Conor McGregor has a larger-than-life personality – his interviews often sound like that of a WWE Superstar more than your run-of-the-mill UFC fighter. He talks a big game, and up until Saturday night, he always backed it up. Then came Nate Diaz; and the rest is UFC history.
For the first time in his career, Conor McGregor seemed to bite off more than he could chew. He took a fight two weight classes and twenty-five pounds above the Featherweight division where he has been (and currently still is) champion ever since beating Chad Mendes (who, along with Nate Diaz, was a short-notice addition) for the interim Featherweight Championship in July. As interim champion, McGregor then ascended to the very top of the UFC in December when he knocked out reigning champ Jose Aldo in thirteen seconds to unify the Featherweight belts.
Given McGregor’s brash personality and willingness to call out anyone and everyone (a UFC version of Kevin Owens, perhaps?), he soon became a target of fighters throughout the UFC, many of those fighting at higher weight classes. In various press conferences or post-fight interviews, fighters such as Donald Cerrone, Tony Ferguson, Nate Diaz, and current Lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos either called out McGregor, or got into verbal sparring sessions with him.
UFC President Dana White, never one to pass up a potential blockbuster fight, gave McGregor an immediate title shot against Dos Anjos slated for UFC 196 despite the fact that McGregor had not fought above Featherweight since 2012. That highly-anticipated bout was put on hold after Dos Anjos pulled out of the fight due to a broken foot. With less than two weeks before the fight, and with McGregor calling out Dos Anjos and fellow Brazilian Aldo for pulling out of fights, the UFC desperately looked for a replacement.
Enter Nate Diaz.
Diaz is one of the few true heels in UFC – he is a trash-talking brawler and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner who cusses out opponents before fights and flips them off during. His signature “Stockton slap” style of boxing is meant to further enrage his opponent to falling into what I’ve long called the “Diaz Trap” – where a fighter angry with Diaz’s antics will push forward only to end up on the ground where Diaz is in his BJJ element, ripe for a submission (12 of Diaz’s 19 wins – now including McGregor – have come by submitting his opponent).
With a short buildup and no time for a full training camp to cut the weight necessary to drop down to the 155 pound Lightweight limit, the confident McGregor offered to take the fight in the 170 pound Welterweight division where he has never fought before. The undersized Irishman was brilliant in the press conference, talking circles around Diaz, whose replies were mostly either incoherent or muted out on ESPN due to profanity.
One of the few decipherable comments from Diaz happened to be very true – that McGregor had only fought what Diaz called “midgets” before. As politically-incorrect as the statement was, this would be the first time that McGregor had to fight someone visibly larger than he was. How would McGregor fight without the reach advantage, especially against someone more than happy to slap box from long distance?
With an almost cult-like following of Irish and bandwagon fans alike, McGregor boldly walked into UFC 196 wearing a suit that would have fit him right in with the Four Horsemen or Evolution. Diaz walked in as the man with nothing to lose, taking a fight with the Featherweight champion on twelve days’ notice. And in MMA, the man with nothing to lose is a dangerous man.
Not having the reach advantage he typically has in the Featherweight division, McGregor started getting tagged with punches in the second round, causing him to wobble and try to take the fight to the ground. Right into the Diaz Trap. McGregor tapped out to a rear-naked choke, losing the fight and a ton of the momentum he had built up over the last year.
Yes, he is still the UFC Featherweight Champion and will still be a large draw on pay-per-views, but his brash confidence ultimately lead him to (some would say foolishly) take a fight on short notice two weight classes above where he is champion against a highly-skilled fighter. It cost him, and the UFC, big time. A fight with Dos Anjos (or whoever has the Lightweight belt at that time) is still potentially on the table for now, but it will be interesting to see how Dana White will react to one of his most marketable stars already losing outside of his normal weight class. More realistically, McGregor’s next fight will be back at Featherweight against either Aldo or former Lightweight Champion and current Featherweight title contender Frankie Edgar.
To his credit, McGregor took the loss very humbly (at least for his standards), stating on his official Instagram account that he “took a shot and missed. I will never apologize for taking a shot. … I’ll take this loss like a man. I will not shy away from it. I will not change who I am. If another champion goes up 2 weights let me know.”
Even in his concession speech, McGregor was somehow both humble and the same brash WWE-style personality that took him to the top of the UFC. Time will tell if it will keep him there.