Even Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier made us wait through a second fight and four years before giving us their “Thrilla in Manila.”
Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz only took five months to give us their version of an epic, action-packed, drama-filled bout that fight fans will be talking about for a long, long time.
Of course, only time will tell if the headliners of UFC 202 will occupy the rarefied air of “The Greatest” and “Smokin’ Joe,” but for now, the two most compelling fighters in the world of combat sports reside in Dublin, Ireland and Stockton, California, and the morning after their rematch, won by McGregor via five-round majority decision, the only fight that makes sense for either man is against each other.
“Blasphemy,” the diehards scream.
They’ve already battered each other enough over 34 minutes and 12 seconds, they might say. True, but every fight at this level can be a punishing battle, and McGregor and Diaz prepare as such. This isn’t golf or tennis. It’s a fight, and if it’s not McGregor and Diaz punching each other, Jose Aldo, Eddie Alvarez or any other featherweight or lightweight on the roster would be more than willing to.
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But what about that featherweight division? This is a valid issue for a man that hasn’t defended the crown since winning it in December of 2015, and as UFC President Dana White declared before Saturday’s bout, McGregor must defend his title next or relinquish the crown.
So relinquish it. Sure, McGregor didn’t dominate and clean out the division like the man he defeated for the title – Jose Aldo – did, but he made his mark, stopped Aldo in 13 seconds, and picked up the championship belt. He will not better that performance against Aldo in a rematch, and the odds of him wanting to make 145 pounds again are slim and none. Those are facts, so why not have interim champ Aldo fight Max Holloway for the undisputed crown and make everybody at 145 pounds happy?
As for Diaz, while a lightweight title shot against Eddie Alvarez is intriguing, it won’t likely happen, as Diaz declared that he’s not doing anything until he gets a third fight with McGregor. Any why not? The best fight for him is against the man he has spent his 2016 with.
He wants it, too. And McGregor wants it. And if you’re a true fight fan, you should want it too. I understand that trilogies have an off-on history in combat sports. Ali-Frazier II wasn’t nearly as good as I and III, each fight in Cain Velasquez-Junior Dos Santos was one-sided for the victory and the same goes for the Tito Ortiz-Ken Shamrock and Chuck Liddell-Randy Couture series. Even the greatest UFC trilogies, like Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard and Sam Stout-Spencer Fisher, had their low-key moments.
That doesn’t appear to be the case here. McGregor and Diaz are both in their physical prime, each of the first two bouts could have gone either way at pivotal moments, and stylistically, they’re made for each other. Most importantly, after two fights, there is no sense that one has a significant edge over the other.
And don’t think because they shook hands at the end of the fight that they’re going to be spending vacations together. Yes, there is respect between the fighters. There has to be. But there will always be heat between two unique personalities who are similarly built when it comes to competition. They’re too alike to be friends. At least now. They can only be rivals.
Yet the funny thing is that this was almost an accidental matchup, predicated by a Rafael Dos Anjos injury and a Diaz callout. But once they got in the same room together, imagining them apart is now impossible. And for the fighters, this should be the primary reason for them getting together for a third time.
Ali needed Frazier. Arturo Gatti needed Micky Ward. Erik Morales needed Marco Antonio Barrera. And Conor McGregor needs Nate Diaz. The money is nice, the titles are nice, and the mainstream media attention only makes everything bigger and better. But for legacy, for history, great fighters need a foil, a rival worthy of their talents and someone to push them to greater heights.
Ask anyone who saw the two McGregor-Diaz fights what championship belt was on the line. Ask what ranking was at stake, or what the benefits there were for the winner.
None of that mattered. One of my favorite lines was written by legendary sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, who said of Ali and Frazier, “They were fighting for the championship of each other.”
That’s where McGregor and Diaz stand today. Whether at 170 pounds or 155 pounds, there are no other contenders, no other challengers. There are two fighters in this class, which leaves only Dublin and Stockton’s finest to battle once more.
For the championship of each other.