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UFC 196 Post-fight patterns: On McGregor and rules

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What's a beta? Just how terrible is TUF? Is it worse than having your ACL exploded? Important things to think about.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

"Two fighters come together... for a fight that breaks all the rules." That was DMX in the pre-fight hype vid for McGregor-Diaz.

MMA doesn't have any rules, though. Not in the old John McCain, human cockfighting kind of way, but more in the terms of unwritten expectations. A ton of people came into the sport following Rousey and McGregor. For them and others, Rousey was a "once ever athlete" and McGregor was Mystic Mac, the man who was always right.

That perception perhaps didn't last long, but even when Rousey got beaten, it was by an undefeated former boxing champion who would almost certainly go on to rule the division in her stead.

Instead, an undersized grappler who has had to come from behind to win virtually every fight she's had since losing to Rousey choked the new champ unconscious, taking her out with sheer grit and adaptability. A "fat Mexican" with an underwhelming 18-10 record stopped McGregor in two rounds .

On the off-chance you're one of those new fans: welcome to MMA. This is what it's like. This sport is young and weird, with tiny margins of error. It smashes its own rules year in and year out. No-one is safe.

Enjoy your stay.

Don't Diaz a Diaz

Despite constant reconfiguration of metagames and approaches, there's one oddly consistent rule: no-one can fight a Diaz brother at their own game. 12 years ago a young Robbie Lawler got poleaxed by a hybrid of the two shots which carried the day on Saturday, an odd little jab-hook mix. Then there was Saturday's main event, and the man that most people figured had the best combination of power and volume in the game got put away inside of two rounds. You realize why the Diaz brothers tend to get so mad at wrestlers, and at opponents who kick the lead leg and pick up points wins. It must be incredibly frustrating to know that if people just did what you wanted, that no-one could stand in your way. The level of athlete in the sport has skyrocketed at welterweight and lightweight, and still this rule holds- don't Diaz a Diaz.

Of the two brothers, Nick is the visibly harder hitter, but Nate is even... slappier. The right hook is the money punch, where his arm unfurls in a loop which idly rolls all the way down from shoulder to elbow to wrist, carrying down to knuckles which sometimes flex and stay loose and almost pawing. The motion is like a fly-fishing roll-cast or the crack of a whip.

It looks kind of dumb though, and it makes the people who get hit by it look dumb too. There's that first moment when a gangly arm drifts out and touches the opponent's cheek, and their face is suffused by a tiny and irresistible flash of surprise. We saw that on Saturday, the "what the fuck was that?!" look.

The people who go on to lose are the ones who can't accept it; punchers normally. They try to hammer their way past this lanky, weird dude, and the whip with a touch of lead weighting the end carries on gently lashing out until they're on wobbly feet. We saw that on Saturday, too.

Beta

This is Nate's biggest win. As Connor and Pat pointed out, it's likely the biggest win either of the Diaz brothers have had, full stop. Neither of them have ever won a UFC belt, and it's likely that neither of them will.

Nate's sole title shot was a shellacking at the hands of Benson Henderson.Like his fellow moneyweight Donald Cerrone, I suspect he's not quite mentally equipped for the kind of egocentric gathering process necessary for winning a belt. The idea of the lens of attention being focused on him for a long period of time is likely uncomfortable. However, as with Cerrone, if you take those expectations away, and put him in the void of a short-notice fight? David and I described this one as oddly stakeless, and this is where a Diaz and more specifically Nate might shine.

In modern popular culture, the descriptors "alpha" and "beta" have been appropriated by misogynist plonkers. Said plonkers have also confused "beta" with "omega." We can think of Nate as being one of MMA's betas in the more classical sense, and that doesn't mean he's subservient, or weak. It means that he's second.

McGregor is a sharp guy, and he picked up on the way that Nate constantly looks up to and over to Nick, and the way that he's MMA's most typical little brother. What he maybe didn't pick up on is the way that that this might insulate Nate from the way Conor operates.

McGregor's shit-talking and essentially his entire approach is designed to shake his opponent. He exerts enormous pressure when he fights, of the kind that had Chad Mendes suicidally backed into the fence in seconds, and that had Jose Aldo diving straight onto a knockout punch. The pressure didn't work on Diaz, and it's maybe, slightly, because the core of what Nate believes in was just outside the cage, where McGregor couldn't get to it. Even after he won, Nate was deflecting off to the side.

"As I said from the beginning, I have the best training partners in every aspect. Boxing, kickboxing, jiujitsu, and MMA."

Too big

Before the fight, there was a groundswell in the notion that fighters should compete at their natural weight classes. The swell went in the opposite direction with an audible snap afterwards, with a whole bunch of people nodding their heads wisely. "Power translating." "Weight classes are there for a reason." and other sage words.

To clarify: McGregor may return to 145 lbs.... but he needs to leave at some point in the near future, for his health. This was a fight against a 155lber, and it didn't go well, but to assume that this means that McGregor can't fight at lightweight is bizarre.

One of the more insane things I've heard along these lines is that Conor was somehow weighed down by fighting at his natural size, as though cutting weight is good for your cardio. This is literally mad. However, it is true that fighters learn to measure what they're capable of and to test the levels of their own internal reservoirs of energy. McGregor's internal calibrator was likely badly thrown by a chance to fight without cutting, after years of stripping his frame down to a skeleton. He probably felt like superman, and capable of throwing thirty power strikes a minute. He wasn't, of course.

Beyond this, different weight classes aren't just defined by the issues of bigger; stronger; longer. Different weight classes are... different. Dustin Poirier's porous defense is helped at lightweight by no longer fighting people who are quite as fast, and he's able to land power shots with a crucial touch more accuracy; BJ Penn's boxing was far worse at welterweight because a flat-footed jab-heavy style was ruined without reach parity. Frankie Edgar has had essentially equal success in emphasizing top control and power at featherweight, and in-out movement with takedowns and resets at lightweight. The key is in emphasizing different attributes.

Specificity is at the heart of a lot of what happens in MMA. Here then, another problem for McGregor was in the change of opponent. The only real commonality between RDA and Diaz is that they're southpaws. Other than that, McGregor moved from fighting a left-centric, forward-moving top control Thai stylist who hits like a piston, to fighting a right-centric, out-fighting looping boxer with a great guard. McGregor has said before that he doesn't train for specific opponents, but that statement is deliberately false, and if it isn't, then it's just negligent.

The list of reasons might all sound like excuses, but of course, there aren't any. Whatever happens, McGregor essentially hand-picked Diaz, on eleven days notice and with no fight camp. Any issues which the featherweight champ faced were multiplied for Nate, and Conor might be smaller than Diaz (in terms of actual fighting weight, I think the difference is marginal), but smaller and lesser fighters than McGregor have managed to beat the Diaz brothers before.

In addition, while musings on weight cuts and mentalities are fun, they're secondary to the technical realities of the fight: McGregor countered Nate's right jab with the left straight. Diaz countered Conor's left straight with the right hook. The differences were in old and relatively straightforward rules like commitment and cardio. A straight is harder to land than a jab and is harder to retract. McGregor had only one reliable strike (uppercuts, wheel kicks and oblique kicks had varying levels of success), whereas Diaz had two. ConnorJack and Pat have your backs on the technical breakdowns of the standup, and Syd has you covered for the grappling.

However, it's still true that there were a lot of factors that McGregor perhaps deliberately ignored, or even embraced. The idea that Diaz brothers are easy to gameplan for is somewhat overplayed, but they're not exactly closed books either.

Thoughtfulness vs drive

"He eats pressure for breakfast. He eats pressure like nobody I've ever seen in my life."

McGregor's spectacular UFC run has been the story of two not-quite-contradictory mindsets. Firstly there's the businessman and the analyst; a student of the game who weighs up the options. Secondly there's the guy who takes any fight and shrugs off his opponent's offense. Thoughtfulness is measured against drive, and so one of the questions of the McGregor puzzle box concerns what's central or dominant. At the base level is he the analyst, weighing up the risks and the opportunities and then using his own willpower to blast through perceived weak areas; or is he surging along and modifying his own momentum during or after the fight?

My personal guess is that the analyst remains at the heart of how he works, just. The way Conor explains it himself reflects a kind of modular rearrangement of his own mental processes. The rule that he'd exist by would be to find "comfort in the uncomfortable."

Everyone has things which jump out at them when they think of a famous fighter, pivotal moments inside the cage and out. One of those moments for me with McGregor came after he accepted a coaching role on the Ultimate Fighter TV series. Here was a young man with a taste for the high life, at the highest point in his career, just after the Mendes win. Rather than taking time to enjoy the fruits of his labour, he put himself down for weeks stuck in the UFC's most roundly loathed product, one which exists solely to seed new markets and feed a content-starved Fox Sports. It'd raise his profile just a bit, and it got him a better contract down the line, but very few people would have had that kind of foresight and discipline. TUF is nightmarishly dull; even soul-crushing... and that's just watching it.

Having fights at different weight classes, fighting injured or while injured; taking short-notice fights in his stride, or having one of MMA's most unpleasant weight cuts... coaching TUF for God's sake. I think McGregor deliberately made himself into a kind of pressure omnivore: choking down different flavours of stress in the same way that a gourmand might cultivate tastes for foreign cuisine.

The moment I was thinking about was at the Big Show presser, when Conor showed up and dominated the entire event. This was at the tail end of a brutal promotional schedule: he'd been on tour promoting the Aldo fight, and then he fought Mendes, and then he went on the Ultimate Fighter, and then he went on tour again. Months and months in a foreign country. I remember half-listening to it. When McGregor said:

"Parades and all, it's amazing and all that... but I just want to go home and see my family."

it jumped out more than any of the shit-talk. It was the first time he sounded almost desperate, like all the pressure he was gulping down was making him sick.

Still, it worked out. He finished Aldo in 13 seconds, and as in everything else he'd done up to that point, it validated the approach. I've mentioned a couple of times how there is a distinct shift in focus which all champions have to take, the change from "taking" to "defending" which often translates to a kind of insularity, or deflection. It's what changed Jon Jones from a top-control whirlwind to a man who kicked people in the knee. It defined UFC Aldo as compared to "WEC Aldo."

Conor has never undergone this shift. He was the Cage Warriors featherweight and lightweight champ but he never defended. He took the featherweight belt, then immediately to lightweight, then went straight to the UFC.

His entire career has been forward, onwards, bigger and better. Every time he's taken in the pressure, digested it, and then very deliberately moved onto something crazier. It's been incredible to watch, but it's also functioned as a feedback spiral which simply had to break at some point. If he'd won this fight (and he genuinely could have), then he almost certainly would have gone on to fight Robbie Lawler.

McGregor vs Rousey

There are some commonalities between Rousey and McGregor- a similar drive and gluttony for pressure. They connected with fans at least partially because of a kind of acceptance which was both appealing and, eventually, destructive. They fought a lot, dismissed what their opponents threw at them and normally crushed them anyway. They both took TUF and took more on their plate than perhaps they should have. They both lost pretty badly in fights where they kept taking what their opponents dealt out.

The difference is that I think Rousey is based around drive. She's more instinctive and reactive, and there's much more of a chance that she can't reconfigure her approach in the way that Miesha Tate has, and that this makes her much more fragile. Conversely, there are still fights like McGregor's bout against Max Holloway which show just how special he can be, and how he could win in a way which wasn't just fearless but egoless, and willing to fight in whatever way was necessary in order to win.

McGregor likely doesn't think much about being beaten up and choked in front of millions, but this may be the best possible loss for him. The feedback spiral is broken. He lost, badly, but he didn't lose a belt or an opportunity to contend for one. He gets to go back and defend his title. The question is whether the drive has already overtaken the analyst, and if he can reconfigure the way he thinks again, because living by a rule of bigger; crazier; more pressure only ends one way.