What does great mean? We could be corny and go to the dictionary definition, but in combat sports the term carries special significance. A dominant champion is great, as he must constantly adapt and improve to defend his title from a list of increasingly well-prepared challengers. A trainer is great if he carries multiple fighters to world titles, or revitalizes the career of a fighter who seems set in his ways.
Often those fighters are great in their own right. It takes special discipline and aplomb to overcome the tendencies of one's own style, which are often intrinsically tied to the fighter's personality, and every bit as difficult to tame.
A fight can be great too. Exciting fights are fairly commonplace, but a great fight demands something more. For their contest to be great, the fighters must bring the best out of one another. They must do so repeatedly, each success inspiring their opponent to find success of his own. Great fights are defined by momentum swings; like a great novel, they possess the push-and-pull of conflict which drives the story onward.
With a win over Nate Diaz at UFC 202, Conor McGregor has established himself as a great fighter. But it was only with the help of Nate Diaz that he was able to create a great fight. From one round to the next, the outcome of their contest was uncertain. Just as McGregor seemed to put his stamp on the action, Diaz would press back and turn the tide in his favor. And while that momentum shift was enough to steal Diaz the fight in their first encounter at UFC 196, McGregor failed to give in this time around. He too came back, battling himself every bit as much as he battled his opponent.
If momentum swings are what make a memorable fight, what better way to break that fight down than by analyzing each dramatic change of fortune?
These are the Pivotal Moments of Nate Diaz vs Conor McGregor II.
When Conor McGregor first met Nate Diaz in the cage, it was the first time in his stellar UFC career that the featherweight champion found himself in the midst of a truly difficult style matchup. He had faced skilled opponents before, but not one of them was able to press McGregor's weaknesses. Worse, he had beaten many of these opponents so easily that, in the leadup to UFC 196, he seemed to think that those weaknesses didn't exist. In a word, McGregor's experience had taught him one thing: no one could stand with him and survive.
Nate Diaz brought a different kind of experience to the cage. In his last fight he had beaten Michael Johnson, an athletic southpaw not totally unlike McGregor. But arguably more valuable were the fights which preceded that. Diaz had been battered by Rafael Dos Anjos. Prior to that, Josh Thomson handed him the first and only knockout loss of his career, just four months after Diaz lost decisively in his long-awaited shot at the lightweight title.
To a man like McGregor, these losses suggested weakness, but in truth they showed that Diaz could lose--badly--and recover. His losses bolstered his strength, and at the same time checked his overconfidence. He knew he could beat McGregor, but he also knew he could be beaten. He refused to underestimate the man who seriously underestimated him, and it led him to victory.
But in defeating McGregor, Diaz gifted him some of that same experience. Knowing for certain that he could be beaten now, McGregor changed his approach. Dramatically. He came into the rematch with a different mindset, a different gameplan, and a newfound respect for the skills of Nate Diaz.
1. After an exchange, McGregor stalks forward.
2. He feints low and sees Diaz's hands come up, perhaps anticipating an overhand left.
3. Diaz tries to reset, but McGregor stays between him and freedom.
4. And quickly lunges in, dipping down again, and selling the left hand with a feint. Diaz's hands go up . . .
5. . . . and McGregor lands a right hook to the body.
6. The left hand follows, just clipping Diaz behind the ear.
7. But it's enough to make his knees buckle.
8. McGregor stays on him.
9. Diaz needs a way out of the corner, so he jabs, but McGregor takes a page out of Floyd Mayweather's book and pulls just out of reach . . .
10. . . . before replying with a right hand that barely grazes the top of Diaz's head.
11. In avoiding the punch, however, Diaz puts himself a little out of position.
12. And McGregor capitalizes, smashing a low kick into Nate's hamstring.
13. Nate gets his stance back again.
14. Once again he tries for the jab, and once again McGregor pulls.
15. But this time, because Nate is standing tall and pivoting with his punch, the pull counter lands clean.
16. Nate Diaz sits down for a moment.
This sequence represents the perfect confluence of nearly every aspect of McGregor's adjusted gameplan. Knowing that he had faded last time, and knowing that Diaz would likely still be able to press him in the later rounds, McGregor opted to invest his power wisely. Rather than simply attacking Diaz's head repeatedly, he presented a variety of threats. When Diaz expected the left hand, McGregor would attack the body or legs, throwing uncharacteristically heavy low kicks to capitalize on the Stocktonian's historic weakness.
Coincidentally--or perhaps not, as McGregor likely expected it--the wider variety of targets rendered what head strikes McGregor did throw remarkably more effective than they had been in the first fight. By switching his left-side power strikes and using the threat to set up right-handed body shots, McGregor forced Diaz to hesitate. Nate found himself trapped against the fence, and rather than feinting or putting together combinations to escape, he fell back on a simplified version of his best strike, the jab.
There are worse reactions to pressure. As far as strikes go, the jab is a safe one. It is easy to throw, covers distance, and sets up both movements and follow-up strikes. In this case, however, McGregor found himself on the favorable side of a simple numbers game. As he was being pressured, Diaz was forced to consider a number of attacks to which he might be susceptible; McGregor only had to worry about the jab, and he wasn't worried in the slightest. He had his pull counter cocked and ready, and Nate Diaz went down for the first time in 13 minutes with the featherweight champ.
Diaz had his moments, but the momentum of round one remained firmly in McGregor's grasp, and that narrative snowballed into the second round. McGregor's leg and body attack continued. Now he began to mix in quick, flicking jabs to set up his left hand. Picking up the pace, McGregor floored Diaz twice with left hands, one a sweeping blow to the neck, the other an arrow-straight shot down the pipe. It seemed that McGregor was primed to finish Diaz in the second round, just as Diaz had finished him five months before.
And then it happened. McGregor began to slow, as if out of nowhere, again. Nate Diaz hadn't been anywhere near as competitive as he was in March this time around, but he still knew a tired man when he saw one. And McGregor's body language was unmistakable. Channeling his older brother, Nate Diaz came on.
1. After an exchange, Diaz marches toward McGregor.
2. For the first time in the fight, McGregor does not pivot or adjust his distance--he turns his back and jogs away from Diaz.
3. Nate senses the turning tide, and rushes to reengage.
4. He leads with a hook-turned-slap, and McGregor weaves dramatically to avoid it.
5. And once again feels compelled to hustle away from Diaz, who pursues.
6. Jump forward a few seconds, and Diaz is still pushing--literally shoving McGregor back.
7. Maintaining a close distance, Nate covers up, baiting Conor to lead.
8. And he does, sliding an uppercut through Diaz's arms but missing his chin.
9. The follow-up jab does land, but Diaz notices the change in tactics. No more hard counters--McGregor is trying to keep him off.
10. Nate does not oblige. He smacks McGregor with a hook, missing the chin but sending him off-balance regardless.
11. McGregor does get his elbow up in time to deflect the follow-up left . . .
12. . . . but as he steps back Diaz stays hot on his heels.
13. McGregor jabs again, but this time Diaz times it, slipping and landing a body jab simultaneously.
14. Followed by a right hook upstairs that catches McGregor leaning.
15. And another defensive jab, this one parried.
16. Now Nate counters with gusto. McGregor blocks the right hook.
17. He just slips the left straight.
18. Another right hook blocked, but McGregor is desperate to stave Diaz off.
19. And as he extends both hands to push his foe away, Diaz clocks him on the chin with a hard left hook.
This sequence has less to do with specific tactics than it does experience, intuition, and plain old doggedness.
His nose spilling blood down his chest, Nate Diaz was nonetheless keen enough to sense McGregor fading, and game enough to press the advantage--or at least press the action until he found one.
Body language is immensely important in combat sports. Dan Henderson's right hand is dangerous in its own right, but it also acts as a helpful deterrent as he stalks forward, carrying it like a bazooka on his shoulder. Anderson Silva's lowered hands might present an opening, but they also strongly suggest the Spider's disdain for any attacks that might come his way; he is utterly unconcerned with covering his chin. Fedor Emelianenko's icy demeanor was, for six years, the surest way to convince a heavyweight contender that he didn't matter, that he was fighting a machine designed to rip bigger men apart.
And Conor McGregor's agile, bouncing movement indicates that he is ready to punish each and every attack that comes his way. Now, three minutes into round two, that aspect began to fade. The calculated pressure that had defined McGregor's first eight minutes was replaced with quiet desperation. Whereas before he had evaded subtly enough that he could immediately counter--and what better example than the pull counters we looked at in the first round--now he began looking for space, space, space. He couldn't seem to get enough. Instead of trying to hurt Diaz with heavy blows, he sought distance between himself and his opponent. When it failed to materialize, he began jabbing and pot-shotting, looking for anything to slow the swelling of Diaz's confidence, but refusing to sit down on a power combination for fear of the counter. And when that too failed, he could do nothing but defend.
Diaz did not dominate the final minutes of the round thoroughly enough to take it. Even as he walked McGregor down, he ate shots. Just as in the first fight, Nate was emboldened by those shots. They felt different than the ones which had stung him earlier. He realized he could take them and keep coming forward. Even so, McGregor was not easy to hit clean until the final forty-five seconds of the round, and even then he avoided taking serious punishment or showing any signs of damage.
McGregor had won this battle, but all signs indicated that, once again, he was on the verge of losing the war. He returned to his corner with hands on hips and a sigh on his face. Diaz flexed and swaggered back to the corner, knowing that once again he had weathered the storm.
Come back tomorrow for part two, in which we will look at rounds three, four, and five of this epic contest.
For more, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, wherein we discuss the ways in which Diaz-McGregor 2 met, exceeded, and defied our expectations.