I recently got this message from UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor’s movement trainer Ido Portal:
“I’m relaxing with Conor on the beach in LA. No stress whatsoever.”
The crazy thing is, he sent me this 5 days BEFORE Conor knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds.
I can’t think of a fighter on the planet who can say they have “no stress whatsoever” in their camp before a championship fight.
But this is exactly why Conor is a completely new kind of fighter.
Ido Portal can claim a lot of credit for helping McGregor hone the principles of his fighting.
This is a fighter that understands movement as a language.
He’s not thinking in terms of set techniques – punches, kicks and grapples.
He sees the body as a holistic weapon, and the fight itself is a blank canvas.
There’s a famous quote from Michelangelo, where he says the sculpture exists in the untouched block of marble. That’s kind of how Conor thinks about a fight.
He’s not going into the cage with a game plan, with an intellectual idea of how to win the fight.
He’s going in there to create victory, to pluck it from the negative space that exists between him and his opponent, just like Michelangelo saw the work of art in the uncarved rock.
Jose Aldo was defeated because, just like most UFC fighters, he’s an expert in a given set of memes.
Once he is forced outside of those memes, however, he is powerless.
The big problem with sticking to set patterns of blocks and punches, grapples and counterstrikes, is that an intelligent fighter is going to know how to defeat you.
When you free yourself from these strict memes, like Conor has, you effectively become unbeatable, and it has little to do with your expertise.
What it is, is a mindset. A principle upon which the fighter bases his or her responses in a given moment.
McGregor sees a punch and a kick as an extension of an arm and leg, each capable of it’s own vocabulary.
Where the typical fighter sees a limited set of techniques, Conor sees an almost infinite range of possibilities.
And once the fighter has fully grasped that principle, “the principle produces technique – instantly”.
For Conor McGregor, there are no memes. The way it’s been done before is irrelevant.
Conor is an organic fighter, because he creates and reacts in the moment, rather than activating certain specific combinations or pre-defined combat shapes.
For a about a week and half before the Aldo fight, McGregor trained with Ido.
The training regime was unlike any other pre-fight preparation.
There was little or no sparring practice, no fight videos, no real thought about combat at all.
What Ido and Conor did was practice movement. They worked on expressing the full capacity of the body.
It was about being present in the body, rather than preparing for a fight.
Conor said it himself, he woke up the day of the fight feeling relaxed and excited to get in the cage.
Something Conor said in one of of the press conferences really stuck in my head, because it gives you an insight into his mind.
He said once he’s in the cage, he is free, it’s the only place he really feels completely himself.
He doesn’t have to satisfy anyone, or fulfil obligations.
He just gets in there and expresses himself. He’s like Picasso in the Octagon, fully present, alive to creative possibilities.
He’s not going in there like a lot of fighters do, hoping for a certain attack so they can react just like they’ve trained to do.
A lot of martial artists are fond of quoting Bruce Lee’s line “be like water, my friend.” You know the one, the water doesn’t just fill the cup it becomes the cup, right?
It’s about being fluid, going beyond technique into a state of mind that means you are fully adaptive and creative.
Lots of people quote the line, but how many fighters actually live it?
Nobody does, except for Conor. When a fighter fosters his technique based purely on principle, rather than tried and tested technique, he’s truly unpredictable.
That’s what the ancient philosophers of war taught us.
As Sun Tzu said, you defeat the enemy by becoming formless.
Not literally formless, but the appearance of having no form.
You confound expectations, there’s no set dogma, no set of rules to how you fight, and your opponent can’t build a strategy around you.
If Conor McGregor is to be beaten (and I think it will be a long time before anyone can defeat the mad celt) then that fighter must understand the subtle relationship between technique and principle.
One thing is for sure. The UFC will never be the same again.