This much we know: Conor McGregor has his work cut out for him.
McGregor will meet Nate Diaz in the UFC 202 main event on Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, as he seeks to avenge his March 5 submission loss to “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner. In the light heavyweight co-headliner, Blackzilians representative Anthony Johnson squares off with perennial contender Glover Teixeira, their showdown likely to shake up the pecking order at 205 pounds. The rest of the five-fight main card features a trio of welterweight scraps, as Rick Story faces Donald Cerrone, Hyun Gyu Lim battles Mike Perry and Tim Means confronts Sabah Homasi.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC 202 “Diaz vs. McGregor 2” matchup, with analysis and picks:
WelterweightsNate Diaz (19-10) vs. Conor McGregor (19-3)
THE MATCHUP: MMA is weird, yes? What started as a one-off replacement fight for McGregor has since morphed into the most compelling rivalry in the sport and a likely trilogy should the Irishman win. Some of that buzz has to do with the fact that McGregor is involved, and these days every one of his fights is an event. Then again, some of it has to do with the fact that Diaz, a journeyman lightweight, happened to be the first man in six years to defeat McGregor. Diaz upset the earth-apple cart, and now we get to watch McGregor try to put it right.
Diaz’s win was no accident, however. Diaz may not be a real welterweight, but he is bigger than McGregor. In fact, he is the first man in McGregor’s UFC career to enjoy a reach advantage against “The Notorious” one. Diaz is also skilled enough to use that reach advantage. Often confused with his older brother, his style is actually very different. He is something of a boxer-puncher, disciplined enough to pick his shots at long range but mean enough to press the action when the tide turns in his favor. Stopping that turn is the biggest challenge facing McGregor.
In their first fight, McGregor came after Diaz relentlessly, marking up his face in the first round and smashing him with power punches in the first half of the second. In doing so, however, he fell into the Diaz trap. McGregor exhausted himself chasing after Diaz, struggling to make his usual tactics work against another southpaw like himself. The moment Diaz felt the power leaving McGregor’s punches, he jumped on his opportunity and succinctly put away the Irishman. If McGregor were to fear any aspect of that first fight -- that seems doubtful -- it should not be the fact that Diaz was able to take over when he tired; it should be the fact that when Diaz took the mic after his win, he calmly mentioned that he expected it to take longer.
Simply put, McGregor cannot fight at Diaz’s pace and expect to beat him, barring a sudden finish. To overcome Diaz’s wonky boxing, McGregor will have to change some fundamental aspects of his style. The good news is that the blueprint exists: Diaz has been beaten 10 times before. The bad news is that the tactics with which Diaz has been beaten -- leg kicks and power wrestling -- do not fall in McGregor’s wheelhouse.
McGregor would be wise to execute a game plan similar to that of Josh Thomson, the only man to ever knock out Diaz. Thomson avoided the boxing at all costs, forced Diaz to chase after him and used his kicking dexterity to catch the tall man on the temple. McGregor can do those things, but he has not fought a counterpuncher’s game since his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in 2013. Not only is Diaz better and bigger than Marcus Brimage, but he is better than he used to be. The Diaz of today -- more disciplined, more experienced and better at defending kicks -- would likely beat Thomson; and even McGregor, who has scored a knockout in all but two of his 19 victories, may struggle to resist the urge to put away Diaz.
THE ODDS: McGregor (-116), Diaz (-104)
THE PICK: One of two things would have to happen for McGregor to beat Diaz at UFC 202. Either he knocks out Diaz -- that is a definite possibility -- or he shows off some serious changes in his overall game. In order to accomplish the latter, McGregor would have to be a very special fighter. He requested, very specifically, that this rematch take place at the same weight. That means he either wants to prove Diaz did not deserve to beat him the first time or that he can adjust to a difficult style matchup no matter how much bigger the opponent. We cannot know what McGregor’s intent was, but the fact of the matter is that he will face a better Diaz than he did at UFC 196. Diaz has a full camp under his belt this time, and all of the changes that McGregor may have made to his game plan will not change the fact that Diaz -- longer, stronger and too damn tough -- is and always will be a tough matchup for a man used to being the bigger and more powerful fighter. This one really could go either way, but the pick is Diaz by fourth-round submission.
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