“Punches and kicks are tools to kill the ego.” – Bruce Lee
Their first fight was the most profitable bout in UFC history and ended with 4-1 underdog Nate Diaz rocking and choking out an exhausted Conor McGregor in the definition of an instant classic. “I’m not surprised, mother—-ers!” a laconic Diaz announced to the world. In the span of two weeks, the overlooked and underpaid street fighter from Stockton had become one of the sport’s biggest stars. Perhaps he already was, we just didn’t realize it until that night. Meanwhile, Conor McGregor, THE biggest star, had to bite back the disappointment of his first UFC loss. It didn’t sit well with him, and obsessed with getting a win back, he, and the best interests of the UFC’s pocketbook, set up a rematch. But will he be able to get back in the win column? And what does it mean for the future if he does?
What it all means is for another article. Here, we will examine the first question, can McGregor beat Diaz this time around, in three parts: What went wrong for McGregor, what went right for Diaz, and what Conor could do to turn it around (and of course, a final prediction).
I. “Exhaustion makes cowards of us all.” -unknown
Some are saying McGregor didn’t fight to his strengths in the first fight- that he abandoned his movement in favor of boxing in the pocket. While McGregor did make a number of mistakes, saying he fought unlike his usual self is not true. McGregor DID fight to Diaz’ strengths, by falling into the same trap that the Diaz brothers always lay- exchanging with them in the pocket at their own brutal 30-strike per minute pace- but only because Conor was also fighting to Conor’s strengths. Conor McGregor does many things well, but his underlying strategy, his plan A, and something he does better than almost any striker in MMA, is forcing his opponent to eat his best weapon, his power left hand until they fall over or break. Every weapon in his arsenal is built to accomplish and play off this primary goal. Diaz’ underlying strategy and Plan A in all his fights? Getting his foe to exchange power shots with him and, by virtue of being more durable and tireless, outlasting them until they break. See the problem? McGregor’s plan A plays directly into Diaz’ plan A.
The most fundamental question we can ask is the one Diaz asked McGregor in the first fight- can Conor fight at a Diaz pace for five full rounds? This remains an open question. In the first fight, the answer was a definite no. Some, like Tristar coach Firas Zahabi, maintain that McGregor can go five rounds at any pace and not tire, and he was just surprised during the first bout. There may be some truth to McGregor feeling the shock of Diaz hanging in there and eating his shots, but I disagree with the assessment that McGregor has no problem with Diaz’ work rate. McGregor is comfortable throwing anywhere between 15-20 strikes a minute in a fight he is controlling, but he had to effectively double that against Diaz while avoiding an equal number of strikes in return. Any McGregor strategy for the rematch has to focus on the primary, fundamental problem of mitigating a Diaz fight pace for five rounds. Conor would be foolish to think he can employ the exact same strategy as the first fight, and hope more emphasis on his cardio will win him five rounds when it only won him one the last time out.
Conor and John Kavanaugh claim they don’t usually train ‘opponent-specific’, but that is never entirely true. Conor had specific weapons he was drilling and specific sparring partners he was training with, and Kavanaugh has admitted none of them looked like Diaz in their first bout. Would those back kicks have made more sense against Dos Anjos’ pressure and squared stance? They simply didn’t land on Diaz’ longer side-on frame. Those uppercuts McGregor somehow found a home for anyway? They had been polished up for a Dos Anjos level change. The lack of a strong distance kicking game? Again, something that would have been counter-productive against a strong takedown artist but glaringly missing against Diaz. Conor talks a lot about Diaz’ longer frame, and it certainly had an effect on the fight. In the first half of the first round, most of Conor’s shots were falling just short of their target. Not only did that waste his energy, but it caused Conor to begin overextending on his shots and using up more energy. Defensively, this got McGregor stuck on the end of a lot of long jabs, and also lead to McGregor spending more time in close in order to do damage to Diaz, and Nate caught him with that fight-changing 1-2 when he got tired and hung around in punching range too long after a combination.
McGregor talks a lot about not managing his energy, not just in the fight, but also in the lead-up to the fight. Part of that was overconfidence, but part of that was the new weight class. Iain Kidd mentioned that his diet (or rather, lack of one) took away some of his body’s ability to convert glucose to glycogen and likely helped him gas faster. He stopped working with his nutritionist, George Lockhart, for the last week of fight camp, and Lockhart detailed how a lack of a weight cut could have affected his body’s replenishment ability by as much as ten percent, very likely a significant factor in the unusually rapid deterioration of McGregor’s cardio.
While Conor made much of his energy management, a large part of the problem there is that his vaunted movement, especially his reactive head movement, doesn’t tire well. This isn’t a knock on McGregor so much as a fact about his style of striking. Anyone who relies on big, hair-trigger head movement, (see Michael Chandler against Eddie Alvarez, for instance) is going to notice it becomes more difficult to execute when they tire. He closes distance really quickly, better than any previous Diaz opponent, but that style comes at a cost, one that has always worked for him before, but let him down here. Sure, he wasted a few wheel kicks and threw overloaded punches, but he looked like a more active version of himself for the most part. Relying so heavily on his rear hand for offense, and distance management and reactive head movement for defense are energy-expensive. This means that as he does get tired, those decisions and reactions become more and more costly and he begins to eat shots.
II. “I am going to kill or be killed. That is what I am coming with.” -Nathan Diaz
The UFC 196 main event wasn’t just about McGregor’s mistakes. Nate Diaz turned in the performance of his career, on short notice, cannily avoiding or absorbing the Irishman’s power and setting the range and pace he wanted to turn this into a Diaz fight. He then simply outlasted the Irishman, breaking him in decisive fashion, turning his own style against him and shocking the world.
The Diaz brothers’ main weapon has always been their cardio, and their willingness to exchange at a ridiculously high rate in order to use that cardio to break their opponents. The two brothers use their cardio in different ways, however. Nick has nice straight punches but does his best work when he can get his man to the fence and lace them with 8 and 10 punch combinations to the body. Nate throws the occasional body shot, but his best work is done at range, a jab, jab-cross, hook-cross, and Stockton slap doing the work for him. He uses his length well, throwing a gorgeous one-two before pulling his head just out of range of the return. He never lets anyone get away with a free shot either. If you hit him, he’s coming around your arm with a counter hook or coming back with three punches of his own. He’s also good, and was excellent against McGregor, at pushing his man to the fence and using the clinch to land short punches and knees, further wearing them down with his big frame and relentless pressure.
The reason Nate can employ this strategy is because he is excellent, among the best in MMA, at taking punches. He is just insanely tough, and his acceptance of the fact that he is in a fight and is going to be hit allows him to roll with the punches without being rocked or seemingly even bothered. Part of this is Diaz getting work in with top boxers like Andre Ward, who hit a lot harder than most MMA fighters as a rule. I watched a good deal of tape on Diaz fighting other southpaws, and the same openings McGregor found have always been there- the left cross over the top of his jab has landed by everyone from Marcus Davis to Rafael dos Anjos. McGregor did the best work of anyone closing the distance and exploiting it, but Diaz took it every time, from every opponent, repeatedly, to no effect. The only person who actually dropped him with it was, ironically enough, Ben Henderson. Henderson dropped Diaz by surprising him, debuting his weird jab to the thigh in that fight before suddenly switching it up and clocking Diaz over the top while Diaz lifted his leg to check. Josh Thomson knocked him out in a different, but related fashion, kicking Diaz low before suddenly going high with a head kick that dropped the Stockton native. It is said that the strike you don’t see is the one that hurts you. For Nate, the rule needs modification: the only strike Diaz can be hurt by is the one he doesn’t see coming.
Diaz’ offensive arsenal is built almost entirely around his jab, the same way Conor’s is built around his left hand. Diaz may be of the streets, and come across a bit rough, but he is also a true martial artist, and his jab is among the most educated in the sport. He goes to the body, doubles it up, hooks off it, front kicks using the opening it creates, and uses it to find the range for his potent 1-2 combination. Diaz has been doing the same things his whole UFC career, but his ability to set the range and tempo with his jab has only gotten better as his fight career progresses. The jab formed the foundation for the questions Conor McGregor couldn’t answer.
As a foundation, the jab is the most efficient tool of all, the right choice for a man whose design is to outlast his foe in a war of attrition. Diaz’ whole game is pared down to the most efficient responses possible. He doesn’t move his feet to cover ground explosively, instead, setting them and whipping out untelegraphed jabs and a variety of taunts to get the other guy to engage on his terms. He moves his head back, covers up with earmuffs, clinches, or rolls with whatever punches get through, all low-energy defensive responses honed through years of exhausting sparring sessions in the gym. His straight punches require minimum energy, and his power is mechanical, not athletic, meaning, it doesn’t dissipate in the later rounds when he is tired. His grappling style is similar, focusing on technical submissions instead of strength. Diaz fights like the marathon runner he is, not the sprinter he is not.
Diaz is laser-accurate, and his killer instinct is vicious. He has no problem swarming his opponent with scores of punches the moment he senses weakness. When Conor stumbled after eating those shots, he did his best to no-sell their effect, but Diaz wasn’t buying, upping the pace, pushing him to the cage and unleashing sharp shots around and through McGregor’s raised hands to his hazy noggin before locking in that rear-naked choke. It was the same starving coyote with a rabbit in its sights killer instinct, that has seen him finish Maynard, Gomi, and Jim Miller.
III. “I make no excuses. It is what it is. I came up short.” -Conor McGregor
So, what can mixed martial arts’ favored son do to avoid another defeat this weekend? Diaz doesn’t have to change much- he never does anyway. Allow him to fight his fight, and that’s just what he will do. It was a wildly successful approach last time.
For McGregor, as I said in the beginning, his approach has to be to slow the fight down. He has to assume Diaz WILL take his shots, that he is in for a five-round war. Fortunately, he has come to that conclusion, and that’s the way he has been training. There are two ways to do that- slow the rhythm of the fight, and slow Diaz directly. We will deal with ways for him to slow the fight, then how he may be able to slow Diaz directly.
In order to slow down the fight itself, McGregor needs to set up camp outside Diaz’ effective punching range, and be very selective when he chooses to close the distance with punches. He can do this using a kicking arsenal, but also by not biting on every jab. McGregor has been a forward-moving pressure fighter for a long time now, but he will need to make Diaz chase him, at least at times in this fight. Let his opponent close the distance, circle, slow the dance. The Diaz brothers have always been frustrated by an elusive opponent. Kick, circle out, kick, circle out.
Part of the difficulty with using his usually expansive kicking arsenal is that most of his kicking arsenal is geared to his southpaw game, and don’t have the same targets or function in a ‘closed stance’, or mirrored-stance matchup. His rear left roundhouse doesn’t play off his cross the same way, the lead hook kick isn’t there for him, and the jump-switch kick he loved against Max Holloway doesn’t have an open torso to target. He can still use his front kicks, and a lead-leg side kicks, either to the knee as in the first fight, or to the body Gunnar Nelson style, followed by circling out, would work as both body shots, which plays to the other goal of slowing Diaz down directly.
The primary kick he needs to add to his arsenal for this fight is a thudding outside low kick. He doesn’t usually commit to that strike, but the footage of his early camp in Iceland featured a lot of hard sparring with heavy low kicks, so this should be something we ought to see out of him this fight. If I’m McGregor, I look at how Dos Anjos beat Diaz at pace for three rounds, and the first building blocks of that beatdown were absolutely thumping low kicks. McGregor may not have the power in that strike that Dos Anjos had, so he needs to land a lot of them- 15 to 20 in the first round. Every time Diaz jabs early, McGregor should be punishing him with a slip and a low kick. Whenever McGregor throws a combination, it should end with a low kick. Whenever he is standing on the outside for more than five seconds, he should initiate a low kick. This accomplishes several objectives- one, it’s a tool he can use from the outside that slows the fight down by limiting exchanges. Two, it slows Diaz down directly, by hampering his movement. Thirdly, if McGregor lands enough low kicks, he will get Diaz checking, and that Diaz on one leg is much better target for that left hand. And lastly, if he lands enough and hurts that leg, he can get Diaz to switch to orthodox, and McGregor does his best work against opponents in that open-stance matchup.
As far as his boxing goes, a number of analysts have commented on how one-sided McGregor was in the first fight. The same openings for his left hand will be there in the rematch because they have always been there as a consequence of Diaz’ style; McGregor also needs to focus more on his lead hand, traditional jabs and hooks. The footage we have suggests he is working on exactly that, against boxers who have the height and reach of Diaz.
Traditionally, the other way to slow an opponent is through dedicated body work, and McGregor, from the limited footage we have, is focusing on hitting the body. He landed some nice body shots in the first fight, both with his left underneath Nate’s lead arm and with his lead hand, a shoveling uppercut. If Diaz won’t go out, body shots may be more valuable than shots to the head. Moreover, as we noted, setting Diaz’ expectations low and then going high is the best way to hurt him, and McGregor can play off that lead hook to the body with his uppercut or a hook to the head, and more diversity with his rear hand will only help to land it more often.
Lastly, in order to seal rounds that will likely be fairly close, and to give himself an opportunity to break the pressure of Diaz, McGregor needs to find takedowns, one or two a round, and attempt to spend some time in top control. This may be controversial with how bad he looked when Diaz had him rocked, but McGregor has historically, including their first round exchange, been very composed and skilled from top position, stifling his opponent’s submissions and landing excellent ground-and-pound. It’s a risk, but a calculated risk, and one where the reward, contrary to popular belief, favors McGregor.
The pick? I’m going with Diaz. McGregor can win, but it is apparent that his usual method of victory, knockout, is unlikely. That leaves a war of attrition, and from all evidence, Diaz has a nearly impervious cardio advantage, creating a mountain McGregor will need all his tools and craft to climb. He has to execute a masterclass gameplan to win that kind of fight. What worries me is even with the adjustments he is making, and his $300,000 preparations, McGregor may not be able to resist engaging Diaz in an all-out war. If that’s what happens Saturday night, the odds are in the favor of the 209.
I would like to thank Jack Slack, Patrick Wyman and Connor Roebusch of the Heavy Hands Podcast, Schwan Humes, and Twitter users @grabakahitman and the Naked Gambler for their insight into this matchup and their overall contribution to my understanding of fight analysis.