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What Martial Arts Does Conor McGregor Know?

Conor McGregor is easily the biggest start that the world of MMA has known, and his star power has transcended the bounds of the UFC, with McGregor having other ventures outside of fighting. Yet, when it comes down to his skills in the Octagon, it is apparent that he has a unique style.

But what exactly are his styles of fighting? What martial arts does Conor McGregor know?

In short, Conor McGregor’s base martial arts are Boxing and Kickboxing, with him later integrating Capoeira, Taekwondo, and Karate into his style. However, he also holds a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under John Kavanagh, and trains in Wrestling with his coach Sergey Pikulskiy.

In the rest of the post, I’ll break down the martial arts that Conor has integrated the most into his fighting style, as well as his relative strength in using each one.

McGregor’s Base Martial Arts: Boxing, Capoeira, Karate

As you probably already know if you’ve ever seen McGregor fight, he is primarily a striker. This means he fights on his feet, and prefers to punch and kick his opponent rather than grapple with them.

Most of McGregor's wins come by knockout, due to his prominent striking style.
Most of McGregor’s wins come by knockout, due to his prominent striking style.

And his preferred style of fighting only makes sense when you look at his fighting background. McGregor initially started off as a boxer, later adding elements of Capoeira and Taekwondo into his game (as well as grappling, but I’ll address that later).

Boxing

At age 12 (in 2001), Conor got his first introduction to combat sports when he started training at the Crumlin Boxing Club, under the coaching of Phil Sutcliffe Sr.

Phil Sutcliffe was a two-time Olympian and former boxer, and coaches youth in Boxing skills at the Crumlin gym. On his former boxing coach, here’s what Conor had to say back in 2015:

“Phil Sutcliffe is a phenomenal boxing coach and my time under Phil in Crumlin Boxing Club, I learned so many fundamentals that I still carry with me today. I learned so many shots off Phil and the coaching staff down there and the sparring with Phil Sutcliffe Jnr in my early days was phenomenal, it got me to that next level I feel.”

Conor Mcgregor speaking to the Irish Sun’s Kevin Byrne

Over the years however, Conor became more interested in different styles of fighting, something which seemed to bother Sutcliffe. According to McGregor: “I stopped going down [to the boxing gym] when I was focusing on the other disciplines and looking to improve. Phil at the time was not too happy with that. ‘Why are you doing this grappling stuff? Or ‘why are you doing this kickboxing? You should be here boxing’.”

McGregor seen here with his former boxing coach Phil Sutcliffe Sr. (middle)
McGregor seen here with his former boxing coach Phil Sutcliffe Sr. (middle)

Conor slowly began drifting away from just boxing, and according to Sutcliffe, “He started moving towards it when he was 15 or 16, and he was telling me he couldn’t come to the gym on certain nights because he was doing grappling or wrestling”.

Conor eventually had his first amateur MMA fight at 18 years old, back in 2007. Shortly after in 2008, Conor would begin training under John Kavanagh at the Straight Blast Gym, where he would refine his knowledge of other martial arts.

Capoeira, Karate, and Taekwondo

McGregor doesn’t particularly have a favorite martial art, at least in his view. Of course, there are martial arts for which he has an aptitude for, but he constantly seeks to expand his fighting knowledge in any way.

Prior to his fight with Dennis Siver, McGregor stated, “For me, I was interested in the way the human body moves. I was into all forms of fighting. A career in a singular discipline did not interest me because I didn’t look at a man who specializes in one area as a specialist, I look at him as a rookie in ten other areas. And that is how I look at my competitors in the UFC.”

McGregor's Karate background is noted by certain techniques, such as this spinning back kick against Dustin Poirier.
McGregor’s Karate background is noted by certain techniques, such as this spinning back kick against Dustin Poirier.

And this is how McGregor initially became interested in expanding his fight skills. It seems that Conor initially started implementing the more common kickboxing techniques, such as basic roundhouse and push kicks, before exploring more traditional martial arts.

“I’ll train in any style. I always love to learn, I always look at everything. I spend all day looking at videos, or in the gym working on the things that I’ve seen. I started out doing some kickboxing and boxing, then a little Capoeira, Tae Kwon Do and Karate. The human body can move in many ways, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

McGregor in an interview with SBNation

In this way, McGregor truly emphasizes the full meaning of mixed martial arts, as he combines a variety of styles to create his own unique one. If you take a look at What Martial Arts Are Used In MMA, McGregor has trained in most of them, although many MMA fighters have as well.

McGregor has stated previously that his Capoeira training was mostly just watching videos online, and imitating their movements. He has adopted the Capoeira style of movement into his style, especially noted in his spinning kicks.

The rest of his kicking style is also Karate/Taekwondo inspired. I lumped these two together because they are very similar styles in terms of how they move and kick. Below I provided a video showing McGregor training his kicks. Note the traditional spinning kicks, as well as the Capoeira bit at the end.

However, McGregor doesn’t just adopt the kicking style from these martial arts. McGregor’s primary focus when training is on movement, which is something he also takes from these more traditional styles like Karate. A big reason Karate is useful in MMA is due to its evasive style, which I explain further in the post Is Karate Effective In MMA?

Below is a video of a Karate demonstration done with Conor McGregor and his coach present. Note how the martial artists have a bounce very similar to Conor’s when he fights.

So this is basically the bulk of McGregor’s training in striking. As you might have expected, it is very diverse but also extensive, as he has been a striker for most of his life. But McGregor has always made clear that his martial arts journey extends to all styles of fighting.

Prior to his bout with Dennis Siver, he stated, “I look at a taekwondo expert in Dennis Siver who specializes in the kicking aspect of the game. But I do not see a kicking expert, I see a novice boxer, a rookie wrestler, I see these people as rookies in other areas. Me, I’m looking to become an expert in all areas.”

Critics may say that McGregor lacks high-level grappling skills, but there are grappling experts who disagree. Let’s take a look at the less-often seen martial arts in Conor’s arsenal: Jiu-Jitsu and Wrestling.

McGregor’s Grappling Skills

As already mentioned, McGregor has been grappling since about age 16. His focus on grappling really increased when he made the move to train under John Kavanagh at SBG Ireland.

McGregor grappling with his coach, John Kavanagh.
McGregor grappling with his coach, John Kavanagh.

This increased grappling focus is due to John Kavanagh being primarily a grappler when it came to his own fighting career. Kavanagh won all three if his MMA victories by submission, and is also the first Irish man to receive a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Conor McGregor holds a BJJ brown belt (one rank below black belt) under John Kavanagh, which he was awarded after defeating Dustin Poirier at UFC 178.

McGregor after earning his brown belt at UFC 178.
McGregor after earning his brown belt at UFC 178.

During Conor’s early days in the UFC, he also grappled extensively with fellow UFC fighter Gunnar Nelson. Gunnar Nelson is also an experienced grappler, holding a black belt in BJJ under Renzo Gracie.

Conor also holds a submission win on his record. However, likely the most notable praise Conor has received has come from world-renowned Jiu-Jitsu expert, Eddie Bravo.

The video below shows Eddie Bravo talking about Conor’s Jiu-Jitsu, after he lost to Nate Diaz by submission at UFC 196. Notice that they while they first praise Nate Diaz’s win, Eddie starts defending Conor’s Jiu-Jitsu at about the 1:25 mark.

If you watch through the video, you’ll hear Eddie compliment not only Conor’s Jiu-Jitsu, but his mindset for training as well. If you can’t watch the video, here’s most of what Eddie said:

“I know Conor’s Jiu-Jitsu is good, he’s come to my school, that guy’s good… Just cause he got mounted, and got his back taken, does not mean Conor’s Jiu-Jitsu sucks… He is good, trust me, Conor’s Jiu-Jitsu is very very good. Trust me, it’s not a joke.”

Eddie Bravo on the Joe Rogan Experience

Now, if you’re new to MMA or martial arts, you may be thinking, “who even is this Eddie guy?” Well as mentioned, Eddie Bravo is a Jiu-Jitsu expert. He is a 3rd-degree BJJ black belt under Jean Jaques Machado, and has submitted 7th-degree black belt Royler Gracie in competition.

Eddie has developed his own style of no-gi grappling known as 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu, which contains techniques he has developed for many years. He has also trained many world-class UFC fighters, his most noteworthy student being former interim champion Tony Ferguson, who holds six UFC victories by submission.

To put it simply, Eddie’s words hold a lot of weight when talking about someone’s grappling skills. Lastly, here’s some footage of Conor in a BJJ tournament, estimated to be from 2012.

Now let’s look at the other side of Conor’s grappling, his wrestling.

Wrestling

Conor may not have a reputation for grappling, and that couldn’t be more true for his wrestling. Don’t watch a McGregor fight expecting a double leg (unless you’re watching his first fight with Nate Diaz).

After a failed takedown attempt, McGregor was submitted by Nate Diaz in the UFC 196 main event.
After a failed takedown attempt, McGregor was submitted by Nate Diaz in the UFC 196 main event.

Instead, the bulk of Conor’s wrestling training involves takedown defense, as a big weakness in his style is his opponent taking him down. Conor’s wrestling training has seemed to be his primary focus since his loss to Nate Diaz, as his next opponent, Eddie Alvarez, was also known as a wrestler.

Following his loss to Floyd Mayweather in his boxing debut, McGregor shifted his focus back towards MMA. McGregor had likely been training in preparation for who could possibly be his next opponent, Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Conor and Khabib fought each other at UFC 229, with Conor losing by submission. However, even before this fight was announced, it was well known that Conor was aware of Khabib, and was preparing for his wrestling.

McGregor pictured here with his wrestling coach, Sergey Pikulskiy (right).
McGregor pictured here with his wrestling coach, Sergey Pikulskiy (right).

Conor’s wrestling coach is a man named Sergey Pikulskiy. Sergey is a Moldovan wrestler, who trained the Moldovan national team for 7 years. He has been McGregor’s main wrestling coach for most of his career. On Conor’s wrestling, here’s what Sergey had to say:

“I’m from a very high level wrestling background and wrestled some of the best around, but when I wrestled Conor I already felt an energy that he brings. The intensity, the desire for knowledge and to learn to get better. It was fascinating.

Every session he would pick things up so fast. Everybody knows wrestling is a hard sport, but when you show the technique and practice it, he does it perfectly. He’s the kind of kid you want to work with time and time again. That’s how he was from day one of meeting him right up to today. He’s a true student of the game.

It’s fantastic, to be honest,” Pikulskiy stated. “I’d be happy for him to even do a pure wrestling match.”

Sergey Pikulskiy talking to SevereMMA before UFC 229

Now of course, Sergey will be biased towards his student’s abilities, especially in the weeks prior to the biggest fight of said student’s career.

This is just to say that McGregor does have the capability to wrestle. He simply does not have the same amount of skill as a lifelong wrestler like Khabib Nurmagomedov.

McGregor was beaten and outwrestled at UFC 229. Despite this, Daniel Cormier has praised Conor's performance.
McGregor was beaten and outwrestled at UFC 229. Despite this, Daniel Cormier has praised Conor’s performance.

Even Khabib’s teammate, former Olympian and UFC dual-weight champion Daniel Cormier had praise for Conor’s performance at UFC 229. Cormier made reference to how at AKA (American Kickboxing Academy, where Khabib and Cormier train), fighters are taught to chain their takedowns, causing their opponent to get lost trying to defend.

Below is a quote from The MMA Hour, starting at around the 55:05 mark.

“Honestly man, that first takedown, I was like wow, Conor really made him work for this takedown.

You get lost in all the different transitions. To move to move to move, and eventually we get you down. And once we get you down, obviously it’s very difficult to get back up. Conor didn’t get lost in it.

Like, Khabib had to go to level four to get that first takedown. He went high crotch, he went crackdown, he went ‘try to get the angle,’ he tried to run the pipe, then he actually had to go to his knees, look across the back to get to a double just to get Conor down the first time. Conor didn’t get lost. He really did a good job.”

Daniel Cormier on The MMA Hour with Luke Thomas

Of course, Cormier made sure to clarify that despite Conor’s impressive wrestling, it would be very difficult to improve past that. “I don’t know if he can do it any better”, said Cormier.

Former UFC Champion Daniel Cormier has praised McGregor's wrestling skills, despite his loss to Khabib.
Former UFC Champion Daniel Cormier has praised McGregor’s wrestling skills, despite his loss to Khabib.

His wrestling may not be the best, but the fact that McGregor has some wrestling skills is undeniable.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Conor knows many martial arts, to varying degrees of mastery. Below is a short summary of this post.

In short, McGregor’s martial arts include Boxing, Kickboxing, Capoeira, Taekwondo, Karate, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Wrestling. Conor is primarily a stand-up martial artist, but has also received praise for his grappling by prominent martial artists such as Eddie Bravo and Daniel Cormier.

I hope this post gave you some insight into McGregor’s martial arts background and his fighting style. If you enjoyed this post, consider checking out the Training Tips or Martial Arts History pages. Thanks for reading!