Who is the Better Striker on Paper?
Combat sports continues a rapid evolution, with constantly changing public acceptance now spanning multiple disciplines. So it’s fitting that in this environment a cagefighter was able to bait a contest with the undisputed best boxer on the planet for what will certainly be the most watched combat sports event of the year, and possible in Pay-Per-View history. And just as appropriately, the match was made almost entirely through social media trash-talking, fan clamor and an unflinching nose for profit. All signs of the times. But however we ended up with this Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor bout, and whatever the ulterior motives of the combatants, fans and casual observers all are at peak curiosity to see what will happen next.
To date, much of the speculation on the in-ring matchup has been qualitative, focusing on how well McGregor can train up in a different and specialized combat sport in such a short time. There’s also the speculation of whether or not Mayweather will still compete at peak form, given his heavy flirtations with retirement, talk of changing strategic game plans and recent 40th birthday. And financial motivations aside, the decision to allow the two to compete with smaller than normal gloves for this division adds yet another wrinkle to the storyline of cagefighter versus pugilist and more “what ifs” than we can count.
What’s been lacking under the loud roar of publicity is any quantitative assessment of these fighters beyond their records and achievements. Is Mayweather really the superlative pure striker of all-time? And just how good is McGregor at similar skills? Is the difference between them so enormous it can’t be closed for just one instant, and one night-changing punch? Why not break the two down as objectively as we can to see how they match up on paper, and perhaps get a hint into the contrasting styles that will be at war on fight night.
Hit, and Don’t Be Hit:
Boxing has sometimes been simplistically described as a game of “hit, and don’t be hit,” and yet the adage covers a lot. When it comes to statistics, offensive precision and defensive evasiveness are certainly strong indicators of a fighter’s prowess in this sport. In MMA, the rules are far more complicated, with fighting positions at a distance, in the clinch, and a wide variety of possible interactions on the ground. But at least when standing at a distance, MMA striking can similarly be reduced to the ability to land strikes while avoiding them in return.
When we assess McGregor against his UFC peers, he certainly stands out as one of the best in the sport. The graph shows McGregor’s Distance Power Head Strike Accuracy compared to that of his opponents. The straight dotted line indicates only being as accurate as opponents while those above the line are winning the sweet science.
McGregor, though ahead of his peers, isn’t quite best in class. He’s very accurate with his power head strikes while not allowing opponents to land quite as often as he does. However, McGregor’s overall defense is on the below average side, meaning evasiveness is not his strength. Compare him to another feared UFC striker, Alistair Overeem, who manages to land more precisely while making opponents miss more frequently. Notably, Overeem has professional kickboxing experience, but plenty of other UFC fighters have performed at the level of McGregor in terms of precision and evasiveness without that extra experience outside of the cage. McGregor is good, perhaps great, but not yet amazing.
But what happens when we overlay Mayweather on the same graph, with his remarkable precision and frustrating evasiveness?
There are caveats in this view. First, MMA fighters use four-ounce gloves, making punches faster and easier to slip through the recipient’s defense. Fighters also have to defend position and takedowns, and they may sometimes eat a lead punch rather than block and get taken down. But among these Distance Power Head Strikes are kicks mixed in with punches. Kicks are a smaller share of these strikes, but their overall accuracy is low, and no doubt depresses the total accuracy of a fighter like McGregor who uses them to such great effect. McGregor is good relative to his peers, and with larger gloves arguably would maintain precision by exclusively punching on offense while improving his defense against larger the missiles in return.
But at least on paper, Mayweather would be best in class based on the same metrics. And there are no caveats to his metrics; he’s simply outperformed the best available opponents consistently throughout his career. He hits with great success, and hitting him is hard to do, even by the best strikers around.
Power & Aggression:
Buried in the math above, there is something to be said for aggression and power to mean more in striking than just the punch counts. Some fighters dictate the pace of the fight, using more volume than opponents and controlling the cage or ring. In addition, the strength of the punches landed can also matter, where several or even a single powerful punch can suddenly outshine the sting of slow and steady jabs that countered it.
Adding aggression by volume to our previous assessment of precision, and adding the mix of power strikes to jabs allows us to see the Mayweather-McGregor matchup in a new light. That of Stalker versus Prey.
Again, McGregor matches up favorably against UFC peers by combining aggression with precision, and using a high mix of power strikes in his arsenal to ensure damage is done when he lands. In both of McGregor’s UFC title-winning performances, he didn’t just outland opponents to win rounds, he finished them by strikes in violent endings. He’s arguably best in class of accurate aggressors, a precise initiator of exchanges.
In contrast, Mayweather is far more defensively-oriented. He tends to throw less volume than opponents while using a higher mix of jabs compared to his boxing division’s average. And here’s the real clue as to what we might see come fight night, especially in terms of who will be advancing, and who will be the first to strike.
McGregor is as comfortable dictating the pace of action as Mayweather is letting is opponents initiate. So should these two assume their natural rhythms, the chase around the ring will be led by McGregor’s stalking pressure, and Mayweather’s evasiveness and expert counters. And while McGregor’s pressure could help force exchanges and animate the crowd, it could also propel him directly into Mayweather’s traps. It’s the type of fight Mayweather has fought many times before, and a style that has driven his perception as an invincible technician. Again we see a best in class striker, just in a different quadrant of style.
Clearly, stylistic and strategic unknowns remain, especially if either decides to play a different game plan in an attempt to throw off the other. But at least the numbers give us a hint as to what defines each man’s strengths and styles, and how those will clash in the ring.
In any combat sport, the puncher’s chance is a real threat that must be acknowledged no matter how extreme an experience differential exists. And McGregor appears to maximize his striking effectiveness by combining power with precision, and thus boosting his chances with each punch. But in the boxing ring, will he be able to land cleanly against such a slick tactician as Mayweather, who knows the ring and all its secrets as much an any pugilist ever?
If predictions come true, millions of live viewers will find out on August 26th. The unknowns of the matchup are what will make this intriguing while the personalities involved ensure it will be entertaining. And now the numbers give us a little insight into what to expect.
Raw data is provided by Fight Metric and CompuBox, with analysis by Reed Kuhn, author of “Fightnomics: the Hidden Numbers and Science in Mixed Martial Arts.”