(Note: This is a follow-up to a piece published on January of 2015, which paralleled the careers of Conor McGregor and heavyweight boxer George Foreman. To read the original Puncher's Path, follow this link.)
Why Nate Diaz? That question must haunt Conor McGregor to this day.
When the UFC tapped the younger Diaz brother as a replacement opponent for McGregor at UFC 196, their logic was clear. What better foil for the most divisive man in the UFC than another bonafide lightning rod? What better replacement for a title fight than a man who claims not to care for belts anyway?
Of course, promoters don't just care for selling fights. The UFC brass must also have had McGregor's resume in mind. Nate Diaz could sell a fight, sure--but he could also be beaten. He had won only two of his last five bouts. What's more, when Diaz received the call, he was enjoying the spoils of his last victory, downing shots in Cabo San Lucas and building more fat than muscle. Even in retrospect, the plan seems foolproof: give Diaz only 11 days to prepare, let him build the fight, and let McGregor win.
It didn't work out that way, of course, but one wonders if McGregor shared the promotion's shrewdness.
A steadfast believer in the Law of Attraction, Conor McGregor has never been satisfied with his own achievements. He has always hungered for more, always looked to outdo himself, always sought the next challenge.
In June of 2012, McGregor flattened Dave Hill to take the Cage Warriors featherweight title. Rather than defending the belt, he moved up in weight, and took the lightweight title from Ivan Buchinger six months later. To McGregor, even this impressive achievement was nothing more than a launching pad. He won his UFC debut in April of 2013. Despite a crippling ACL injury, he put together a four-fight win streak in the next three years and faced Chad Mendes in July of 2015. Winning the interim UFC title, he set his sights on the unified championship, and took it with ease, knocking out longtime champion Jose Aldo in just 13 seconds.
For other fighters this might have been the culmination, a justly deserved reward for years of body-breaking work. But McGregor wanted more. He scheduled a bout with UFC lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos, looking once again to catapult from success to success. When Dos Anjos pulled out with an injury, McGregor was happy to accept a replacement fight--but why at welterweight? And why Nate Diaz?
The date is June 23rd 1973. George Foreman is the heavyweight champion of the world, but at featherweight, seven divisions and 91 pounds away from Foreman's smoldering gaze, the throne sits empty.
A young man by the name of Bobby Chacon stands ready to make a run, his back to the ring as he dukes it out with the turnbuckle, waiting for the sound of the bell. Behind him is Ruben Olivares, one of the greatest bantamweights the ring has ever known, and until recently the undisputed champion. He is making his second foray into the featherweight ranks, and Chacon feels up to the challenge.
The bout begins. Chacon chases after Olivares, following in his footsteps rather than cutting off the ring. For a time it works. Chacon strafes Olivares with ramrod jabs. He pierces his belly with right hands, and follows with left hooks upstairs. He is scoring, and his confidence balloons with each success. Ruben Olivares has three times the experience, but Bobby isn't fooled. Olivares comes prepackaged with a fearsome reputation, but right now he doesn't seem so tough.
By the third round, Chacon is fully committed to the attack. He has 17 knockouts to his name, a finishing rate of 89 percent. No one can take these punches for long, not even "Rockabye" Ruben Olivares.
But Olivares is done taking punches; midway through round three, Chacon steps in with a right hand. Olivares lays a palm on his neck and sweeps him into the ropes. Suddenly, Olivares becomes the aggressor. He mashes lefts to the body and rolls under Chacon's counters to land hooking blows to his head.
Before long the onslaught slows, and Olivares takes a step back. But when Chacon follows, eager to regain the forward momentum of the first two rounds, Olivares meets him halfway with a pair of heavy counters. Again Olivares pulls back, and again counters Chacon as he renews the chase.
Bobby doesn't know it yet but this is the pattern of the fight. Olivares pulls, Chacon reaches after him. And the harder Chacon reaches, the more Olivares' counters sting. Olivares has three losses, but slowly, punch by punch, Chacon is realizing that those aren't losses he can replicate. He is caged in with a craftier fighter, and his young body is breaking down under the weight of Ruben's superior experience.
The locals call Chacon the Schoolboy, but tonight is the first time he's really looked the part, with Ruben Olivares his headmaster. After the ninth round, Bobby Chacon sits down on his stool, and stays there for several minutes. He stares as Olivares celebrates his 73rd win.
They say that power corrupts, and nowhere is this more true than in combat sports. Punching power can be taught, but true power is typically innate. And in a sport where the direction of a bout can be changed with a single, decisive blow, there are few gifts more precious.
But punchers very often fall victim to their own power. Almost always, in fact. Even as they put down foe after foe, they lose sight of the strategy and technique which help bring that power to bear. It is often difficult for gifted athletes to understand the importance of fundamentals; it is almost always difficult for gifted punchers to hone their craft when each and every opponent is dispatched with ease.
When I wrote about the Puncher's Path in January of 2015, I painted the picture of an arrow-straight road, evenly paved, that goes on and on until it runs over a cliff. The truth is more complicated. The Puncher's Path is serpentine, weaving this way and that like the punch-drunk pugs that walk it. It runs up against the cliff, but for many the Path veers away before they step over, or they are able to scrabble desperately back onto the pavement after stumbling into the pit.
The Path is wide enough for two-way traffic, too. There are many gifted punchers who ran headlong down the path, only to catch a glimpse of what awaited them and turn right back around.
That is why it matters what McGregor's reasoning was in accepting Diaz as an opponent. If, in his eyes, Nate was a worthy opponent and a suitable replacement for the lightweight champ--if perhaps McGregor's suggestion of a welterweight limit was intended to add another layer of difficulty to the matchup--then McGregor's philosophy remains intact. If McGregor expected something like the fight he got at UFC 196 and took it anyway, then he can view the result as an unfortunate consequence of his thrill-seeking career path. In other words, he can cope with it, and come back better.
If, however, McGregor saw Diaz the way the UFC did, as an out-of-shape and unprepared victim--if the welterweight limit was intended to give Conor a break from the rigors of his brutal weight cutting regime--then the Dubliner stands on shakier ground. If Diaz was an easy fight gone awry, then McGregor can come into the rematch once again expecting an easy fight. He can excuse his defeat and, instead of retailoring his game for a uniquely difficult opponent, double down on the notion that Diaz, like more than a dozen men before him, is just another chin waiting to be cracked.
Two years have passed, and Bobby Chacon is back in the Forum in Inglewood, California. He has entered the familiar arena to face a familiar opponent: Ruben Olivares, the only man to have ever defeated him. Except this time Bobby Chacon wears championship gold around his waist.
The last time he fought Olivares, he knows, he was not ready. He was only 22 and, though he had beaten a few credible contenders already, the veteran Olivares was his first big test. He is 24 now, and coming into his prime. A little over a year ago, he bested fan-favorite Danny Lopez and vaulted himself back into the spotlight. He took the WBC belt from Alfredo Marcano a little over three months later, and put away Jesus Estrada in just two rounds to retain the title. Neither of those men had the crushing power nor the honed craft of Olivares, but then Olivares couldn't have much more in the tank himself. The Mexican legend is fading. He has been knocked out twice since their first meeting, while Bobby has stopped every one of the seven men he has fought in the last 24 months.
As his name is announced, Chacon flashes a winning smile to his cheering hometown crowd, gives them a cheery wave as he accepts his mouthpiece. In center ring, he chucks Olivares on the arm after hearing the referee's instructions, and returns to his corner. He is primed for revenge, and he's feeling good.
The bell. Chacon walks toward Olivares with lazy grace, still stretching out his shoulders as Ruben circles, pumping his jab. Olivares feints, and Chacon steps forward trying for a pair of body shots. Just like last time, Olivares spins him into the ropes, but Bobby isn't worried. He has grown into his frame over the last two years, and he holds Olivares' arms, forcing the stocky Mexican to break. Chacon stalks Olivares some more, pounding his gloves together for effect after each break.
In what seems like mere seconds, the first round is over. Olivares has taken it, but Chacon is used to dropping early rounds. He's bigger, stronger, and younger than Olivares. When the bell for round two rings, he is ready to start picking up the pace, and breaking this old man down.
The first exchange doesn't go his way. Chacon cuffs Olivares with a short right, but eats a hard blow to the belly, and a left hook that sneaks around his guard. He resets, and bites on another feint, dipping his head to go for the body himself. Olivares' next feint is no empty threat. He flashes his jab and leaps forward behind it, slipping a hook behind Bobby's glove, and tapping him with a short right for good measure. Bobby Chacon's knees turn to water.
He shakes his head clear and makes his decision: Olivares has to go down, now.
He begins to exchange. A good left to the body, and a few glancing blows upstairs. He realizes too late that his back is to the ropes again, but there's nothing for it. He trades left hooks with Olivares one, two, three times. Olivares is smart. He knows he can't exchange with Bobby Chacon, and he gives him space. Chacon fills it with his jab, reaching for Olivares' flattened nose. And again, coming up short. He steps in with a stiff jab now, determined to find his mark, and Olivares slips, delivering a crushing right hand over the top.
Chacon reels. As Olivares comes forward he ducks into his gloves and drops his chin straight into a left uppercut. The short right that follows sits him down and, for the second time in his career, Bobby Chacon is knocked down. He tries to play it off, wiping his nose and casually propping his arm on his knee as if he is lying here by choice, trying not to let Olivares see how the bottom rope is keeping his head off the canvas.
At nine he stands, but his legs are no good. Chacon has filled out into a large, well-muscled featherweight, but he's no longer feeling that weight the way he expected. Instead, as Olivares marches forward and shoves him against the ropes, he's feeling the 16 pounds he sweated off in just two weeks before the fight. As he slumps into the ropes under the brunt of Olivares' two-fisted assault, he's feeling every drink and line, every late-night he pissed away during the training camp. And as he tumbles back to the canvas, he's feeling the absence of Joe Ponce, the dedicated trainer he fired after winning his title.
Bobby beats the count a second time, but he can't beat Olivares. Ruben wades in swinging wildly with both hands, and Chacon truly has no choice now: he swings back, willing his punches to save him where his defense has failed. The power fails him too. Chacon can't scare Olivares off, and he ends the bout hugging his head with both gloves, waiting for the referee to save him.
Once again Bobby Chacon sits on his stool and watches as the only man to ever beat him tells the ring reporters how he managed to do it again.
For all that he loves to talk, Conor McGregor is a difficult man to know.
Now scheduled for UFC 202, his rematch with Nate Diaz was uncertain for some time. McGregor and the UFC sparred publicly while McGregor isolated himself in Iceland to train. McGregor wanted a break from promoting, but the UFC wanted him to sell the fight. McGregor wanted welterweight, and the UFC wanted lightweight. McGregor wanted more money, and so did the UFC.
Despite all of this, the promotion would have us believe that McGregor has been focused on the fight ever since his defeat. The truth is uncertain. In April, McGregor watched a teammate kill his opponent in the cage. "I helped train a guy to kill someone," he told the Independent, "And then someone wound up dying."
McGregor announced his retirement from MMA later that month. His wording suggested a power play, but the Notorious is still haunted by Ireland's first MMA death, and his motives remain unclear.
Even before the tragic events of April 9th, rumors were circulating that McGregor may have begun to enjoy his infamous "Mac Life" a little too much. Prior to the Diaz fight, an anonymous source alleged that the featherweight champion was partying with prostitutes for days on end, using cocaine to keep the party going. There is no real reason to believe the claims, but the pictures of McGregor hanging out with two ladies who are certainly not his longtime girlfriend Dee Devlin force us to question the mental state of MMA's biggest superstar. After Diaz choked him out, McGregor consoled himself by partying with 10 bikini-clad women at a Las Vegas casino.
McGregor is not a stupid man. He came into the Diaz fight brandishing a set of new tools, even patching up the suspect defense that had allowed Chad Mendes, Dennis Siver, and Dustin Poirier to hit him cleanly. But the Puncher's Path is unpredictable. We might have suspected that McGregor was headed for a fall, but none of us knew when it would come--only Nate Diaz was unsurprised by the result of UFC 196. And none of us--not even Nate Diaz--know how McGregor will respond to the defeat.
Will he come back with a gameplan perfectly suited to his opponent? Has he set his partying aside and rededicated himself to his training? Dana White claimed that McGregor insisted on the Diaz rematch taking place at welterweight. Trainer John Kavanagh says he urged McGregor to fight at lightweight but the UFC insisted on the 170-pound limit. When asked whether he thought Conor would ever return to featherweight to defend his title, Kavanagh's reply was simple and direct: "I don't know."
Perhaps not even Conor McGregor truly understands Conor McGregor. The trickiest thing about the Puncher's Path is that it often lies hidden, overgrown and out of sight. The man who believes himself invincible can go on believing in his invincibility even after a loss. If his words are to be believed, McGregor seems to be blaming himself for the defeat. "I ate up to the weight," McGregor told ESPN in June. "This time, I won't do that."
This could be either a good thing or a bad thing. McGregor seems to believe that he was inefficient with his attacks, that he fought too recklessly. "The first eight minutes of the fight was easy. Let's be honest, I slapped the head off him. Once the gas tank went, that was it. I drowned. He landed that one punch that rang the bell and went, '[Gasp,] I'm back.'"
But embedded in this valid assessment is the assertion that McGregor alone was responsible for the result, that Diaz didn't deserve the win. That he got lucky. "He was close to being done," McGregor says. "One or two more shots and he would have been wrapped up."
It is hard not to believe that this very mindset was partly responsible for McGregor's defeat. One more punch was written all over McGregor's face as he chased after Diaz in the second round. Even as his punches lost steam and Diaz began to pick up the pace, McGregor seemed set on delivering that one final blow. I can save myself, he seemed to think, If only I hit him hard enough.
Conor McGregor still has his second chance. And fortunately for "The Notorious," Nate Diaz is not unbeatable. Fighters have stepped off the Puncher's Path before, and found longterm success as a result. They may be complicated people, but even prizefighters learn lessons. Whether McGregor has learned his remains to be seen. It may be that it will take another humiliating defeat for him to recognize his own faults. Or it may be that McGregor, the man who has always chased the next challenge, cannot accept that some challenges are simply too much.
1977. Bobby Chacon has spent the last two years fighting nobodies and has-beens, the only exception being Rafael Limon, an unpredictable brawler who beat him over ten rounds just six months after he lost his title. Even the bums had gotten to him from time to time: an 8-13-3 fighter called David Sotelo floored Chacon twice in a ten rounder that the Schoolboy barely managed to win. He remembers having his scalp stitched back together in the dressing room while his wife Valerie, the woman who inspired him to take up boxing in the first place, begged him to leave the sport. He sat on the sidelines and tried to enjoy his money, but the prize ring called. Nine months later he was back under the lights, dispatching a man with nine losses and only three wins to his name.
Now, for just the second time since he lost the belt, Chacon is back in the Inglewood Forum. So is Ruben Olivares.
Olivares is well and truly on the way out now. The man had accrued only three losses in the eight years prior to he and Chacon's first encounter, but he has picked up five more since, four of them by KO. Everyone is saying that Ruben Olivares is not long for the sport of boxing, but for the first time Bobby Chacon refuses to join them, perhaps because they're saying the same things about him.
He doesn't feel like a spent fighter, but he isn't about to underestimate Ruben Olivares again, nor overestimate himself. His best fights are still ahead of him, but tonight there is only Olivares, who has beaten him twice before.
When the bell sounds, Chacon leans on his own experience. He boxes Olivares, and counters him with precision body blows. When Ruben gets in tight, Bobby shoves him off, keeping his hands on the veteran's shoulders to stop his thudding punches short. Several times Olivares backs Chacon into the ropes, but he only trades long enough to make space before spinning back into center ring.
It is an ugly fight; Chacon has always been a better slugger than a boxer, and his movements are awkward and ungainly. But they are the right movements for Olivares, who is forced to pursue Chacon with ever wider and more desperate punches. Olivares has been stopped six times, but for the first time the man with 33 knockouts doesn't look for the finish--not too hard, anyway. Instead, he looks for the win.
After ten grueling rounds, he gets it. Standing on two feet, with a weary smile on his face, Bobby Chacon crosses the ring to pat Ruben Olivares on the back.
In 2003, BoxRec's John Garfield spoke with a 55 year-old Ruben Olivares in a crowded bar.
"You're one of the hardest punchers that's ever stepped in the ring. How did [Chacon] manage to take those [shots]?" [I asked.]
[Olivares responded:] "Chacon hit very hard also . . . he was very, very brave."
And he seemed to be struggling to find an even stronger word. I volunteered "cajones," and he rocked back with laughter, nodding his agreement. "You speak my language," he said, tapping me on the shoulder.
Chacon showed bravery in every one of his fights with Olivares. The first time around, it was the reckless bravery of youth. In 1975, it was a bravery bred of arrogance, that blurred into foolishness. In both fights, that bravery was aimed firmly at Ruben Olivares. It was not until August 20th of 1977, after five years and two losses to one of the greatest fighters in the history of boxing, that Bobby Chacon gained the courage--and the wisdom--to confront himself.
Bobby Chacon was not the only fighter in history to follow the Puncher's Path back to its start--far from it: Wilfredo Gomez, Roberto Duran, Sonny Liston--the list is long. There are also countless hitters who fell in love with their own power--or fell out of love with the technique behind it: Julian Jackson, Naseem Hamed, Earnie Shavers--that list is longer by far. If you don't know the names you can look up their stories, but almost invariably you will find that greatness is the key ingredient which separates the sluggers from the legends, the difference between the knockout punchers and the knockout artists.
Though none realized it before UFC 196, Nate Diaz is a truly difficult style matchup for McGregor. He is longer and taller, durable and tireless, a better grappler and a more fundamental boxer. He is cleverer than he seems, but too stubborn to ever quit. Worst of all, he is one of the few men in the sport immune to McGregor's mindgames--even better, in fact: Diaz burns McGregor's infamous slurs like fuel. Whether he can beat Diaz at UFC 202 depends on the answer to the question: is Conor McGregor great?
Either McGregor adapts to Nate Diaz, and proves himself to be something more than a normal fighter; a man introspective enough to recognize his own faults, and bold enough to change them for the better.
Or he loses again and, at least for the time being, rejoins the rest of the pack.
Or . . . maybe he lands one big punch.