The main bout at UFC 196 showed that, if nothing else, there is a reason fighters typically occupy the weight classes they do.
Conor McGregor thrives on explosiveness, on surprise, on pure overwhelming power. What he had not shown before Sunday morning was whether there was any game plan to his fighting after “drop them cold”.
And that was fine at featherweight. Across five fights, since a decision win in his second UFC bout against Max Holloway in August 2013, “drop them cold” had worked to perfection. No one, save Holloway, had avoided the seemingly inevitable conclusion of any contest with McGregor – the knockout.
The Irishman just had to land that devastating left of his, and that would be that. Whether in a flash (as in his title-fight record, 13-second win over Jose Aldo in December to take the featherweight belt), or through attrition (as in taking out Chad Mendes near the end of the second round last July), in his UFC career, McGregor had pretty much always gotten there with that left.
“Drop them cold” had not, in roughly three years of fighting in the UFC, served McGregor wrong. At featherweight. It probably would not have served him wrong at lightweight, where he was originally to fight Rafael dos Anjos for that division’s title, either.
But Dos Anjos did drop out, and McGregor did not fight at lightweight. He fought two classes up, at welterweight, against the imposing and well-rounded Nate Diaz. And “drop them cold” was, very early on, clearly not going to work against Diaz.
The fast-talking 27-year-old from Dublin hit Diaz hard and often from the get-go. It looked exactly like a McGregor fight is supposed to, only Diaz did not go down.
Diaz, at 6ft 1in (1.83m) had four inches and an extensive fight record at welterweight on his rival. He absorbed the blows, like a fighter who has seen this kind of punch before.
Diaz stood strong, as McGregor gave him his best shot, expended two or three or four of his best shots. And as the UFC’s star of the moment was reduced to throwing wild hooks and limp jabs, Diaz, bloodied but unbent, turned the tables and started landing heavy blows of his own. He rendered McGregor defenceless and put him on wobbly back feet.
When McGregor went for a desperation takedown, the kind of Plan B he has never had to turn to before, the experienced wrestler and jiu-jitsu expert Diaz turned it on him with little trouble and finished the fight shortly thereafter with a rear-naked choke.
McGregor, against a man that big and experienced, could not hit hard enough.
“I’ve been sparring with boxers forever,” Diaz said in the post-fight press conference. “I’ve been hit with everything, the hardest stuff.
“He punches hard, he’s a hard-hitting guy, but nothing I’ve never felt before.”
And when he could not hit hard enough, there simply was nothing else to turn to for McGregor.
“What we have seen before was spectacular victories,” the UFC commentator Joe Rogan said about McGregor during the post-bout broadcast. “Incredible results. But what we didn’t see was him having to overcome specific adversity.
“There’s a reality in martial arts that cannot be ignored. Techniques you have to master, and Diaz has mastered techniques Conor has not.”
Post-fight, McGregor himself acknowledged the fatal flaw in his fight style: “With a heavier man it must take more than one, more than two, more than three to put the heavier man away.
“It is what it is. It was simply me fighting a heavier man and that was it.”
None of which is to say McGregor is a fraud. He simply, in this instance, was a victim of his own overflowing confidence, biting off more than he could chew in a fight against a bigger, more experienced martial artist.
“I took a chance, it didn’t pay off,” McGregor said. “I’ll be back.”
It is easy to forgive him, after his unblemished lightning ascent in UFC, for becoming overambitious. And we do not, of course, know how he would have fared had be been able to see through his original fight with Dos Anjos. UFC 196 could have written a far different chapter into McGregor’s storyline.
Instead it is, at least momentarily, a setback. It is if not a rebuke of his unyielding self-belief, his unbridled brashness, then a rebuke of the notion he can take on any and all challengers and drop them cold with that left of his.
What is clear from UFC 196 is that Conor McGregor will either have to accept the limitations of his size and rein in his ambitions, or flesh out a more multifaceted and dangerous mixed martial arts repertoire. He insisted post-fight he was “not forgetting” either the 155-pound lightweight or 170-pound welterweight divisions.
He also said he would take lessons from this loss.
“Tough pill to swallow, but we can either run from adversity or face adversity head on and conquer it and that’s what I plan to do.
“I’ll take it on the chin and carry on, I’ll learn from it.”
Now, for the next chapter in the remarkable Conor McGregor story, we must wait to see how he does that.
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