Conor McGregor is one of my favourite fighters. He lost in devastating fashion on Saturday night, and I couldn't be happier.
I'm not a McGregor hater. I'm not laughing because the Irish motormouth, more giant golden wristwatch than man, finally flew too close to the sun. I know a lot of people are, but I'm happy for a different reason. I think McGregor — as a fighter and as a person — needed this loss. I think it's better for the UFC that things turned out this way, as well.
The Diaz fight was supposed to be a stepping stone, but it ended up being a culmination. After 70kg champion Rafael dos Anjos dropped out of his fight against McGregor (the 66kg champion) with a foot injury, McGregor decided to fight Diaz at 77kg on two week's notice.
For most UFC fighters, this kind of thing is unheard of. When fighters are competing for championship belts or close to scoring title shots, they tend to get exceptionally cautious. If an opponent pulls out of a fight with an injury, they will drop out of the fight and wait instead of taking on a different opponent, making the event they were supposed to be part of significantly less spectacular. It's understandable (Why risk throwing away everything to fight a guy you didn't even train for?), but it kinda sucks.
McGregor never did that. On three different occasions, he had opponents drop out because their fickle flesh rebelled against them, and he fought anyway, risking bigger prizes each time. If he'd lost to Chad Mendes last summer, his colossally hyped fight with then-featherweight champion Jose Aldo would have gone down the gilded Irish toilet.
He fought anyway, and it was edge-of-your-seat exciting. The stakes were through the goddamn roof. McGregor was fighting the type of guy seemingly tailor-made to nullify his style. But, after withstanding a hellacious elbow onslaught, McGregor rallied and punched Mendes' head off. In that moment, the MMA world collectively shit itself. That's the story of McGregor's brash ambition in general: you may not like the guy's personality, but you can't deny the excitement surrounding his actions.
Walking such a high-risk, high-reward path, McGregor was bound to lose eventually. It seems like he knew it, too. After the fight, he posted the following message to Instagram:
"I stormed in and put it all on the line. I took a shot and missed. I will never apologise for taking a shot. Shit happens. I'll take this loss like a man. I will not shy away from it. I will not change who I am. If another champion goes up 2 weights let me know. If your tired of me talking money, take a nap. I'll still be here when you wake up with the highest PPV and the gate. Still talking multi 7's."
"I've been here many times in my life in some form or another. I'll eat it all and come back stronger. Aldo you are a pussy. Dos anjos you are a pussy. When the history books are written, I showed up. You showed up on Twitter. To the fans! Never ever shy away from challenges. Never run from adversity. Face yourself head on. Nate I will see you again."
I'm glad he's accepting his defeat as a natural consequence of his talk-all-the-trash, take-all-the-fights approach — as something to learn from. I'm even gladder that he doesn't seem interested in taking a different tact from this point forward. One loss isn't the end of the world when you're at the championship level in MMA, but so many champions and almost-champions treat it like it is. McGregor and Diaz balked at that idea, and they benefited handsomely.
It doesn't hurt that McGregor walked away with the UFC's highest-ever disclosed paycheck in the process. I would hope, in fact, that it serves as a lesson to other champions: if you take risks other fighters haven't and, er, have more than a cardboard cutout of moldy bread for a personality, you'll make bank. Win or lose, up to a point. There's something to be said for strategy and preparation, but when your fights get called-off almost as much as they happen, you might be going overboard. I'm not saying everybody should be Conor McGregor (that would be obnoxious as all hell), but I'm saying they could stand to go out on a limb more. Sometimes it's good to be the tortoise, but there's a reason the hare was the guy everybody paid attention to. Each time McGregor did it, his stock went up, and so did his bargaining power with UFC brass.
The lesson here? UFC champs can do a crazy thing, fail, and not have all their stock go out the window. Sideline-sitting doesn't have to be the status quo. To be honest, McGregor stacked the deck perfectly here. He's still champion in another weight class, and he can chalk this loss up to weight-related issues, unexpected challenges not even "Mystic Mac" could've predicted. And, on some level, we have to believe him, because he might not be wrong. He sure did look good in that first round, and if he modified his strategy, he might've been able to put a bloody, winded Diaz down for the count.
That, however, brings us to the other reason McGregor's loss is a good thing: He needs to learn how to overcome adversity in fights, and not just by doing his usual thing (pressuring opponents with endless full-power punches) harder than before. Conor McGregor fought a pretty fucking stupid fight against Diaz, and it cost him.
The first round of the match seemed like business as usual. Despite fighting up two whole weight classes (McGregor is the 66kg champion; due to injury shenanigans, he ended up taking a last-second fight at 170), McGregor pummelled opponent Nate Diaz's head like a basketball made of beef jerky and scar tissue. "Mystic Mac" had predicted he'd KO Diaz at the end of round one. Mid-way through the round, he seemed well on his way. McGregor ate a decent number of shots himself, but pressured and moved better than ever before. The round ended with Diaz looking like a rapidly rotting strawberry, but there was just one problem: he was still on his feet.
In round two, everything changed. McGregor started to slow, visibly tired from unloading everything he had in the first. Diaz landed more and more, leading with a jab so stiff that it looked like McGregor was running into an oak branch, until he wobbled McGregor and left him leaping for a desperate, ugly takedown. Diaz easily stuffed it and took McGregor on a ride to Submission City, where he joined Holly Holm in somberly remembering that jiu-jitsu is no fucking joke. It was a wild, deceptively technical brawl that ended with a vicious choke. It was, in other words, a Diaz fight. McGregor was, frankly, stupid to fight a Diaz fight against Diaz. He should have known that.
But he didn't, because he bought into his own hype. He said it himself after the fight: he thought his vaunted power would be enough to win the day despite a) a huge weight differential from his usual stomping grounds, and b) Nate Diaz's chin, one of the best in the UFC. That's a ridiculous presupposition to make. On top of that, unlike his better-known brother Nick, Nate Diaz is a rangy counter-puncher, not an all-in knuckle-sandwich-devouring brawler. In hindsight, it seems almost obvious that McGregor was cruisin' for a losin' (that doesn't really work, does it). He dug his own grave and wrote out the exact cause of death for the obituary.
There's a tendency in MMA to look at fighters on fiery hot streaks and say, "Oh, they will win it somehow," even when there are a million plausible ways they could lose. People ignore gaping holes in fighters' games because, well, they just keep winning. But that's a fallacy — a self-perpetuating one, no less.
McGregor is, quite clearly, not unbeatable, and he needed to learn that just as much as fans did. Now he can go back, reevaluate, and learn how to properly fight against bigger dudes. He can shore up his weaknesses instead of just shining up his strengths. Heck, maybe he'll even consider countering a little more, using the skills that got him to the UFC in the first place, rather than slowly destroying himself. And, in the meantime, he can finally go defend his goddamn featherweight belt, unfreezing that division from Han-Solo-esque stasis. Everybody wins. Well, except whoever ends up losing.
Image credit: Getty.