The hottest fighter in mixed martial arts faces one of the best fighters in his division this Saturday night in Las Vegas, as streaking superstar Conor McGregor faces Chad Mendes for the interim UFC crown at 145 pounds. Mendes is a late replacement for reigning champion and current pound-for-pound king Jose Aldo.
For the sake of dramatic storytelling, it would be best for McGregor to continue his rampage and make quick work of Mendes. That would give him a version of the title and even more to crow about when egging on a future competition with Aldo.
But Mendes will be uninterested in advancing any part of that narrative arc. Even if he's already lost twice to Aldo (the only two defeats of his stellar career), he's not about to let a fresh face jump into line ahead of him, no matter how much it might advance the interests of his employer.
If McGregor truly wants to gain the kind of superstar fighting status that was enjoyed by stars like Chuck Liddell and Georges St-Pierre, he's going to need to earn it in the cage, against one of the elite fighters in the world today.
These are the keys to victory for both men:
For Mendes: Take Away Space and Exploit the Clinch
McGregor's 74" reach is tremendous for a featherweight fighter. Floyd Mayweather has a very good reach for a boxing welterweight at 72", to give a perspective of how much of an advantage this gives McGregor competing in MMA at 145 pounds.
Mendes is going to need to close distance quickly in order to negate McGregor's most pronounced tactical advantage.
Mendes needs to cover up and feint as he advances. Tight, looping hooks from the proper angle will be good punches for him, because they will allow him to minimize the window he offers McGregor, and his follow-through should carry him into a clinch.
The clinch is where Mendes should be able to force his kind of fight on McGregor. He'll have the chance to daze McGregor up with dirty boxing, or else grab a quick front headlock and transition into a choke.
McGregor will have trained to deal with Mendes in this position. He tweeted a photo of himself working the clinch last week:
But there's a difference between training the clinch in training camp for a few months and training the clinch in wrestling rooms for years, first as a cadet All-American and then as an NCAA athlete, the way Mendes has.
Besides beating McGregor up with punches and elbows, other options for Mendes from the clinch will be to lower his level and grab a body lock or high single. If he can do this, he'll be able to make it a very tough fight for McGregor. If Mendes gets a leg or the body, expect him to go for elevation on McGregor and bring him down hard.
Against the cage or on the mat, Mendes needs to maintain hard, aggressive posture, while scoring with short punches, forearms and elbows. He wants to make sure he is scoring on McGregor, in order to prevent a stand-up, while inflicting damage that will take a toll on the Irishman in the championship rounds.
For McGregor: Maintain the Range and Be Ready to Make Quick Transitions in the Grappling Game
If McGregor can control the distance and make Mendes spend most of the fight in danger of being suddenly in range for the big left hand, he will win this fight. He's got the tools to impose exactly that game plan.
But McGregor doesn't just control the range; he aggressively asserts it. He'll be looking to put himself directly in front of Mendes and score heavily before Mendes can get close enough to do anything to him.
If McGregor can continually discipline Mendes before Mendes can get close enough to hit him or grab him, it might be a quick fight, with nearly every second of it painful for Mendes.
Once McGregor stops Mendes' advance, he'll want to put Mendes on the defensive. Like any effective striker, McGregor has good vision, so if he can slow Mendes down a bit, he should be able to find a quick opening to land a big left hand or other fight-ending strike.
He's a wrecking ball as a fighter, but McGregor has got to be ready with a Plan B in the likely event that Mendes is able to secure a clinch or otherwise establish a tactical advantage with his wrestling. McGregor has to be ready to grapple.
McGregor does have very good grappling for MMA. He has an educated submission game, and his athletic ability and "fight sense" make him particularly good at taking away what should be good grappling opportunities, simply by getting out of potentially bad positions before his opponents can exploit them.
McGregor throws a lot of very dangerous strikes, and he throws them from nearly every conceivable angle, with both hands and both feet. It's what makes him so entertaining.
It's also what makes him so dangerous. If McGregor can control the range and preserve enough space to always be ready to attack or counterattack quickly with one of his cinematic power punches or kicks, eventually he will land one, and the fight will be over.
This fight is a beautiful example of why there is no drama bigger than the drama of a big-time prizefight. There are a plethora of exciting ways that this fight could develop and chances are good that it will be a classic.