[Editorial] Could UFC 202 Be the Apex of Conor McGregor?

Pay close attention this week. Laugh at the flying water bottles and Monster cans. Be entertained at the middle fingers and the curse words and the promos and the trash talk. Reflect on the glory that is the rivalry between Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor, because you may very well be witnessing the apex of Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor’s career.

Up until he met Nate Diaz, Conor McGregor’s rise to superstardom seemed inexorable, incredible, watching history as it happened. He called his own shots, proclaimed himself the greatest, and we waited to see if he would be right or wrong. And every time, when it mattered, he was right. He overcame adversity against stylistic mismatch Chad Mendes to take an interim belt in his first major PPV. Over 800,000 people bought that fight. It took him just thirteen seconds to starch Jose Aldo, the only featherweight champion the UFC had ever seen. When he declared his move to lightweight in a champion vs champion superfight, it was a bold attempt at making history. Then Rafael Dos Anjos got injured, and the career of the biggest male superstar in the sport took a left turn. Nate Diaz was an even bigger fight, in terms of fan interest, and the heated trash talk was fascinating as McGregor met someone for the first time who didn’t care about his mental games. Their first press conference was bananas. Diaz had been using mental warfare and intimidation for years and refused to be psyched out by McGregor.

At UFC 196, there was a firefight. McGregor was a 4-1 favorite, and opened up with heavy shots, tagging Diaz several times in the opening round. The Stockton native didn’t go away, though, and midway through the second round, McGregor suddenly found himself out of gas. Diaz sensed it, and began to turn up the pace. A minute later, he tagged McGregor with his trademark 1-2, and the featherweight champion stumbled back. Diaz pressed forward, swarming him with accurate shots. McGregor, desperate and rocked, shot for a takedown and ended up on his back. Seconds later, Diaz locked in a rear-naked choke and the rise of McGregor had hit its first major roadblock.

On Saturday, we will find out if this is a blip on the rise of McGregor, or if Diaz will pre-empt his story with his own unlikely rise as the ultimate spoiler.

A lot of questions will be answered on August 20th. Can Conor McGregor find the answer this time to the questions of mental pressure, cardio, grappling acumen, boxing, and the Stockton slap, which Nate Diaz will ask of him again? Will Nate Diaz, who had answers and a bloody smile for McGregor in their last outing, defy the UFC’s plans and expectations again?

Phil MacKenzie wrote a fantastic article talking about McGregor being the UFC’s last star standing, and he’s right. Rousey will probably be back, but the longevity of her return is in serious doubt. Now that Holly Holm is out of the immediate title picture, she stands a better chance of making her judo-grappling work, and should beat the current champion, as long as Nunes doesn’t catch her cold in the first round. Either way, though, her days are numbered. She has had one foot out of the fight game for a long time, and another loss, whenever it occurs, will likely spell the end. GSP will eventually make his return, but in his mid-thirties now, with repeated knee surgeries, the number of fights left in him can probably be counted on one hand with fingers to spare. Jon Jones might or might not be out for two years. At the moment, Conor is it for the UFC.

Of course, the Diaz brothers have a bigger brand than ever, especially if Nate wins this one. They have to be used carefully, however. Nate could and should get a title shot, regardless of his feelings about belts, with another win Saturday night. With none of the other big draws available, Nate Diaz vs Eddie Alvarez might end up being the headliner at Madison Square Garden, which would be huge. Nick has a natural comeback fight waiting in the form of Robbie Lawler. However, historically, the Diaz brothers need a compelling opponent to sell big on PPV, and there are precious few of those around. They are vulnerable to certain style matchups, making it difficult to plan a conventional path forward for them.

Featherweight, the division Conor supposedly rules, is in a very weird place right now. Interim champions always make a division weird, but when the reigning champion is off taking bigger fights two divisions up, may never return, and that guy is the biggest star in mixed martial arts right now, it definitely is a unique bracket. There are five or six young, mostly international prospects on the rise- Max Holloway, Doo Ho Choi, Mirsad Bektic, Yair Rodriguez, Charles Oliveira, Brian Ortega- but only Holloway has truly broken through as a top contender. Frankie Edgar is still around as the old man of the division, but after two losses to the interim champion, he finds himself out in the cold. He is the only established top contender we haven’t seen against McGregor. There are no other big or even recognizable names at featherweight, no one that moves the needle. The only medium-sized draw below 155 is Dominick Cruz, the UFC bantamweight champion. That would be an interesting fight, but a number of pieces would need to fall into place before that superfight became a possibility. What that means is that if he sends Conor packing back to featherweight, Diaz may be the biggest fight McGregor ever has.

So, what happens to the 145lb division after UFC 202? Let’s take a little dive down the rabbit-hole: If he loses, or he wins and then loses his lightweight title fight, he will be forced to defend his belt against the man he smoked in 13 seconds, Jose Aldo. The Irish champion has never defended a belt in his life, and we are about to see how he does in rematches. Fortunately for McGregor, that 13-second win, and his earlier win over current top contender Max Holloway, act as an insurance policy. Even if he loses a rematch to Aldo, he is still 1 and 1 with the Brazilian, meaning he can get a third title fight without much trouble, probably taking one rebound fight to get back some semblance of momentum. If Max takes the title at some point, Conor has a dominant win over him as well. As long as Conor wants to stick around, he has fights left to him at featherweight. The only caveat is McGregor’s ego. If he decides he doesn’t want to stay in the sport after a string of losses, he has the money. He is financially set, and easily able to make money other ways using his name and his gift of gab.

If Conor wins? It’s back to the Rise of the Notorious. He may never fight at featherweight again. The weight cut is brutal, and he will make more money challenging for the lightweight belt. Welterweight is a step too far (Diaz is a lightweight contender, not a welterweight, no matter what weight class they are fighting at), and fortunately for the health of McGregor’s soul, Lawler, the money fight at 170, is no longer champion. Woodley just isn’t a big enough fight for the Irishman at this point, so unless GSP returns and claims the throne again soon, lightweight is a more promising option right now. Eddie Alvarez is an intriguing matchup and his personality means a title bout would be a much more entertaining buildup than RDA was. There are rumors of a Khabib title defense planned for Pittsburgh, Alvarez’ hometown, and if so, the Russian trash talks just as much as Alvarez, although his style is much more likely to smother McGregor for five rounds.

What about Diaz? If he wins, the UFC need to give him the lightweight title shot, sooner or later, despite his apparent lack of interest in a belt. There are no other comparably big fights for him to take. He could rematch Cowboy Cerrone, if they either both win or both lose, but even that fight isn’t as big of a money bout, and with the millions he will bankroll from two back-to-back McGregor PPVs, Diaz can afford to wait and pick his opponent. Fortunately for UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, Dos Anjos, who had that dominant win over Diaz and no personality, is no longer champion, meaning Diaz has a fresh matchup. Diaz-Alvarez is a MSG-worthy title fight, a headliner even, and if the UFC go with Khabib in the meantime, Nate and the Russian have already brawled at a previous event. Stockton’s Skrap Pack against the Dagestani cartel is the easiest sell possible, and certain beef.

If Diaz loses, then that rematch with Cowboy, preferably as a top contender bout at lightweight, becomes even better. Diaz has looked rejuvenated lately, but historically he has been somewhat matchup dependent to get wins. Donald represents a winnable fight and a recognizable name. Cerrone, with a win over the current champion, would get a chance to avenge that one-sided beating he took from Diaz last time, and Diaz, in this scenario 1-1 with McGregor and with a win over top ten lightweight Michael Johnson, could still get a title shot with a win. Lightweight is a crowded division, but none of the contenders have the star status Nate now wields.

But would either McGregor or Diaz have a realistic shot at the 155lb title, even with a win here? Certainly, lately, anything seems possible when the cage doors lock. Perhaps it’s recency bias, but Eddie Alvarez seems like a winnable fight for either man. He turned it around in dramatic fashion against Dos Anjos, but he lost to Cerrone and barely squeaked by Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez, two contenders seemingly on the downswing. A well-prepared Diaz, especially the latest version who is comfortable kickboxing, and keeps up an unreal pace, could wear down the smaller Alvarez over five rounds. McGregor always has the power in his left hand, and his considerable striking craft. Seeing how well Alvarez handled Dos Anjos’ pressure makes me intrigued to see how the Irishman would fare against him, but Conor would certainly appear to have the edge standing. Of course, whether it is Alvarez, or if Nurmagomedov takes the title, the main question remains, how well would Conor or Nate handle the wrestling? Historically, getting trapped on the bottom has been a shortcoming for both men. Diaz showed improvement in this aspect against Maynard and Michael Johnson, but came up short when fighting injured against RDA; McGregor’s takedown defense looked good until he faced Chad Mendes. Both could point to injury before those fights as the possible source of their underwhelming defensive wrestling, but that would be the main question facing them in a title fight. Against Alvarez, I would favor either man in a five-round fight. Alvarez has stated in the past he views wrestling as a 2 or possibly 3-round solution. Nurmagomedov, though, is a human blanket, one of the best chain wrestlers in mma, and unless he fades over five rounds or gets caught cold standing, it’s difficult to see either of the 202 headliners beating him. So, no matter what happens Saturday, UFC 202’s two headliners lead a tightrope walk forward.

This is all speculation; what is certain is that Diaz vs McGregor is the wildest and most entertaining feud in the sport today, and possibly ever, and may very well be the apex or close to the apex of either man’s legendary career. Bask in it, revel in it, because neither man may ever rise to these heights again.

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