UFC 196 was supposed to be a defining victory in the career of firebrand Irish featherweight, Conor McGregor.
According to the script, McGregor’s 170-pound opponent, Nate Diaz, was merely cannon fodder in the way of the Irishman’s quest to be first to conquer multiple UFC weight divisions. It wasn’t even meant to be Diaz’s fight to ‘supposedly’ lose – McGregor was deep in preparations to fight lightweight title-holder Rafael Dos Anjos, only for the latter to suffer a broken foot in training. The mad scramble to find a fighter who could take the fight to McGregor was on, passing through a list of contenders ranging from Anthony Pettis to Jake Mathews. There was one name on the list that had UFC fans licking their collective lips more than any other.
In December 2015, before the search had even begun, Nate Diaz, who was on a self-imposed hiatus, made his UFC comeback by beating up-and-comer Michael Johnson by decision. What followed was as brash call-out as one might expect from McGregor himself; an outpouring of foul language and raw aggression, challenging McGregor to come toe-to-toe with a forgotten icon. Dos Anjos’ injury had arrived at just the perfect time. McGregor commanded UFC brass, Dana White and Joe Silva, to make it happen at UFC 196; weight divisions be damned. The 145-pound champion accepted Diaz’s terms, the fight would take place at 170-pounds. This is two weight divisions above McGregor’s favoured featherweight.
The two fighters clashed verbally at every opportunity, from the fight announcing press conferences, right up until the fight. The UFC world was salivating for a dogfight between its two trash-talking heroes. At the weigh-ins, McGregor looked in better physical condition than he had at any point throughout his stellar career, soaring to overwhelming favouritism without even reaching the 170-pound ceiling.
There was no touching of gloves when Herb reiterated the rules to the fighters. McGregor opened the fight in the trademark style that carried him to the top of the UFC rankings, with a hurricane of flying fists and kicks. The Irishman was furious in the first round, opening up a wound on Diaz’ face. Between the first and second rounds, Diaz began to make his counter-play, testing McGregor’s chin and even forcing him off-balance with one well-timed strike.
A near capacity crowd of 14,898 wondered aloud whether the 30-year-old UFC veteran could unseat the golden boy of Mixed Martial Arts. McGregor’s desperation exposed him to the finishing blow midway through the second. A lunging takedown was countered by the BJJ expert, and before the audience could blink McGregor was forced into a rear-naked choke and tapping for mercy.
Now that the smoke has cleared, the enigma of Connor McGregor has been destroyed.
A large part of the appeal of mixed martial arts is that champions are never champions forever; the hubris of athlete’s at the top will always summon forth new challengers to unseat them, and both parties face big questions going forward. Will McGregor fight Frankie Edgar, or will he drop down to 155-pounds to take on the man he was originally scheduled to fight in Rafael dos Anjos?
Will McGregor fight Frankie Edgar, or will he go to 155-pounds to take on the man he was originally scheduled to fight in Rafael dos Anjos?
Will Diaz stay at 170-pounds and make a push for the welterweight title? Or could we see him drop down to 155-pounds for his own shot at RDA’s title? With Dana White joking about Nate buying a yacht and never return to the cage, that may be an option as well-being that Diaz just achieved the most incredible of underdog victories in his career.