Featherweight champion and UFC 196 headliner Conor McGregor referred to scheduled opponent Rafael Dos Anjos as “a bum version of (Jose) Aldo”. Since Mac had his sights set on facing the former featherweight champion for nearly a year, one can deduce that he’s comfortable with the idea of facing RDA’s style and skillset. Both are muay thai based strikers, although RDA is more of a pressure fighter than Aldo, with world class MMA ground games. They’re also similar in stature, with Aldo standing 5’7” and having a 70” reach to RDA’s 5’9” and 71”.
In the world of MMA, where seemingly minor factors can have major consequences, the switch from RDA at 155 to the 6’ tall, 76” reach(!) Nate Diaz at 170 pounds is sure to make things interesting.
We’ve never seen Conor face an opponent like Diaz. The tallest man he’s faced to this point was Max Holloway at 5’11”. However Max’s reach is a mere 69”, well short of McGregor’s 74”. Conor’s variety of attacks froze Holloway and Mac was able to land the straight left early and often on the 21 year old fighter and was never in any danger.
Conor’s longest armed opponent was “Diamond” Dustin Poirier at 73”. Like Nate Diaz, Poirier is a southpaw, but that’s where the similarities end. Dustin was loading up on his strikes vs McGregor and throwing 1 to 2 at a time while keeping his head on line. McGregor diagnosed this pattern quickly and landed a hard left cross early. Poirier was rocked, and finished with an exchange in the pocket moments later with a hook that landed near his ear while he ducked.
Nate Diaz doesn’t telegraph his strikes. The southpaw throws punches in bunches from many different stances, anything from arms out wide mean-mugging to the “philly shell”(often used by Floyd Mayweather and Bernard Hopkins) . He’ll press and force a clinch on the cage, mashing the crown of his skull into an opponent’s mouth and nose while setting up a myriad of takedown techniques from judo trips to standard double-legs, or he’ll retreat and lash out with rangy check hooks into the face of charging foes.
Not many strikers have had success reading Diaz. Ben Henderson, RDA, and Josh Thompson out-wrestled him for periods in their fights. Having established the grappling threat other techniques then opened up. Diaz outclassed lightweight contenders Donald Cerrone and Michael Johnson in the stand-up game, usually a strength for both fighters. They didn’t want to tangle with the talented submission artist on the ground which made their approach one dimensional, allowing Nate to get comfortable with his boxing game and earn decisive victories.
McGregor’s main asset is the power he generates with his left hand. It’s fair to wonder if that power will translate to the welterweight division, and if he’ll land those strikes nearly as often against longer opponents. His reach advantage combined with his skill has led him to great success. Conor’s last three opponents were at 5’7”, 70”(Aldo, Siver) and 5’6” 66”(Mendes) compared to his 5’9” 74” reach.
Diaz has his share of fights against shorter fighters as well, and watching those fights they look a lot like McGregor contests in some ways. Against the 5’8” 70” Takanori Gomi and Grey Maynard Nate earned a round 1 submission and TKO respectively, using his range and boxing to dominate quickly. He also finished the similarly proportioned Jim Miller and Marcus Davis. The submission over Davis was Nate’s last win at welterweight. Diaz found success harder to come by against larger lightweights like Ben Henderson and welterweights Rory MacDonald and Dong Hyun Kim. It’ll be interesting to see how Conor does in the larger classes.
Nate’s toughness is undeniable at any weight class. Diaz has only been stopped once, by Josh Thompson with a right head kick and the follow-up ground strikes. In that fight vs the orthodox Thompson Nate’s ‘philly shell’ worked against him. It’s a much less effective stance against opposite-handed opponents since their power hand (or kick) lines up with the more vulnerable side of your face. The defense to the straight is to duck, and Nate misread Thompson’s attack and ducked into his shin bone. Against the southpaw McGregor the stance will allow Diaz to ‘roll’ his right shoulder into the path of McGregor’s left while having his own power hand up blocking the left side of his face, cocked to counter.
Nate also had trouble with Thompson’s movement. He was playing the pure out-fighting matador, circling out and away to both sides, creating no pattern for Nate to diagnose. In round two he began mixing in body lock takedown attempts, giving Diaz another thing to think about. Thompson had a great gameplan which he executed perfectly.
Conor’s coach John Kavanagh told The42.ie that “Josh Thompson badly lit up Nate when they fought in 2013…I think it will be an early night for Nate”. Unless Conor has developed Thompson’s grappling game, stance, out-fighter’s mentality and right high kick I’m not so sure. Nate has had trouble with powerful grappling, out-fighting, and leg kicks (ex. RDA fight, Cerrone rd2). Conor is a two steps out pressure fighter with great range-judgement, power, and creativity, but has shown next to none of those traits. There’s no telling what will happen when these two stylistically unique fighters clash. It promises to be a fantastic show, and I’m 50/50 on who takes home the victory.