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How McGregor–Diaz Became UFC’s Biggest Fight

Inside the UFC 202 main event

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Heading into the UFC 202 rematch between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, it still feels slightly like a shared hallucination. How did the featherweight champion — the most sought after target in UFC history — end up in a series against a mid-tier lightweight at a spin-the-bottle weight of 170 pounds? How did we go from McGregor’s play at history to become the first UFC fighter to hold belts in two different weight classes to psyching ourselves up for McGregor’s big mulligan against Diaz? Why are there water bottles and middle fingers flying through the air?

The short answer is a broken foot. That’s all it took to stumble down this little rabbit hole, this detour into McGregor’s early redemption.

When Rafael dos Anjos hurt himself in training just two weeks ahead of his UFC 196 fight with McGregor, it opened the floodgates to creative revision. UFC brass called Diaz, who was apparently in Cabo with his belly full of food and tequila. But he stepped in as a savior and as an upgrade in matchmaking imagination. No, it was something more than that. He stepped in as a kind of kismet — it’s almost as if Diaz and McGregor were never booked to face each other so much as they were destined to.

The thought of two wildly different insubordinates, both so glorious and miserly in the fucks they’re willing give, engaging in mental and physical warfare had a giddy sort of appeal. The first Diaz–McGregor fight did record numbers. And the rematch is being called one of the biggest rematches in UFC history. Hyperbole? Of course! How can it be the biggest rematch in UFC history when neither man fights in the weight class they’re meeting in, with no belts on the line, and nary a fuck between them?

Because it can be. Because curiosity is basically an open checkbook. As Kimbo Slice was wont to say, "If it makes dollars, it makes sense." And in the fight game, especially in the case of firebrands like McGregor and Diaz, whole fortresses are built on such whimsy.

Let’s remember how this all came to be.

December

The UFC was throwing a big three-event weekend in Las Vegas in mid-December, which culminated in a Saturday night featherweight title match between Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor at UFC 194. On Friday night, Frankie Edgar was in a no. 1–contender match against Chad Mendes down the street at the Cosmo, a kind of apéritif for those mingling in Vegas before the main course. Edgar smoked Mendes, knocking him out midway through the first round. UFC president Dana White, who has had his foot in his mouth so many times over the last decade that he’s acquired a taste for rubber soles, declared Edgar unequivocally the next in line for the winner of McGregor–Aldo.

Edgar was on cloud nine. He stayed there for about 24 hours. The next night, McGregor turned into "Mystic Mac." He called his shot against Aldo, preordaining his left hand as the conclusion to Aldo’s decadelong winning streak, and he delivered it. One big punch. Thirteen seconds. McGregor unified the featherweight title. The Irish fans who had made the trek to see him shot red thongs through the air from their fingers like rubber bands. It was the best kind of bedlam.

Despite White’s promise to Edgar, McGregor was already talking about moving up a weight class to fight for the lightweight title before White could take the dais in the post-fight press conference. White couldn’t say no. McGregor was calling his next shot, and it was a move at history. He wanted a second belt. Edgar was the first casualty of McGregor’s grand plans.

One week later, dos Anjos defended the lightweight title against Donald Cerrone in Orlando. McGregor had roasted both fighters during the UFC’s "Go Big" press conference back in Vegas. With the specter of McGregor now hovering over the fight, dos Anjos put his best foot forward, beating Cerrone in 66 seconds. It was vicious, and yet it wasn’t what people were talking about afterwards. People were talking about Nate Diaz, who returned an almost forgotten man after a year away to upset Michael Johnson earlier in the night. Diaz made the most of his moment in his post-fight speech.

"Conor McGregor, you’ve taken everything I worked for, motherfucker," he said, throwing wild index fingers at the camera. "I’m going to fight your fucking ass. You know what the real money fight is, it’s me, not this clown [dos Anjos] that you already punked at the press conference. Don’t no one want to see that, you know you beat them already. That’s the easy fight. You want that real shit, right here…"

Joe Rogan had to tell Diaz that he couldn’t cuss like that on live broadcast television, but it was too late — it was already the best bit of censored television since UFC got the Fox deal. The uncensored version appeared later that night and went viral. Diaz, a dark horse entrant into the pool of Conor contestants, slid in like the floor was greased.

Dos Anjos might have won his match in dominant fashion, but he would nonetheless become a second casualty in the McGregor sweepstakes. But not right away.

January

Much to the chagrin of Aldo (who wanted a rematch) and Edgar, the UFC booked McGregor against dos Anjos for the lightweight crown at UFC 196. McGregor, the biggest star in the UFC, was being red carpeted towards dos Anjos’ title because … he was the biggest star in the UFC. He warranted special treatment, which pissed off just about everybody else on the roster. The fight made sense for his leaps in trajectory, though. Just two and a half years into his UFC career — with nearly one year of that timeframe spent recovering from a torn ACL — McGregor had risen from Irish pauper to global superbrand. Part of that was built on his audaciousness. Part of it was that he backed it up in the cage. Part of it was that he rolled with the punches — both literal and figurative — in a way that nobody else of his stature ever had.

When Aldo was hurt in training ahead of UFC 189, McGregor took on Chad Mendes — the kryptonite wrestler that people said he was ducking — on less than two-weeks notice. That fight was booked in accordance with the so-called meritocracy — Mendes was the next logical man up in the pecking order. McGregor never batted an eye at the opponent switch, though, even if Mendes was a completely different kind of test than Aldo. And McGregor prevailed.

February

Because he had handled last-minute opponent switches so well in the past, there was no reason to think he couldn’t do it again after dos Anjos hurt his foot during training less than two weeks out from UFC 196. The replacement this time? None other than Nate Diaz. In the two months since Diaz had planted the seed for the fight in Orlando, people had come around to the idea that a potential Diaz–McGregor fight would be full of fun combustibility. Now, suddenly, it was a reality. Diaz was a kind of savior in the scenario; he became even more of a cult figure by jumping headfirst into the McGregor circus tent without a second thought.

Diaz’s only supposed caveat: the fight be at 165 pounds between the 145-pound champion and a 155-pound regular with no time to cut weight. McGregor, unbothered, told him they could do 170. The "anytime, anyone, anywhere" mantra that is preached but rarely exhibited in prizefighting was on full display here. It didn’t make big-picture sense, but the small picture had become a work of art. If there was a drawback, it was that one of the fighters would have to lose.

At the Los Angeles press conference to announcing the fight, things picked up immediately. When Diaz said that he didn’t give a fuck, McGregor said he didn’t give a fuck needah. McGregor called Stockton’s own a "little cholo gangster from the hood," and Diaz let fly a nice volley of "fuck yous." "He makes gang signs with the right hand, and animal balloons with the left hand," McGregor said, joking that no real gangster teaches kids jiu-jitsu on a Sunday morning. The air was so fucks-deprived that it was as if the fight gods had peeled back some surface layer of the game to reveal the glowing, vibrant essence of what cagefighting is all about.

(Nate was even so good as to dish up his game plan at the airport en route to Vegas).

March

It only got better at the actual press conference in Vegas during fight week. Diaz said he didn’t play "touch butt with that dork in the park," in reference to McGregor’s movement guru, Ido Portal, who employed the use of pool noodles to help align McGregor to the vibrations of space (or something).

McGregor shot back most ominously.

"I stalked him, like my prey," he said of Diaz. "Now I have him, and Saturday night I will eat his carcass in front of his little gazelle friends." Holly Holm, who was sitting next to McGregor as he uttered the Tysonesque lines, stared at her hands as if hoping to disappear.

When they faced off for the cameras, McGregor — in his tailored suit — punched Diaz’s forearm. Diaz, in a black T-shirt and jeans, just mean-mugged him as if impervious to whatever psychological game McGregor was playing. It raised the question: Was Diaz really just another opponent for McGregor, or was McGregor just another opponent for Diaz?

It didn’t matter at that point if a belt was in play or if the fight was at heavyweight or if they were the only two fighters in the UFC. The only thing that mattered was it had to happen. And it was going to.

The Fight

Fresh off his prophetic single-punch win over Aldo, McGregor was a sizable favorite in the fight. But of course Diaz came in and fucked up the program. McGregor loaded up and blasted him all over the octagon in the first round, landing uppercuts at will along with telegraphed lefts, and Diaz’s face — with all the scar tissue from previous wars — was streaked with blood. Still, each punch that McGregor landed seemed to activate Diaz’s deep reserves of swagger. He began to taunt — to open his chin for business, as if the punches didn’t matter. Then he began to stalk and slap and morph into vintage Nate Diaz, the embodiment of everything there is to love about the fight game.

The bout turned in the second round, as McGregor began to fade and Diaz poured it on. It was a sign of desperate times when McGregor — the sublime striker known to be wrestling-anemic — shot in for a takedown, playing right into Diaz’s forgotten domain — jiu-jitsu — and found himself choked out just moments later.

"I’m not surprised, motherfuckers," Diaz said afterwards. A four-word poem by a four-letter master. There was even a song dedicated to the moment. The featherweight division knew right away that it would be hijacked indefinitely. McGregor would demand a rematch. And he’d get it, again at 170, just so there would be no asterisk. The rematch was originally scheduled for UFC 200 in July — the biggest possible fight for the biggest card in UFC history — but not wanting to disrupt his training, McGregor refused to travel for the media obligations.

That pissed Dana White off, and the fight was removed from the card.

He even briefly retired via Twitter — "I have decided to retire young. Thanks for the cheese. Catch ya’s later" — which was retweeted more than Kobe Bryant’s retirement announcement. He talked about fighting boxer Floyd Mayweather, which exposed a few gullibles in the media. People dissected his motivations. Then, he unretired via a statement, casually mentioning that the $400 million he’d earned the UFC should it afford him some leeway, and the fight was rerouted to UFC 202. A makeshift fight to save UFC 196 became a yearlong odyssey for McGregor to prove something to himself.

Had McGregor beat Diaz, it would be a lot different. But he didn’t. And it opened the portal to money-over-merit fights all over (see Dan Henderson fighting Michael Bisping for the middleweight title at UFC 204 in October, and Tyron Woodley calling out Nick Diaz in his first title defense, and Amanda Nunes politely waiting out Ronda Rousey).

Diaz winning changed everything.

And So Here We Are …

There has been a bunch of other stuff since the first match — like White and then-UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta storming out of a lunch in Stockton after negotiations for the rematch with Diaz hit an impasse, and Diaz slapping White somewhere alongside a highway out in Torrance, and Diaz telling Justin Bieber to shut his "bitch ass up" after Bieber posted a heartening message to McGregor that he was still the champ — but the buzz for the rematch was pretty low, all things considered.

That is, until Wednesday at the UFC 202 press conference. McGregor showed up a half-hour late, and shortly after he arrived Diaz stormed out. Diaz and his Stockton faction were throwing birds — and eventually, water bottles — as they left. McGregor retaliated by chucking water bottles and Monster Energy drinks back. That brought an abrupt end to the presser, but served as a nice little nudge for the public to purchase the fight. After six months of being in each other’s crosshairs, neither can muster another ounce of civility. (Or so it seemed, anyway. Diaz may have planned a dramatic exit beforehand.) In any case, if White was fuming on the outside, he had to have been beaming at least a little bit on the inside, even if he believes fines are forthcoming.

The best part of the press conference was Diaz, who is just too real for the game. When asked to comment on McGregor’s insistence that poor planning cost him the first fight, Diaz just lit a match, tossed it on the ground and literally walked away.

"I think it’s a little silly, man," Diaz said. "You’ve got pictures of me up in his garage, with him punching me in the face. What the fuck? Who does that? That’s trying to make yourself believe something. That’s all. I just think he’s trying to hype his own self up, but when he goes to sleep at night, he remembers what happened the last time."

At some point during this beautiful sidetracked rabbit hole of a rivalry, the narrative has shifted. Whose story is being told? It began as McGregor’s tale in a quest to make history, and has turned into Diaz’s ultimate redemption story. Diaz, who has just two wins since 2013, has siphoned some mojo from the fighting game’s biggest star.

We’re not hallucinating, but it’s been that kind of trip heading into Saturday night.

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of victories Nate Diaz has had since 2013. He has two, not one.

Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.