After lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos pulled out of his title defense at UFC 196 against Conor McGregor with a broken foot, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and Stockton slapper Nate Diaz agreed to step in on 10 days' notice. Diaz, typically a lightweight, stipulated the fight take place at 170 pounds—welterweight, a division led by Robbie Lawler.
The Irishman lived up to Dana White's claim that McGregor will fight anyone, anywhere, at any weight and agreed to the fight. Diaz will be the tallest opponent McGregor has faced and has a two-inch reach advantage.
Given that Diaz's last fight, against Michael Johnson in December, was entirely on the feet, this may suggest we'll see more of his boxing. However, Diaz said, per Fox Sports: "The fight might end up on the ground. Most likely, it will."
He didn't elaborate any further on how he expects the fight to get there, but what would happen if it does—and if he keeps it there?
While we haven't seen a ton of McGregor's grappling in the Octagon, we can evaluate what we have seen, what we know about his training and how he might fare in the above scenario.
First, a brief breakdown of their grappling games.
A first-degree black belt under Cesar Gracie, Diaz has 11 submission wins on his pro record, the most recent being a guillotine on Jim Miller in May 2012. When he's on the ground, he has the easy, pliable grace of high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu players, with limbs that transition from seemingly formless to rigidly braced so fluidly that it can be hard to spot.
Another indication of his comfort on the ground is how he uses his weight and balance to create leverage; for example, Diaz can easily shift his weight from his hands and knees to mostly his head and one shoulder, using his opponent's body as a post to facilitate movement while freeing his limbs to work. This degree of proficiency was evident in his fight with Benson Henderson, where he used his long legs like compressed springs to stave off Henderson's ground-and-pound more than once.
And the kneebar set up halfway through Round 3? Brilliant.
Skip ahead to 6:00 in the video below and watch how readily he gives up his back when Kurt Pellegrino takes half guard after Diaz throws him. If you look closely, you can see that he when he does so, he reaches between his legs to grab Pellegrino's shin. Diaz makes thwarting a back take and getting to his feet look effortless.
Diaz's wrestling is minimal, and this is never more obvious than in his ease on his back. As a grappler, Diaz seems to prefer it, using his proficiency and long limbs to control his opponent and his opponent's offense. This is frequently where he sets up submissions, achieving a high guard by climbing up his opponent's torso, where he begins isolating limbs. He's so comfortable on his back that he will stay there even if it means eating shots.
He does have a solid sprawl and has utilized it to lock up guillotines, although McGregor is unlikely to try for a takedown. Diaz's takedown game is reliant on trips and throws, and we may see one if he can tie McGregor up in the clinch.
McGregor trains at Straight Blast Gym in Dublin, one school of several dozen under the SBG banner. SBG has a much shorter history than the Gracies, but in the 15 years since its inception, the gym has produced multiple high-level fighters. This includes Gunnar Nelson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and world champion.
McGregor's grappling has surfaced in a few of his UFC fights, however briefly. Here's what we saw and what we can take away from it.
From the top, McGregor is comfortable, as you might expect of any fighter in the advantageous position. He doesn't shy away and force the fight back to the feet, but he does attempt to finish with striking—not submissions.
He is adept at collapsing his opponent's structures, whether they're defensive or offensive. He did so when Dennis Siver attempted a granby roll after being dropped, utilizing Siver's own instinct to avoid giving up his back to take full mount.
McGregor also nullified Diego Brandao's attempts for anything from the bottom with heavy pressure that took away his opponent's leverage. From the top, McGregor knows how and where to be heavy. He incorporates elements of grappling as a means of control integrated into his game rather than as a myopia of discipline. This is impressive and part of what makes his style look so fluid and effortless. However, the question of whether he could progress in a fight with grappling as its own end is so far generally unanswered.
In guard or on bottom, McGregor seems far less comfortable. In his fight against Max Holloway, he failed to pass Holloway's guard, eventually standing and trying to pass on the feet, where he also failed. He then fell back into closed guard. It was when Holloway opened his guard and pushed McGregor away that he was finally able to pass. But when his opponent maintains a closed guard, McGregor, so far, seems limited and passive.
When McGregor fought Chad Mendes, reportedly on an 80 percent torn ACL, according to comments he made at a fan Q&A (h/t MMA Fighting), the wrestler took him down multiple times, ending up in McGregor's closed guard. Rather than work for a high guard or set up a submission, McGregor often waited, flat on his back, throwing harmless punches. From there, he would put a foot into Mendes' hip and push, creating enough space to get back to his feet or wait for the referee to stand them up. But the latter didn't happen, and Mendes began passing his guard.
In the first round, this resulted in McGregor's shoulders pinned to the mat, and his escape was short-lived as Mendes easily wrangled him back into half guard. It was on a passing attempt that McGregor improved his position, recovering his full closed guard.
In the second round, McGregor was able to capitalize on the movement of the guard pass again and got his legs between them. By extending his legs, he was able to roll Mendes off and away and take the fight back to standing.
McGregor has not demonstrated an active defense from his closed guard, a position that is considered dominant in pure grappling. Nor has he demonstrated an active offense from the position. Instead, he seems to be biding his time. In MMA, if a fighter isn't active with his closed guard, his opponent will likely eventually open it for him. McGregor can't count on the ref standing them up.
McGregor vs. Diaz
If this goes to the ground, it's unlikely McGregor will land Diaz into his closed guard, unless it's off a takedown gone awry. If that happens, I can't imagine McGregor would elect to stay there with the likes of Diaz.
Against a wrestler such as Mendes, McGregor could capitalize on any space offered during guard passing and transitions and escape, but Diaz will be grappling with jiu-jitsu. And he is a high-level practitioner; his pressure and control of space will make escape attempts far more difficult.
More likely, McGregor would find himself under some form of Diaz control. Should this come in the way of a closed guard, McGregor's best option is to open the guard, stand and disengage. If he can't do that, collapsing his posture and staying tight to Diaz will help keep his arms safe. Without space to work, Diaz will, at least temporarily, be less of a threat. But that's a stopgap, and McGregor should pray for a stand up from there. He might be able to stall to the end of a round, but he wouldn't impede Diaz for long.
While McGregor has shown grappling savvy, he seems distinctly uncomfortable in some common positions, and playing the waiting game with Diaz, should he get into one of them, would be unwise. McGregor needs to exercise caution here; Diaz is fast and dangerous.
Given that McGregor's defensive grappling game is fairly inactive, he'll be a sitting duck for Diaz if the submission artist gets into a position of control. And, as we've seen, even when Diaz gives up his back, he still has plenty of control. Unless McGregor is conservative when he can't stop the fight from going to the mat, Diaz's extensive jiu-jitsu arsenal and knowledge should put an end to McGregor's promise of anyone, anywhere, at any weight, without too much difficulty.
Knowing Diaz as we do, his performance will be spectacular and full of middle fingers. In past fights, he's tended toward guillotines and triangles. With this fight, I see McGregor trying to create space on the ground rather than engage, and that space is more likely to result in a triangle or armbar.
You never really know with the Diaz brothers, though, but it's bound to be exciting. UFC 196 is live on pay-per-view Saturday night.