Conor McGregor earned redemption on Saturday evening after avenging his March defeat to Nate Diaz with a points victory in Las Vegas.
Against the bigger man, McGregor executed a perfect game-plan to retain his position at the top table of UFC.
What, then, were the keys to his victory?
The plan was clear: attack the legs. McGregor’s peppering of Diaz’s lead right leg left him limping out of the cage from damage to his shin while his rival was covered in welts. But the tactic was crucial as it kept the longer Diaz at range. The Californian stands heavy on his lead leg to utilise his boxing fundamentals and McGregor just chopped him down.
Diaz’s 12 submission wins have rarely been born from takedowns. He’s not known for his wrestling but from the third round onwards he looked to take the fight to the ground where his far superior Jiu-Jitsu skills would cause McGregor trouble. But the Irishman displayed near perfect takedown defence, finding the muscle to snuff four of Diaz’s five attempts.
It’s McGregor’s most ‘Notorious’ weapon and his left hand arguably proved the difference between these two warriors. He stunned his opponent on three occasions, dropping the durable Diaz in rounds one and two, edging the decision in his favour. Only once has Diaz been stopped in the UFC and he showed just why, coming back each time but the damage had been done.
In the third stanza, it seemed to have deserted McGregor but in the championship rounds he found a second wind. Cardio is ultimately cost him last time out but in the months since their March showdown, the Irishman has built himself a gas tank. He had the energy to pressure Diaz and land combinations late on in his first trip through the full five rounds.
In March, McGregor head hunted and unloaded in the first round. Diaz was cut and bloodied but crucially, was still standing. The featherweight champ didn’t seem to have a Plan B or the energy to execute one. At UFC 202, he was different. He exploded in bursts and didn’t dive in when he grounded Diaz. Patience really is a virtue.
When expectation is met with reality, the result is ordinarily a feeling akin to the air escaping a balloon – flat. Sometimes what is hoped for just doesn’t play out the way it was anticipated and so often this has been a narrative which has manifested itself in the UFC.
Indeed, you only have to look back to last month when the promotion celebrated their bicentennial pay-per-view card with, what on paper at least, appeared to be the most stacked event in its history.
But all the fervent build-up and hyperbolic hype was washed away by a series of doping violations – initial headliner Jon Jones failed a test just days before the event began and superstar draw Brock Lesnar left behind a dark cloud of his own after also falling foul – and prosaic performances inside the Octagon.
Up until this point, it’s been a rough 2016 for the UFC with titles changing hands on seven occasions and the merry-go-round coinciding with the waning star power of the company’s biggest success stories of the previous year: Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor.
With the UFC feeling a bit of a deficit in terms of mainstream stars, the last thing they could afford was for their leading man to suffer defeat again. Yet, were UFC 200 proved a letdown, UFC 202 inflated.
In a sense, the promotion’s fortunes are married to McGregor’s. Without him in July they suffered but with him yesterday, everyone prospered. And the Irishman’s blood and guts majority decision win over Nate Diaz had quite the ripple effect.
From the personal nadir of defeat to Diaz in March, he recovered to accentuate his position as the sport’s peak player. Not only that, the nature of the five-round war also saw the genesis of another star name.
Diaz has long been viewed as the UFC’s antihero, but his resilience and heart to weather the green storm through a mist of red, further enhanced his mainstream capacity.
With both McGregor and Diaz thriving, it all created the perfect outcome for the UFC with fans yearning for the trilogy, providing the antidote to the troubles of previous weeks. Now, the next level is on the horizon.
Having been bought out for $4 billion in July the sport’s premier promotion is in a strong position. But make no mistake, the man to carry them is McGregor. The landscape of the game has changed thanks to his audacious trash-talking talents and transcendent abilities inside the Octagon.
And if you’re looking for justification of the new heights he has taken the UFC to, then just look at the numbers for yesterday’s highly-anticipated rematch. The event drew the fifth highest gate ever with $7,692,010.
UFC 202 will likely go on to break more records when the PPV numbers emerge but the one it has already snapped is the biggest disclosed MMA purse in the sport’s history.
McGregor earned $3million while Diaz pocketed $2m, combining for the largest payday for a single bout. Historically, seven-figure payouts have seldom been seen but deep purses are becoming a more regular sight with ‘The McGregor Show’ and if the athletes are finally to be paid what they merit, the 28-year-old will have played a significant role in that.
“I don’t care what anyone says, I helped bring this game to another level,” he said post-fight. “They can deny that, but I did. Look at Nate’s purse. Look at Nate’s purse after the first fight. Look at everyone’s. Everyone’s game has gone up money-wise, and I helped do that.”
While the divisive Irishman has often cut a controversial figure, his role in evolving the sport has been under-appreciated. In beating Diaz in the way that he did, though, McGregor’s victory was not only for himself, but in the end for Diaz, the UFC and for all of MMA.
Conor McGregor has a myriad of options for his next trip to the Octagon after earning a majority-decision victory over Nate Diaz at UFC 202 – but the Irishman is unsure where he will go next.
The 28-year-old was able to avenge the only defeat of his UFC career after five barbarous with Diaz, the man who submitted him in the second round at UFC 196 in March. It was a back and forth war, built on the hostilities between the pair, and with the two tied at one a piece, fans have been left thirsty for the trilogy.
However, with McGregor holding the belt at 145lbs – he’s fought Diaz twice at the welterweight limit of 170lbs – after he knocked out Jose Aldo in just 13 seconds in December, UFC president Dana White has insisted he return to featherweight to defend the strap.
Aldo is the interim champ after defeating Frankie Edgar at UFC 200 but the divisive Irishman poured cold water on a potential rematch.
“How long was I going back and forth with Jose?” asked McGregor in the post-fight press conference. “That was a two-year build up. He pulled out last minute and I continued to fight someone else. Then we rescheduled. A two year build up, around the world for that boy, and then I stepped in to beat him in thirteen seconds.
‘”I mean, it’s hard for me to get excited about that, especially after his last performance. He didn’t go out and get it like I wanted him to.
“I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m the 145lbs champion. The interim champion is a man that I KO’d in 13 seconds. I’ve got to figure out what’s next, but right now, I don’t know what’s next. There are many things in the pipeline. So, sit tight.”
Indeed, McGregor has decisions to make but his star draw has never been brighter. Many had predicted a repeat feat for Diaz in the headliner of UFC 202 in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
But having achieved victory in a weight class two above where he resides as a UFC champion, McGregor professed that silencing his doubters was a significant motivation for him.
“This was a hell of an important fight for me,” he added. “Everyone, from the media to the fighters, wrote me off for this one. They tried to say if I lose this one, I’m done. They tried to discredit the fact that I’m going up in weight. He was 25 to 30 pounds heavier than me, I don’t care what anyone says.
“He was a big boy in there. He was easily 190lbs. I was 167lbs leaving for the fight and I was saying to myself, I need to eat, try and get up at least over 170lbs.
“But it was a hell of a fight and he’s a hell of a competitor. The whole lot of it brought out the best in me. It forced me to look at myself truly. I’m just grateful.”
In the Octagon after his victory was announced, McGregor called for a trilogy fight to be contested at the lightweight limit of 155lbs.
When asked if he’d be happy to drop back down to his more natural weight, Diaz said: “Whenever. Whenever they’re ready to rock. I’m not doing s*** until round three. You’re not going to see me until then. If they want to set it up as soon as possible, let’s do it. We’ll see what happens. It’s not that I’m waiting but I don’t need to do nothing.”