Losing isn’t an option in any fighter’s mind, but for Conor McGregor, another setback against Nate Diaz at UFC 202 would be a crushing blow to the aura of untouchability he created over his first several years in the UFC.
The rematch between McGregor (19-3 MMA, 7-1 UFC) and Diaz (19-10, 14-8) takes place Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view). They first met at UFC 196 in March, with Diaz picking up a second-round submission win after stepping into the matchup on short notice as a replacement for Rafael dos Anjos.
McGregor, the UFC Featherweight champion, was moving up to Lightweight for the contest against dos Anjos with hope of capturing a second UFC belt. Simultaneous title reigns is something that’s never been done before in the organization’s history, but as is his tendency, McGregor wanted to break down barriers.
When dos Anjos suffered a broken foot less than two weeks out from the fight, though, Diaz got the call to step in just 10 days out from the event. The fight was reassigned as a Welterweight bout, a whole 25 pounds above the weight where McGregor holds his UFC title.
Despite bloodying Diaz’s face in the first round and appearing on the verge of another knockout victory, McGregor could not keep up his high output of strikes and began to fade. Diaz then turned up the heat and poured it on, hurting McGregor with strikes and forcing his opponent into a desperate takedown attempt. Once the fight hit the ground it was all Diaz. He quickly locked up a submission to complete what many considered a surprising upset.
It was McGregor’s first and only UFC loss after he took the company by storm with his brash personality, headline-grabbing one-liners and seven consecutive wins to begin his Octagon tenure. He played off the loss well at first, arriving to the post-fight news conference minutes after his defeat and answering every question in humbling fashion while reflecting on what went wrong.
As time went on, though, McGregor’s tune began to change. He pointed to not have enough preparation for the size and length of his opponent, an underestimation of Diaz’s durability and just a general lack of readiness for what he was getting involved with on fight night.
McGregor claims that has all changed heading into UFC 202. According to UFC President Dana White, the Irishman was “obsessed” with getting a rematch against Diaz. He demanded the fight be at 170 pounds again so he could could replicate the circumstances of the first bout and claims that for the first time in his career he’s tailored the entirety of a training camp for a specific opponent.
“The Notorious” told ESPN he spent roughly $300,000 on his training camp in advance of UFC 202. That money was used on the relocating his coaches and training partners from Ireland to Las Vegas, as well as providing food, housing and more for everyone involved.
That’s a heavy investment, but one McGregor knows he had to make. Losing to Diaz again would be a critical blow to his career prospects, especially because there’s no guarantee he hangs on to his UFC belt going forward.
Although McGregor has long said a return to Featherweight to defend his belt is guaranteed for the future, those around him don’t seem as certain. His head coach, John Kavanagh, admits McGregor’s weight cut to 145 pounds is brutal and a detriment to his health. Some of his training partners have noted the same.
Company boss White informed USA Today that if McGregor doesn’t commit to dropping back down in weight regardless of the outcome at UFC 202, he would be stripped of his UFC belt. Interim Featherweight champ Jose Aldo would then be promoted to undisputed titleholder.
That puts even more pressure on McGregor going into his showdown with Diaz. And it seems like he’s starting to feel it.
The pre-fight news conference ahead of UFC 202 exploded into chaos when McGregor arrived nearly 25 minutes late, causing Diaz to leave early and throw a water bottle in the direction of his rival. McGregor’s reaction was telling. He became enraged, picking up water bottles of his own as well as energy drink cans and firing them in the direction of Diaz and his team.
For a fighter that’s made his name from getting into the mind of his opponents, McGregor showed a rare instance of mental inferiority, which is the opposite of what’s needed when fighting Diaz.
How McGregor channels that when he’s standing across from Diaz at UFC 202 remains to be seen. Win, lose or draw he will still be a fighter with a massive following. However, he seems to be very aware of what’s at stake on Saturday night, mainly because of how he downplayed the way a negative result could potentially impact his career.
“My legacy’s set in stone,” McGregor said at UFC 202 open workouts, his final media obligation before the fight. “This is just something else outside of this. This is just a straight fight. So I’m happy with that and that’s what I came here for. I came here for a straight fight.
“Fuck Team Diaz. And if you’re down with Team Diaz, then fuck you too.”