Conor McGregor did it.
After losing the first fight in humiliating fashion. After the build-up, after the water bottles and Monster cans thrown at the press conference. After losing his cool and giving a lot of pundits the sense that Diaz had gotten into his head. After all that, he came out stone-cold focused, put on a masterclass, and even so, it was just enough to get the win. Nate Diaz, after getting knocked down three times in the first two rounds, came roaring back with a Stockton vengeance and slapped McGregor around for a round and a half. Both guys came close to finishing the fight in their own ways- McGregor’s three early knockdowns had Diaz looking uncharacteristically vulnerable, perhaps genuinely one or two shots away from getting finished, and Nate was one clean shot away from stopping McGregor standing up at the end of the third. Then McGregor summoned the will and cardio from some hidden reserve and put on the round of his life in the fourth, sealing the fight, before hanging on in the fifth as the two bloody, exhausted men clinched and elbowed each other to the finish.
It capped off a highly entertaining event that not only saw five straight finishes before the fight but including breakout performances from Tim Means, Lorenz Larkin, Cody Garbrandt, Donald Cerrone, and Anthony Johnson. The last three men may even see title shots based on their performances that night, with varying degrees of likelihood. But the main event of the night was without question its crowning jewel, an easy fight of the year contender and a crucially important fight for both Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor.
It was one of the greatest bouts of all time, not only for the fight itself but for the story surrounding it. The story is a classic- you can see the different parts of it in Rocky I, II, and III. Nate Diaz was the hero of their first fight. Overlooked, underappreciated, a veteran grown on the mean streets of Stockton, pitted against the biggest star of the sport, a 4-1 underdog. He took McGregor’s hardest shots and came back, wearing him down and swarming him in the second round. After years of getting paid twenty grand per fight, locked out by his own organization in bitter contract disputes, he was rich, a millionaire with a win over the largest star in combat sports. Nate Diaz had his underdog story.
Now, if you were writing the script, it was time for Conor McGregor’s comeback.
Combat sports aren’t scripted, however, which is what makes moments like this past Saturday so special. Face to face combat brings out the truth of things. That is why UFC 202 was an all-time classic: we learned something entirely new about Conor McGregor. Diaz, too, in that he proved his last win was no fluke, but most of us knew that already. We knew Nate Diaz was a hell of a scrapper with an almost superhuman chin. Conor? We knew Conor was an impressive athlete with a thunderbolt for a left hand. We knew the fight would be entertaining. What we didn’t know, and couldn’t know, was how Conor McGregor would respond to his loss. Their first fight had seen the irresistible force tire himself on the unbreakable object, seen him load up on increasingly desperate power strikes, seen him take on Nate Diaz in his own native element, the exchange, and watched his best shots fail to knock down the Stockton man. Then we saw him get tagged, saw his legendary chin crack, saw his boasted cardio drain like an old battery, saw him shoot for a takedown like the panicked wrestlers he always mocked, saw him mounted and punched and choked in exhausted, humiliating fashion. It hit our systems like a shock.
Like watching Bane break Batman, it shook what we had been led to believe. The myth of invincibility McGregor had built around himself shattered. We were left with questions. Perhaps he was an imposter. Perhaps he had only adopted this style, where Nate Diaz had been born into it. His rapid fade in the second round of their fight had shown us the Notorious was human, that he could be broken. What we didn’t know was if the sword could or would be re-forged stronger than before, if his 412 rounds in the desert of Nevada and the fjords of Iceland would be enough. Whether deep down, McGregor had the mettle and the mental malleability to not only come back as strong, but come back better, and if better would be good enough.
We had seen all this before, you see, many, many times. Mixed martial artists are inherently tough people- they have to be to accept the risk of stepping into a cage with another human being. But it becomes especially real after that particularly devastating loss. Ronda Rousey, falling senseless to the shin of Holly Holm. Brock Lesnar, spinning and falling across the cage to shell up against the raining fists of Cain Velasquez. Anderson Silva, separated from his consciousness by the lead hook of Chris Weidman. Georges St. Pierre, tapping to strikes from Matt Serra. All the greatest and brightest stars have experienced it if they have fought long enough, or will if they continue fighting indefinitely.
What we have learned from seeing this so many times, is that how our heroes and heroines respond to the specific kind of adversity that comes with losing a fight in the cage, can vary greatly. That is a unique kind of trauma, different from a physical injury. Psychologically, there are four levels of response to a traumatic event: succumbing to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is quitting entirely; survival with impairment, which is continuing on with PTSD at a lower level of functioning than before; recovery with resilience, which is returning to the same level as before; and thriving, which is experiencing post-traumatic growth. Mixed martial arts is an inherently traumatic sport. Everyone experiences the trauma of a violent loss at some point in their careers. We don’t have to look far for examples of all kinds of responses, sometimes within the same person’s career.
Ronda Rousey may yet return to the octagon, but for a time her response to Holly Holm’s headkick KO was succumbing to PTSD. She has openly said she was suicidal and left the sport for an extended period of time. That is among the most extreme forms of trauma response seen in the sport, and there are a number of reasons why her response was so extreme. She had never been hurt in the cage before. All of her bouts had been remarkably one-sided. She hadn’t faced the fear that comes with knowing through experience that the other fighter in the cage can and will separate you from your senses in violent fashion. Ronda had come up in a camp surrounded by sub-par, sycophantic coaches, who were very positive and told her what she wanted to hear, and perhaps not what she needed to. A phenomenal athlete, she dominated the sport even with substandard instruction, but when her natural talent and deep skill in judo were both thwarted, the lack of depth her trainers had instilled in her boxing game quickly became apparent. Until she returns, we won’t fully know how much it affected her going forward in the cage.
Then there are fighters who are never quite the same after a loss. Georges St. Pierre is one of those fighters. He returned to stop Matt Serra, but his approach changed. Less risk. That jab became his primary weapon of choice, paired with his impeccably timed double-leg takedown. His fights became about minimizing risk rather than finishing opponents. One could argue that this is growth, and perhaps there is an argument there, but St. Pierre’s arsenal of tools became smaller and more specialized, not larger. The memory of that finish stuck with him, a reminder of the chaos of the cage which he then sought to control. After stepping away from the sport years later, he stated that his proudest moment was recovering from being dropped by Carlos Condit’s offbeat headkick- the moment where, faced with that same scenario of being hurt, he managed to overcome it instead of being overcome. That’s the thing about a fighter after a devastating knockout loss- there are many ways to avoid experiencing that again. Not all are as extreme as Rousey’s, where she no longer steps in a cage. St. Pierre continued to fight, but altered his approach to avoid that bad memory from being repeated. It wasn’t until years later that he was put in a similar scenario, and we saw that he had indeed grown as a fighter.
Some fighters remain stubbornly unaltered by defeat. Nate Diaz himself is an easy example of this. The Diaz brothers have been beaten many times, but have never lost a fight in their own minds. They choose to be unchanged by adversity. However, because they refuse to accept their losses, they also never grow from them. The style of the Diaz brothers, while different from each other, remains remarkably unchanged from fight to fight. Nate Diaz was throwing the same strikes, and presenting more or less the same openings, to Marcus Davis years ago as he was to Conor McGregor Saturday night.
There are two driving, conflicting needs behind humans at all times, which come out in stark relief after a loss. Phil Mackenzie detailed them both in his brilliant recap of the fight on Bloody Elbow. These are the need for truth, and the need to feel good about oneself. The conflict between honesty and confidence. The cognitive dissonance comes because the reality of a loss is at odds with what a fighter believes deep down- that he is better than his opponent, no matter who. Why is it difficult to look honestly at a loss? Because of self-efficacy, the belief that you have the power to do what you need to do to achieve your goals, is absolutely essential to a fighter. Fighters base their whole mental fortress on this mountain. The decision to keep moving, to keep looking for a way to win when it looks and feels like the other guy is winning and is hurting you… Self-efficacy is the real construct underlying that continual decision. And honestly can chip away at that faith, can mess with a fighter’s belief.
“Training is nothing. WILL is everything. The will to act.”
-R’as Al Ghul, Batman Begins
We learned two specific and very different things about Conor McGregor on the night of August 20th: First, that he is honest enough, and smart enough, to look at what went wrong and make not only tactical changes, such as using leg kicks, but technical improvements, such as his significant lead hand work, in a very short time-frame; that is very impressive. But even more impressive, and more innate, is the second thing we learned: that when the chips are down and he has been bloodied, when his athletic power has faded, when faced with a foe that just keeps coming no matter what he throws, that he can reach down deep inside himself and not only survive, but find a way to win. That he can continually make the choice to refuse to be broken. That his self-efficacy, built by willpower and then thousands of hours of training, stays even when his endurance is fading, his footwork falls apart and his defense lets him down. McGregor experienced the most remarkable response to defeat possible, post-traumatic growth, and he experienced it at the most crucial juncture of his career.
I wrote before the fight in my breakdown that he had a mountain to climb, that he would need a near-perfect performance to win. His whole approach would need to be geared towards slowing down Nathan Diaz. From the footage I watched of McGregor training, and from watching tape on Diaz and what has worked on Diaz in the past, I predicted several things that McGregor would need to do to have a hope of beating a taller, nearly tireless opponent. I was wrong about a few things- McGregor didn’t look to take top position from Diaz when he had the opportunity, and in retrospect that was a smart call- but when McGregor came out and opened with those traditional leg kicks, which he has never used before, that spoke volumes. He could easily not have made that adjustment. It doesn’t fit with his usual style or philosophy of fighting. He made the decision to adopt an entirely new tool into his arsenal, and that says a lot about McGregor the martial artist.
His lead hand was much more potent than we have seen before- his jab actually snapped Diaz’s head back, and he threw meaningful right hooks to the head, and, crucially, to the body. This commitment to diversity in his strikes, and a refusal to overcommit, lead to those three early knockdowns, which had been glaringly missing in the first bout. He used Diaz’s jab as a trigger. The left-hand counter over the top had been there in their first bout, and in every Diaz bout, because, though Nate does have excellent classical boxing, he still has a tendency not to bring his jab back to his chin, which is exposed over his lead shoulder. Conor didn’t load up on shots, instead electing to throw simultaneous counters. Diaz didn’t just do nothing, though. He kicked back at Conor, and he jabbed the body a lot, dipping to avoid that strafing left.
Conor’s training and preparation had not been perfect, however. Midway through the second round, he turned and jogged away from Nate, just as he had been training on the pads. A mental breather. To Nate, however, that signaled weakness, and he pressed forward. A suddenly tired McGregor found himself eating shots, just like in their first fight. He stayed calm, slipped a few, clinched. Diaz threw a four-punch combination that saw Conor stumble backward. Nate Diaz threw those short clinch shots, dirty boxed, tied the Irishman up against the cage. The bell sounded, but McGregor was fading. It could be a long night for him.
The next round, McGregor landed some good shots early, but Diaz had turned up the pressure cooker. More clinch work, more dirty boxing. Diaz taunted, McGregor threw that counter back kick he had been working on. It missed, Diaz caught it and pushed him back against the fence. The extended clinch exchange that followed wore McGregor down, and Diaz began to go to work. McGregor jogged away, exchanged, then jogged away again. Diaz slapped, pointed, walked him down. He landed some clean shots then pinned the Irishman against the cage and really went to work, throwing body shots and wide hooks. Conor seemed trapped. Behind him, the cage, in front of him, this skinny-fat Terminator machine. Constant fists, tapping at Conor’s face, body. Heart rate rising, breath gasping, energy draining. Conor couldn’t seem to get off the cage. The round ended with Diaz firmly in control, and the finish line a long ten minutes away. After over four hundred rounds of work and a 300,000 dollar training camp, it was all down to the remaining two.
“These are the last two rounds in the world”
That’s when something remarkable happened. Conor answered the bell, and not only found a second wind, but a rhythm and a pace he could keep up. And Diaz? Diaz was tired. That body work paid off just in time. He was nothing if not game, wiping the blood out of both eyes as he came forward. Conor kept a steady work rate with a varied diet of body hooks, jabs, leg kicks, and elbows, light combination work. He won the fourth round, going up three rounds to one.
Diaz wasn’t done, not by any means, and their last round was a brutal, even affair, two tired, bloody men slugging it out in the clinch and on the feet. Diaz dug hard for a takedown, but McGregor kept his base heavy and stayed upright. Conor circled away again. Diaz pointed, taunting him, and then flipped him the bird. Conor went for a takedown and got Diaz halfway. With ten seconds to go, Conor pushed for another and Diaz reversed, throwing him to the ground. Conor closed his guard and waited for the bell.
When it rang, Diaz stood and offered Conor his hand.
“With me, as with him, respect is earned through combat.”