The UFC has been forced to change nine main events in 2015 because of various circumstances. Jose Aldo's departure from UFC 189 this weekend in Las Vegas due to an injured rib has been the toughest one to swallow.
But whether Aldo (25-1) should or should not have been sparring with a spin-kicking training partner two weeks before a title fight is more-or-less irrelevant at this point. Interest in a matchup between Aldo and Conor McGregor (17-2) will continue to remain high -- if McGregor can beat Chad Mendes (17-2) on Saturday.
McGregor, 26, comes into the interim 145-pound title fight on a 13-fight winning streak. He has finished his last three opponents -- Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier and Dennis Siver -- via TKO. ESPN.com ranks McGregor the No. 6 featherweight in the world.
Fighting out Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, Mendes is 8-2 in the UFC. Both losses came in championship fights against Aldo, in January 2012 and October 2014. Mendes is the No. 2 featherweight, according to ESPN.com.
Will Mendes remain perfect against all comers besides Aldo? Or will McGregor pass that "wrestler" question that has long plagued him? Here's a breakdown and prediction of the UFC 189 main event.
ODDS: McGregor -155; Mendes +135
By the time McGregor steps into the cage at UFC 189, he will have concluded a nine-week transplanted camp in Las Vegas, that included eight training partners and two coaches.
He trained evenings, usually leaving for the gym at 8:00 p.m. PT to coincide with the time frame of fight night. He worked out at The Ultimate Fighter gym, inside an octagon identical to the one that will be used on Saturday. The MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, which will host the fight, is a 15-minute drive from his Las Vegas residence and actually visible from his backyard.
Not that these, individually, are reasons he'll win the fight, but the point is that McGregor is prepared. Regardless of who his opponent is, McGregor has invested in a world-class camp for a five-round championship fight. Mendes, on the other hand, had no idea he would be fighting at UFC 189 until two weeks ago.
It's tempting to pick McGregor based on those circumstances alone. He's one of the more difficult fighters in the UFC to prepare for on short notice. He's big for the division, unorthodox, southpaw -- and he sets a very high pace. If Mendes isn't in five-round shape, that figures to play big down the stretch. Taking McGregor down and keeping him on his back will require energy, regardless of any wrestling advantage Mendes has.
We might as well state the obvious here: Mendes will look to take McGregor down. McGregor hasn't really shown a glaring weakness in his defensive grappling, but he's never fought anyone really capable of exposing it. That said, don't oversimplify things by making everything about a takedown. Mendes needs to do damage after takedowns, which he's not particularly known for. He throws good shots from the guard -- don't get me wrong -- but he's never had a high finishing rate from top position. If all he does is drag McGregor down a few times but doesn't hurt him in the process, that might not be enough in a five-round fight. Maybe it would be enough in a three-rounder, against an opponent less dangerous on his feet -- but in a five-rounder, which Mendes didn't really train for? Probably not.
Part of what makes McGregor so enjoyable to watch is that he fights with his hands down and is always coming forward. He's shown virtually no respect for anyone's power through five UFC fights. His style can overwhelm, hence the knockouts, but it also creates opportunities to hit him back.
Mendes is one of the heaviest hitters in the division. When he's hurt, he naturally reaches for that wrestling security blanket pretty much immediately, but otherwise, he's relatively comfortable in the pocket. McGregor's reach advantage here is real, approximately eight inches, but Mendes' hand speed is off the charts and he has legit knockout power in both hands. His left hook is probably his best punch, but the straight right isn't far behind.
In terms of a game plan for McGregor, it probably looks similar to what he always does. Still, expect him to throw a lot of kicks, even against a strong wrestler in Mendes. He throws them from a long enough distance that it's still difficult to get into his hips and take away his balance. With every fight, his array of kicks becomes more versatile and less predictable, which sets up the shot he truly wishes to land in the left hand. The kicks can demoralize and confuse opponents, but it's the left hand that puts them down.
Mendes will beat McGregor in one area he has thus far owned in the Octagon: the first round. I think Mendes will earn multiple takedowns in the opening frame and if he doesn't knock McGregor out (which I do think is possible), he'll at least get out to an early lead on the scorecards. But as the fight progresses, McGregor's pressure coupled with that extremely short fight camp will start to take its toll on Mendes. And once that happens, McGregor has the tools to take full advantage. MCGREGOR TKO, THIRD ROUND.