The Big Breakdown: Conor McGregor vs. Nathan Diaz

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Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining.

That phrase might be more applicable to UFC 196 than any card the uncontrollably mad world of mixed martial arts has put together in recent memory.

Starting out with a heavyweight title fight in the headlining spot, the card went from near cancellation to a postponement to a lightweight title fight to, an oddly more exciting, non-title welterweight fight between Conor McGregor and Nathan Diaz in the space of a few weeks.

What we are left with now might not be the most meaningful fight rankings wise – heck, it isn’t even in the right division – but it is one of the most fan-friendly, fun fights the UFC has ever put on.

And it might seem like this is a fight just for the hell of it, to save a card. But it isn’t. Not with these two men.

This fight will be competitive. It will be fierce. And it is well worth breaking down in detail.

THE CAREERS

If you’re reading this you’ve probably read about McGregor’s career before so rather than boring you with all that spiel here are the updated bullet points of his transition from beginner to champion.

Early days as a boxer in MMA brought two losses but the setbacks set him straight.

Unbeaten streak follows and brings him Cage Warriors belts at featherweight and lightweight concurrently.

The UFC calls, Brimage falls.

Holloway win comes at the cost of his ACL.

The return comes in Dublin where a Brandao KO starts a three fight winning run.

Gets a title shot. Aldo hurts his rib. Mendes steps in on short notice.

Interim champion.

Underestimated.

Knocks out Aldo in 13 seconds.

Undeniable.

…..

For Nate Diaz his career might not have seen as meteoric a rise to super-stardom as McGregor’s but nonetheless has been very impressive thus far.

Starting out in 2004, Diaz immediately had a target on his back for simply being the younger brother of Nick, who had just beaten Robbie Lawler in the UFC.

In his first six career bouts, Diaz fought for promotions like the WEC, Pancrase and Strikeforce before getting a call up to be part of the 5th season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’

In the ‘TUF’ house Diaz was the stand-out contestant in a very strong field which included the likes of Matt Wiman, Joe Lauzon, Cole Miller, Gray Maynard and Manny Gamburyan, whom Diaz defeated in the finale to become the seasonal winner.

That win was the first of five in a row and saw Diaz climb the lightweight ranks consistently. That consistency, though, began to unravel quickly as he lost four of his next seven fights in a spell which also saw him move up to welterweight for a spell.

Upon his return to lightweight in 2012 Diaz again found his mojo and impressively took out Donald Cerrone, Takanori Gomi and Jim Miller in the space of less than a year to earn himself a title shot.

Unfortunately for Diaz, that championship fight ended in a blowout five-round decision loss to Benson Henderson and was quickly followed by the only knockout loss of his career to date against Josh Thomson.

Since then Diaz has only fought three times, winning two and losing one, in an up-and-down stint with contract negotiations and a seeming unwillingness to take anything but big match-ups for a prolonged period stalling his career.

Luckily for him, one of those eventually did come his way.

THE STYLES

The great Bruce Lee once said; “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” But in MMA today it’s more a case of practicing 10,000 strikes, 10,000 times… give or take. Nobody personifies that variety more than Conor McGregor.

Over the last few years mixed martial arts has had a real turn towards elite striking making the difference at the top level because of an ever growing ability to get through or annul the grappling side of the game.

From Anderson Silva’s front kick to Jon Jones’ distance management to Joanna Jedrzejczyk to Holly Holm to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson the game has undeniably seen a resurgence of simple, yet in their own way complex, techniques.

That’s the perfect way to describe Conor McGregor’s striking game – simple complexity.

Everything he does that separates him from the pack is something which seems simple but in reality but is extremely difficult and rarely seen done with such poise, brilliance and consistency.

His Jab. Straight left. Counter left. Body work. Leg kicks. Spinning attacks. Hook kicks. Front kicks. Lateral movement. Cage cutting. All basic parts of different fighting methods but all done with near perfection.

With an in-and-out karate style McGregor can bounce from the front foot to the back foot, using varying tools, and be equally impressive from both areas. On the attack he has names like Dustin Poirier and Chad Mendes on his résumé of victims while, probably most famously of all, Jose Aldo fell to the back-peddling southpaw in just thirteen seconds.

In close his wicked hands have the power to finish anyone near his weight (and some not so near) while from outside range his arsenal of technical high kicks is growing stronger and more dangerous by the day.

But it’s not all just a striking battle we see inside the Octagon.

For a long time the ground game of McGregor was the big unknown around him, and in some ways it still is. Apart from two rounds of top control against Max Holloway, the one piece of ground data in the UFC we do have, from his fight with Chad Mendes, is somewhat hard to rationalise because of Mendes taking the fight on short notice and McGregor fighting on basically one leg.

Nevertheless that’s what we have and it’s all we can go on.

In that fight, it was shown that McGregor can be taken down and held for long periods. That it’s possible to come through some of his attacks and use them against him.

While on the flip side, he also showed that he can survive on the ground and come through to win.

In that fight, almost all of the takedowns were attained by Mendes getting low and turning the corner to get McGregor down away from the Octagon. Against the fence, the Irishman looked more solid and always has. There he has the ability to turn away and get out, or lands elbows which have finished fights for him in the past.

A stark reminder that, no matter where the fight is, McGregor is dangerous.
…….

When looking at Nate Diaz as a fighter, just like his brother Nick, you must first examine how their attitude from outside the cage is brought through the fence with them and used almost like an extra mode of weaponry.

Unlike Conor McGregor, who does talk to his opponents inside the cage but does most of his mental mining before the cage door shuts, Diaz utilises mind games constantly inside the cage. From calling his opponent a bitch, to telling him what shot he’s going to hit him with next, to throwing literal slaps and flipping the double birds it can be quite the task standing across from a Diaz while keeping your blood pressure as low as possible.

Then comes everything else.

Like McGregor Diaz is a big southpaw and uses his size well in his game. Unlike McGregor, his attacks are a lot less varied.

At his very core, Diaz is an in-your-face fighter. He will walk out with his hands up, standing eyeball to eyeball with his opponents and throw down.

On the feet almost all of Diaz’s strikes come from his boxing centric hands. He has a long stiff jab which he sometimes feints, sometimes holds out as a measurement and sometimes smashes directly into the target. With that, his lead hook shot is extremely accurate while his straight left is probably his best shot.

The most meaningful part off all of that, though, is the fact that he throws all those shots extremely well in combination. Diaz is as brave as a lion and will walk straight forward to land his shots whether he receives one in return or not.

In the past, despite a relative lack of big power in his hand and kicks of any nature basically, the sheer volume of punches has often been enough to see him through and will burst up an opponent if enough of it lands.

Diaz, though, isn’t just a boxer.

One of the most under-appreciated parts of his game is his clinch and fence work. Often, you’ll see Diaz clinch in the middle of the cage, get double overhooks and push his foe to the fence. From there he only keeps the position for a minimal amount of time but he uses it well by crushing knees to the body and head as well as landing with dirty boxing as they break.

Another useful part of Diaz’s clinch game is that it sets up almost all of his takedowns. Wrestling has never been the strongest point for Diaz, although he is more than capable, so his trips and judo throws when in the clinch help him get the fight south.

On the floor, usually after a pretty sweep or pass, Diaz is an absolute whiz of a submission artist with guillotines, armbars, triangles and more all part of a record that currently stands at 11 submission finished in 18 wins for Stockton’s son.

THE FIGHT

With any match-up made on short notice there are plenty of determining factors when looking at how the fight might actually play out. This one is no different.

First and foremost, McGregor had a full camp to prepare himself physically, if not tactically, which is an obvious benefit for him.

His cardio should be better due to his strength and conditioning programming, his timing should be better due to a complete sparring regime and all the other small things which add up to be full prepared were also already in the works when he got the change of opponent.

Diaz, unfortunately, didn’t have that luxury and, unless he was keeping himself in pristine shape, his conditioning and timing could be seriously hindered.

It’s not all bad for Diaz, though.

After jumping up from featherweight and preparing to fight at lightweight, McGregor will now fight for the first time ever at welterweight. That’s not the case for Diaz, as mentioned above.

Diaz, who would be considered a big lightweight, has four UFC fights at welterweight – one of which went to a decision with top ranked contender Rory MacDonald. From that point of view he will have the edge and he’ll need to use it well to win here.

In almost all of McGregor’s previous fights, he was the bigger man and used that, along with his world-class skills, to win the battle for favorable range.

On Saturday he won’t have the size advantage against Diaz who is taller in height and longer in reach a fact that, alone, makes for a compelling bout, especially at the start.

Usually both men set their stall out immediately.

McGregor likes to grab the centre of the cage, throw a long shot, get his opponent thinking and begin his light-footed, karate style, back-and-forth movement.

Diaz, similarly, wants to take the centre, get in your face and walk you down before throwing verbal and physical shots straight down the pipe.

On Saturday, someone will win that battle and someone will have to give the backward step first.

If Diaz is able to back McGregor up he will land some shots but not without putting himself on the path of counters from the Irishman. Diaz, though, will know that well so expect him to be very smart and safe while on the attack with a long jab and high hands if it happens.

On the other side of it, if McGregor walks down Diaz, it will be a little more trouble for the American.

Although adequate off of the back foot, if he found himself having to fight in that manner Diaz would usually have his back against the cage and be fighting out of it with someone in his face. That’s not the case with McGregor.

As one of the best fighters in the world at keeping his distance but taking away his opponent’s, McGregor will cut off the cage when he attacks and corner you in while still hitting you with a barrage of strikes from a comfortable distance.

At the start, it’s anyone’s guess who will win that initial battle, but over the course of the fight (unless someone gets sparked early) you’d expect both men to have their fair share of it.

Although he will be more than confident in his hands, Diaz will know that taking it to the ground and looking for submissions at some stage is his most likely path to victory. When Diaz has his purple patch, look for him to throw high volumes of combinations which lead into clinches. In that clinch, he will try to use his height to get over McGregor with hooks, push him against the fence and establish the throw.

If he can do that, despite a general lack of knowledge about McGregor’s ground game at the very top level and because of what Diaz has produced in the past, you would have give him a decent chance to pull off the shock.

Getting it there, though, is easier said than done due to the strength of McGregor in the clinch and defending takedowns against someone with Diaz’s skillset.

For McGregor, as always, it will be a case of getting his movement going, establishing his preferred range, denying all takedown attempts, throwing his set-up shots and landing with power.

In this fight, more than any that came before it, the set-ups will be tantamount to him winning. To counter Diaz, McGregor will need smart leads to draw him in while leaving himself open. On the attack, his jab to land the cross, as always, will be huge but alone, against an iron chinned Diaz, it might not be enough.

Because of that, and the necessity to cover a longer size differential, the kicks of McGregor will be extremely important. In his career those kicks have been seen in some quartets as merely a distraction for his hands, but that could very well change on Saturday night.

In previous fights, especially against Josh Thomson, Diaz has been known to get caught by kicks. McGregor will know that too. Expect plenty of leg kicks, front kicks to the body and face and, with bad intentions, hook, spinning and straight kicks to the head.

If they land cleanly they will cause big problems for Diaz.

..

When looking at this fight in an overall sense it will come down to what McGregor said at the pre-fight press-conference about having the same will with the determining factor being the skill.

Undoubtedly, both of these men have an iron will.

Diaz; takes on a world champion on eleven days notice.

McGregor; jumps up two weight classes.

This is a fight between two mentally unbreakable mixed martial artists who won’t ask or give a quarter but when they step inside the octagon on Saturday night and showcase their skills, something will have to give.

Podcaster, lead MMA writer and analyst for SevereMMA. Host of the SevereMMA podcast, out every Sunday. Economics and Mathematics graduate from UCC. Also write for Sherdog. Previously of hov-mma and fightbooth. As heard on 2FM, Red FM, Today FM and more. Follow me on twitter for updates @SeanSheehanBA and on Facebook Facebook.com/seansheehanmma