Nate Diaz rose, flexing his arms in a caricature of masculine bravado, his characteristic scowl concealed by a mask of blood. The featherweight champion of the world lay at his feet. Conor McGregor, the unstoppable force, vanquished.
It was not an easy win for Diaz. He had lost the first round, and absorbed considerable punishment before seizing the momentum midway through the second. The effort had cost him a cut under the right eyebrow that leaked into his eye. The right side of his face and neck displayed a series of nicks and abrasions courtesy of McGregor's heat-seeking left hand. It was not at all unlike his big brother Nick's hard-fought victory over Takanori Gomi almost exactly nine years ago.
But now is not the time for brotherly comparisons. Nate has always been compared to his brother, and while the two share certain mannerisms and an undeniable bond, they are very different martial artists. There will always be aspects of each Diaz brother to remind us of the other, but in defeating Conor McGregor Nate displayed each and every one of the skills and talents that set him apart from Nick. It was a performance that may very well define Nate Diaz's career, and it perfectly defined Nate Diaz himself.
Andre Ward talks sparring with the Diaz brothers
Conor McGregor's UFC career has been defined by two things: knockouts, and the aggression that leads to them. Though he was once happy to pick his shots from the outside, McGregor's counter-punching prowess now serves his pressure, or vice versa. With that in mind, his first round against Diaz was far from unusual. McGregor happily poured on the volume, missing some but landing plenty, employing the same tactic that had brought him up through the ranks of the featherweight division to the title.
And yet from the outset of the fight something was wrong. McGregor looked phenomenal, showing off improved head movement and combination punching, but there were enough little things troubling him right from the start to give a viewer pause. Maybe it was the reach of Diaz, coaxing McGregor to swing and miss more than usual with the left hand. Maybe it was the fact that a fully hydrated career lightweight, not to mention one known for his durability, was able to withstand punches that would have rendered a wrung-out featherweight senseless. Or maybe Conor McGregor was too far along the puncher's path to turn back.
But there was also Nate Diaz, and his skill. Nate is not Nick, and never has been. Where Nick Diaz is known for his take-one-to-give one attitude, relentless forward pressure, and combination punching, Nate Diaz is a boxer in the classical sense. The cornerstone of his style is the jab, off of which every other attack is built. His feet are slow like those of a big man, not like the twinkle-toes of McGregor, but he moves them with careful precision.
And then there is the subtle art of taking a punch.
1. McGregor and Diaz square off at range.
2. Diaz tries to hand-fight but McGregor slides a jab under his left arm.
3. Diaz pulls back as the jab extends, but leaves himself open to an incoming overhand left.
4. As Conor's left connects, Diaz moves with the punch, pulling back and absorbing the shock with his legs, all while looking to counter with a wide right hook.
5. His hook misses the mark, but Diaz keeps his eyes on McGregor and looks to adjust.
6. As McGregor tries to follow up with a left, Diaz is already moving, shelling up and smothering him to avoid further punishment.
7. A quick pivot brings Diaz around to the left, away from McGregor's left hand.
Nick Diaz's ability to survive tough fights has always been, in part, a result of his durability and heart. Nick has a great chin, a Marciano-esque resistance to pain, and enough willpower for five average fighters. Nate certainly doesn't lack the will, but I've long suspected that his own resistance to knockouts has as much to do with skill as it does will.
Nate's defense and footwork are badly underrated, perhaps because of the awkward appearance of his movements. When it comes to boxing tactics, however, he very rarely puts a foot wrong. When McGregor connects with his left hand, Diaz is able to take almost all of the power away by moving with the punch. After McGregor's arm has fully extended, what little sting remains is dissipated by Nate's stance--note his rear leg, turned out and bent to serve as a shock-absorbing spring. Nate even anticipates the need for this absorption by widening his stance between frames 1 and 2, moving his left leg back to give his head more cushion room. And after rolling with the first blow, Diaz is far from stationary. Years of boxing training take over as he covers up, smothers his aggressor by closing the distance, and pivots to take away his angle of attack.
Often movements like this were enough for Diaz to avoid punishment entirely. Anyone watching surely noticed just how frequently McGregor missed--much more than usual. When McGregor proved too quick or too slick to be avoided, however, Diaz's ability to move with the punches helped him to retain his wits. Ultimately, McGregor's full-power punches hurt him far more than they hurt Nate, who patiently waited for the opportunity to strike.
FINDING THE OPENING
There is a moment in the footage of this fight that gives me chills no matter how many times I watch it. No doubt my analytical mind is reading patterns where there are none, and drawing meaning from nothing. But I watch anyway, again and again.
After the first round, the camera finds Nate Diaz in his corner. Where most fighters spend this time intently listening to their trainers, or sneaking furtive looks at the opponent far on the other side of the cage, Diaz simply stares. Not at his trainer, not at his cutman, and not at McGregor.
Nate Diaz stares directly into the camera; at us. The message in his eyes seems all too clear in retrospect: "I know what I'm doing. Wait and see."
Swinging away, McGregor had been sowing the seeds of his own comeuppance since the start of the first round. As he said himself in the post-fight interview, he was "inefficient with [his] shots," too eager to hit an opponent who was too tough, too good. At some point in the second round, McGregor realized his mistake. He began to grow tired, while Diaz's pace remained unchanged. Even his clean punches were no longer having an effect. Rather, they were having an effect, but not the desired one; Diaz seemed emboldened by the punishment rather than dissuaded.
And as the doubts were munching away at McGregor's mind, Nate Diaz was watching, and waiting, and planning.
1. Backed into the fence, Diaz looks to create a little space.
2. A teep connects. McGregor refuses to step back, but he must plant his feet to resist the impact.
3. Diaz capitalizes by immediately following up with a jab. McGregor slips to his left. Diaz notices.
4. McGregor has an uppercut in mind, but Diaz is already pulling away, tucking his chin behind his shoulder and pivoting to his right.
5. The two reset.
On first look, nothing much happens in this sequence. Diaz connects with a decent kick, but misses with his follow-up attack, and McGregor manages to keep him backed against the fence despite everything. For a boxer such as Nate, however, there is no such thing as a failure. There is only opportunity.
Diaz notices that, forced to make a quick reaction, McGregor slips to his left and looks for the uppercut. It is a counter that he had been preparing for Rafael Dos Anjos, and pre-fight training footage showed that he expected it to work against Diaz as well. Nate takes that information and files it away. It will come in handy in just a few moments.
1. Seconds after the last exchange, Diaz is backed into the fence again.
2. As McGregor comes forward, Nate opts to lead with a throwaway jab . . .
3. . . . followed by a half-beat left hand. McGregor slips it, this time to the other side.
4. McGregor counters with a right uppercut inside.
5. A left hand follows, but Diaz covers up.
6. Diaz blocks a right hook.
7. And McGregor can't find an opening for the left uppercut.
8. The featherweight champ tries for a left hook next, but he has to push to get it through Diaz's guard.
9. True to form, Diaz isn't a stationary target. He pivots away from McGregor's left hand and forces him to adjust.
10. McGregor is happy to keep attacking, but his jab falls short . . .
11. . . . and Diaz blocks his overhand left.
12. Nate even cuffs him with a slapping right hook on the way out.
At the start of this sequence, Diaz is looking to capitalize on the opening revealed by his previous jab. The jab he leads with now his a mere flicker, serving only to hide the left hand, which Nate throws according to the expected location of McGregor's head. McGregor has had time to think, however, and changes tack from the last exchange, slipping to the right instead of to the left.
Again, there is no such thing as failure. Diaz misses, but he learns.
In this case, there is something vulnerable about the way that McGregor jumps on the chance to counter. There is a certain urgency to his combination punching. He throws everything into every blow, as if this might be his last chance to get the job done.
It is a risky gambit, and it doesn't work. Those forced punches tell Nate everything he needs to know about his opponent's state. The power isn't there, and yet the punches come desperately, recklessly. Diaz senses the weakness, and knows that now is his time to strike. McGregor was poised enough to react smartly a few seconds ago; how will he react now after wasting the last of his power on a determined opponent?
1. Stumbling back, McGregor has the posture of a beaten man.
2. Diaz comes forward.
3. The jab again. This one is quick like the last one, but fully extended like the first. Diaz's fist touches McGregor's jaw as he slips to the left.
4. Diaz's left hand arcs down to find McGregor's chin just where he expected to find it.
5. McGregor can't even get his legs under him before Nate Diaz starts taunting. The end is near.
Mind under pressure, McGregor reacts the way Diaz wants him to. There is no choice in it for Conor. Despite his exhaustion the slip is automatic, as is the uppercut, signs of a well-schooled fighter. But McGregor is battling fatigue as well as Diaz, and the Stockton scrapper has hard-fought experience that no amount of innovative training can replicate. As McGregor springs into his uppercut, he ends up driving his chin straight into Diaz's fist, magnifying the impact and shaking the foundations of his weary body.
McGregor has been the quicker, more powerful fighter all night, but Diaz's patience pays off. Here is a man who bounced dozens of blows off of Donald Cerrone without a single knockdown, staggering the man who walked through Chad Mendes' counters without blinking. Then again, precision beats power, and timing beats speed.
This is where the momentum shifts, and the fight changes. As Diaz comes on, McGregor sneaks in a few more counters, but the power is gone, as is Diaz's apprehension. By the time Nate sinks in his choke, McGregor is more than ready to give up.
I'M NOT SURPRISED, MOTHERFUCKERS
Nate Diaz is a very different fighter from his brother. There is a depth to his boxing that defies expectations. As McGregor himself said before the bout, Diaz looks like his "skill doesn't match the will." He looks "predictable," and even "sloppy." Conor McGregor is not the first to fall prey to the awkward appearance of Diaz's style, nor will he be the last. He may very well, however, be the greatest.
Whatever divides them as technicians, Nate and Nick share the same mentality. The more I think about it, the more it seems that the Diaz mindset may in fact be the perfect mindset for a fighter. When a Diaz brother loses, it's bullshit, plain and simple. They don't agree with the judges' scorecards, or they were injured heading into the fight, or the opponent had a spy embedded in their training camp--the specific excuse doesn't matter. What matters is that the Diaz brothers refuse to accept defeat at face value.
When victory is in the cards, Nick and Nate are never surprised. Why would they be? They expected to win from the start, and they never really lose anyway. The right result happened, that's all.
For men like Conor McGregor, gifted with unbelievable athletic talents, this mentality can be poisonous. It leads to arrogance. You might say that the expectation of winning--even to the point of predicting the rounds in which he would land the knockout punch--was what led McGregor to this defeat.
But Nate Diaz and his brother aren't incredible athletes. They aren't gifted with superhuman speed, or crushing power. In Nate's case he may not even be particularly durable. In a division packed with athletic phenoms every other fight is a struggle for Nate, and that keeps his arrogance in check. He believes in himself above all, but he knows how much effort goes into a win nonetheless.
I hated the Diaz brothers when I first got into MMA. I found them obnoxious, and crass, and unsportsmanlike. The more time I spend with this sport, however, the more my affection for the Diaz brothers grows. Nate Diaz is a special fighter, skilled and tough in equal measure, with the perfect mentality encased in a body that demands diligence to yield results. He doesn't always win, but you can be damn sure he deserves it when he does.
We counted him out, but Nate Diaz got the win. He's not surprised.
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