The sight of McGregor being cut down to size by Nate Diaz in the main event of UFC 196 on Saturday night in Las Vegas was a stark reminder that the partitions between big fighters and not-so-big fighters exist for a reason. No longer are we in the one-size-fits-all era when skinny Royce Gracie was choking out muscleheads or twisting 500-pound sumo wrestlers into submission. The closer to sporting legitimacy that mixed martial arts has crept, the more the playing field has been leveled.
McGregor has shrugged off the wisdom of this. He is a fine fighter and an even finer salesman, so it’s hard to know where self-belief ends and self-promotion takes over. But even before he stunningly face-planted indomitable José Aldo for the UFC featherweight title in December, the 27-year-old Irishman was thinking big. And once he had the shiny brass-and-leather belt around his waist, his hunger was insatiable.
First he set his sights on taking the lightweight strap from Rafael Dos Anjos. When that plan fell apart, he welcomed Nate Diaz onto his promotional express and told him to get comfortable at 170 pounds. Before they’d even touched gloves, McGregor had already jumped ahead of himself to aim his crosshairs at welterweight champ Robbie Lawler. If McGregor didn’t have to stop talking in order to take an occasional breath, he surely would have booked himself for a dance with heavyweight king Fabricio Werdum by now.
All the while, the UFC and everyone else, from fans to media pundits, stood back and admired the distortion of reality. It was like when you’re driving across town and you make all the lights, then tell yourself it’s a 10-minute trip … when in fact, on a typical day, it takes twice as long. The McGregor phenomenon has been all about shortcuts.
The fighter is not to blame. He has taken on all comers—any time, anywhere, any weight, any amount of notice. Sure, there was rumbling early on that the UFC was nurturing him along with favorable matchups. But everyone who stepped in the cage with McGregor was a pro, and his progression through the ranks was appropriately paced. It was the bluster that blew everything out of proportion. McGregor was beating up guys who were light-years from the top of the featherweight rankings and at the same time speaking of Aldo—a champion unbeaten in a decade—as if he were no less ordinary.
And then McGregor finally had his date in the cage with the great Aldo, and it turned into everything the Irishman had promised it would be. No, it was actually more than he promised. No one saw a 13-second knockout coming. But it happened. How could anyone question McGregor after that?
Well, now the questioning begins. On Saturday night, McGregor was as sublime as he’s always been, his movement fluid and his strikes sharp, but he was small-man sublime in a slightly bigger man’s game. He hit Diaz plenty, bloodying him up before the first round was halfway over. But he never backed him up. As McGregor would say afterward, “Usually, when I fight a man in the division I am champion in, they crumble under those shots. But Nate took them very well.”
Diaz eventually found his rhythm and range, and began utilizing his height and longer reach to consistently land his own shots. Midway through Round 2, a straight right hand wobbled McGregor, and Diaz pursued him to the fence, where he bullied McGregor and dished out punishment. When they separated and began exchanging punches, Diaz again got the better of it. A fading McGregor went for a takedown and nearly ended up in a guillotine choke. After a short scramble, Diaz, a jiu-jitsu black belt, gained full mount position and started raining down punches and elbows until McGregor rolled over, whereupon Diaz clamped on a rear naked choke and elicited a quick tapout.
Diaz made the finish look easy. Will it be that easy when McGregor returns to the 145-pound division—which is what he plans to do next, according to his postfight interviews Saturday night—and a challenger the caliber of, say, Frankie Edgar tries to implement the Diaz blueprint? Edgar is a former lightweight champ who has been hit by men bigger than McGregor, but the Irishman has been as destroyer in his division. We’ll just have to wait and see how that fight unfolds. Or perhaps the next one will be a rematch with Aldo. Whatever. As long as the names “Dos Anjos” and “Lawler” don’t cross the lips of McGregor in the foreseeable future, we’ll be looking forward to seeing what the featherweight champ does next. At featherweight.
McGregor owns star power that truly does transcend weight divisions. That his hastily scheduled non-title bout with Diaz would be Saturday’s main event, billed ahead of a women’s bantamweight championship fight (in which Holly Holm, conqueror of Ronda Rousey, lost her new belt to Miesha Tate), was a promotional no-brainer. McGregor made history on this night, becoming the first UFC fighter to earn $1 million in disclosed purse. And the promotion's president, Dana White, referred to McGregor vs. Diaz as “pretty much the biggest fight ever” for the company, which presumably is an assessment of pay-per-view and social media numbers. Clearly, the UFC and MMA in general have someone special in this Dubliner.
There will come a time, perhaps soon, when McGregor’s body will tell him he’s finished cutting weight to 145 pounds. There will be new challenges awaiting at 155 pounds. And perhaps even that will be a temporary home. Maybe his career will last long enough for him to climb the mountain at 170, too. But what’s the rush?