “money” sidetrack for someone who would likely have more relevant matchups on the table: either the lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov or 2019’s breakout Jorge Masvidal. McGregor is probably a fun and lucrative presence at best at this point in his career, and he needs to beat Cerrone to even be that.
McGregor’s skillset (at least in his prime) is best seen through his strongest performance, a dissection of then-155-king Eddie Alvarez; while Alvarez was almost built to lose to him, it was still one of the most stunning title-winning performances that combat sports has ever seen. McGregor is a terrific pressure fighter, but not necessarily in the swarming sense (at least until his opponent is already ready to go out); by pushing his opponent back, he can force them to try to gain back ground, and that opens his counters more reliably than just waiting does.
McGregor plays a fairly long game that allows him to give ground if his opponent looks to do just that, and he’s a much more versatile counterpuncher than the “left hand” discourse that surrounded his rise; the classic backstepping straight was what did in the great Jose Aldo, but even within a “simple” framework, McGregor’s strong distancing and footwork does a lot of the heavy lifting.
As the longer man, his opponent generally needs to cover distance on him, and the way McGregor dealt with Alvarez’s double-rights or shifts was textbook; he could pull and pivot into Alvarez as Alvarez went southpaw to crack him with the straight (as he did for the first knockdown), or just come back with the left over the top off the pull to chain into combinations (as he did for the finish). Even in his tough fights against a fellow southpaw in Nate Diaz, McGregor had plenty of fantastic moments on the counter; slipping Diaz’s jab to land over top of it, for instance, or using the jab to draw the counter and hitting the body.
On that note, it’s just as important to note McGregor’s aptitude on the lead, which is how he prods his opponent into opening up for bigger blows; McGregor is not only a strong boxer in every arena, he’s also one of the sharper kickers in MMA, and this leaves his opponent generally struggling to dictate the space even beyond McGregor keeping the front foot and backstepping. This mostly centers on his front snap kick to the body, which is what got him the win over Chad Mendes (McGregor is a strong bodyhitter in general, in fact) and serves as a pressuring tool, as well as the low line side kick that can keep his opponent at range and annoy them.
McGregor’s boxing on the lead is sharp; he’s a good handfighter who can create paths for the rear hand (even if he isn’t the most active southpaw jabber), and he can use throwaway straights to mess with his opponent’s rhythm and figure out their reactions (as he did to drop Alvarez the second time). McGregor is frankly incredible at finding openings through a guard; he’s a sharp and accurate puncher, as seen with his finish of Dustin Poirier (catching Poirier ducking underneath his straight by aiming a wide left behind the ear).
McGregor can be flustered defensively when he’s tired and his opponent forces enough layers out, but his positioning is generally too sharp to do it without the craft and durability and southpaw stance of someone like Diaz; for example, Eddie Alvarez had success entering behind his bodypunching, but as he tried to push his connections too hard, McGregor just ducked his winging right and cracked him on the temple completely square.
His sharp distancing generally deters takedown attempts and his clinch looked reasonably sharp in his last two MMA fights, although the ground was where he lost his last bout against Nurmagomedov (which was essentially lost the moment he threw a knee as an attempt to defend a takedown). Off a layoff, the state of Conor isn’t quite clear, but he was certainly as formidable as a fighter gets in his prime.
Cerrone’s last winstreak was probably his last gasp as far as legitimate contendership, and he’s on the road to settling back into the role in which he found himself when he left 170; after defeating Alexander Hernandez and Al Iaquinta, Cerrone yet again hit a hard-ceiling at the truly elite (in Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje), and one has to question how many resurrections the man has left.
After a brutal battery at the hands of Ferguson and getting summarily flattened by Gaethje, the miles are piling up, and so is the difficulty of each fight; generally, fighters know how to deal with Cerrone to at least give him some trouble, even if they might not have the skillset to beat him. Whether at 155 or 170, Cerrone dwells in the “action-fighter” space despite possibly earning all-time great status (if on pure stats alone); a win over McGregor would be the sort that he could end his career on, if he so chooses, and it would be no less significant than retiring with a belt around his waist.
Cerrone’s fight against Iaquinta was fairly instructive in his strongest areas as well as some of the areas that have consistently troubled him; Iaquinta was the tighter boxer in the pocket and a decent counterpuncher, but was defensively nonexistent and it gave Cerrone the opportunity to put on a show. Iaquinta reliably found connections when he was able to close Cerrone down, especially when he went to the body (a defined soft-spot for the veteran over a long career), but his primary stumbling block was the intercepting-knee; Cerrone’s game is built to fight long, and around the Alvarez fight, he gained this one tool to effectively manage the distance. Both Iaquinta and Hernandez ran clean into the knee multiple times, largely due to their need to make up ground and their lack of craft at getting inside; in particular, Hernandez resorted to just running in on Cerrone over and over, and Cerrone ran him into the knee to the gut over and over.
Cerrone’s other massive strong suit is his grappling; he seemed to sharpen his wrestling a bit up at 170, timing reactive shots on fighters as excellent as Leon Edwards, and his top game is terrifically aggressive. Above all else, Cerrone has a real nose for a finish, and his game compounds massively; he’s a hard man to mount a comeback against, and he’s also a hard one to escape if he’s able to find a real moment.
Unfortunately, Cerrone’s career has been defined just as much by his shortcomings. Cerrone is a very strong kicker overall who does excellently on the front foot, slamming in kicks on the end of his combinations and finding that classic switch-kick to the head, but those combinations tend to be fairly problematic; beyond a mechanically decent jab, Cerrone’s boxing is not good. He’s not a sound defensive boxer at all, as both Tony Ferguson and Nate Diaz were able to overload him fairly quickly and without much in their way, and he tends to throw blitzes that leave his feet all over the place (and his punching-mechanics not sharp enough to scare his opponents off from planting and countering). This is largely what lost him the Gaethje fight; against a Gaethje who uncharacteristically played the outside, Cerrone instead presented himself to be countered quickly and cleanly. A lot of the classical Cerrone weaknesses can be attributed to this general issue; Cerrone isn’t a strong-enough boxer to dictate the range against someone who can take away his space to retreat (soundly without running onto the knee) or someone who can beat him to the punch with straighter shots, and southpaws tend to make many of his tools either shortchanged (the intercepting knee with the greater distance in open-stance, the switch-kick with the lead hand in the way, the jab with the clashing lead-hands) or more dangerous to attempt (those blitzes).
It was natural that someone like Cerrone would grow to be figured out, facing elite fighters so consistently, but he’s also hard to consider ever truly elite in his own right; he’s made it to elite opponents and title shots, but he’s also struggled so thoroughly with fights that fit into specific buckets that someone like dos Anjos could absolutely smash him with no issue. He’s a tough crafty veteran who can be trusted to consistently have the same strengths from fight to fight, though, and that has taken him close to the peak.
Conclusions and Capping
Cerrone against a long southpaw counterpuncher who liberally hits the body seems like a very easy pick to make. Cerrone just isn’t really built to win a fight like this, and it’s shown many times. The best parallel is Darren Till, who’s bigger and rawer than McGregor but brings a lot of the same general archetype; Cerrone didn’t have an answer for someone who could feint him backwards without stepping into him, and Till ripped him apart when he was against the fence. McGregor can bodysnatch him with relative ease, and he’s not an easy man to time reactive takedowns on.
Cerrone’s hope is that McGregor fades badly beating him up or that McGregor is washed beyond repair; the first seems unlikely, considering how many of Cerrone’s kill-buttons are pushed by a prime-McGregor’s arsenal (to the point where Cerrone surviving all of them would be shocking given his track record of being overwhelmed by fast-starters), but the latter isn’t as unlikely as it should be. That’s the only reason the suggested line isn’t even wider.
Prediction: McGregor by KO1. This writer caps McGregor at -450.