UFC 202: Why Nate Diaz Part II is Conor McGregor’s biggest ever challenge
Analysis: Irish fighter now fully cognisant of quality of tall American rival
The biggest fight of his life. This is how Conor McGregor is describing his rematch with Nate Diaz in Las Vegas this weekend. One would imagine a non-title fight 25lbs above his natural habitat would pale in comparison to McGregor’s epochal outing in December when he ended Jose Aldo’s 10-year unbeaten record and snatched his featherweight title in a mere 13 seconds.
But to pay any attention to McGregor is to recognise the hot streak of non-conformity that runs through his veins; to know he lives not in a staid realm of adjectives but in a kingdom of superlatives – fastest, loudest, richest, best. Biggest. Yes, the biggest fight of his life is against the biggest man he has ever fought because this is a fight he has already lost and McGregor’s ego, which fascinates and repels but mostly fascinates, is badly dented. And, because it will act as a bellwether to his long-term destiny as an MMA fighter, it is the most interesting fight of his career too.
In March McGregor had been due to fight the then lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos for the 155lb title. Rather than defend his new title, the Dubliner wanted to make history by becoming the first fighter to hold two championship belts simultaneously in the UFC. But the Brazilian broke his foot in training. It was as if the MMA gods could not keep pace with such voracity.
History was shoved aside and like the previous July, when Chad Mendes stepped in for Aldo, McGregor was soon standing opposite “just another body type”. He was called Nate Diaz and when we considered the match-up we were unable to free ourselves from the compelling narrative of McGregor’s brutal conquest of the featherweight division. How he escaped treacherous dangers with infectious self-assurance. How he so fluidly separated men from their senses. McGregor could bend reality to his will. Was it worth bearing in mind the complexity of an MMA fight, with its constant transitions and layered phases? What about the role of luck and regression to the mean? No. All this was too arduous to ponder. The outcome was inevitable. McGregor’s words resounded as always. And he had rarely been wrong before.
While McGregor was lauded for the audacity of his risk-taking, few were the astute observers who calibrated the risks Diaz posed, with his long frame and excellent boxing fundamentals; his imperviousness to McGregor’s mental warfare.
Nate and his brother Nick come from Stockton, California. It’s a city with a rough reputation and it’s a reputation the Diaz brothers share. History doesn’t remember every fighter, not even all the champions. But it remembers the ones who are different, and like McGregor, the Diaz brothers are different.
They come armed with a working-class charisma that fight fans find hard to resist: not very articulate but fiercely intelligent, their pugnacious mentality – quarried from some primordial epoch of combat – applies to their behaviour inside and outside the cage, their allegiance to one another unbreakable while the rest of the world can go f**k itself.
While the words of McGregor flow in a colourful cascade, for Nate Diaz, it’s why use sentences when the bird can be flipped? And if that anti-establishment vigour has historically turned Dana White and the Fertitta brothers green around the gills and left one of the UFC’s purest action fighters chronically underpaid, it is something McGregor has admired since his days on the regional circuit and was not slow to sequester in March for a chemical reaction that went pooooom at UFC 196. Diaz is a star. To say Diaz is a star now is the equivalent of saying Columbus discovered the Americas. Long before 196, the Stockton native and his brother were chiefs of a teeming underground realm.
Looking back, we now know that the vast majority of fans, fighters and analysts fell victim to one of MMA’s most cherished traits: its unpredictability. This year has been a bad year – a horrendous year – for the groundhogs of the fight game, with an unprecedented seven championship belts changing hands in the last seven months. But we mustn’t be too hard on ourselves if even the seer of seers, the prognosticator of prognosticators, falls foul of the future’s poor visibility. Mystic Mac is on the back foot. Can we make sense of it all? With hindsight, we can convince ourselves that everything makes sense. So let’s collect the facts and build an interpretation around them.
“Ego,” wrote Norman Mailer, “is driving a point through to a conclusion without knowing too much about the ground you cross between . . . Every good prizefighter must have a large ego, because he is trying to demolish a man he doesn’t know too much about.”
McGregor didn’t know much about Diaz and fought like he knew less. First he casually allowed the fight to take place at 170lb to cater for an opponent who was entering battle at short notice. There would be no weight cut, that gruelling process that depletes the physique but builds a citadel around the mind. Next he named one as the round of Diaz’s doom. But the advantages, in physique and style, lay with Diaz.
As a tall fighter, the Californian has enormous experience fighting smaller men. Though he has much less experience, the same is true of McGregor. He mostly faces smaller men too. Just not this time. McGregor is also used to facing orthodox fighters, simply because most people are right-handed, and he has become an expert at finding a home for his pulverising left hand in open-stance match-ups. But Diaz is a southpaw and he is a southpaw who uses his lead right hand much more than McGregor does. It gave him a significant edge.
At almost 6ft 1in, the long-limbed Diaz is no featherweight and if he can lure you into his type of battle, which is a high-volume boxing match where the temperature only goes one way, the prognosis is poor. He didn’t need to lure. After a week of eating two breakfasts every morning, and swinging on gymnastic rings with Ido Portal, McGregor ran into that house made of sweets and fought like he would devour Diaz in the maw of his invincibility.
McGregor marched forward, and threw left-hand bombs. They were not the smooth straight lefts we were accustomed to seeing: the ones that either come down the pipe like a spear, or the ones, if McGregor is standing further to his opponents’ right, that come across the plane of his body and have knocked out Mendes, Denis Siver and Diego Brandao. These were overhands, a common punch for those with a reach disadvantage. Unleashed as the fighter explodes across the distance, overhands must travel further than other punches and are easier to avoid as a result. It is testament to McGregor’s extraordinary accuracy and timing that so many landed flush on right side of Diaz’s face. When Diaz raised his arms in victory he bore a remarkable resemblance to Harvey Dent. But McGregor missed many too and those long looping shots are physically and mentally expensive when they fail to reach a target.
Diaz’s famous durability came to the fore. And he boxed smartly, with patience. The Irishman absorbed 8.4 significant strikes per minute, more than twice his career average.
Diaz chipped away with jabs and disturbed McGregor’s rhythm with check hooks from his busy lead hand. McGregor won the first round, but absent was the fluidity and creativity that had marked his previous battles. He appeared strained and in a hurry and Kavanagh remarked afterwards that it was the first time he had seen his charge breathing deeply after five minutes of battle.
As McGregor sat on the stool, Kavanagh could be heard telling him to throw more leg kicks. The advice was ignored. The head-hunting continued and 1.45 into round two McGregor’s energy was in the red zone. Diaz knew it. His body language advertised his confidence. Some 40 seconds later he landed a one-two. It was test-run for the combination (another 40 seconds later) that definitively shaped the fight. And from that combination to the final choke, an exhausted McGregor was subjected to the only beating he has ever received in his career.
The easy narrative tells us that McGregor’s unchecked vanity was at least partly to blame for his downfall. But who can peer into another man’s mind and state definitively they are victims of their own hubris? Mustn’t all fighters embrace a fractured version of reality when they are facing the most dangerous unarmed men on the planet? Perhaps McGregor, from his palace of superlatives, is merely the best at describing a large ego’s landscape, to further ensnare the many who love or loathe him.
Hubristic or not, what’s important now is how McGregor responds to failure. This is the key to his evolution and since March he has spoken and behaved like a man hungry to learn. His commitment to preparing for Diaz got him kicked off the glamorous UFC 200 card. And that preparation, which has cost $300,000, is different in three key respects: its tightly structured – gone are the sessions tailored around the Irishman’s unconventional sleeping patterns; sparring partners have been chosen to ape Diaz’s strengths; and there has been an intense focus on rebuilding McGregor’s cardio.
“We’ve spent the last 17, 18 weeks upgrading Conor’s engine,” said Kavanagh. “Now it’s a super-charged, 800 horsepower, five-litre American muscle car type engine.”
And McGregor is no longer taking Diaz for granted. He is even starting to sound like him: “Right now, I’m prepared for war,” he has said.
Elsewhere: “I’ve prepared phenomenal. I didn’t give enough credit to Nate’s durability, his experience. He’s a very experienced fighter. He’s had more UFC fights than I’ve had fights. Also, his height, his range, his reactions, I gave no respect to that. I marched forward and in fairness for the first round and a half he was a heavy bag with eyeballs, so I was correct in that. This time I’ve been preparing to face durable fighter, who has the reach, height and length.”
And in another interview: “I will be prepared for five [rounds]. I will go in anticipating five. You know, I didn’t give him respect. He can take a helluva smack, the boy can, but he will take a helluva lot more. I still feel I’ll repay the favour in the second round.”
In a sport as rapidly evolving as MMA, the octagon represents an accelerated Darwinian struggle where the thin line between success and failure is often the ability to adapt between fights, between rounds and – most challenging of all – between exchanges. McGregor failed to adapt between exchanges or rounds in March, and to solve the puzzle of Nate Diaz he has no choice but to adapt now. What will he bring? More leg kicks to Diaz’s heavy front leg? More footwork and feints to close the distance? A more gainfully employed right hand? More patience? What will happen in the clinch? On the ground? Can he really handle a man who is even bigger than him now?
This is what makes UFC 202 so fascinating. It it will offer direct insight into McGregor’s mental make-up, his diverse combat skills and his greatness as a mixed martial artist. Hindsight has made all the groundhogs whisper the word Diaz into whatever ears are cupped. But McGregor knows much more now. It is expected he will fight accordingly.