UFC 196 was supposed to be the Conor McGregor show. The featherweight champion was offered the one-of-a-kind opportunity to step up to the lightweight division and become the first man to hold UFC titles in two different weight classes. It's something the UFC has never done before (even with BJ Penn vs. Georges St-Pierre 2, the expectation was for Penn to vacate his lightweight title upon winning), but McGregor is a star unlike any they've dealt with at this point.
UFC 196 was supposed to end with McGregor walking out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena with a belt over each shoulder, with a chorus of rowdy Irish fans singing his praises on high.
Then McGregor's dancing partner, 155-pound champion Rafael dos Anjos, pulled out of his fight with a broken foot. Instead of putting the epic superfight on ice until UFC 200, the UFC and McGregor decided to roll the dice by finding a short-notice replacement.
The man to step in, of course, was Nate Diaz.
The longtime fan favorite was chosen by the UFC over a slew of other names, and seemed to be the perfect choice due to his substantial following and his inconsistent performances in the cage. While Diaz vs. McGregor made sense on paper, it was supposed to be something of a tune-up fight for McGregor. McGregor would still be crowned the first two-division champion in UFC history...he would just have to wait a few more months.
Alas, things didn't go that way and the reasons are so clear in retrospect.
The path to that upset was a fun one, to be sure. The first round was McGregor at his best. The Irishman darted in and out with his left hand, exploiting the surprisingly big difference in speed. Though Diaz is a formidable boxer in his own right, he didn't seem to have an answer to McGregor's squirrely movement and hit the stool bruised and bloodied.
When the horn sounded for the second round, a switch seemed to flip in the featherweight champ's head. McGregor just wasn't as quick. He wasn't as light on his feet. His breathing seemed to be a bit heavy.
That changed things in a hurry. Diaz found his jab and popped McGregor with it repeatedly. While McGregor's hands were still lightning-fast, his feet seemed to betray him. He plodded forward and swapped punches with Diaz until Diaz caught him flat-footed following an exchange.
A 1-2 combination turned into another, and McGregor was visibly wounded. Diaz stalked forward and continued to pour on punishment. Eventually, McGregor shot for a desperation takedown, which Diaz sprawled with ease. That would turn into back mount position for Diaz, which would be followed by a rear-naked choke.
The damage this does to the UFC's promotional plans cannot be understated. McGregor vs. dos Anjos is off the table. So, too, is another potential superfight with Robbie Lawler. McGregor was the backbone to the UFC's big plans for 2016 and this loss leaves them paralyzed.
So how did this happen? What, exactly, went wrong for McGregor?
The answer is simpler than one might think.
Over the last few years, McGregor has gradually transformed from a surgeon to a sniper. The McGregor that beat Marcus Brimage at UFC on Fuel TV 9 was a surgeon. He flowed around the cage, picked his shots, landed them, wounded him and eventually went for the jugular.
It was measured, methodical and smart.
The McGregor of 2016, though, is not measured. Since his fight against Dustin Poirier in 2014, McGregor has been all fastballs, all the time. BloodyElbow.com's Connor Ruebusch summed this up brilliantly last year:
Something seemed different about McGregor [at UFC 178]. This wasn't the same fighter who had so effortlessly picked apart Ivan Buchinger just before coming to the UFC. This wasn't the same man who had danced around Marcus Brimage in his debut. No more testing and measuring range with his right hand. No more subtle manipulation of distance. No more setting and springing of traps. This Conor McGregor was here to do one thing and one thing only: put his hands on Dustin Poirier. Less than two minutes into the first round, he succeeded.
That approach worked perfectly against Poirier, and continued to work for a while after that. Dennis Siver crumbled under McGregor's pressure. Chad Mendes wilted and Jose Aldo was practically assassinated. That approach has been labeled as "arrogant" or "cocky" by many, but the only difference between arrogance and brilliance is the outcome of the contest.
The only difference between McGregor's win over Siver and his loss here is Diaz's resiliency. McGregor applied relentless pressure in both fights and landed left hands by the dozen. Siver was felled by them. Diaz was not.
It's easy to say McGregor was over-confident heading into this fight. There's a big difference between facing a Chad Mendes that stands at 5'6" and walks around at 150-pounds and a long, strong Nate Diaz. McGregor didn't appreciate that, though, and approached a bigger, stronger opponent in the same way he approached everyone else.
That's a recipe for disaster, and he acknowledged as much at the post-fight presser. Via BloodyElbow:
Conor: He was efficient with his energy, I wasn't. There's many lessons to be learned from the fight. I'll learn. I'll grow. I'll come back.— Bloody Elbow (@BloodyElbow) March 6, 2016
So is this the end of the McGregor Era? Was he "exposed" as a "hype job?" No. Absolutely not.
What do you want to see McGregor do next?
While it's a tired saying, this loss is almost certainly a learning experience for the still-reigning featherweight champ. Even though this didn't go his way, McGregor still has everything he needs to be a dominant champion, still has what it takes to become a two-division (or maybe even three-division) champion, and most certainly has what it takes to beat Diaz.
The plan for McGregor going forward should be to try and combine the punching power of today's McGregor with the patience and elegance of yesteryear's. If he can do so, he won't just recapture his mythical status, he may become the legend he was meant to be.