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UFC 202 Post-fight patterns: What was given up

How Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz showed what they were willing to sacrifice in a fight which meant everything, and nothing.

MMA: UFC 202-Diaz vs McGregor 2 Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

At UFC 202, Conor McGregor needed to change himself to have a chance of beating Nate Diaz, and he did.

Losing is a hard thing for any professional fighter. Overwhelming amounts of confidence are a necessity, and the greater the self-confidence, the more brutal the recoil. The way that a loss is taken sculpts them. To reconcile, they have to pick something to give up: faith or honesty. They have to decide what the loss meant: did it mean everything, or nothing?

The fighter can take a realistic assessment of what went wrong. They can try and fix up and make changes. This runs the risk of fracturing their faith, abandoning what might have made them successful in the first place. If they adopt a new and strange style, it will always be more fragile than what feels natural, and if broken it leaves them in even deeper trouble than they were before.

As Conor McGregor walks into the T-Mobile Arena, the question is: what has he given up?

Every analyst is in agreement: Nate Diaz is a very tough matchup. Pace, size, durability and the Diaz lead hand mean that McGregor must almost certainly make changes. He has to show something different... but this is a believer in the Law of Attraction. He’s Mystic Mac, who called his shots before they landed and knocked out the greatest fighter in his weight class in 13 seconds. An unshakable belief in destiny carried him through his earlier fights. The question is whether he can replace it with anything half as strong.

It’s been a different, tetchier McGregor at the pressers, a quieter and grimmer one at the weigh-ins. McGregor’s concession to his normal showmanship is that when he gets into the octagon he walks around the cage rolling his shoulders like WWE’s Vince McMahon. As he reaches his corner he doesn’t cartwheel around or practice capoeira kicks like he normally does. He is comparatively quiet, and still.

The second option for a fighter is to give up honesty. They can ignore what happened, and simply say that the other guy got lucky; that he fought like a chicken or didn’t really fight at all. This leaves confidence intact but runs the risk of making the same errors as before.

Nate Diaz walks into the T-Mobile Arena to the roar of the crowd, and scowls. When he reaches his corner he throws short combinations at the air. He’s always taken this second option. Every loss is because his opponent got lucky, or didn’t fight him. His confidence is absurdly battle-hardened, almost unbreakable, reinforced by a two fight winning streak, including a finish over the man in front of him.

This fight will ask hard questions from both men; about old styles and new ones, about when to hold on and when to let go.

The return of the magic

Within the first first exchange, McGregor’s choice is clear. He maneuvers Diaz to the cage, and snaps in a hard leg kick. Then, another. And one more. The man who talked disparagingly about the “flat-footed Thai boxing” of most martial artists is fighting like a Dutch stylist.

There’s no talking from this quiet, grim iteration of McGregor. Instead, he's doing everything someone planning for a Diaz might. He attacks the body. He throws his lead hand. He combines the two, with a lancing jab to the gut, and an overhand left. Diaz lands the exact same combination back at him and smirks, then runs into a counter left hand.

Diaz finds himself backed into the fence. He jabs as he hops away along the cage, and McGregor moves slightly away from the punch and hits him. Diaz falls over.

The air shimmers with something special, like a childhood belief in magic resurrected, because the touch of death left hand is back. It was all the more impressive because it wasn’t the huge reaching cross that McGregor threw till he couldn’t in the last fight, but a smoothly chambered bolt that sent Diaz falling backwards like a child. It looked so absurdly effortless that later some will claim that this knockdown and those yet to come aren’t even knockdowns at all.

The round closes out with more of the same from McGregor, pinning Diaz to the fence and roughing him up with body work and leg kicks. Diaz swaggers back to his corner, but the round was no good, and it’s hard to tell whether this is false bravado or that real, unbreakable confidence.

The second round starts and again McGregor pins Diaz to the cage, and again Diaz tries to escape and now it’s the big, reaching cross, and again Diaz goes down. McGregor lets him up, and tenderizes his leg some more. Then, for a change, he shows something he learned from the man in front of him, the arrhythmic disguising of power. Nate puts up the high guard and Conor taps it gently one, two, three times with his right hand and then neatly drives the bolt through, and Diaz falls down once more.

It again appears to be not just possible, but self-evident: Conor McGregor can knock out anyone he’s ever going to fight.


Nate has been knocked down three times and bloodied up, and his leg is purpled, and he is thinking. The Stockton brothers like to test for weakness, probing for flaws like palpating a cantaloupe before a buy. This is clearly a new McGregor from the last time, but Diaz has 12 years of experience in the cage. He knows he can break open this new shell. Firstly, though, he needs to get off the fence. It sucks here.

The last fight was mostly boxing, and the main difference is those kicks, so Diaz starts to respond in kind. He throws a comically slow back kick, then lumbers his lanky frame through what may be the world’s worst wheel kick. There’s no thought of competing directly using this stuff, but instead it’s as though he’s slowly walking himself through his opponent’s paces, placing himself in the Irishman’s shoes. So, when you’re kicking you go here, it does this to your balance. Right.

To beat a kick, the defending fighter needs to counter afterwards, or snuff the kick outright. Countering isn’t working: McGregor is keeping distance too well, and Diaz can’t put weight back on the lead leg fast enough to hit him clean. Sometimes he can cuff McGregor on the exit with the right hook, but it’s not working reliably. Diaz will get chopped down if he keeps this up.

Snuff the kick, then. The problem here is McGregor’s distance control, and the way he skips out of the way of the extending Diaz hand. Reaching down to hit the smaller target of the shorter man’s head is cutting out a crucial sliver of range. So Diaz comes up with an answer, and lowers his taller frame down, down to McGregor’s level and lances a long right body jab to the Irishman’s solar plexus. He mixes in his kicks, comes up with an odd hybrid approach: lift up his lead leg, and either tap it at McGregor at the farthest range, outside where the shorter fighter can land anything, or use it to absorb an incoming kick, or stomp it down and use it as the first step of the long, spearing body jab. Armed with this strange grab bag, he sets about slowly working his way off the cage.

Trade head jabs, eat a leg kick, feint a front kick, spear, get in a short combination, eat a leg kick, block a jab, spear, even if it misses use it to step forward anyway, eat a body shot, eat a leg kick, eat a left hand, spear, and halfway through the round Diaz has worked his way out of the kill zone; the moat delineated by the black lines in the octagon. He throws a kick and the Irishman checks it with his knee and allows himself a grin, his first sign of emotion so far. He has the answer for everything Diaz throws. Yet, Diaz has made it to the center of the cage.

If McGregor has forced Diaz to lead by kicking him, then that body jab is forcing McGregor to stand just a crucial touch closer in order to counter it, and now Diaz is able to cuff him after a leg kick and land a followup left. They’re grazing, near-meaningless, but McGregor skips backwards, past the fateful black line, into the kill zone.

Diaz pounces.

McGregor has trained a lot to escape these situations; it shows in the footage of him with John Kavanagh where he ducks under sweeping hooks and changes direction as his coach chases him around the cage, trying to land with the practice mitts. It serves him well here, but Diaz clips him with jabs and long hooks. McGregor kicks the leg, and lands the body shots, but Diaz is smelling blood, and McGregor cannot get himself out of this lethal moat. A jumping right hand knocks him off balance.

The hidden gear

In a nasty bit of promotional skullduggery, Nate's brother Nick has not been allowed to corner him. The elder Diaz has until very recently been the more famous of the two, and Nate has spent a long time in his shadow. It’s not a stretch to say that he worships his older brother. He looks up to him so much that he used to try to be him, fighting up close as the swarmer instead of the boxer. It didn’t fit.

Here and now though, there can be advantages to once trying to learn an uncomfortable style. The difficulty of it stretches the mind in unique ways and provides an outsider’s view of limitations and strengths; the way you can get a whole new perspective on your home after travelling to a foreign country. Beyond this, it provides another gear, and another option. In this same manner, Conor will carry the more classical kickboxer that he’s become in this fight through all his future matches.

Nate closes on McGregor. The Irishman has trained to escape from the cage from a long outboxer, but then Nate shifts his hidden gear and flurries, and these are starkly different from the pinball sadism of his normal barrage, and instead Nick Diaz is in the cage fighting in the place of his little brother; snarling through the blood, pinning McGregor to the cage with his head like a nail through a lepidopterist’s butterfly, standing chest to chest and pounding in endless punches to the gut.

The horn sounds and Diaz goes back to his corner and rolls his shoulders and flexes again, and there’s no doubt that the confidence is real this time.

The look

The third round is bad for McGregor, and Diaz is in full flow. He points and laughs as McGregor moves desperately around the cage. McGregor has prepared himself for the worst, but this is bad; mostly he’s just minimizing the damage. His best success comes in the clinch, landing short elbows, but at the end of the round Diaz lets big brother out again, and the beating is longer, and more pronounced, and John McCarthy starts to look in and take a closer look before the horn mercifully sounds.

Bruised and battered, the Irishman puts his hands on his hips and looks up with a pensive, dissatisfied look on his face. It’s the expression that he wore when Diaz beat him. The difference seems that this time, we’ll see what it actually means.

Is he looking back at what happened and seeing problems to be fixed, errors that can be changed, what he could have done better, what needs to be done next? Or is he thinking ruefully that it was a good run, that he gave his best and that it all had to end at some point?

He walks back to his stool.

“These are the last two rounds in the world,” says Kavanagh.

Homer Simpson

No-one turns this kind of tide back on a Diaz brother, not ever, but Conor McGregor gets back to his feet for round 4 and tries. This is when you get an idea for how much a fighter has embedded a new style. When they’re sucking for air and dizzy from punches, how quickly does the new shell shatter and how fast do they return to form?

The round starts, as it might, with a body jab from Nate and a leg kick from Conor. The clinical executioner of the first round is gone, but McGregor keeps the cracked pieces of his new approach around him, somehow. The fighter who at one point used his right as little more than a distraction is living on a jab through the guard, and he keeps chaining combinations and counters with the leg kick; he hammers the body. The technical edges are staying with him as a brief blurred glimpse of hours upon hours of training.

The problems instead are deeper down; at the heart of Conor McGregor and invisible to him. He’s still the aggressive finisher who can’t stay away from a psychological or technical opening; and in keeping this new style together and keeping himself together, he may be losing track of the rhythm of the fight. He’s engaging on every exchange; he’s ignoring every opportunity to sit on a lead; he is fighting at a pace that he cannot possibly keep. Alternatively, maybe he simply realizes that he can’t get pushed back into the outside of the cage again, so he must attack.

McGregor mocked how Diaz tired him out by eating punches in their last fight like Homer Simpson, but there’s a grain of truth in it. Almost every round these two have fought up to this point has been McGregor early and Diaz late. McGregor was within inches of being finished in round 3, and no matter how hot and bright this last flare comes, it has to be his last. When he slows, he will be done, and Diaz will finish him off.

A new problem appears for Nate, though. His traitorous skin has broken open again, and blood is pouring into his eyes. One minute goes by. McGregor is not slowing down. Two minutes and McGregor is not slowing down. Three minutes and McGregor is not slowing down and the body shots and the leg kicks and the left hands are starting to add up.

Real ninja shit

Wrestlers have always been a sore point for the Diaz brothers. The surface explanation is that wrestling is stalling and that top control is pussing out, but I think it’s that wrestling always represented the jock side of the sport; the meathead in the locker room. Fighting is real, and wrestlers are the smug fakeness of mom’s apple pie, their addition to this beloved place an endless irritant.

Nate grabs a hold of Conor, and he gives something up. He wrestles. His favoured head and arm throws and hip tosses and body lock takedowns are fine, real ninja shit, but now Nate wants to win. He wants to win very badly. He locks his hands under McGregor’s buttocks and hauls for the power takedown and he lifts McGregor off his feet and McGregor rams his hands underneath the crook of Diaz’ elbows and will not go down. They break the clinch and break each other open with elbows and fists.

McGregor is finally slowing again. Diaz lands the hard knees to the body that made Conor groan last time. He lands the hard one-two that made McGregor wobble, but McGregor does not fall, or brawl. Instead, he tiredly moves back and forth back in the cage in a dull facsimile of his training, as if to say that he cannot be blasted out of this game plan, ever; that Diaz can only drive him deeper.

Some numbers

The fifth round is here, and they open like old friends with the body jab and the leg kick. Soon Diaz throws himself back to the wrestling and locks hands again, hypnotized by the pure effort of it all. The old wrestling cliche is “embracing the grind” and if someone said those words to the younger Diaz now they would be perfectly meaningless, empty echoing symbols drowned out by the blood beating in his ears and pouring down his face and the breath roaring in his lungs, and he finds something in him to lift McGregor and McGregor struggles like a fish and he will not go down.

Diaz pins him to the fence again, but the combinations to the body are coming slower now, big brother is harder to summon up. McGregor breaks and moves away and Diaz follows. He points again, but he’s too tired and too beat up to chase McGregor around the moat, too weary to smile, and he turns the pointing into a raised middle finger. Just… come back and fight.

McGregor keeps landing short, economical shots to the body and head, but he’s finding himself forced back to the death zone, put back to the fence over and over. He pushes, and elbows, and pushes, and as he pushes Diaz along the cage with his mouth open and gasping for air, Nate just has to move out of the way and carry Conor’s momentum over his hip to throw him to the ground. Ninja shit gets it done after all. The clock is ticking, though, and he has no time to work, and he rains down punches and then the horn sounds.

They pause, and the skinny fat Mexican stands up, offers the quitter his hand and pulls him to his feet. They embrace and say something to each other, drowned out by the crowd.

New styles built and broken and rebuilt, old styles brought back, giving up whatever was needed while never giving up. Goldberg on the mic says something about how they left it all in the octagon, and it’s thin and inadequate as it ever is. After a little while, the two of them stand in the center of the cage, and some numbers are read out.

The numbers mean everything, and nothing.

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