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Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz: Did the UFC Make the Right Choice?

Patrick Wyman@@Patrick_WymanMMA Senior AnalystFebruary 24, 2016

Conor McGregor is the biggest star in MMA.
Conor McGregor is the biggest star in MMA.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

When lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos was forced to pull out of his scheduled matchup with featherweight kingpin Conor McGregor at UFC 196 on March 5 due to a broken left foot, dismay and panic were perfectly viable responses.

Dos Anjos' coach, Rafael Cordeiro, confirmed the injury to MMAFighting.com's Guilherme Cruz.

The UFC responded with a doozy of a replacement fight: Dana White confirmed on ESPN's SportsCenter that fan favorite Nate Diaz agreed to fight McGregor on short notice at welterweight (h/t MMAFighting.com), not the 155 pounds the Irishman had planned to make against dos Anjos. The newly minted Sports Illustrated cover athlete and burgeoning biggest star in the sport has an opponent once again.

Bleacher Report's Steven Rondina and Patrick Wyman are here to make sense of the madness. Did the UFC do the right thing in booking Diaz and McGregor? What does this mean for the UFC and for the fans? Who will win the fight? We get into all of this and more.

Nate Diaz took a clean decision from Michael Johnson in December.
Nate Diaz took a clean decision from Michael Johnson in December.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Patrick: A day that began with the awful news that dos Anjos was forced to pull out of his fight with McGregor actually ended on a high note: The immortal and inimitable Diaz, who called out McGregor in an expletive-filled rant after beating Michael Johnson in December, gets the fight he wanted and then some.

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Moreover, the UFC met Diaz’s conditions: Not only does the Stockton, California, native not have to drop all the way to lightweight, he doesn’t even have to cut below 170 pounds. The fight will be at welterweight, 25 pounds above where McGregor last fought.

I have two questions for you here. First, is this the best possible outcome for the UFC and for fans in this messed-up situation? Second, is it possible that this is actually a better fight?

Steven: It's debatable whether McGregor vs. Diaz is the best pick for the UFC.

Despite McGregor’s claims that his relationship with the UFC is better than ever, there have been more than a few hints that the satisfaction is one-sided. McGregor has been pushing the limits of the UFC’s payment structure for a while now, and if he beats Diaz while drawing another 1.2 million pay-per-view buys and another $10 million gate, that only empowers him further.

Add to that the fact they’re using McGregor to build up Diaz, whose relationship with the UFC has always been contentious, and it’s easy to see this working against them no matter the outcome.

If McGregor wins and blows away the UFC 194 buyrate against a non-champion, that puts him in a stronger position at the bargaining table ahead of an even bigger fight. If Diaz wins, look for him to start demanding his own McGregor-esque paychecks from here on out.

That isn’t to say this is a bad outcome for the UFC. UFC 196 is likely going to sell more than 1 million buys, and it’ll make plenty of money off that. In the long term, however, the UFC is empowering one of the two most demanding fighters on the roster.

Fans, though? They’re in for a treat.

In the cage, it’s an incredibly compelling contrast of striking styles. Out of the cage, we’ll be able to witness McGregor, the best smack-talker in the sport today, exchanging barbs with one of the ever-unpredictable Diaz brothers.

While I wouldn’t say that this is a better fight than dos Anjos vs. McGregor, this is easily the best choice the UFC has available at this time. 

Patrick: It’s hard to imagine two more independent-minded fighters in the UFC than McGregor and Diaz, and throwing them together in a single bout could turn out to be a public-relations nightmare for the UFC. With only a couple of weeks to promote the fight, though, it’s hard to see them throwing the promotion too far under the bus. There simply isn’t enough time to run with that narrative.

Still, anything that gives either fighter any leverage has to be a tough pill for White, Joe Silva and Sean Shelby to swallow. As you pointed out, if you give Diaz and McGregor an inch, they’ll take a mile. Tough negotiation is their prerogative as independent contractors, but the powers that be can’t be too happy at their setting a public example of its effectiveness.

I’m with you in that there’s no better fight for the fans than Diaz-McGregor. We get to see two quick-paced, iron-jawed strikers throw down, and it’s an open question as to whether the Octagon will be able to contain all of that swagger at once.

In many ways, McGregor has presented himself as an evolved version of the Diaz brothers. He has their southpaw stance, their volume, their penchant for trash-talking and, most of all, their charisma. It’s undeniable, however, that he’s an infinitely more polished and smoother striker than Nate has ever been.

Matchups of durable, skilled and high-output strikers tend to be ridiculously fun, and there’s no reason to think otherwise with this fight. I’d guess that Diaz and McGregor will combine to throw somewhere in the range of 200 punches per round for as long as it lasts.

We’re in agreement that from an entertainment perspective, this is the best fight available. Still, I’ll play devil’s advocate for a minute.

Cerrone defeated Alex Oliveira on February 21.
Cerrone defeated Alex Oliveira on February 21.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Donald Cerrone is coming off a title fight on Dec. 19 and a fight on Feb. 21, and he would have been down to scrap, according to Fox Sports' Damon Martin. Former champion Anthony Pettis also wanted the fight.

Tony Ferguson told Submission Radio (h/t Bloody ElbowNSFW) he was open to it, and Yahoo's Kevin Iole reported Khabib Nurmagomedov offered to take the bout, but both would have been tough matchups for McGregor on short notice, and the Irishman probably wouldn’t have accepted them.

That leaves Pettis and Cerrone as viable options, so why not go with them at 155 pounds rather than Diaz at welterweight? 

Pettis has never reached the heights many thought he would.
Pettis has never reached the heights many thought he would.Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Steven: When it comes to Pettis, the answer is pretty simple. The dude can barely draw crickets to chirp at his cards.

The UFC threw a fair bit of promotional muscle behind him during his injury-addled title reign and absolutely stacked UFC 185, his first PPV main event as champion. The result? A measly 310,000 buys, according to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (via MMAPayout.com).

Cerrone is a tougher call. Maybe the UFC didn't want to give him back-to-back fights at 170 pounds? Maybe it's worried he tweaked something in his fight with Alex Oliveira on Sunday? Maybe it doesn’t want to risk fans turning on him by setting him up to get knocked out in devastating fashion twice in a five-month span? Your guess is as good as mine.  

Patrick: The UFC has failed to find a reliable star at lightweight since the heady days of BJ Penn’s reign over the division.

Pettis was supposed to be the guy, but the Showtime Kick was more than five years ago, and the former champion has fought all of eight times in that span. Why waste more promotional effort on someone who hasn’t and probably won’t pan out? Why risk ruining what potential value he has left by putting him on a three-fight losing streak?

Cerrone is more difficult to answer. He has more name value than just about anybody in the division, owns a number of big-name sponsorships with the likes of Budweiser and Monster and has built a formidable personal brand for himself. Why not give him a shot at the Irish king?

If Cerrone were to somehow beat McGregor, as unlikely as that may seem, it’d be hard to deny him a third shot at dos Anjos. That’s simply unacceptable, particularly when his last attempt ended in all of 66 seconds. The more probable scenario would involve the popular Cerrone getting starched, thereby blowing some of the goodwill he’s accrued with fans.

In general, it seems like the UFC has a good sense for what Cerrone’s ceiling is: a popular action fighter with enough of a name to headline its copious offerings on Fox Sports 1. Why risk that, a valuable commodity in an age when the UFC is trying to run more than 40 shows a year, when there are other options available?

Diaz offers none of those drawbacks and has already gone out of his way to create some heat of his own.

Steven: The UFC basically wrote the “How to Suck as a Fight Promoter” book with its handling of Benson Henderson during his reign as UFC lightweight champ.

It publicly undercut him right from the start by booking an unnecessary immediate rematch against Frankie Edgar, and that would eventually evolve into Dana White actively trying to turn the fans on him, something Henderson's coach discussed at length on the MMA Hour (h/t MMA Mania). The division has been struggling to draw ever since.

But now that we’ve pored over the business end of things, let’s close with some fisticuffs talk.

Diaz is one of the biggest 155-pounders in the sport, and that’s a really interesting thing to watch when it comes to McGregor. The Irishman has traditionally held the advantage in the height and reach departments, and seeing how he adjusts to somebody with Diaz’s long, strong frame should be fun.

Unfortunately, Diaz is at a major disadvantage when it comes to fight IQ. While I’m not saying the Diaz brothers are stylistically identical, I could easily see this going the way of Nick’s fight with Carlos Condit or Anderson Silva. I’m thinking Nate will plod forward, McGregor will tag him with his left, slip away and repeat for five rounds en route to a handy decision win.

Patrick: Nate’s a little more diverse than his brother, and he’s less dependent on forward motion to get his game going. He has a cleaner jab, more snap to his punches and is a better boxer in general. Neither of them, however, has particularly sharp footwork.

That’s where McGregor should win this fight. He’s much more precise with his movement and footwork and far more aware of where he is in the space of the cage. If Diaz tries to pressure him, it will be difficult to pin him against the fence.

Conversely, if McGregor decides to pressure Diaz, as dos Anjos did in their fight, the Irishman could be equally successful. He has outstanding pressure footwork and cuts off the cage beautifully.

In short, McGregor’s feet should allow him to run circles around Diaz in the direction of his choosing, and winning the footwork battle generally means you’re winning the fight.

Still, Diaz’s length and the improvements he showed against Michael Johnson offer a glimmer of hope that he might be able to stick McGregor on the end of his shots and work him over with volume. We don’t really know how The Notorious will react to fighting someone who has a reach advantage, so it could be a problem.

The balance of evidence suggests that McGregor should take this, probably inside the distance.

The next couple of weeks are going to be fun, and this offers the rare opportunity to see a fight that presents outstanding entertainment value and narrative meaning without a belt on the line.

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