UFC 196. March 5, 2016. MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
If you follow the sport of MMA at all, this date should resonate in your mind for obvious reasons. Yes, Miesha Tate did fulfill her dream of becoming a UFC world champion this night, but the evening’s main event took over everything in the MMA world for what is approaching 6 months now. A night that was supposed to play host to an historic event in UFC history suddenly turned into one of the most heated rivalry in the sports world.
Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz was simply a replacement bout for the card, announced only days after former UFC Lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos was injured and unable to defend his title against the Irish superstar. McGregor’s dream of becoming only the second man to hold two UFC world title simultaneously was put on hold, and Diaz was brought into play the role of stepping stone. Not only would McGregor defeat Diaz, but it would silence the critics of his automatic title bout at 155. Defeating a top 5 Lightweight would only add another feather on the cap on “The Notorious” one. Entering the Octagon as a -400 favorite, McGregor’s mouth and confidence once again appeared to match his in-cage talent.
But the funny thing about sports is that no betting line or trash talk solidifies you as anything except someone involved in competition. All the talk McGregor had spewed towards Diaz become almost null and void once the cage door slammed, and his skill needed to shine. As a Featherweight, McGregor had a chance to do something special, tallying a perfect 7-0 UFC record, including a record setting 13 second knockout of former 145 king Jose Aldo. But despite his near perfect record at Featherweight (14-1), McGregor did enter the bout with experience at Lightweight. Beginning his career in 2008, McGregor earned his first two professional victories at 155 pounds, and entered UFC 196 with a career 5-1 record at the weight. Mind you, the competition level of these bouts probably came nowhere near the talent Diaz possesses, but he had competed there.
While McGregor is currently listed as a Featherweight, and Diaz as a Lightweight, the bout took place in the Welterweight division. This concession was surely made due to Diaz’s late inclusion, but too many, this bout was essentially a Lightweight bout, minus the customary weight cut. Regardless, the bout began and the world was on the edge of their seat. Could the Irish star slay another willing challenger, or would Diaz end the freight train of momentum McGregor had built. In what should no longer be news, Diaz submitted McGregor in the 2nd round, and promptly announced to the world “I’m not surprised motherfucker”.
With the blood barely dried, and McGregor’s Featherweight title defenseless, the rematch was announced on March 30, 2016 for UFC 200. Without rehashing every detail of why the bout was scrapped from the event, UFC 202 soon became the new home of the can’t miss fight of the year. Taking place at Welterweight again for some reason, the bad blood has gradually picked up, going from trash talk to plastic bottles acting as projectiles. Like UFC 196, all the talk and bluster may boost the hype for the event, but when the two enter the cage this coming Saturday, the stakes couldn’t be more different for the fighters.
Various betting sites have McGregor listed as a slight favorite against Diaz, which has to be a surprise following the first bout. Despite the change of opponents, McGregor entered the bout on a full camp and now taking on a “lesser opponent” from the Lightweight division. Diaz, never one to truly be out of shape, was basically taken from a boat and tossed into the spotlight, but was still training for a triathalon. Generally speaking, short notice opponents will enter a match as the underdog, for the simple reason that they came late to the party. Sure, the other participant has a new opponent in front of him, but most will take the fully trained fighter over the other most times.
The one hiccup McGregor and his camp continue to lean on was a sudden burn out of cardio following the first round. Now, this is always a possibility in any bout, but to avoid the always grueling cut to 145, avoiding any weight cut actually, and entering the bout with a usual training camp, it’s somewhat hard to buy that cardio was the reason McGregor was forced to tap. During the first round, Diaz looked the part of a last minute replacement, with McGregor landing several damaging strikes that opened a cut up on Diaz. The problem is, in a professional bout, simply being hit and cut isn’t a sign that you are losing. You are supposed to be hit at some point, and being cut is a product of this. Some will say that McGregor needed to put a little something extra behind his strikes, as he was facing a naturally larger man, but with the rematch only days away, this may be the biggest issue McGregor needs to overcome. The pace McGregor set didn’t look terribly different from any of his other bouts, and to see him overcome 4 takedowns and 2 passes versus Chad Mendes should show that his cardio is usually on point.
Diaz will not enter the bout smaller than the original matchup, so in order to hurt him, McGregor will either need to land heavy once again, or use his speed to stick and move, waiting for the knockout or damage to come. But with Diaz, having the upper hand with pace and cardio is a challenge most in the UFC will come up short against. Diaz will also enter the bout with a 2 inch reach and 3 inch height advantage, something that is not easy to overcome as the smaller man. But even if you ignore the physical differences, both excel in the same areas, even if they go about it differently. McGregor has earned finishes in 18 of his 19 victories, all but one a knockout, and his power is hard to second guess. But this power has come almost exclusively at 145 pounds against men he held physical advantage over.
On the flip side, Diaz resembles his brother Nick with his striking, using a pitter patter, non stop pace to fluster, then hurt you. Diaz does have only 4 career knockout victories, but as we witnessed at UFC 196, his relentless striking forces opponents into a defensive mode, and can lead to a ground battle, and submission. This is a battle Diaz will almost certainly win against McGregor every time. It should be noted that all 3 of McGregor’s losses have come via submission, and while Diaz does have 10 professional losses, 8 have come via decision, and only 1 has come via knockout.
But as mentioned before, what appears on paper, or in the history books, has no bearing on what is coming. There is no reason to think McGregor cannot land the one strike he needs to drop Diaz, or play it smart and earn a decision victory. This is MMA, anything can, and has, happened. But also as mentioned before, the stakes for both may lead to a different game plan for both.
UFC president Dana White has stated that win or lose, McGregor will move back to 145 pounds and defend his title, assumingly against the man he defeated for it, Jose Aldo, But what if McGregor comes out and puts on one of his usual show stealing performance and finishes Diaz with a breathtaking stoppage? This may allow the always on the fence White to change his plans for McGregor. But this plan could also backfire, leading to back to back losses for McGregor. And while White has stated his plans for McGregor, his own team at SBG has openly stated that a return to Featherweight simply may not be possible due to the weight cut needed. With a loss, McGregor would have consecutive defeats and the possibility of losing his UFC title in a short period of time. Competing as a Lightweight would be an easy transition, but in a division that deep, success would not be as easy to find. Something like this has to weigh on a fighters mind, and could lead to decisions in cage that may have not been an option before.
As for Diaz, a loss against a man like McGregor would basically do nothing to his standing. Entering as the underdog once again, Diaz has the luxury of holding a victory over McGregor in his pocket already. Losing in a rematch would still sting, but what he may lose is far less then what McGregor will. Diaz’s standing in the Lightweight division will surely remain as is, currently ranked 4th, and marquee matchups will follow, win or lose. Both Diaz brothers have made their careers using the odd man out approach, always shunned for others and forced to work twice as hard. A loss to McGregor would only fuel that fire and allow Diaz too carry his mantra even higher for all to see and hear. McGregor, on the other hand, has built his fame on the “I’m the man” platform, and back to back losses makes it difficult to claim you are the greatest in anything.
During the UFC 196 broadcast, Joe Rogan dropped a statement that has applied to many great fighters, stating that we hadn’t seen McGregor truly face adversity yet, and wondered how he would bounce back, or simply handle it when it presents itself. This same question has been asked about fighters such as Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones, and this is McGregor’s time to answer it.
Of course, we won’t truly see the fallout, if any, of this bout for a few weeks after the bell sounds. But on the never important piece of paper, it appears McGregor’s future is dependant on something he asked for, in a matchup that appears to be an uphill battle for anyone. Tough task for man putting everything on the line to simply avenge a loss.