Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz provided that most rare of fights at UFC 202. It was a bout which reached outside of this strange, niche sport and excited the public at large, but actually delivered one of the best fights of the year. And for the hardcore fight fan? You got to see Conor McGregor demonstrate his ability to fight to a gameplan, you got to see Nate Diaz adapt to that gameplan, and McGregor adapt again, and most of all you got to see the ludicrous grit in the stomach of both men. If any fight deserved the multi-million dollar payouts both participants banked, it was this.
McGregor's main issue in the first bout was in fighting an aggressive counter fighting strategy against a taller, longer man. This meant that McGregor was walking in on Diaz and trying to slip Diaz's leads and return with counter lefts. This played directly into the back leaning, check hooking strategy of Diaz. The boxers you see use a forward moving, counter punching strategy effectively are ones who move their head constantly and simply take advantage of missed punches. Moving forward with a stationary head and trying to react to individual punches is exhausting, and it quickly took its toll on McGregor in that first fight. Moreover, because of Diaz's height and his tendency to lean back in his long stance, McGregor was reaching up and far ahead of himself in attempting to connect left hands, meaning that Diaz escaped the brunt of the blow most of the time and that McGregor missed (and was completely out of position) on the worst occasions.
In the first episode of the Fights Gone By Podcast we discussed the measures that a smaller man can use to eliminate a range (a product of height and reach) disadvantage.
Among those discussed were attacking a nearer target with a longer weapon, and convincing the taller man to step in and give up his reach. Both of those perfectly describe McGregor's strategy through the first two rounds. Throwing round kicks into Diaz's always exposed lead leg, McGregor showed that he had a longer weapon on hand than Diaz's entire boxing arsenal. Suddenly it wasn't McGregor's job to mitigate a range disadvantage, it was Diaz's. As Diaz lunged in behind long jabs, McGregor was able to work more effectively on the counter, scoring with the lead hand cross-parry into a left hand over the top beautifully.
In addition to increasing his effectiveness with his left hand, McGregor also showed far more dexterity with his right in this bout, utilizing the jab and right hooks to the body to take Diaz's mind off of the low kicks, which constituted the vast majority of his work on the lead.
The other side effect of the low kicks were that in attempting to defend them, Diaz was forced to shorten his stance and lighten his lead leg. When he leaned back to roll with the left hands or counter with the checking lead hook in the first fight, it was his rear foot that moved to allow him to do this. Lightening the lead leg means keeping the rear foot closer underneath the center of gravity, removing the easy lean that Diaz's usual, longer stance allows. Consequently McGregor could get Diaz picking up his lead leg and swing the left hand over the top.
After three knockdowns in the first two rounds the bout began to change. McGregor's game was less energy consuming than the first fight but he was still fighting on a hair trigger. Diaz also realized that by leading with his hands he was giving McGregor the parry and counter. Late in the second round Diaz's hands came up into a double forearms guard and he began to march McGregor down. Crowding McGregor and not offering him clean counters quickly took its effect as Diaz pushed his way into scrappy exchanges, occasionally catching McGregor on one leg as he rushed a low kick.
Along the fence, McGregor showed marked improvement in avoiding the single underhook position which Diaz used to land unanswered punches on him in their first meeting. McGregor repeatedly used biceps ties to stifle Diaz's hitting hand and combined effective hip movement with cutting elbows which flowed into underhooks.
As Nate Diaz's face is so covered in scar tissue, elbows were an excellent choice. Also, their power at short range is unequalled in the dirty boxing arsenal. While it is wrong to judge a fight on blood spilled, the actual impact of bleeding on a fight can be severe. Diaz spent much of the later rounds mopping blood out of his own eyes. As the jab is often thrown out simply to obscure a fighter's vision, a face full of blood can serve that same purpose. Tim Means' work with his elbows earlier in the evening demonstrated this beautifully as his opponent could barely see through the mask of blood created from a very short elbow above the brow.
Where Diaz did have success in the clinch was in taking a page from his elder brother's playbook. Using his head under McGregor's, when Diaz could free both hands he threw digging shots to the body with both hands which wilted McGregor.
By the third round, McGregor was even resorting to jogging away from Diaz to evade the infight. This was met with much scorn by Diaz and by the spectators, but it was Diaz's job to keep the pressure on and both Diaz brothers have very much struggled to do that from their bladed stances which provide them with little lateral mobility.
What's more, standing side on makes it very hard to catch the opponent with a lead hook as he circles out—it is almost impossible to hook with authority outside of your lead shoulder. There are some who think that running away is simply impossible to deal with in the cage but consider how many have tried it against Matt Brown. His wide round kicks and well timed hooks from a very square stance, combined with his good lateral movement, have allowed him to stay on top of every opponent who has ever attempted to get a breather by jogging off.
Finally, McGregor began to find a way around the double forearms guard. Diaz wasn't offering him counters but he was raising his elbows to make a shield for himself as he drove his way to the inside. McGregor began to attack the body with tremendous effect and Diaz's arms began to come up into the double forearm guard less often.
The final bell came as Diaz finally achieved his first takedown of the fight after long periods of battling along the fence. McGregor was announced the victor by majority decision (two judges for McGregor, one for a draw)—a fairly unusual outcome as judges hate scoring draws in mixed martial arts. It seems as though fans and the fighters themselves are setting the groundwork for a third match and this writer certainly wouldn't complain. The most partisan of fans who were hoping to see one fighter batter the other might have been let down, but the majority of spectators could only have been impressed by what was put forth by both men. It puts the featherweight belt into limbo, and it could be argued that a trilogy between the two is wasting any potential either one has to go on and be a force at lightweight, but in this rivalry the UFC has hit on something which brings in the views. What's more, it can shift pay-per-view buys, no world title necessary. Perhaps the UFC will throw the fans a curve ball by moving McGregor in to fight another lightweight or insisting he defend his featherweight title, but it can't be long until McGregor and Diaz are trying to sell that they hate each others' guts once again and we are all getting excited for the third go around.
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