The Big Breakdown: Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor 2

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The wait is finally over. This Saturday night Nathan Diaz and Conor McGregor meet for the second time as the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas hosts a heavily stacked UFC 202 card.

Initially, the rematch was due to take place at UFC 200 but McGregor’s refusal to attend a press-conference saw the UFC postpone the much talked about rematch until this Saturday night.

Like the first fight, this one will take place between featherweight champion McGregor and lightweight Diaz at welterweight due to, depending on who you believe, McGregor or the UFC. Before we get into Saturday night, though, we must look back at the first fight and separate the talk, and there has been plenty of it, from the facts.

UFC 196

As we know, McGregor was due to fight Rafael Dos Anjos at UFC 196 for the lightweight title but the Brazilian was injured and Diaz stepped in on 11 days notice. In round one McGregor came out in a very attacking manner and was able to push Diaz onto the backfoot. Unusually, though, he didn’t seem to be working his usual movement orientated game and instead fought a lot of the fight boxing in the pocket.

Diaz took some time to settle into that but once he did he had some success countering, mostly with his right hook. McGregor too landed plenty of punches with his overhand left and right uppercut but Diaz wasn’t badly hurt at any stage despite some aesthetic damage to his face. A lot of those McGregor punches were stretching in against the bigger man and thrown at full steam which led to the Irishman clearly tiring despite being ahead in the fight.

Along with that, though, came a lot of Diaz improvements. He began to land the jab more, had plenty of success in the clinch and hurt McGregor with a beautiful combination midway through round two which directly lead to him winning the fight. After that McGregor was a different fighter and Diaz didn’t allow him to recover by upping his output of strikes. As a last resort, McGregor jumped on a takedown but his race was run at that stage as Diaz tied him up, took his back and tapped him out with a rear naked choke.

The Aftermath

Depending on how you look at each portion of the game there are plenty of ways of deciphering it.

First and, literally, foremost – Nate Diaz won. He came in on short notice, traded fire with one of the hardest hitters in the game and came out the victor. He took plenty of shots but came through them and landed plenty of his own. He showed he has the ability to not only hurt McGregor, but to take advantage of it and finish him off with his undoubtedly superior ground game.

For McGregor, though, it wasn’t all bad. Yes, he got (in no particular order) tired, hit, hurt and ultimately finished but there were some positives to take. Firstly, despite it not being the smartest move in the long-run, he showed that he can get to Diaz whilst trading in the pocket (we’ll get to that more later) and not playing his usual movement game. Then, he survived, and in fact won, the first exchange on the ground which surprised many people, including Diaz, just before round one ended and then everything went haywire. But that’s about where his positives, and his allure of invincibility, went away.

How much of that matters going into Saturday? Well, we won’t know until Saturday but hazarding a guess I would say a lot.

This time around I think McGregor will be a lot less willing to play into Diaz’s game. Last time he almost seemed cocky and out to prove a point that he can beat Diaz wherever the fight goes. And he did prove the point. But not in his favour. If that fact has changed his approach, which, to his defence, he only had a few days to work on, he will have a lot better chance of winning this fight.

And Nate Diaz will know that as well as all of us. He too had only days to prepare for McGregor which could mean he fight in a fashion now designed to take out a fighter who we have plenty of info on, not one who’s standing in the pocket and playing a more dangerous game.

Now if that is the case we’re basically back to square one. Prime McGregor and Prime Diaz preparing for each other’s usual, optimal way of fighting.

How might that go down I hear you ask? Let me answer that for you.

Optimal McGregor and Optimal Diaz

If we are to look at their whole back catalog of fights, both McGregor and Diaz are very different to what they showed in the first fight.

Both men are extremely good at taking fights by the scruff of the neck and dominating early, but in slightly different ways.

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Diaz has an uncanny knack of drawing people into the range he wants and not letting them out. That range is usually the pocket between the very inside and the very outside where he uses his long reach, superior boxing and iron chin to go to war. He possesses a fantastic jab and will batter you with it as both an attack and a counter. He’ll do the same with his right hook while his straight left hand is usually thrown with absolutely precision after one of the leads lands. He’ll attack the body too, and throw some kicks on occasion, but it’s really his boxing that is base for everything.

McGregor, on the other hand, has very good boxing too but it’s his diversity which has made him special. Like Diaz he has a good fundamental jab and right hook but it’s the ungodly power in his left hand straight and hook which is the game changer. He sets that up with hand leads but also with a vast array of kicks to get opponents thinking. He has good leg kicks, attacks the body well and throws head seeking hook, wheel and straight kicks which are bound to land with devastation at some point.

As well as being tremendous attacking fighters, both men are generally good defensively but can also be hit. Diaz is more of an old-school guy who rolls with the punches and slips his head out while McGregor uses his in-and-out karate style to dart back to safety.

As someone who holds a high guard a lot, Diaz’s lower body is somewhat open to attacks. In previous fights, especially against Rafael Dos Anjos, Diaz had his lead leg and body attacked with force. That sometimes causes him to stand straight up rather than leaning onto his front leg like usual. In that position he eats lots of headshots because his length advantage and countering ability are taken away.

For McGregor, it’s more straightforward as to where his striking weaknesses lay. Against Diaz and in snippets against Dustin Poirier and Chad Mendes he was caught backing straight up or coming straight forward with big shots. Most of the time, his lateral movement out of the pocket stops that but if he’s a moment late, or timed very well he can be hit.

Over the years, Diaz has shown he can keep a striking pace for as long as he needs to while signs of cardio issues for McGregor were there for all to see last time out and against Mendes despite coming through to win. That could be a huge factor on Saturday.

Another factor is the ground game. And before we go there, we must first look at how it gets there. In the first fight Diaz had a pretty sizable advantage in the clinch against a man who is usually very good there. And although he didn’t get a trip, that’s where he usually takes the fight to the floor. McGregor, too, has takedowns against the fence and nifty double legs in his armoury but it’s very unlikely he pulls those out this weekend.

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As a mentioned above, there is no doubting who is the stronger grappler here. Diaz is a long-time black belt who has proven his dominance on the big stage. But that doesn’t mean McGregor is worthless. Although we haven’t seen a huge amount of it, it’s obvious that McGregor, who swept Diaz in the first fight before he was hurt and dominated Max Holloway on the floor, is more than a capable grappler. If it goes south, I wouldn’t guarantee an easy out for Diaz but even the best grapplers in the world would succumb to his brilliance if put in a bad enough position for long enough of time.

Fight Breakdown

So the question now is what will happen when Diaz and McGregor stand opposite each other inside the Octagon in the wee small hours of Sunday morning.

Fireworks. Fireworks will happen.

I would be beyond shocked if McGregor didn’t come out very loose on his feet from the opening bell. For me, the key to victory for him is to take Diaz out in a surgical manner. Piece by piece. First attack the front leg, then kick the body. Don’t head hunt early unless it’s with the jab and straight left when Diaz approaches. While high kicks after a litany of low kicks are always a good tactic, especially against someone like Diaz who will slip to the side to avoid strikes.

For Diaz, like all McGregor opponents, it’s important to weather the storm early. Despite all the talk after their first fight, McGregor still has the power to finish anyone he lands clean on. Diaz knows that. Expect him to keep that high guard right up while being more active with his lead leg so as not to make it a sitting duck for McGregor. His plan then will be to establish that range he loves in the pocket, gets his 1-2s off and tire McGregor out again.

Put that together and what you have here, barring a big finish, is two rounds of absolute bedlam. Two bulls trying to take their ground while the other won’t give an inch.

As the fight progresses expect both men to open up more with the hands as they settle into it. If that does happen, as the bigger man who is much better suited to the welterweight division, Diaz should be able to get plenty of opportunities to land and will be hoping to hurt McGregor again. That could be with shots down the middle or takedowns and jiu-jitsu.

That, though, is all predicated on the endurance and durability of both men. And, to be quite frank, this whole fight comes down to that.

It will either be McGregor steadily working to break down Diaz’s defences or McGregor having his defences broken down when Diaz’s defences don’t break. If the former happens, McGregor should win. If the latter happens, expect to see Nathan Diaz’s hand raised once again.

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