Chad Mendes will face Conor McGregor for the interim gold. | Photo: Jeff Botari/Zuffa/UFC/Getty
Sometimes you just have to settle for second-best.
The original UFC 189 main event between longtime featherweight champion Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor was arguably the most anticipated fight of the year. However, the last-minute substitution pairing Chad Mendes, the perennial No. 2 at 145 pounds, against McGregor for the interim belt is a good alternative.
Mendes is fresh off his April 4 demolition of Ricardo Lamas, a declaration of continuing relevance following a second loss to Aldo in October. There is a lot on the line for “Money.” Having already lost twice to the current champion, winning the interim belt against McGregor may represent Mendes’ last chance to wrest the official title out of the clutches of his Brazilian nemesis; a loss to the Irishman might all but ensure he never will.
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Meanwhile, McGregor last stepped inside the cage against Dennis Siver six months ago in what was functionally a showcase matchup. He spent the interstitial time justifying his place as the main attraction, making appearances in promos, advertisements and talk shows, from ESPN to Conan O’Brien. Inside the cage, McGregor has proved he is more than just talk, effortlessly dispatching five straight opponents while scoring knockdowns and finishes against all but one. Despite his impressive performances, McGregor still faces criticism for being more flash than fire, with some claiming his personality has carried him further than his fighting has warranted. Thus, this fight against Mendes -- while admittedly not as grandiose as his matchup against the injured Aldo -- carries particular significance for McGregor.
There is plenty to get excited about in this fight. Let us see what the Tale of the Tape tells us about the UFC 189 headliner on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas:
The anthropometric side of the fight seems to favor McGregor. The younger, taller fighter has a significant reach advantage, and he is also a southpaw. Mendes has not fought against a southpaw since he faced Cody McKenzie in 2012, and it is safe to say he has yet to fight a southpaw that is anywhere near as talented as McGregor. Those numbers, however, fail to show that Mendes possesses a rare athleticism that could potentially mitigate some of those physical advantages. While McGregor is a fine athlete in his own right, the speed and explosiveness of Mendes are unmatched in the division.
McGregor’s presence in the media has been so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget he has spent more of his Ultimate Fighting Championship career in interviews than in the cage. Mendes has a substantial in-ring experience advantage, with nearly five times the amount of Zuffa minutes as his Irish foe. Among the questions that this fight poses for McGregor is how he will look should the fight go into the championship rounds -- the first time that scenario has had a distinct possibility of presenting itself. Mendes has shown he is not one to slow down in the final 10 minutes of a fight, so it will be interesting to see how McGregor continues to fight in the latter rounds.
Here is how the fight will look on the feet when the opening bell dings:
Striking is no doubt the preferred realm of the rangy McGregor. Perhaps the most impressive statistic is McGregor’s volume. His standup features a relentless barrage of punches, kicks and knees coming from all angles and distances. With his reach and wide stance, McGregor covers distance well, accounting for the fact that 82 percent of his total output comes from the outside, with four percent and 14 percent coming in the clinch and on the ground, respectively. The exact same figure, 82 percent, is also the ratio of McGregor’s head strikes, compared to 11 percent to the body and seven percent to the legs; and with 80 percent of his opponents getting knocked down and out, there is no overlooking McGregor’s power. “Notorious” owes much of his knockout efficiency to his volume: As his strikes pile up, they have a cumulative power that saps opponents until they wilt.
Mendes is not to be taken lightly on the feet, however. Similar to his foe, most of his shots (78 percent) are aimed at the head and from distance (75 percent). From there, he goes to the body six percent of the time and legs for the remaining 16 percent. His clinch output barely registers at just five percent of his striking, with 20 percent coming by way of ground strikes. Mendes has made vast improvements on his striking since first appearing in World Extreme Cagefighting back in 2010. With crisp combinations, legit power and effective inside-out movement, Mendes has transformed into a bona fide standup artist, especially with the threat of an explosive double-leg always looming. Mendes’ evolution has not just refined the technique behind his big power but also his striking defense, where he slightly outperforms McGregor. The fundamental difference in their striking is that McGregor looks to keep the fight at a distance until he puts people against the cage, whereas Mendes looks to close the distance and mix in takedowns with power punches. Though the Team Alpha Male product can wind up with a fight-ending blow at any point in time, the longer the fight remains upright, the better it will be for McGregor.
Should one man hit the mat with consciousness intact, here is how the grappling matchup will likely unfold:
Mendes is quite possibly the highest-caliber wrestler in the featherweight division. With an effective single-leg that sets up big punches and a powerful double-leg takedown that blends seamlessly into slams and dominant ground positions, Mendes has the juice to become the first person to take down McGregor. From there, it will be anyone’s guess how the action will go down, since McGregor’s overall ground game, outside of sturdy takedown defense, remains a mystery. Mendes, on the other hand, is a positional grappler who prefers working ground-and-pound to fishing for limbs to snag. His single submission victory came in his second WEC match in 2010, and since then, he has only attempted two more.
McGregor has shown only glimpses of his ground game in wins over Max Holloway and Diego Brandao, those two fights accounting for 80 percent of his total grappling statistics. This is the big question mark hanging over McGregor, because we do not know how he will handle an elite wrestler like Mendes. So far, he has shucked off all five takedown attempts, landed all but one of his own, evaded the only submission thrown at him and advanced positions more times than he has attempted a takedown. Impressive, but with such few statistics to sort through, it is difficult to construct a substantive model of his ground game. This fight will be a definitive litmus test for the naysayers.
THE FINAL WORD
The betting lines have been volatile but mostly contained within a general range. McGregor is anywhere between the -145 and -160 favorite, with Mendes being a slight underdog somewhere in the +115 to +138 limits. Both men have distinct advantages, though with the absence of meaningful grappling data for McGregor and the abundance of evidence for Mendes’ elite wrestling, it appears the oddsmakers either know something we do not or are giving “Notorious” the benefit of the doubt. Either way, both men have clear, very different paths to victory. On top of crowning the division’s first interim champion, the stylistic clash should also make it an historic night.
Data for the analysis was provided by FightMetric. Eric Stinton performed all analysis. Stinton and Sherdog.com assume no responsibility for bets placed on fights, financial or otherwise.