No one has ever really pressed Conor McGregor, not since he truly became Conor McGregor. His story has been one of dominance. Almost inexplicably, his results seem to have improved with the level of his competition, his boastful predictions growing more bold with each victory, and yet somehow never failing to materialize. No one ever pressed Conor McGregor, until Nate Diaz.
After his first loss in over five years, there were questions which McGregor had to answer. For us; for himself. Firstly, how would he deal with a defeat? Would he press one, passing the result off as a fluke? Or would he adjust? And what about his mentality? Would his confidence collapse, or explode, or would it grow harder, stronger, more refined? He could fight an opponent–we all knew that–but could he fight himself, and change?
The first eight minutes of the rematch suggested that yes, he could. McGregor attacked Diaz’s legs. It wasn’t something he had ever done before, having even mocked the rote Muay Thai approach of his opponents, but it was something others had used to beat Nate Diaz, so he did it. He laid back, countering Diaz’s offense rather than chasing after him and spending his energy on the air. He knocked Diaz down, three times, when in the first fight he hadn’t managed one–but unlike past opponents, McGregor did not pursue, and fall into Diaz’s guard. He stepped back, and let Diaz up, and kept going.
He kept going until the end of round two, when it all started to happen again.
(Note: This is part two of a two-part article. If you missed part one, which covered rounds one and two, you can read it by following this link.)
After two knockdowns, McGregor had been beaten up. Not a lot, but enough to know that Diaz was coming on, and he was fading. He should never have let the other man see him turn his back, but he had needed space to breathe, and the body does what it will. As round three opened, McGregor stuck to his gameplan. He hadn’t had one last time, and the fight had slipped through his fingers like California sand. Now that he had a strategy in mind, he clung to it like a blind man in the dark.
He had some success, but Diaz had learned the solution to his leg kicks. Instead of hanging back and trying to check, he opted to come forward. Pressure the kicker, and he has to step back–when he steps back, he cannot kick. It wasn’t the approach that had worked for Diaz so well in recent years, but it was the right one for McGregor.
For a moment, the line between Diazes seemed to blur. Nick Diaz had been barred from the corner, prevented from even entering the arena. But for a moment, as the third round closed, Nick Diaz materialized in the Octagon itself, wearing his little brother’s skin. With a blood-smeared scowl he pressed forward, put McGregor against the fence, and went to work.
1. As McGregor retreats toward the fence, Diaz marches him down.
2. A body jab bend McGregor over.
3. Nate uses his broken posture to grab a collar tie.
4. McGregor hips in to fight the pressure . . .
5. . . . and overhooks Diaz’s right arm.
6. Nate starts rapping away with his left hand.
7. Conor wraps his arm around Diaz’s to stop the punches.
8. Now with both arms inside of McGregor’s, Nate starts working to improve position. He grabs the wrist of Conor’s overhooking arm with his free left hand (circled).
9. And he turns into McGregor, driving his forehead into his jaw.
10. Nate extends his left arm and pins McGregor’s arm to his side.
11. Three quick little shots to the jaw . . .
12. . . . and McGregor frees his hand, trapping Nate’s hands on the inside again.
13. Inside position works fine, though. Diaz plants his head under McGregor’s chin and rips his right arm free to punch the body.
14. The torque of that punch frees his other arm, and lances a left hand across McGregor’s chin.
Nate, like his big brother, has always been an underrated clinch fighter. Perhaps it’s the lanky frame, so unlike that of a typical wrestler, or the tactics, a blend of boxing and schoolyard bully. Regardless, Nate Diaz has a few tricks in the phone booth, and he put them to work against McGregor. He peeled his hands out of the way and slung punches around them. He buried his head in McGregor’s chest to straighten out his legs and stop the movement that was such a big part of his new gameplan. He hit the body, punishing the Irishman for each gasp, and smashed ropey blows across his jaw.
McGregor did his best to defend, and in fairness, his best wasn’t bad. He slipped and rolled, covered his body and his head. Punches got through, but that’s what happens when you’re stuck with your back against the wall, too tired to move. The horn sounded, and he walked back to his corner, wearing the resigned expression of one who has been here before. The question still remained: what would he do about it?
Somehow, McGregor came out for the fourth round looking . . . rejuvenated. McGregor jabbed, no longer looking to land his left every time Diaz stepped in, just poking him and staying away. He kept kicking the leg, too. Diaz’s face split open, and blood poured over his eyes in steady sheets. And, most unexpected of all, he hung back. After seeing the way John McCarthy chaperoned McGregor back to his corner at the end of round three, you might have expected Diaz to storm out of the gate and overwhelm him, but he wasn’t keen to resume the assault. He looked . . . tired.
1. McGregor slowly circles around Diaz, noticing his lowered guard.
2. A quick jab to the forehead snaps Nate’s head back and brings his hands up.
3. Pivoting with his first jab, McGregor throws another, bringing Diaz’s guard up fully.
4. Now Diaz stands en garde, hands high.
5. So McGregor snaps a front kick up under his floating ribs.
6. That drops Diaz’s hands again, and his body curls in a brief show of pain.
7. Jump forward a few seconds, and McGregor is back to jabbing and feinting.
8. Still worried about the low kicks, Diaz lifts his knee to check, expecting one to follow the jab.
9. McGregor doesn’t throw the low kick until Diaz sets his foot down, however.
10. Note how much closer the distance is now. Diaz is on the reactive, not using his jab and footwork to keep McGregor at bay.
11. McGregor has no trouble landing another up-jab to the face.
12. Now Diaz tries to move away, but he has backed himself into the fence.
13. McGregor steps forward, and Nate guesses at what’s coming, checking a kick that never comes.
14. Instead, McGregor plants a right hook on his ribs.
15. Diaz clinches, but his strength is sapped.
16. Posture unbroken, McGregor laces another body shot through Diaz’s guard, this one a left uppercut to the pit of the stomach.
McGregor’s gameplan was likea lifeline. It gave him something to focus on, a goal to hold onto even as his body screamed that he should quit, and wouldn’t he rather lie down and let it all be over? More than that, though, the gameplan, like all good lifelines, was anchored. It was rooted in the first two rounds, in which Diaz had set the tone and put his plan in motion.
The first time Conor McGregor got tired–really tired–in a big fight was against Nate Diaz at UFC 196. Exhaustion seemed to hit him like a baseball to the gut. He looked as frayed mentally as he was physically. Exhaustion was something that happened in training, not in a fight. In a fight you hit the other guy and he went down. Simple as.
UFC 202 was not, as many had hoped, McGregor’s chance to prove that he could fight Diaz without tiring. It was, however, his chance to explore that fatigue. It was his chance to learn that he could tire, and keep on fighting regardless. No panic takedowns, no reckless attempts to salvage the fight before it all slipped away. Just strategy–the right tactics, in the right order. And as it turns out, getting tired is just something McGregor does. We never got to see it before, and perhaps the extra weight made it worse, but for all of his focus on cardiovascular training McGregor barely made it a minute longer than last time before tuckering out again.
This time, however, the power striking that sapped his energy had been wisely invested. In leg kicks, in body punches, in jabs. Diaz was left bleeding, his body hurting, his right leg weak. McGregor might have been slowing down, but so was Diaz. And if no one could punish McGregor for being tired, how much of a problem was it, really?
McGregor took the round, which meant three in his favor. All he had to do now was survive.
Round five began much like round four. Diaz chased and, as it always had been for him, it didn’t work too well. He is not his brother. McGregor moved around him. It wasn’t the featherfooted dancing you might have come to expect from him–more like the last dancer in a dance marathon, in fact–but it was enough to evade his plodding foe. Diaz had made an adjustment of his own, however. He remembered the end of the last fight, how he crawled over McGregor’s body like a spider, how easy it was to take his neck. And if McGregor wasn’t going to follow him to the ground, he was going to put him there.
1. McGregor ends up in the same position as in round three. Head pressure, arm trapped, Diaz punching with his free hand.
2. As before, he extends his arm to escape Diaz’s grip.
3. Turning to his right, McGregor controls Diaz with his head.
4. And blocks the short knee that Diaz responds with.
5. Despite this, Diaz begins to punch with his left hand, which is now free.
6. McGregor gets his palm on Nate’s biceps.
7. But Nate quickly pummels back inside, and takes away McGregor’s strong head position.
8. As McGregor is busy fighting hands, Diaz drops.
9. Having occupied McGregor’s right arm, he connects his hands before the Irishman can secure a good underhook. Preempting the takedown, McGregor widens his base and turns his hips, giving his hips a little extra room into which to withdraw.
10. Instead of futilely fighting for it, McGregor chinstraps Diaz’s jaw with his right hand, and overhooks his right arm.
11. As Nate tries to suck McGregor’s hips out, McGregor drives through his feet and hauls up on Diaz’s chin.
12. Nate’s arms slip up past McGregor’s waist, and Conor breathes a sigh of relief.
This was less a pivotal moment because of what happened, and more because of what did not. Three minutes deep into the fifth round, Conor McGregor was tired. Nate Diaz was tired. But a takedown for Diaz would have very likely meant the end of the fight for McGregor. However much The Notorious bragged about his ability to dominate Diaz on the ground in their rematch, it became clear shortly after McGregor’s first knockdown that he wanted nothing to do with Nate’s octopodean tangle of gangly arms and legs. There are many improvements that can be made over the course of a single camp–particularly a three-month one, and particularly for a talent such as McGregor–but Nate Diaz has been hyperextending arms and squeezing necks since he was 14 years old. That level of craft is not developed overnight.
Nate Diaz is not an exceptional wrestler–his takedowns have always been more than a little brutish; even more than his boxing, the takedowns rely on his opponent’s withering gastank. Still, the skinny Stocktonian is stronger than he looks, and the crudeness of the takedown is obliterated by the grappling grace which follows. McGregor showed quick thinking and deft wrestling to stop a takedown even after Nate had connected his hands, well after the bulk of his own stamina had been spent. No ego about going to the ground with Nate; no attempt at a flashy counter; no vain struggle for a superior position that wasn’t going to come. Just a quick hand under the chin, a small adjustment of the feet, and a well-earned second of rest in the clinch.
Diaz is and always will be a tough stylistic matchup for McGregor. Like McGregor, he is a southpaw, but one whose tactics are better designed to face another lefty; his efficient jab and steady pace are better suited to a drawn-out war of attrition. He is both notoriously durable and naturally bigger than McGregor, enabling him to withstand punches that most of Conor’s opponents simply cannot. Which means he can ply his tactics long after McGregor has exhausted himself chasing the finish. He possesses length and height to go along with that extra weight, allowing him to fence with a man who is all too used to dominating opponents from long range. And stamina. Nate Diaz is a Diaz, and that means he can go, and go, and keep on going.
And that is why McGregor’s strategy was so brilliant. Nate Diaz was able to step into the Octagon and do his usual thing. As difficult as the fight was for him, he managed to give McGregor serious trouble doing only what he always does, with a few minor adjustments along the way.
Not so for Conor McGregor. He had tried to fight Diaz the way he fought everybody else at UFC 196, and failed spectacularly. To win the rematch, McGregor had to battle not only Nate Diaz, but himself. In succeeding, he proved his place among the pantheon of MMA greats. It was hard–Diaz pushed him to the brink–but McGregor clawed his way back.
Greatness has to be tested. Anyone can win a favorable matchup. Any bum can win an easy fight. And the better you are, the easier the easy fights become. But to be a great, you need to win the hard ones. You need to beat the ones who are all wrong for you, who nullify your strengths and magnify your weaknesses. Greatness is tested, and grows greater for it.
For a different kind of Diaz-McGregor 2 breakdown, as well as analysis of a potential rubber match, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.
About the author