Conor McGregor is one of my favorite fighters. He lost in devastating fashion on Saturday night, and I couldn’t be happier.
I’m not a McGregor hater. I’m not laughing because the Irish motormouth, more giant golden wristwatch than man, finally flew too close to the sun. I know a lot of people are, but I’m happy for a different reason. I think McGregor—as a fighter and as a person—needed this loss. I think it’s better for the UFC that things turned out this way, as well.
The Diaz fight was supposed to be a stepping stone, but it ended up being a culmination. After 155 lb champion Rafael dos Anjos dropped out of his fight against McGregor (the 145 lb champion) with a foot injury, McGregor decided to fight Diaz at 170 lbs on two weeks’ notice.
For most UFC fighters, this kind of thing is unheard of. When fighters are competing for championship belts or close to scoring title shots, they tend to get exceptionally cautious. If an opponent pulls out of a fight with an injury, they’ll drop out of the fight and wait instead of taking on a different opponent, making the event they were supposed to be part of significantly less spectacular. It’s understandable (why risk throwing away everything to fight a guy you didn’t even train for?), but it kinda sucks.
McGregor never did that. On three different occasions, he had opponents drop out because their fickle flesh rebelled against them, and he fought anyway, risking bigger prizes each time. If he’d lost to Chad Mendes last summer, his colossally hyped fight with then-featherweight champion Jose Aldo would’ve gone down the gilded Irish toilet.
He fought anyway, and it was edge-of-your-seat exciting. The stakes were through the goddamn roof. McGregor was fighting the type of guy seemingly tailor-made to nullify his style. But, after withstanding a hellacious elbow onslaught, McGregor rallied and punched Mendes’ head into space. In that moment, the MMA world collectively shit itself. That’s the story of McGregor’s brash ambition in general: you may not like the guy’s personality, but you can’t deny the excitement surrounding his actions.
Walking such a high-risk, high-reward path, McGregor was bound to lose eventually. It seems like he knew it, too. The day after the Diaz fight, he posted the following message to Instagram:
“I stormed in and put it all on the line. I took a shot and missed. I will never apologize for taking a shot. Shit happens. I’ll take this loss like a man. I will not shy away from it. I will not change who I am. If another champion goes up 2 weights let me know. If your tired of me talking money, take a nap. I’ll still be here when you wake up with the highest PPV and the gate. Still talking multi 7's.”
“I’ve been here many times in my life in some form or another. I’ll eat it all and come back stronger. Aldo you are a pussy. Dos anjos you are a pussy. When the history books are written, I showed up. You showed up on Twitter. To the fans! Never ever shy away from challenges. Never run from adversity. Face yourself head on. Nate I will see you again.”
A bit cynically, who else but Conor McGregor could turn the biggest loss of his career into a marketing opportunity? Seriously though, I’m glad he’s accepting his defeat as a natural consequence of his talk-all-the-trash, take-all-the-fights approach—as something to learn from. I’m even gladder that he doesn’t seem interested in taking a different tack from this point forward. One loss isn’t the end of the world when you’re at the championship level in MMA, but so many champions and almost-champions treat it like it is. McGregor and Diaz both balked at that idea, and they benefited handsomely.
It doesn’t hurt that McGregor walked away with the UFC’s highest-ever disclosed paycheck in the process. I would hope, in fact, that it serves as a lesson to other champions: if you take risks other fighters haven’t and have more than a cardboard cutout of moldy bread for a personality, you’ll make bank. Win or lose, up to a point. There’s something to be said for strategy and preparation, but when your fights get called-off almost as much as they happen, you might be going overboard. I’m not saying everybody should be Conor McGregor (that would be obnoxious as all hell), but I’m saying they could stand to go out on a limb more. Sometimes it’s good to be the tortoise, but there’s a reason the hare was the guy everybody paid attention to. Each time McGregor did it, his stock went up, and so did his bargaining power with UFC brass.
The lesson here? UFC champs can do a crazy thing, fail, and not have all their stock go out the window. Sideline-sitting doesn’t have to be the status quo. Sometimes, doing the crazy thing can even carry less risk. McGregor stacked the deck perfectly here. He’s still champion in another weight class, and he can chalk this loss up to the unexpected challenges of fighting bigger opponents. On some level, we have to believe him, because he might not be wrong. He sure did look good in that first round, and if he modified his strategy, he might’ve been able to put a bloody, winded Diaz down for the count.
That, however, brings us to the other reason McGregor’s loss is a good thing: He needs to learn how to overcome adversity in fights, and not just by doing his usual thing (pressuring opponents with endless full-power punches) harder than before. Conor McGregor fought a pretty fucking stupid fight against Diaz, and it cost him.
The first round of the match seemed like business as usual. Despite fighting up two whole weight classes, McGregor pummeled Diaz’s head like a basketball made of beef jerky and scar tissue. “Mystic Mac” had predicted he’d KO Diaz at the end of round one. Mid-way through the round, he seemed well on his way. McGregor ate a decent number of shots himself, but he pressured and moved better than ever before. He baited Diaz and countered nicely on quite a few occasions. The round ended with Diaz looking like a rapidly rotting strawberry, but there was just one problem: he was still on his feet.
In round two, everything changed. McGregor started to slow, visibly tired from unloading everything he had, chasing Diaz while Diaz countered with awkwardly timed punches that landed while McGregor was loading up his own. Diaz landed more and more, leading with a jab so stiff that it looked like McGregor was running into an oak branch, until he wobbled McGregor and left him leaping for a desperate, ugly takedown. Diaz easily stuffed it and took McGregor on a ride to Submission City, where he joined Holly Holm in somberly remembering that jiu-jitsu is no fucking joke.
It was a wild, deceptively technical brawl that ended with a vicious choke. It was, in other words, a Diaz fight. McGregor was, frankly, idiotic to fight a Diaz fight against Diaz. He should’ve known that. He should’ve studied Diaz, his excellent footwork, and his weird rhythm that’s thrown off countless fighters—left them gasping and struggling to figure out why. Hell, he didn’t even really seem prepared to test his mettle against another southpaw. For McGregor, a fighter who relies on his left-handedness for a range and timing advantage against right-handers, that proved fatal.
He wasn’t prepared, in part due to a last-second opponent swap, and in part because he bought into his own hype. He said it himself after the fight: he thought his vaunted power would be enough to win the day despite a) a huge weight differential from his usual stomping grounds, and b) Nate Diaz’s chin, a pretty damn decent one. That’s a ridiculous presupposition to make. On top of that, unlike his better-known brother Nick, Nate Diaz is a rangy counter-puncher with strong footwork and smart timing, not an all-in knuckle-sandwich-devouring brawler. In hindsight, it seems almost obvious that McGregor was cruisin’ for a losin’ (that doesn’t really work, does it). He dug his own grave and wrote out the exact cause of death for the obituary.
There’s a tendency in MMA to look at fighters on fiery hot win streaks and say, “Oh, they’ll win their next fight somehow,” even when there are a million plausible ways they could lose. People ignore gaping holes in fighters’ games because, well, they just keep winning. But that’s a fallacy—a self-perpetuating one, no less.
McGregor is, quite clearly, not unbeatable, and he needed to learn that just as much as fans did. Now he can go back, reevaluate, and figure out how to properly fight against bigger dudes and deceptively clever strikers, two boxes Diaz ticked handily. He can shore up his weaknesses instead of just shining up his strengths. Heck, maybe he’ll even consider fighting off the counter (as opposed to the the lead) more, using the skills that got him to the UFC in the first place, rather than slowly destroying himself.
That brings us to the big question of the moment: Will McGregor learn the right lessons from this loss, or the wrong ones? Here’s hoping he takes a long, hard look at all elements of his game and realizes he can’t apply a one-size-fits-all approach to everybody he meets in the cage. If he wants to keep taking short notice fights against the UFC’s elite, he has to become more adaptable. Don’t get me wrong: he adapted some against Diaz, but it clearly wasn’t enough.
In the meantime, he can finally go defend his goddamn featherweight belt, unfreezing that division from Han-Solo-esque stasis, and loosening up the 170 and 155 lb divisions too. Everybody wins. Well, except whoever ends up losing.
Image credit: Getty.