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Conor McGregor Beat Nate Diaz Because MMA is 90% Mental

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Moments after watching The Notorious win a close decision against Nate Diaz, Psychology Professor and martial artist David Klonsky, PhD, catches his breath and shares some thoughts.

 

Many of the best fighters – George St. Pierre, Dominick Cruz – say that fighting is 90% mental. But it is not always clear to MMA fans what this means. I can think of no better fight to illustrate how mental qualities make a difference at the highest levels of MMA than McGregor-Diaz 2.

When Conor McGregor beat Nate Diaz in their closely fought rematch, the mental dynamics at play were truly special. An important starting point is to acknowledge that McGregor and Diaz are closely matched in terms of physical skills, perhaps with an edge to Diaz. McGregor has better movement, distance control, and striking diversity, while Diaz has better size, stamina, boxing, and ground skills. The difference in outcomes between their two fights was due to McGregor’s edge in the mental game.

Numerous mental skills help make a fighter elite. Below are three that played key roles in McGregor’s win over Diaz.

 

Readiness to Fight

The first mental skill an elite fighter needs is readiness to fight. When the bell sounds to start Round 1, there can be many reasons why a fighter is not at his best: nerves, over-excitement, fatigue due to adrenaline dump, intimidation by an opponent, and many others. For example, Carla Esparza looked defeated before her fight with Joanna Jędrzejczyk began, as have many of McGregor’s opponents. Donald Cerrone and Ross Pearson have both spoken about their struggles to avoid slow starts to fights. So how do McGregor and Diaz compare?

When it comes to Fight Readiness, The Notorious has a clear advantage over Diaz. McGregor has finished several fights in the 1st round, and has won round 1 against every UFC opponent except Chad Mendes. McGregor starts, and usually wins, fast. In contrast, despite tremendous mental toughness, Diaz often starts slow even in victories. He lost Round 1 in each of his last two wins, against McGregor and Michael Johnson. He also lost Round 1 in his rematch with McGregor. McGregor’s Round 1 success in the rematch not only left Diaz slowed on a damaged leg, but proved the difference on the judge’s scorecards in a very close majority decision win.

 

Game Planning

The second mental skill an elite fighter needs it game planning. At the highest levels of MMA it is rare that one fighter is better than another in all areas. Consequently, the elite fighter develops and executes a strategy to enhance his own strengths and avoid or negate his opponent’s.

This principle may sound obvious, but many veteran UFC fighters do not game plan. For example, Diego Sanchez is a warrior and “Fight of the Night” regular, but he is not much of a game planner. His fans know what to expect every time, and so do his opponents, who can prepare accordingly.

In contrast, George St. Pierre is an elite game planner. He dictates where the fight takes place and can look very different depending on his opponent and strategy. Against a wrestler in Josh Koscheck, GSP stayed on the feet and dominated with jabs and distance control. Against strikers in Nick Diaz, Carlos Condit, and Dan Hardy, GSP took the fight to the ground utilizing a combined 27 takedowns. GSP adapts his game to each opponent.

In the McGregor-Diaz rematch we saw a stark difference in game planning. Diaz came out with the same approach he always uses, excellent boxing and constant forward pressure.  In contrast, the Notorious One used the five months between fights to prepare several adjustments. McGregor planned for more leg kicks to slow Diaz, prepared combinations and angles optimized for a southpaw opponent, and sparred with middleweights to ensure he was ready for a 5-round war against a larger opponent.

Each of these adjustments proved key for defeating Diaz. By the end of the 1st Round Diaz was less able to move and plant on his lead leg. McGregor also landed several knockdowns and hurt Diaz with punches more than in the first fight. And while McGregor once again struggled with fatigue during Rounds 2 through 5, he was much more efficient with his energy – whereas fatigue led Conor to lose by submission in the first fight, in the second fight he stayed efficient and poised through the fatigue and thereby remained effective enough to survive and win.

 

Humility

The third mental skill an elite fighter needs is the humility to learn and be coachable. True champions must achieve a tricky mental balance. They must be confident enough to dominate, but humble enough to recognize their weaknesses, own their mistakes, and learn from others.

Some fighters become so confident that they have difficulty seeing their limitations and taking the advice of others. For all of Ronda Rousey’s elite mental and physical skills, she would probably have benefitted from taking the advice of her mom, Tim Kennedy, and numerous others to find a head coach other than Edmund Tarverdyan. Arguably, her loyalty to Tarverdyan not only stunted the overall development of her physical skills (e.g., striking, distance control), but left her without a reasonable game plan against Holly Holm.

While many call Conor McGregor arrogant, he has actually mastered the tricky balance of confidence and humility. He is confident enough to dominate, as he has shown that over and over against the best of the UFC featherweight division. At the same time, McGregor is intensely interested in his weaknesses and mistakes, and intensely committed to learning from his coach John Kavanagh.

McGregor’s game plan (discussed above) for his rematch against Diaz is one example of McGregor’s commitment to learn from his mistakes and his coach. But there is also another way that McGregor’s humility helped him beat Diaz in the rematch.

In the first fight, after early success, McGregor fatigued in Round 2. In response, he panicked (McGregor’s own word choice) and threw power shots in the hopes of ending the fight as quickly as possible. This response increased his fatigue (power shots take energy), and moments later he found himself both mentally and physically defeated.

There was a truly special moment in the rematch when it appeared history was repeating itself. Once again McGregor handily won Round 1 and the first part of Round 2, but once against he tired toward the end of Round 2 while Diaz pressured and swarmed with strikes. It was Déjà vu for those watching, and probably for McGregor and Diaz as well. Except that McGregor was a different fighter in the rematch.

McGregor learned from the first fight. He stared his mistakes in the face and evolved. In numerous interviews since the first fight McGregor has recounted his panic in the first fight, his desperate power shots, and his even more desperate takedown attempt. He has embraced these mistakes, and taken them with him into his fight camp and training.

Fast forward to Round 2 of the rematch, and a fatigued McGregor did not become desperate, did not try to end the fight with power shots, and did not try to escape Diaz’s pressure with a takedown attempt. Instead, McGregor became efficient: he used the clinch to buy time, he stuck to his game plan of finesse striking as energy permitted, and he certainly did not attempt a takedown. Mcgregor had been there before, and because he had the humility to learn and grow from his mistakes, this time he survived and won.

 

Conclusion

I do not mean for this analysis to take anything away from Nate Diaz. Diaz is an elite martial artist and his mental toughness is second to none. He also has tremendous fight instincts in the areas of boxing and jiu-jitsu, the result of years of training with high-level coaches and partners.

At the same time, Conor McGregor displays a rare combination of physical and mental skills and deserves to be celebrated. It is an honor to watch him compete and an honor to share my analysis of his mental qualities with you.

 

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Interviews

UFC 219’s Jimmie Rivera to TJ Dillashaw “Defend Your Belt or Vacate.”

Harry Davies

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MMA Latest had the chance to talk to #4 ranked UFC bantamweight Jimmie “El Terror” Rivera ahead of his fight at UFC 219 against John Lineker.

Rivera (21-1) extended his unbeaten run to twenty when he defeated Thomas Almeida at UFC Long Island in July. Originally scheduled to face former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, we began by asking Rivera how the opponent change had affected his preparation for UFC 219.

The only thing that’s changed is the game plan, everything else stays the same. Cruz is more of an irritating fight because he just doesn’t stop moving, but with Lineker, he’s going to stay in the pocket and bang, and I love that.

Recently, Rivera posted a video to his Twitter account of him sparring with the recently crowned bantamweight champion, TJ Dillashaw. He told us about the context of this video, and how the sparring went down between them.

It was 3 or 4 years back. I think TJ had just lost to (John) Dodson on TUF. My teammate Louis Gaudinot was actually fighting Tim Elliott at the time, and we were in Milwaukee so I got to train with (Urijah) Faber and Dillashaw.

I just sent it to TJ to say, don’t forget what happened. I was getting the best of him, and I don’t really brag about it. But he wants to leave the weight class and fight DJ for the money fight, and I want to fight for the belt, so it’s defend your belt or vacate.

After briefly referencing the potential superfight between Demetrious Johnson and TJ Dillashaw, I asked Rivera about his thoughts on the somewhat flawed UFC rankings system, and title fights being put together purely for entertainment value.

It sucks. When I become champ I won’t be like a TJ or McGregor, I’m going to be like Demetrious Johnson and defend my belt against people coming up, it’s the right thing to do. If you want to win the belt and leave the division straight away, it’s kind of bullshit.

Rivera concluded by telling me that although he isn’t looking past Lineker at 219, “the only fight that makes sense after this one, is fighting TJ for the belt.”

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Announcement

Mark Hunt Returns to Fight Curtis Blaydes at UFC 221

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UFC 221 in Perth has officially added a another Australian to the main card. Joining Robert Whittaker is the knockout legend Mark Hunt.

The Daily Telegraph first reported that Hunt will be stepping into the octagon to face #9 Curtis Blaydes. Some weren’t sure if we would ever see Hunt fight again after he was pulled from the main event in UFC Fight Night 21 against Marcin Tybura. The UFC removed him due to “medical concerns” while Hunt was stating he was perfectly fine.

After getting evaluated and cleared to fight by Australian and American doctors, it looks like his time has come to return.  Hunt’s last fight was back in June when he derailed the Derrick Lewis hype train with a 4th round TKO win.

Hunt had been adamant about calling out #3 ranked heavyweight Fabricio Werdum and trying to get that rematch booked, labelling Werdum a “chicken shit” and a “coward.”

Curtis “Razor” Blaydes who has an 8-1 record, is coming off a TKO victory due to doctor stoppage at UFC 217 in November. Since losing to now title challenger Francis Ngannou in April of 2016, Blaydes has rattled off three straight wins over Alexey Oleynik, Daniel Omielanczuk, and Cody East.

With all this momentum from the win streak, Blaydes looks to capitalize and win the biggest fight of his career against Hunt.

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News

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Priscila Cachoeira Officially Booked for Belem, Brazil card

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The wait is over. Valentina Shevchenko (14-3, 3-2 UFC) will make her highly anticipated flyweight debut when the UFC returns to Brazil. She will face Priscila Cachoeira (8-0) on the February 3rd card scheduled for Belem, Brazil. Luciana Andrade was the first to report the match-up last week. On Tuesday, the UFC posted an article which stated the bout had been set.

Now that the flyweight tournament is over and the inaugural champion has her crown, many women shall migrate from the strawweight and bantamweight ranks in search of a more suitable weight class. The division is so infantile means a lot moving parts in the rankings. Yet, only women who fought at one hundred and twenty-five lbs. are ranked. Such practices muddy the title picture for the time being. Essentially ruling out the idea of Montano vs. Shevchenko for the first defense of the belt, illogical. An idea that floated around the internet until today’s confirmation of the newest female flyweight match-up. The TUF 26 winner, Nicco Montano called it, “kinda silly”, earlier this week while on The MMA Hour. Montano believes her first title defense, as it stands, should pit her against the original finalist of the flyweight tournament, Sijara Eubanks. Although Eubanks withdrew from the title fight, she is still ranked as the #1 contender in the division.

Shevchenko explained her desire for the flyweight belt on The MMA Hour, a week earlier than Montano, “For me it’s number one, to fight for the title… It doesn’t matter for me, if I have to have one fight before it, okay I will do it… my main goal is to be the champion… It doesn’t matter I move from one thirty-five to one twenty-five. My goal is still the same, to be the champion”. The Russian fighter is coming off an unsuccessful title shot in the bantamweight division against the current reigning champ, Amanda Nunes. The bout went to a decision after close five rounds, Nunes ultimately defeated Shevchenko via split decision (47-48, 48-47, 48-47).

Her opponent, Priscila Cachoeira, is not only new to the UFCs female flyweight division but the promotion’s roster as well. Cachoeira originally was scheduled to make her promotional debut against veteran Lauren Murphy at The Ultimate Fighter Finale 26. The Brazilian fighter withdrew from the bout due to visa issues. As a professional, she is undefeated with four knockouts in her eight fights.

UFC Belem is scheduled for February 3rd, 2018. The card will feature Timothy Johnson vs. Marcelo Golm in the heavyweight division. It will also have Thiago Santos taking on Anthony Smith in the middleweight division.

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