For the first time in more than one decade, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will stage a pay-per-view (PPV) show that features a non-title bout atop the marquee with a championship clash (Holly Holm vs. Miesha Tate) serving as the co-featured fight of the night. Without question, that rare decision is attributed to the star power and clout of Featherweight champion Conor McGregor. He will step up two weight classes to battle former Lightweight title challenger, Nate Diaz, in the Welterweight main event of UFC 196, which takes place tonight (Sat., March 5) inside MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
McGregor has taken UFC by storm since his Octagon debut in 2013. He has competed seven times since then, raising the stakes -- and his profile -- with each flamboyant victory. His most recent feat was winning the 145-pound title less than three months ago by separating long-time champion, Jose Aldo, from consciousness just 13 seconds into their UFC 194 showdown. Rather than defend that title, McGregor coaxed company officials to book him against Lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, so that he could attempt to become the first man ever to simultaneously hold two titles in two different divisions. But, about 10 days ago, dos Anjos was forced to withdraw from the event, forcing Dana White and Co. to scramble to find a new, worthy opponent. And the world's leading mixed marital arts (MMA) league found its man in Diaz, a supremely talented -- albeit unpredictable and inconsistent -- trash-talking Octagon veteran.
However, the decision to tab Diaz rather than higher-ranked and seemingly more dangerous opponents, such as Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis, both of whom lobbied for the bout when dos Anjos went down, is not without controversy. Factor in the two weight class jump to 170 pounds and it appears even more head-scratching. Indeed, many have suggested that McGregor "hand-picked" Diaz because he seemingly offers the Irishman the best of all worlds: An emotional, game fighter who will talk the talk and attempt to walk the walk on fight night, even if it means going down in a blaze of glory. He'll more than likely come straightforward rather than engage in a tactical and/or dynamic striking battle, which is tailor-made for the creative angle-driven Irishman.
Let's be clear, though: Diaz is very experienced. He competed for a World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) title two years before McGregor even sniffed his MMA debut. He is an awkward, lanky striker who is also well-versed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is an area where McGregor has yet to be truly tested in UFC. In fact, his two professional MMA losses both came via submission. Granted, those were early in his career and at this point mean very little, but when a fighter is so dominant -- and is getting better each time out, and doing it while fighting stronger competition -- it's the perceived hole, or weakness, that Diaz and his team will likely hang their hat on.
And it's a smart strategy. Even though Diaz is the bigger, longer fighter, he is easy to hit, particularly his lead leg. He often shuffles forward and is the aggressor, looking to hurt his opponents via sheer volume striking. His punches aren't devastating by any means, but they are frequent and annoying, which ultimately wears down opponents and opens them up to other forms of finish. That might not work against McGregor, though, who is a very fast, elusive and accurate counter puncher from the southpaw stance. And not just that, but he's remarkably creative, mixing in new kicks and punches that could catch Diaz at any moment from a bizarre angle, especially if he takes the time to slow the Stockton, Calif., fighter by punishing the aforementioned lead leg early and often.
In other words, Diaz's best chance for success is on the ground. And the longer he can hang in there -- without letting McGregor cripple him -- the more the fight might tip in his favor. McGregor, meanwhile, is beyond confident in himself and his abilities. He views this as an opportunity to grow his legend and, with a win, make a case that he should next fight Robbie Lawler -- not dos Anjos -- for the Welterweight title. He's truly a unique specimen who heaps a ton of pressure on his Irish shoulders. He has proven time and again that he is up for the challenge, but never at this weight and on such a grand stage.
McGregor is all-in on himself. And UFC, too, has pushed all of its chips to the center of McGregor's UFC 196 table. It's a huge gamble, one that would pay off in spades should "Mystic Mac" once again call his shot ... 25 pounds north of his own weight class.