On Aug. 26, UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor will make his professional boxing debut against arguably the greatest boxer in a generation, which right there sounds like a borderline unsanctionable mismatch.
But that hasn’t stopped McGregor’s many ardent supporters from insisting that he has a good chance to beat Floyd Mayweather. They point to his size and strength. They point to Mayweather’s age (he turned 40 in February). They point to McGregor’s powerful left hand.
You put them all together, they say, and maybe you have a recipe for a McGregor upset. It’s a fight, after all. And while McGregor might not have a single boxing match to his credit, he’s got plenty of fights.
Still, those fighters with considerable experience in both sports say they aren’t optimistic about McGregor’s chances. While both boxing and MMA are built around two people punching each other in the face, the differences between the two sports are more numerous and more significant than many fans realize, according to those who’ve done both.
“They’re not the same sport,” said Marcus Davis, a retired veteran of 20 pro boxing bouts and more than 30 MMA fights, nearly half of which took place in the UFC. “Once you understand that it’s not the same sport, you can’t keep telling yourself that it’s just a fight. The gloves are bigger, the tactics are different. A lot of the defenses that work in boxing are ones you can’t even use in MMA.”
Davis learned that lesson the hard way. He began his pro boxing career when he was still just a teenager, but transitioned to MMA a decade later. In his boxing stance, Davis said, he couldn’t stop a takedown or check a leg kick. Head movement techniques that helped him avoid punches in boxing got him kicked in the face in MMA.
Trying to cover up with four-ounce gloves didn’t provide the same protection, and the fights often took place at completely different ranges. It was a rough transition at first.
“But then sometimes I’d go to MMA gyms, and people who knew I boxed would want to put on the gloves and do some boxing sparring with me,” Davis said. “And when we did that, and I could use all my old boxing tricks, my boxing stance and defense, then I’d just destroy them. They just couldn’t touch me because it was a completely different game. I knew how to play that game, and they didn’t.”
The same was true for Chris Lytle, a veteran of more than 50 MMA bouts and 15 professional boxing matches. He often trained for both sports at more or less the same time, showing up to fight gyms looking to do whichever kind of sparring was available that day. But his experience in boxing quickly taught him his limits.
“I thought I was a very good boxer,” Lytle said. “But I was definitely not a great boxer or an elite boxer, and there’s a real difference.”
It’s for that reason, Lytle said, that he’s not expecting much out of McGregor. While he regards Mayweather as “probably my least favorite fighter on the planet,” Lytle also has to be realistic about the difference in skills and experience.
“Conor, he’s a very good and maybe even a great striker for MMA,” Lytle said. “But there is a very big difference between boxing striking and MMA striking. Let’s say you think Conor is a good boxer, which is a pretty big compliment for someone who’s never had a boxing match. But even then, he’s definitely not a great boxer or an elite boxer, and Floyd doesn’t get hit by elite boxers.”
K.J. Noons, who competed professionally as both a boxer and a kickboxer in addition to his MMA career, likened the difference between the combat sports to the difference between tennis and racquetball.
“They’re both sports where you’re hitting a ball with a racquet, but they’re also very different,” Noons said. “One’s all wrist, and one is no wrist. It’s a similar thing with boxing and MMA.”
That’s not to say there aren’t options open to McGregor. Cub Swanson, an MMA fighter who’s trained extensively with pro boxers, recommended a strategy that pushes the boundaries of the rules. His own sparring with boxers has taught him how different the sports can be. While boxers often fight right on top of each other, trying to establish a jab the same way in an MMA fight can result in punches that fall short by half a foot or more.
Instead of trying to match technical boxing skills with Mayweather, Swanson said, McGregor needs to make things messy.
“If it was me against Mayweather, I would grab him and dirty box and just do as much as I could that the referee would allow me to of grabbing and hitting and trying to slow him down before starting to chuck at his head,” Swanson said. “You’re not going to out-slick him in boxing. He makes amazing boxers look bad, so why box him?”
But as Lytle cautioned, that’s an approach that’s been tried before, only to be abandoned by those who attempted it.
“Everybody thinks the way to get him is to pressure him, make it a dirty, nasty fight, because you’re not going to outbox him,” Lytle said. “But everybody who’s tried, after two or three rounds they stop pressuring him. Floyd must have a little more pop than everybody thinks. Nobody’s been able to make that work against him.”
According to Davis, the real enemy for McGregor may be the sheer frustration of fighting a defensive genius like Mayweather.
“He’s going to have to work really hard just to get a clean look at him, but when he thinks he has an opportunity to hit him, then Floyd will tie him up,” Davis said. “I think he’s going to get desperate, he’s going to start lunging, because he’ll realize he can’t lay a glove on him. That’s when I think he’ll start getting hit with the harder shots, and I think he’ll probably get stopped within six rounds. If McGregor can make it more than six rounds, that looks bad for boxing.”
Even the hope that Mayweather’s age will slow him down enough for McGregor to catch him rings false for Lytle. He watched as Roy Jones Jr., long one of Lytle’s favorites, slowed down enough for younger boxers to begin tagging him with the same punches that never came close years earlier.
“The difference with Floyd is that he’s a technically very sound boxer,” Lytle said. “Floyd might be getting older, but he doesn’t take those chances that Roy did, where he would fight with his hands down and rely on his speed. Floyd has his hands in position the whole time, his head in position, his shoulder in position, plus he’s fast and athletic.”
But even if he’s not expecting a competitive fight, that doesn’t mean Lytle won’t watch.
“I’m sure I’m going to watch it,” he said. “Of course I am. I’ve got to see the spectacle train wreck just like everybody else. But I know I’m going to leave disappointed. If Conor is able to land five clean punches the entire fight, and I’m not talking body shots, I’ll be impressed.”
As for Davis, he’s less committed to actually seeing the fight. He “won’t spend a dime” of his own money, he said, but if a friend invited him over to watch?
“Yeah, I might go watch,” Davis said. “Or I might wait and catch the highlights on Facebook, because every fight that ever happens you know you can find at least some highlights, and that might be enough for me. There’s no way this becomes competitive.”
Noons is holding out slightly more hope for a McGregor surprise. Everyone with two fists and a willingness to throw them has a chance, he said, even if it’s not a great one. But whether McGregor can win is almost beside the point for him.
“Will it be competitive?” Noons said. “I don’t know. But it’s fun; it’ll bring eyes to the sport. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment. I’m going to watch it for sure.”
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