It's that time again! A UFC poster child has lost and it is time to decide whether you are in the "I told you so, he was a bum all along" camp, or the "he threw that fight away" camp. I will hazard a guess that your Facebook feed is full of people writing lengthy assessments of why Conor McGregor was beaten (more than why Nate Diaz won) with pages of bickering in the comments and you will soon be yearning for it to go back to the mix of vegan rants and awkwardly racist political posts from colleagues. Everyone from former UFC featherweight champion, Jose Aldo to previously scheduled opponent, Rafael dos Anjos, to high profile Mayweather hanger-on and sometimes popstar, Justin Bieber has given their thoughts already. That leaves this article is at something of a disadvantage but I shall try to offer up the best assessment I can of the fight without calling anyone's style 'trash' or resorting to numerological conspiracy.
McGregor came out aggressive and pressed Diaz towards the fence, making it clear that he was going to apply the tactics which had found him so much success as a featherweight. It was impressive to see McGregor hold such presence against an opponent who is used to fighting lightweights and even welterweights, but it was also a sign of Diaz giving ground and having patience. One of the big questions coming in was whether McGregor would go after Diaz's famously vulnerable lead leg as he is a fighter who doesn't especially use low round kicks. McGregor instead utilized an oblique kick, taking advantage of fighting a rare fellow southpaw.
Later in the fight, McGregor showed the danger of Diaz's constantly inward turned lead leg with an orthodox lead leg side kick which strained Diaz's knee laterally. Horrible stuff to watch in slow motion.
McGregor, giving up a reach and height advantage (things which compound to increase a range advantage) kept his finger on the trigger and was looking for pull counters with his vaunted left hand. And he had good success with this early, drawing Diaz's jab, pulling back, and letting loose the left hand over the top.
Diaz, for his part, was looking for his usual lean back lead hook—often rolling with the left hand to do so. The one which he busted Michael Johnson up with and the staple which holds his entire counter fighting game together.
Diaz was caught heavy as McGregor slipped a left hand and landed his own while Diaz was stepping in. It was a simultaneous counter, generally the most damaging kind because of both parties adding force to the collision. This went some way to opening the ghoulish cut on Diaz's brow that made his face a mask of red for much of the fight.
McGregor was also looking for an uppercut as Diaz ducked in which he landed with a resounding thud on two occasions in the first round but failed to find success with it later on.
In our preview of the fight, I mentioned:
And that is part of what is so interesting about this southpaw versus southpaw match up. McGregor doesn't often use his jab all that much or all that dexterously, because he is so often able to lead with his left straight. He rarely uses his lead hook at all. When a southpaw meets another southpaw it is like a conventional orthodox versus orthodox match, it becomes all about the lead hand again and the easier opportunities for left straights down the pipe are no longer there.
And as the fight progressed it became more and more clear that while Nate Diaz was a southpaw who could box—jabbing and hooking—McGregor was a fighter who relied on the tremendous advantage of being a southpaw and being able to lance that left straight through cleanly. Aside from the counter left hands, he threw very few punches of note and almost nothing but feinted, half effort jabs from his right hand to set up the left handed swings. Not only did Nate Diaz have a reach on McGregor, he had the tools to use that reach while McGregor was left trying to time swings with the shortest reaching limb of the eight in the cage between the two men. The real point to take home from this fight is just how one-handed Conor McGregor is in his boxing.
And this is where Diaz's economy of motion began to really take its toll. To land the left hands and avoid the long, accurate, and frequent jabs of Diaz, McGregor had been dipping and slipping and pulling away from blows through the entire first round. That reactionary game was thrown off by the feinting, the volume, and the milling (rotating of the hands in front of the body to hide straight blows) of Diaz.
Combine that with the act of getting clipped with shots constantly while mid-swing. There are fans out there claiming that McGregor gassed as if the fact that he wasn't cutting weight meant he took a whole camp off of running. But those who have seen Nate Diaz and his brother Nick fight before know that this is what the Diaz's do and understand how quickly it exhausts a man to be slapped and punched off of rhythm while he is winging his own shots.
Another point to note was just how effective Diaz was in covering up. He never did it standing still in front of McGregor, he'd step in on McGregor, then step back out to range, never provided a stationary punch bag.
It was also exceptionally easy for Diaz to tie up on the two occasions he wanted to. The first opportunity came in the opening seconds. Of course, getting pushed to the fence so easily against one of the bigger lightweight takedown artists like Nurmagamedov would be disastrous.
The end of the first round saw Diaz use his awkward lead leg raise to catch a kick and take McGregor down, but McGregor reversed positions with a nice single leg x-guard ankle pick sweep.
Early in the second, Diaz's left hand started landing. He has made a career of sneaking this in on peculiar rhythm after his jab, just as the opponent is thinking he is out of range. I heartily recommend watching his fight with Michael Johnson to see Johnson repeatedly feel like he is out of range, relax for an instant, and get clipped with a left.
McGregor's lefts weren't getting in in time and he was eating more and more of Diaz's counters en route.
Here McGregor flurries against Diaz's guard, Diaz crowds him, McGregor steps back and eats the clean one-two.
In the final standing sequence of the fight, you see Diaz's craft pull ahead of McGregor's power and his waning speed. McGregor begins to flurry and catches nothing of Diaz, but eats a short right hook which throws him off balance. As he pauses in on spot in front of Diaz, that crisp one-two comes in and wobbles him to his boots.
McGregor dived in on a takedown and Diaz, a considerably better grappler, sprawled before snatching up a guillotine and using it to force McGregor to his back. From there the mount was effortless, McGregor exposed his back and Diaz sunk in the choke.
I won't start complaining about the misconceptions surrounding this fight—"McGregor went up two weightclasses" being the most grating—but I shall share my thoughts. This fight was being treated as a squash, which was absolutely bizarre. Anyone who knew Nate Diaz, the nature of southpaw vs southpaw match ups, and McGregor's reliance on his own reach at featherweight knew that there were a lot more interesting questions here than 'can McGregor's power translate' and 'can Diaz's chin take it?' The issue at the end of the day wasn't weight or power, it was frame and science.
What next for McGregor? I've had angry messages from people who are glad McGregor lost so that they can 'stop following this sport', but for his popularity this won't mean much. He's still featherweight champion and he's still ridiculously marketable. Chael Sonnen lost more big fights than he won but people still tuned in to watch him 'get shut up' and he laughed all the way to the bank. He won't meet many more southpaw boxers who are going to light him up at range in the featherweight division after all.
What this does mean is that we most likely won't get another champion going up in weight for a match against a legitimate contender in the class above for some time. The same happened after B.J. Penn lost his second fight to Georges St. Pierre. It's not a great look for your unbeatable champion to get crushed a weightclass up.
For Nate Diaz, talk of a welterweight title shot is daft off of a fight against a featherweight—but then if we have learned anything in the last couple of years it's that the welterweight is the "for fun" division until further notice. What we can hope is that this is, as one fan on reddit put it, "Nate's Gomi". Takanori Gomi being the number one lightweight in the world whom Nick Diaz ran through at short notice in what was to that point the biggest win of his career. The bouts are eerily similar in fact, Gomi busted Diaz's face open early and seemed to be having success, Diaz came back with his accurate and exhausting boxing, and ultimately Diaz submitted Gomi as Gomi shot for a "panic double."
Odds and Sods
The rest of the event is worth touching on. Miesha Tate did a tremendous job in taking the title from Holly Holm. We speculated that the shot was what made her more of a threat to Holm than Ronda Rousey, who has to walk into the clinch, but I was pessimistic of her boxing her way into said shots. Instead, she fought cautiously and made the counter fighter impatient. As soon as a committed left straight came in the second round, Tate was in on Holm's hips, had her on the mat and was climbing on the champion's back.
Holm survived and went back to cautiously kickboxing the far inferior striker, but in the fifth round Tate suddenly went berserk and got Holm's back in one smooth movement. Getting the arm under the chin, Tate sent Holm into a panic. Holm tried to swing Tate off, but failed and passed out in the choke nearing the end of the fifth round. A tremendous showing from Tate in terms of both fight IQ and that 'scrappiness' we always fall back on when discussing her technical merits.
Elsewhere on the card, Tom Lawlor and Corey Anderson told a story in three acts. In the first round Lawlor's southpaw right hook, and particularly rear hand parry into the right hook was on point and had Anderson wobbling. In the second round, Anderson started sending out static with feints and connecting more. And in the third round Anderson adapted and took control. It seemed strange that two judges gave Anderson the first round after he was dinged up by Lawlor pretty convincingly in it though.
Ilir Latifi and Gian Villante did arguably more than the loss of Conor McGregor to alienate casual fans. The entire fight was Villante fighting off the wheezing Latifi's takedown attempts and failing to do anything once he broke free. Latifi hit a nice suplex, but as Kimbo Slice and Houston Alexander will attest, a suplex does not save a dreadful fight. It was a puzzling decision to put these lads on the main card of a Conor McGregor headlined event when there are so many consistently entertaining fighters who could have taken that spot.
A final note for Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko. This fight was a head scratcher as Shevchenko sat back and waited to counter for two rounds, but did nothing when Nunes' telegraphed blows came. Shevchenko was beaten up on the floor in the second round and finally came out in the third and started putting together combinations. Of particular note was the spinning backfist which concluded back in a perfect position to stuff a takedown attempt—something which is so often forgotten as fighters gamble the whole fight on spinning stuff.
Also on show was a nice example of the dangers of osoto-gari / the 'cross buttock'. Because you have to step deep past the opponent's leg, if you attempt it at a bad time you essentially give the opponent the same throw on yourself.
Nunes showed a lot of very obvious and limiting tells on the feet, but I suspect these would be less of a big deal against fighters who aren't Holly Holm in the top ten of the bantamweight division. Shevchenko, honestly, looked undersized. She has defeated the strawweight champion, Joanna Jedrzeczyk in Muay Thai so she has a built in storyline there, and though the talent pool is richer in that division she could hardly suffer from a move down following this loss.