This weekend at UFC 202, Conor McGregor takes on Nate Diaz in a rematch of their first slobberknocker, which McGregor lost in dramatic fashion even though Diaz took the fight on extremely short notice. Last time, the lead-up was all McGregor. This time around, it couldn't be any more different. This fight is a strange one for a lot of reasons. Actually, strange isn't a strong enough word. It's a circus, a spectacle, an idea excavated from the tomb of a mad Egyptian pharaoh — at least, by typical UFC standards. McGregor is the UFC's current 66kg champion. He was gonna move up to 70kg to fight for that belt (something that was already pretty unprecedented), but his opponent got injured at the last second, so Nate Diaz stepped in and [Mike Goldberg voice] SHOCKED THE WORLD IT'S ALLLLL OVERRRRR.
This rematch is only happening because McGregor's ego took even more of a beating than his face, and he wants to "run it back". Given that McGregor is the UFC's current pay-per-view king, he gets what he wants, even after some bumps in the road and a brief stint of faux-"retirement". So despite the fact that McGregor is the 66kg champ and Diaz typically fights at 70kg, this fight is (again) happening at 77kg, for no other reason than that Conor "my new web brand has the same name as a computer magazine" McGregor wants to recreate the previous fight's exact conditions.
It's especially strange given that everything else about McGregor and Diaz's second glide down the ol' slip 'n' slide couldn't be further removed from their first tilt.
Last time around, McGregor was on top of the world, having ended 2015 with a 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo, one of the most dominant champions in UFC/WEC history. He'd completed his campaign of multiple years and convinced the world that he wasn't just a mad-eyed Irish shit-talker. Bravado and bluster might've been his right-hand men outside of the cage, but inside, his fists produced bloody poetry. Before the first Diaz fight, McGregor was high off the completion of one conquest and the beginning of the next. He was in classic form, gabbing and prognosticating into any microphone that might make its way beneath his hallowed lips. Diaz, meanwhile, spoke like a man who just felt a parade step across his grave.
This time, though, McGregor's been downright, well, normal. Losses have a way of humbling people, and — props to McGregor — he's mostly said the right things. He got beat. He learned. He changed his preparation methods. But in doing so, he's cast off something immaterial, something special. Gone is the freewheeling fighter who took on all comers, often on short notice, and bested them with his idiosyncratic, mystery-shrouded training methods. This time around, he's tailored his camp to a specific guy, just like any other fighter. And he won't shut up about it.
His typical bluster, meanwhile, has been replaced by canned fighter phrases, many of which involve the word "war" or the phrase "we're prepared for a war" or a pensive stare into the distance where you can tell he's thinking really hard about how he's gonna say "war" next time. It's been interesting to see a more muted McGregor, but his mystical, larger-than-life quality is gone. He's become... predictable.
In the past few weeks, however, even McGregor's apparent pre-fight serenity has proven to be a facade. This week's press conference bottle-throwing incident springs to mind as the ultimate example of where McGregor's head really appears to be at. Diaz walked off stage after McGregor showed up late, and then McGregor obliged Diaz's fight camp in a war of water bottles and middle fingers. It was pretty dumb, but McGregor was so, so serious all throughout. He's riled, he's frustrated, he's wild.
What it really comes down to, though, is that he's not in control. Diaz is. He has been the whole time. And McGregor can't deal with that.
Before previous fights, McGregor inserted himself neatly into opponents' heads, and even once fists started flying, they couldn't dislodge him. McGregor loves mind games. He toys, he presses, he cackles, he presses more. In Diaz, he's found someone who doesn't really respond to that. He's found someone who won't let him lead the dance.
Sure, Diaz trash talks back, but he doesn't play along. He rarely gets riled up, and when he does, as in the aforementioned water bottle incident, it turns into A Diaz Jam, a trainwreck spectacle you can't look away from. Water bottles and middle fingers? Classic Diaz. Immediately afterwards, Diaz made fun of McGregor for accidentally beaning a kid with a water bottle. And that's why Diaz is a perfect foil for McGregor: He has a way of taking McGregor's most over-the-top moments and making them look silly, pedestrian. McGregor tries to carry himself like he's writing a legend that will be recounted in song centuries from now. Diaz's whole persona is designed to deflate the hell out of that balloon.
Both Nate and his older, previously more well-known brother Nick act like all of this is bullshit. The press, the pageantry, the build-up — none of that matters. They just want to fight, and they barely even enjoy that. Because of that, they believe the UFC is out to get them. They're "too real" to be properly promoted or given big opportunities, too unpredictable and unreliable.
And yeah, they whine when they get beat by wrestlers, skip out on promotional events and say some childish, paranoid-arse garbage on the regular, but there's almost always a ring of truth to it. They're both man-child weed philosophers. Nate's always been the slightly more level-headed of the two. He's calling this one like he sees it, and he might just be onto something.
Similarly, Diaz has pointed out that McGregor's newfound obsession with him — his hyper-focused training, AKA the big takeaway from his loss and the silver lining to his dark cloud — is weird and maybe even a little desperate. "I think it's a little silly, man," Diaz said, per MMA Fighting. "You've got pictures of me up in his garage, with him punching me in the face [on UFC Embedded]. What the fuck? Who does that? That's trying to make yourself believe something."
Viewed in that light, yeah, McGregor's larger-than-life conquest seems kinda small. Petty, even. As the fight's gotten closer, McGregor's sounded more and more deluded, even claiming that he was beating Diaz on the ground (where Diaz ultimately broke his will and choked him out in a masterful display) until he got tired. Maybe McGregor really is trying to make himself believe something. It doesn't exactly bode well that McGregor's said he's gonna once again try and knock out Diaz, once again follow the Puncher's Path, as MMA writer Connor Ruebusch puts it in a brilliant series of articles. There's a blueprint for beating Diaz. That ain't it.
In a lot of ways, though, McGregor and Diaz are weirdly similar, with their dual penchants for trash talk and refusal to always play the UFC's promotional game. They just approach the same things from very different angles. It's something Diaz has acknowledged.
"I think that [McGregor's] a good fighter and a good talker," Diaz said during a recent press conference. "It's whatever. Somebody's got to make a scene here because nobody else is. I felt like I was doing that for years and they weren't pushing it as hardcore as they're pushing him. But I think that he's a good fighter and a talker."
"That ain't no punk-ass compliment either," Diaz added. "Fuck him."
McGregor might have taken the UFC to a new level, but there's an argument to be made that he's pulled many of his best tricks from the Diaz playbook. Both act like they have nothing to lose, but I think only Diaz really believes it. McGregor has too much pride, and at this rate, it's going to destroy him. The patient McGregor who took apart featherweight prospect Max Holloway despite a torn ACL could maybe beat Diaz. This version has already beaten himself.
After feeling slighted by the UFC for years, Diaz is finally getting his. He's done an excellent job of seizing this opportunity. Before their previous fight, Diaz was simply The Guy Who Was Gonna Get Beat By Conor McGregor. This time, though, with McGregor insisting on doing less press in order to shore up his training, Diaz his been out in front, making appearances on shows like Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live. And you know what? They were funny, a far cry from the trademark "fuck this" Diaz attitude you usually get with these things. Heck, even Diaz's SportsNation appearance was gold:
He's got charisma, even if it's an odd, soft-spoken sort. The fact of the matter is, he's not Just Another UFC Fighter. It's why the UFC's been previously hesitant to promote him, why UFC president Dana White once famously declared to him to not be a "needle-mover". Nate and Nick Diaz don't fit the UFC's typical mould, so they're used as foils for what the UFC perceives as their "real" stars. Nick was fodder for a then-stagnant Georges St-Pierre, and Nate is Conor McGregor's Toughest Challenge Yet (TM).
Many people have been looking at this whole situation and proclaiming that if McGregor loses again, the UFC's in deep trouble. With other superstars like Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones on the sidelines indefinitely, McGregor bottoming out would be a cherry atop the shit sundae. But I don't think people are giving Diaz the credit he deserves. He's weird and wily. He trash talks people while punching them in the face and makes even the most self-assured fighters play his game. He doesn't envision himself winning fights like most fighters say they do. Instead, he imagines all the ways he might lose.
Nate Diaz is a compelling dude, someone who is authentically different. I don't know if he could ever be a McGregor-level star, but he can be a star, and he will be if he wins, whether the UFC wants to promote the crap out of him or not. Maybe he already is. As Diaz himself said in one of his more outspoken moments:
"It's all good either way, though, because I cannot be killed and regardless, win or lose, which I plan on winning, my voice is still going to be heard. My mic got too big to not be heard."