Nate Diaz probably wasn't supposed to beat Conor McGregor at UFC 196. Doubtless McGregor himself didn't expect it to happen. At first gracefully quiet and reflective, McGregor has since attributed Diaz's win to luck. "You might say he won the lotto," he quipped in an episode of UFC Embedded.
But with the rematch just around the corner, it is worth remembering: it was no accident that Nate Diaz was the first man in the UFC to beat Conor McGregor. Much of Conor's talk in the leadup to UFC 202 has focused on what he did wrong. He was inefficient. He gained too much weight too quickly. He didn't prepare for the specifics of Nate's style.
It has almost become an afterthought that Nate Diaz was about as unprepared as one can be for a main event fight, certainly less prepared than anyone would want to be when facing the featherweight champion. With only 10 days of training and no sparring whatsoever, Nate Diaz could not rely on fine-tuned tactics. He could not rely on a detailed gameplan, nor the vigor that results from a strength and conditioning program, nor the confidence that comes with a well-run camp. He had only his toughness, his attitude, and the skills that, though a bit rusty, had been forged and tempered over the last 14 years.
Conor McGregor may have failed to learn it, but the lesson of UFC 196 was clear: Nate Diaz is always ready, even when he isn't.
Much has been said about the boxing of the Diaz brothers, Nick and Nate. Their noodly hooks, affectionately called "the Stockton Slap," are about as signature a move as can be found in MMA. The solid fundamentals on which these hands are built, however, deserves credit.
First and foremost, let's do a little separating. Blood ties are strong, and the Slap is not the only common ground between Nick and Nate, but too often the Diaz brothers are viewed as one inseparable fighter.
The truth is that Nate and Nick are very different martial artists. Nick is known for his come-forward, two-fisted attack, eschewing defense as he digs viciously to the body. In classical boxing terms, Nick Diaz is a swarmer, a fighter who pushes the pace even as he pushes his opponent around the ring, quite literally chasing the finish.
Nate's approach couldn't be more different. He is a pure boxer, an out-fighter. Where Nick gets in close and goes to work, Nate makes his opponent work to reach him. He keeps a long jab hovering between himself and his foe, and every so often fills that space with a ramrod left hand. It stands to reason that Nate, who began training with Nick as a boy, developed his style in response to that of his sibling. It's not hard to picture Nate's first sparring session with Nick: big brother might have tucked his chin and come charging forward at the bell--and little Nate stepped away.
The steps are a big part of Nate's success. Footwork is the foundation of fighting, and Nate's is perfectly suited to his frame.
1. With Conor McGregor advancing, Nate Diaz prepares to strike.
2. He leads, stepping in with his right foot and extending his jab.
3. As he withdraws, Nate swings his left foot around, pivoting into a new stance. McGregor lunges forward, but withholds his strike when he notices Diaz's movement.
4. Nate isn't so kind, and he smacks Conor on the back of his head, adjusting his right foot at the same time.
5. Again, the left foot follows suit, and Nate once again stands ready in a new position.
6. McGregor begins to march forward. Nate sticks the jab again, stepping slightly back and away from the fence with his right foot.
7. And again the left foot catches up.
Punch, step, punch, step; right, left, right, left.There is a simple rhythm to this kind of movement that belies its effectiveness. Like Nick, Nate is not a quick fighter. Compared to Conor McGregor, who hops and bounces across the canvas with ease, Nate might as well be wearing snowshoes. But he makes up for that plodding nature with efficient, deliberate movements. With every action of his lead hand comes an adjustment of the feet, taking angles, loading weight, creating distance or taking it away. Diaz's steps are small, and calculated: designed to take him just out of reach, and give him subtle angles from which to launch his counter attacks.
Those attacks typically come in the form of a one-two. Whether in his upset win over Donald Cerrone back in 2011 or against McGregor earlier this year, the simple jab-cross has long been Diaz's most effective combination.
1. Nate comes forward, ready to piece Michael Johnson up.
2. Stepping in, he leads with a jab, getting Johnson to flinch.
3. And his weight continues forward behind a left hand which just clips Johnson's temple.
4. Johnson swings a counter but he's blinded by the impact, and Nate's reach keeps him safe.
5. It's not a Diaz fight without taunting. Nate casually walks forward, helpfully pointing out where Johnson was just hit.
6. But when Johnson starts settling back into his stance, Diaz follows suit, sitting onto his back leg to create distance and flicking his jab to keep Johnson on the defensive.
7. Johnson refuses to lead. The initiative still belongs to Diaz.
8. He seizes it with another jab, stiffer this time, but still just a snap of the arm . . .
9. . . . as the real pop is reserved for the cross.
10. "Got you."
Midway through the Johnson fight, UFC commentator Mike Goldberg noted that he'd "never seen Nate Diaz faster than he is tonight." In reality, speed was not the core reason for Diaz's success. Rather, it was the illusion of speed, created by Nate's superior craft.
When Diaz jabs, he regularly does so from an elongated, fencer-like position. Extending his right hand toward the opponent, he cuts in half the distance between his fist and the target. With less distance to travel, of course, the jab is less powerful when it does connect, but that doesn't matter. The jab is only the set-up, a stinging fly that gets the opponent blinking and swatting, open to the left hand that comes racing after.
Take a look at the way Diaz throws his one-two. Nate sometimes throws a jab, and he sometimes throws a left hand, but the one-two is a single, inseparable technique. As the jab extends, Diaz is already falling forward into the left hand, hiding the telegraphed movement of his body with the flashbulb impact of his right hand. Thrown from its advanced position, the jab already travels a short path to the target, but because the shifting weight of the cross is contained in the same movement, the left hand connects almost instantly after the right. Such was the combination that put Conor McGregor on skates. Nate's hands seem fast, but only because he makes them seem that way.
Mike Goldberg wasn't alone in wondering at Diaz's apparent quickness. He must have seemed impossibly fast to Michael Johnson as well. In truth, Johnson was still the faster of the two fighters, as was Conor McGregor. Nate was simply clever enough to make it seem otherwise.
What good is a two-piece without a biscuit? The Stockton Slap is a deceptively powerful weapon for Diaz's style, and the perfect complement to his lunging jabs and left hands.
Firstly, most fighters tend to overextend when committing to their cross. Balance is crucial in a fight, but most fighters make the decision to abandon it when the opportunity to strike presents itself. Conor McGregor is no exception. McGregor regularly overextends on his left hand, leaning forward and settling his weight so completely on the lead leg that his back foot leaves the ground and comes drifting after him. This is something I touched on back in July of 2015, and it is no less true today than it was then.
But again, Conor is not alone. Nate Diaz does it too. The difference is that Nate's winging hooks allow him to make a covered retreat. Even when his opponent has an opening, they must worry about that trademark Slap as they lean in to strike.
1. Nate stands ready, head a little forward.
2. McGregor paws with his right, and Nate catches his fist in an open palm.
3. The right is just a set-up, of course--it always is with McGregor--and Conor lunges for the body with his left.
4. The blow skims Diaz's stomach, but Nate smacks McGregor on the back of the head for his trouble.
5. They reset, and Nate decides to lead.
6. Jab first.
7. McGregor slips the left hand and connects with a cross counter, though he can't get full extension on the blow as Nate leans in.
8. They reset again, and Diaz devises another tactic.
9. He leans forward to confuse McGregor's sense of range.
10. And then pops McGregor with the jab.
11. For Nate Diaz, not all right hands are set-ups. McGregor expects the one-two again and tries for a short elbow counter instead of a long cross--but Nate has already pulled back.
12. And as he pivots out, he clips McGregor with the winging right again, only this time the fist is closed.
This is not something Conor McGregor has to deal with against orthodox opponents, most of whom are so busy trying to circle away from McGregor's left hand that they end up giving him free license to throw it. Nate Diaz's tactics are more those of a classical boxer than a southpaw, however. He works in behind his lead hand, and uses it to cover his retreat as well. Perhaps this unique lefty style came about because, between the two of them, Nate Diaz is vastly more experienced against other southpaws. In just the last five years, Nate has fought four full-time southpaws, and two fighters who frequently switch stance--that's not including Conor McGregor, or the sparring Nate does with people like Nick Diaz and Andre Ward.
Apart from Diaz, McGregor has faced only two other southpaws, Marcus Brimage and Dustin Poirier. In both cases McGregor won by first round finish, but that dominance may actually have worked against him. For years now, Nate Diaz has been winning and losing to lefties, learning what works and what doesn't. All Conor McGregor learned is that southpaws can be knocked out. Since the same is true of everyone, that knowledge isn't as valuable as it might have seemed.
Mindset is the final component in Nate Diaz's armor. The Diaz brothers are famous excuse-makers. That's no secret.
When Rafael Dos Anjos worked Nate both standing and on the ground, chopping him down with headkicks and brutalizing him from top position, the fighting pride of Stockton wasn't about to accept the loss at face value.
"I was not in the best type of shape I could be in," he told Sherdog. "I'm here to fight, always. I'm here, you see me. I'm not like other guys pulling out of fights with injuries," Diaz said. "Regardless, I'm going to be here, and show up and show what I can do. I just wish I could've been in better shape and had better sparring. Next time. I'll be here next time. I want to get the job and make it look right."
Two years prior, Josh Thomson floored Nate with a headkick, prompting brother Nick to throw in the towel even as the referee moved in to stop the fight. It seemed like an irrefutable result. Josh Thomson, at least on that night, was the better man. Nate disagreed.
"[Thomson] didn't come in there and put no ass whooping on me," he told BJPenn.com Radio shortly after the fight. "You know what I'm saying? He didn't come in there and make anything happen. I have never fought somebody before who had ever wanted out of a fight so bad . . . [He] was scared shitless when I was fighting him. It's unbelievable how scared he was in there. He was running for his life . . . He was making bitch ass lady sounds and that's not bullshit. I'm not here talking shit on him, this is reality. He was making woman sounds. He was running out of the clinch. I hit him in the face and he was going ‘Oh, oh, ehh' making woman sounds I've never even heard out of a man before during a fight. I'm hearing his corner telling him to smile and I'm like, ‘Yeah, smile motherfucker.'"
For many fighters, this kind of self-belief would be a weakness. It would suggest that the fighter in question is incapable of accepting defeat, and therefore incapable of making improvements. But for all of his excuses, Nate Diaz is not an unbeatable fighter, and he knows that.
Like his brother, Nate is more hard worker than natural athlete. His dangerous submissions are the product of 17 years of training; his rangey boxing the perfect foil for the come-forward style of big brother Nick, honed over a decade of hard sparring against mixed martial artists and professional boxers alike; his famous stamina the hard-earned reward of countless marathons, triathlons, and cross-country bike rides. He is not gifted with natural power, or unstoppable strength, nor is he particularly fast. Diaz's fights, like his extracurricular activities, are long-distance affairs.
And before he reaches the finish line, Diaz almost always absorbs punishment. He is notoriously easy to cut, his stern brow bearing the marks of a dozen old wounds. Even when he wins, Nate tends to take hard shots, or find himself pinned to the canvas. He claims to have fought injured for at least 10 of his fights.
Thus his undefeated mindset is tempered by the reality of his body and the demands of unarmed combat. Unlike some of his compatriots--unlike Conor McGregor--Nate Diaz knows, even when he is winning, that fighting is not easy. It comes at a price, and in 10 of his professional bouts Nate has failed to waive the fee. Winning got Conor McGregor where he is today, but it was losing that enabled Nathan Diaz to beat him.
There is even a kind of humility beneath Diaz's macho exterior. Behind all the flexing and mean mugging, there is an acceptance of risk that most fighters do not possess. He knows that fighting is chaos, that anything can happen on any given night. He knows that he can lose, and be humiliated. And he doesn't care. "I write it off from the beginning," he told Conan O'Brien. "Like, ‘I'm probably gonna get knocked out.' Just take that and accept it. And then go in there and make it happen. When it doesn't happen, when you come out with a win, that's pretty exciting."
Prior to UFC 196, Diaz spoke to TMZ about the unpredictability of the fight game. "I think you should beat everybody on your worst day, but you can never be ready enough for a fight anyway. [I] might get murked . . . Or he might."
Even though he thinks of himself as the best fighter on the planet, Nate Diaz does not shy away from the worst possible outcome. He makes his peace with it--befriends it--and then dares himself to overcome.
For a full, in-depth breakdown of Diaz vs McGregor 2, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.