UFC 202: The 4 Key Storylines for McGregor vs. Diaz 2 Fight Card

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterAugust 16, 2016

Nate Diaz (left) and Conor McGregor
Nate Diaz (left) and Conor McGregorJohn Locher/Associated Press

Of course we're all excited for the rematch between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. Of course.

But maybe, just maybe, heading into UFC 202 on Saturday, there isn't quite the same level of interest between these main eventers as there was the first time around. And maybe fans are following that lead.

Allow me to explain. McGregor-Diaz 2 exemplifies a "moneyweight" fight. These bouts top cards with top stars—usually with no current champ involved and at least one person competing outside their typical weight class—but don't bring a lot of other ramifications to the table.

As compelling as the individual matchup might be, the lack of stakes can undercut the fight if the heat isn't otherwise there. In other words, a title fight is always compelling. Moneyweight fights can't use a belt as a crutch. This fight will be amazing, but there's also a muted grimness to it as McGregor, who is solely and entirely responsible for this rematch, seeks to exorcise the only UFC loss on his record.

So as we march into the thick of an August fight week in Las Vegas, is the heat there? And what about the rest of the card, which is pretty doggone interesting in its own right? With Donald Cerrone in the mix, after all, things are always interesting.

Here are four key storylines for UFC 202.

      

Where Does a Loss (or Win) Leave McGregor?

The alibi is there. McGregor writes off his two welterweight fights as a failed experiment and begins the slog back down to featherweight. A teeth-gritting title defense with a motivated Jose Aldo, among others, looms there.

But an alibi isn't the same as an explanation. Or a justification.

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 12:  UFC Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor speaks to members of the media during an open workout at his gym on August 12, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. McGregor is scheduled to fight Nate Diaz in a welterweight rematch at UFC 202:
Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

The loss to Diaz forced Conor to shed his lacquered shell of glitz and swagger. No more suit shopping in Beverly Hills. No more Lambo riding. How about the indoor sunglasses? Nowhere in sight. Just regular old spectacles and a new commitment to that thing. What's that thing called? Oh, right, training.

As Chuck Mindenhall recently wrote of McGregor-Diaz 2 for MMA Fighting:

This time it’s a vanity trip with muffled stakes, a thing that has to play out so that we might see what the next thing is. ...McGregor wants to duplicate the setting so that he can avenge his only [UFC] loss without asterisks. If the public has been slow to understand the UFC’s reasoning for allowing one set of matchmaking whims (in a makeshift situation to save an event) grow into a series, McGregor has been patient in explaining it. ...Quite simply, he’s pored over the blueprint and is convinced, within a shadow of a doubt, that he knows better how to handle the situation the next time through. He wants to prove it.

Simply put, there's a sense of obligation here that stands in opposition to the sense of fun that preceded the first go-around.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 07: Nate Diaz answers questions from the media at the UFC 202 press conference at the T-Mobile Arena on July 7, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ed Mulholland/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Ed Mulholland/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Diaz, meanwhile, is playing with house money, just like before. And just like before, there's a lot of the house's money on the table. According to MMA Fighting's Shaun Al-Shatti, Diaz earned $600,000 with bonuses after UFC 196, which is a lot for an MMA fighter.

Beyond the literal, the pressure is on McGregor and his team—McGregor's coach, John Kavanagh, recently upped that particular ante when he wrote: "My own reputation as a coach is at stake" at UFC 202.

Diaz faces no such pressure, self-imposed or otherwise. His absolute worst-case scenario, barring injury, is a rubber match that will give each man a key to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. 

Diaz is the gamest of game fighters. He's a proud competitor. He wants to win. He certainly deserves these paydays in an industry where big paydays are hard to come by.

But make no mistake: He's just a passenger on this ride.

Bottom line: It's pretty clear these two men respect each other a great deal, which, while cool to see, further dampens the sizzle. It's equally clear how seriously McGregor is taking this chance to clear his record while further enhancing his Brand. 

Time, and UFC 202, will tell whether this was a scenic route or a dicey detour in his career path.

Oh, and this is going to be an awesome fight. Why wouldn't you want to watch this fight? Watch this fight.

         

With Jon Jones Gone, Big Title Implications in Co-Main Event

Mark Hunt. Derrick Lewis. John Lineker. Anthony Johnson.

You can rearrange them how you like, but those are the hardest hitters in the UFC right now.

Among that set, "Rumble" Johnson is probably the most athletic and well-rounded. Just don't make him run any marathons, and we're all set.

With 15 of his 21 pro wins coming by knockout—including 11 in the first round—it's clear his objective is your head. And with both hands, both knees and both legs at his disposal, he has plenty of weapons with which to lock on to the target.

On the other side, Glover Teixeira's game is not exactly a living tapestry of technical theory made flesh. But he's still one heck of a tough out in the light heavyweight division. When you can stalk just about anyone back to the fence and your right hand is that potent, why would you ever need to lift your feet off the mat?

Getting back to the light heavyweight division, it's probably the thinnest weight class in the UFC right now, especially with Jon Jones once again wayward in the Swamps of Sadness. 

Try this little stat bundle on for size: Among the top 15 light heavyweights in the official UFC rankings, eight are coming off a loss. Six are age 35 or older. One is 40. Two of them haven't even fought in 2016. It's an old, brittle, talent-starved division.

That's probably why champ Daniel Cormier said in a July press conference that "I think I’ll probably fight the winner of Rumble and Glover Teixeira. It just seems like it makes the most sense."

With Jones out of the picture for gosh knows how long, this just became the best light heavyweight matchup not including Cormier—or maybe including Cormier—that is currently possible. Either of these two guys can close the curtain anytime, paced by the favored and devastating Johnson. Fans need to have the popcorn popped before this one jumps off.

        

Cowboy's Great Welterweight Experiment Continues

Now this move up to welterweight made all the sense in the world.

So far, so good for Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, Welterweight Fighter. After spending the first decade of his career at lightweight, the 33-year-old was manhandled by champ Rafael Dos Anjos last December and subsequently decided it was time for a change.

Cerrone's coach, Greg Jackson, spoke to Bloody Elbow about the rationale for the change:

I think that we just had to re-evaluate what was going on after [the Dos Anjos fight]. Cowboy is really smart. People see all this jumping out of airplanes and doing all the fun stuff that he loves to do, but he's actually a really sharp guy. He's very self-aware and self-reflective, so he was like, "You know, I think I need to move up, I think that these are the reasons why." They made sense and I was all for it.

...

I think that he was getting so light that he was just wasn't feeling confident. He wouldn't open up, he was worried about getting gassed out, I think it's all of these things that moving up a weight class is really going to help him with. I think that he's going to be stronger, more healthy, his body is going to be able to absorb damage better, [and] I think it's an all-around good move.

The bigger, more powerful, more durable Cerrone The Welterweight is 2-for-2, with a first-round submission, a third-round knockout and two post-fight performance bonuses on the ledger. That's what you call filling the stat sheet.

Cerrone (30-7, 1 NC) faces the toughest opponent of his 170-pound career in Rick Story. Story is a tough-as-nails wrestle-boxer who pressures opponent for the duration of a fight. That could be trouble for Cerrone, who's at his best when he has open space to launch his muay thai.

If Cerrone can defeat Story, he's a bona fide welterweight contender after only three fights. 

       

The Welterweights Are Out in Force

Half the evening's 12 bouts take place at 170 pounds. Interestingly, though, only three of the 12 welters at UFC 202 appear in the division's official top 15.

There are a few different reasons for that. A lack of talent is not one of those reasons. So don't sleep on these guys, guys.

This division is as deep as light heavyweight is shallow. 

Take Hyun Gyu Lim, for example. That's right, I said Hyun Gyu Lim. The Korean (13-5-1) is a wickedly hard hitter with 10 career knockouts to his name and a 3-2 UFC record against surprisingly stiff competition.

Lim gets no cakewalk on Saturday when he takes on 24-year-old prospect Mike Perry, who makes his UFC debut after knocking out the first six opponents of his career. Between them, 84 percent of their pro wins have come by knockout. Don't blink for that one.

Neil Magny (top) recently defeated Hector Lombard (bottom).
Neil Magny (top) recently defeated Hector Lombard (bottom).Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Don't blink for Tim Means, either. The wildly aggressive and well-rounded Means has never been in a boring fight, and it's good to have him back after a doping suspension from the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

And then, of course, we have the great Neil Magny, heading up the UFC Fight Pass portion of the undercard. All Magny has done is go 10-1 over the past two years. That's a blistering pace and a remarkable record of success.

His reward for that string? A tangle with Lorenz Larkin, a kickboxer with a mean streak and some high-profile wins of his own. So that's fun. 

Finally, don't overlook Colby Covington vs. Max "Pain" Griffin, also on Fight Pass.

These are interesting prospects in the division. The 28-year-old Covington (9-1) was a two-time wrestling All-American at Oregon State and is 4-1 since joining the UFC in 2014. The 30-year-old Griffin (12-2) makes his UFC debut after a successful run on the California circuit, punctuated by eight stoppage wins and, most recently, a 43-second knockout of UFC veteran David Mitchell.

No matter what happens in these six welterweight bouts on Saturday, you know you're getting good product with a division this talent-dense and with so many moving parts. 

Plus, you have to learn the new names at welterweight, what with McGregor and Diaz probably dropping down soon and all.

         

Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more stuff like this, follow Scott on Twitter.

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