In combat sports, all it takes is one moment to change the whole game. In early 2016, that incident was an injury to then-UFC lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos that forced him out of his UFC 196 title defense against the featherweight boss at the time, Conor McGregor.
With RDA out, in stepped Nate Diaz, and you know the rest of the story. If you don’t, we’ll take you on a trip back to Las Vegas and a wild fight week anyone who was there will never forget.
Perennial lightweight contender Nate Diaz had plenty of words for UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor after his win over Michael Johnson in December. Now on Saturday, March 5, the Stockton native will get to fight "The Notorious" one in the five-round main event of UFC 196 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The main event change came about on Tuesday, when McGregor's original opponent, UFC lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos, was forced out of the bout due to injury. Diaz agreed to step in for the bout against Dublin's McGregor, with the fight taking place at 170 pounds.
McGregor has been calling his shots in the UFC since his debut in the promotion in 2013, and the man dubbed by many as “Mystic Mac” has been on target with his Ali-esque predictions. Sailing to the top of the featherweight division in the space of seven fights, the 27-year-old capped off his rise with 2015 knockouts of Dennis Siver and Chad Mendes, and a stunning 13-second finish of Jose Aldo. The 145-pound champion was seeking more gold at 155 pounds, but with Dos Anjos' injury, that fight will have to wait. Instead, McGregor gets to settle a score with Diaz.
A former Ultimate Fighter winner who has been a member of the UFC roster since 2007, 30-year-old Nate Diaz has been thrilling fans at 155 and 170 pounds for years, with victories over Donald Cerrone, Takanori Gomi and Jim Miller, among others. Winner of two of his last three, Diaz knocked out Gray Maynard and decisioned "The Menace" Johnson to soar up to the number six spot in the lightweight rankings, and with a win over McGregor, he could put himself in the mix for a rematch against Dos Anjos.
PRE-FIGHT PRESS CONFERENCE
UFC 196 headliners Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz sat feet away from each other with little incident when announcing their Saturday bout on Feb. 24. Yet Thursday at the David Copperfield Theater at MGM Grand, that (fairly) civil tone disappeared, with the two getting into a brief scuffle as they faced off following the event’s final press conference.
The incident was quickly defused by UFC President Dana White, his staff and security, but not before McGregor’s SBG Ireland squad and Diaz’ Skrap Pack rushed the stage, much to the delight of the fans that packed the theater.
It was surprising that the two took this long to get physical before fight night, but as the presser progressed, the barbs from McGregor were clearly taking a toll on the demeanor of Diaz, who made it clear that this wasn’t just a one-on-one fight, but one that matched Northern California’s finest against the Dublin standouts.
“Where’s your credentials at,” asked Diaz. “You knocked out midgets. The JV squad on my team can beat your team.”
“Bring your training partners in,” said McGregor. “You’re gonna need them.”
Already an intriguing matchup given the style and attitude employed by both men, the UFC 196 main event has an added layer of interest thanks to the bout being fought at 170 pounds, two weight classes above the one where the Dubliner is champion. But the featherweight boss has been fearless throughout his career, and this instance is no different.
“There’s a lot of people that play it safe in the game,” he said. “They don’t take the risks. I take risks all the time.”
But has he bit off more than he can chew with Stockton’s Diaz, who went 2-2 at welterweight before dropping back to the lightweight division, where he most recently defeated Michael Johnson in December.
“I felt faster, better, stronger there,” Diaz said of life at 170 pounds, but other than some expletive-laced retorts at his opponent, the 30-year-old let McGregor do the talking, something “The Notorious” one has never needed any prodding for.
And while the topics ranged from his respect for boxing legend Muhammad Ali (“He was a special man, he changed culture”) and the Floyd Mayweather poster on the side of the MGM Grand (“I might go and rip it down myself”) to his dream opponent (“I’d love to fight myself. Imagine the numbers that would do?”), he saved his most vicious barbs for Diaz, hoping that he makes it out of the first round this Saturday.
“Dance for me, Nate,” McGregor jabbed, referring to Diaz’ payday this weekend and asking him for a thank you.
Finally, Diaz had enough.
“There ain’t s**t to say; let’s fight.”
On Saturday they will.
THE CAMPS SPEAK
When talking to two of Nate Diaz’ teammates, Gilbert Melendez and Yancy Medeiros, two things were made clear. Neither were surprised that Diaz took the short notice fight with Conor McGregor, and that to them, Diaz isn’t just a teammate, but a brother.
“He's my brother and he's real,” UFC lightweight Medeiros said. “One hundred percent real.”
Melendez, a former Strikeforce champion and current UFC standout, concurs, noting how happy he is to see Diaz in the main event spotlight.
“I consider us teammates and brothers, and we watch out for each other,” Melendez said. “Maybe I've helped him out, but he's helped me out just as much, and it's great to see him in this, on the big stage, getting what he deserves as an athlete, financially. Watching him work as a businessman was great, and the only negative is him not having a full camp to prepare for it to do himself proper justice. But he's a gamer, and if there's anyone that can wake up the next day and run seven miles after they get a phone call that they might have a fight, it's that guy. And he can follow that with a mile swim and a 30-mile bike ride. So there's no question that he'll be able to last out there, and he'll be good.”
“It was no surprise,” Medeiros said of Diaz’ willingness to step up and face “The Notorious” one. “He's always ready, he stays ready, and he's a martial artist in and out of the gym, 24/7. He wouldn't have taken this fight if he didn't feel he'd beat Conor.”
One key talking point is McGregor fighting Diaz at 170 pounds, where the Stockton standout has competed before. Melendez has been in the gym with a welterweight Nate Diaz, and as “El Nino” explains, it’s not one of his more enjoyable moments.
“Personally training with Nate, there's the Nate who is within making 155 pounds, and there's the Nate in the offseason, that's not within 155 pounds,” he said. “There's a definite difference between them. And him as a bigger guy is almost unmanageable for me as a professional fighter, especially when it comes to the striking department. All of a sudden, he's way more durable, and I'm not hurting him, and his hands are heavier. So I think it (fighting at 170) is a great thing, and I think he'll still be in good shape, so he's not going to be completely huge, but he's going to be at a good weight and it should be an advantage for him.”
Poor Artem Lobov. As Conor McGregor’s main training partner for years, fight week used to be his chance to catch his breath. This time around, with McGregor jumping up two weight classes to the welterweight division, there have been no breaks for “The Russian Hammer.”
“He's been a completely different guy this time,” Lobov said. “Normally I look forward to his weight cut because it is the time when I hope that he will slow down a little bit and not hit me as hard and not go as hard, and his energy level will be low. (Laughs) And it just hasn't happened this time. He just grew stronger and stronger as the days went on, and I'm just happy we're finally here and I don't have to endure none of that raw power no more.”
If the UFC lightweight is clear on one thing, it’s raw power. Lobov is also well versed in the idea of fearlessness and putting little thought into the risks involved with his job. McGregor is clearly cut from the same cloth.
“One hundred percent,” Lobov said. “He is just a fighter. He is a true martial artist, and martial arts isn't about weight classes. If anything, it's about a smaller guy being able to beat the larger opponent. This is how martial arts was invented. So his attitude is f**k the weight classes, forget all that. Just get in there and fight. Do what you're trained to do.”
Diaz Shocks the World, Submits McGregor in 2nd Round
For the better part of two rounds, UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor looked to be on his way to another spectacular victory in the main event of UFC 196 Saturday, this one in his welterweight debut against Nate Diaz. But the Stockton veteran is built tough, and after getting bloodied and battered, Diaz sprang into action, shocking the MMA world with a second-round submission of the Dublin superstar.
“I’m not surprised, mother #$#%$#$,” said Diaz, who took the fight on less than two weeks’ notice, replacing injured UFC lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos.
“I’m humble in victory or defeat,” McGregor said. “I took a chance to move up in weight and it didn’t work.”
It looked like it was going to, as McGregor landed with his first punch over the top. But after missing a spinning kick, Diaz was able to pin him to the fence briefly. Once separated, McGregor got right back to work, taunting Diaz in the midst of landing several overhand lefts. As the round progressed, Diaz was able to get some pawing shots in, but they would immediately be answered by McGregor, who was firing with bad intentions throughout, eventually cutting Diaz over the right eye. With 40 seconds left, Diaz dragged the fight to the mat, but McGregor easily reversed position in the ensuing scramble, capping off a dominant round.
Growing more disdainful of Diaz by the second, McGregor continued to rip off quick and accurate punches at his opponent’s bloodied face, and while Diaz still marched forward defiantly, he was unable to match his opponent’s output. Midway through the round though, the Stockton veteran began to tag McGregor with regularity, forcing him to back up for the first time. And as the crowd erupted, it was Diaz suddenly taking control against the fence. With a little over a minute to go, McGregor desperately shot for a takedown, and then it was all Diaz, as he battered the Irishman and then sunk in a rear naked choke, prompting a tap out at the 4:12 mark.
“There’s a new king right here,” said Diaz.
With the win, the 30-year-old Diaz moves to 20-10; the 27-year-old McGregor, who hadn’t lost since 2010, falls to 19-3. All losses were by submission.
McGregor Dared to be Great - Nothing Wrong with That
In 1975, when the 41st round of combat between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was done, capped off by their epic third bout, better known as the “Thrilla in Manila,” two of the greatest heavyweight boxers ever let their guard down after punishing each other physically and verbally for years.
"I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I'll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me," Ali said. "I'm gonna tell ya, that's one helluva man, and God bless him."
"Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," Frazier countered. "Lawdy, Lawdy, he's a great champion."
That’s what sharing a ring or Octagon can do, whether it’s five rounds or five minutes, and that was the case Saturday night after Nate Diaz’ stirring second-round submission of Conor McGregor. Sure, their battle was no “Thrilla,” but it was a thriller in its own right, filled with twists and turns, blood and drama, and finally, a sudden and spectacular finish. And with the final verdict rendered, McGregor and Diaz, filled with all sorts of acrimony toward each other before fight night, shook hands and gave each other the respect only fighters know.
A day later, the buzz has only grown louder about the result, much of it about the apparent “fall” of the UFC featherweight champion from Ireland. But McGregor, who was making his welterweight debut, is not making excuses, not stealing anything away from the biggest win of his opponent’s career, his most telling statement being the simplest.
“I took a chance to move up in weight and it didn’t work.”
It didn’t, but oh, what a chance he took. In boxing, a move from 145 pounds to 170 pounds constitutes a jump of four weight classes. In the UFC, the leap is no less daunting, especially when it comes on less than two weeks’ notice against a seasoned veteran who competed on the highest level of the sport four times previously.
Nate Diaz was no joke, and he proved it once more, as the punches that felled featherweights bloodied and bruised him, but refused to dent his chin. And once the punches of a welterweight began to break McGregor’s defense, the 27-year-old was in a place he had never been in since joining the UFC roster in 2013.
Yet that was the beauty of the fight and of McGregor’s willingness to dare to be great. Long seen by many as a character, created by the media and the Irish fans who will follow him anywhere, there is no disputing what he put on the line last Saturday when he didn’t have to. He could have easily decided to sit out once Dos Anjos was injured and wait for a spot on July’s UFC 200 card. He could have chosen, months earlier, to remain at 145 pounds. It’s not fair to say that was playing it safe, but it is accurate to say that with his attempt to move up to welterweight, he was doing what few would expect a “media creation” to do.
But it’s what fighters do, and while McGregor is more than adept at talking the talk, when it comes to taking risks in the fight game, he doesn’t see what others see. In fact, he doesn’t even consider risk, something confirmed by his friend and main training partner Artem Lobov.
“He is just a fighter,” Lobov said last week. “He is a true martial artist, and martial arts isn't about weight classes. If anything, it's about a smaller guy being able to beat the larger opponent. This is how martial arts was invented. So his attitude is f**k the weight classes, forget all that. Just get in there and fight. Do what you're trained to do.”
McGregor did that Saturday night. He dared. He fought. He lost. Many have celebrated. Many have called him a hype job. He’s not. He’s human. And like Ali after losing to Frazier in their first fight in 1971, he may end up being even more popular before.
Why? Because perfection is boring.