Rivalries are the lifeblood of sports, and they are everywhere throughout the ages: Yankees-Red Sox, Packers-Bears, Celtics-Lakers, Ohio State-Michigan and Duke-North Carolina. Individual nemeses only deepen the relationship between fan and player. Think Bird-Magic, Ali-Frazier, Federer-Nadal and Messi-Ronaldo. Mixed martial arts has its own sets of rivals, and they supply the material in this latest series.
No star in MMA history has burned brighter or hotter than Conor McGregor, the hubris-infused Irishman who talked the talk, walked the walk and became the first competitor, male or female, to hold Ultimate Fighting Championship titles in two weight classes simultaneously.
McGregor arrived in the UFC in the second quarter of 2013 and did so on the strength of eight consecutive victories, his stock on the rise. The SBG Ireland cornerstone needed just 67 seconds to obliterate Marcus Brimage in his Octagon debut at UFC on Fuel TV 9, as he began to bring together all the ingredients necessary for superstardom. After he wrecked Brimage, McGregor outdueled Max Holloway, underwent reconstructive knee surgery and then rattled off wins over Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier, Dennis Siver and Chad Mendes. His exploits in the cage were surpassed only by his charisma behind the mic, a reality that made him a natural foil for longtime featherweight champion Jose Aldo.
The hype behind Conor McGregor was exceeded only by his performance against Jose Aldo. (Photo: Getty Images)
The blockbuster Aldo-McGregor showdown was booked to headline UFC 194 on Dec. 12, 2015 in Las Vegas. What followed was gamesmanship of the highest order. McGregor poked, prodded and drove the Brazilian to the brink of madness with his antics, forcing the typically reserved and respectful champion far out of his comfort zone. An electrifying atmosphere greeted them at the MGM Grand Garden, along with 16,516 fans.
The hype behind McGregor was exceeded only by his performance. The John Kavanaugh protégé with one swing of his mighty left hand quieted his detractors and set the MMA world on fire, as he captured the undisputed featherweight title with a stunning 13-second knockout of Aldo. It was the fastest finish in a championship fight in UFC history. Aldo stepped into the pocket with a straight right-left hook combination, only to be met with a counter left hook from the Irishman. That was all she wrote. The Nova Uniao mainstay crashed to the canvas in a defenseless state and absorbed two subsequent hammerfists to the face before referee John McCarthy could rescue him. The defeat was Aldo’s first since being submitted by Luciano Azevedo 10 years and 16 days earlier.
Nate Diaz twice withstood “Mystic Mac” on the feet. (Photo: Getty Images)
McGregor then turned his attention to Nate Diaz, a man who had cast his line toward the Irishman after a unanimous decision over Michael Johnson at UFC on Fox 17. The “Notorious” Irishman took the bait, and the two were matched against one another on March 5, 2016. Their back-and-forth gamesmanship whipped fans into a frenzy in the weeks before their confrontation in the UFC 196 main event.
In hindsight, ambition got the best of McGregor. He moved up two divisions, failed to shake the renowned Diaz resolve and submitted to a second-round rear-naked choke. McGregor capitulated 4:12 into Round 2, closing the book on his 15-fight winning streak.
Diaz withstood “Mystic Mac” on the feet, as he absorbed a series of straight lefts and right uppercuts that left him battered and bloodied. He seemed to enjoy the experience. McGregor ran out of steam and ideas in the second round, where “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner wobbled him with a straight left, swarmed with punches and prompted him to dive on an ill-advised takedown. Diaz bailed on a guillotine, achieved full mount and moved to the back when McGregor rolled in desperation. Soon after, the rear-naked choke was set, his trap expertly sprung. The result put a dent in McGregor’s façade while at the same time giving rise to one of MMA’s great rivalries. Calls for an immediate rematch went out before the dust settled.
Some six months later, on Aug. 20, 2016, McGregor and Diaz stood across from each other for a second time, and the sequel was by all accounts a classic.
McGregor walked away from the UFC 202 headliner with a majority decision over Diaz after five dramatic rounds tested the mettle of both men. Judges Jeff Mullen and Derek Cleary rewarded the Dublin native for his efforts, as they struck 48-47 scorecards in McGregor’s favor. Glenn Trowbridge ruled it a 47-47 draw.
It was closely contested from a statistical standpoint. Diaz connected with two more significant strikes, 166-164, than McGregor across 25 minutes of intense battle. However, the Irishman landed at a higher rate, 57 percent to 48 percent, and recorded the only three knockdowns of the fight, two of them in the decisive Round 2. As was evident to most observers, McGregor invested heavily in leg kicks: He found the mark with 40 of them, 27 in the first two rounds alone. Diaz made his most significant advances in the third and fifth rounds, his sublime work in the middle stanza briefly but dramatically turning the tide in his favor.
While debate over the decision continues to this day, McGregor nevertheless drew even with Diaz in their head-to-head series. Perhaps it was “The Empire Strikes Back” in their eventual trilogy.
It was inevitable that emotions would boil over when the Irishman finally met K. Nurmagomedov. (Photo: Getty Images)
Considering the buildup—which included an enraged McGregor hurling a dolly through a bus window and injuring several fighters prior to UFC 223—it was almost inevitable that emotions would boil over when the Irishman finally met Khabib Nurmagomedov for the undisputed lightweight crown. McGregor had been stripped of the title due to inactivity, and the Russian brute filled the void that was left.
When they finally met in the cage, it was not nearly as competitive as many had hoped. Nurmagomedov retained the undisputed lightweight crown, as he submitted the Irishman with a neck crank in the fourth round of their UFC 229 headliner on Oct. 6, 2018 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. McGregor conceded defeat 3:03 into Round 4, failing to reclaim the throne at 155 pounds in his first appearance inside the Octagon in nearly two years.
Nurmagomedov overtook the Irishman with dogged takedowns, ferocious ground-and-pound and stifling positional control. McGregor was essentially a non-factor outside of the third round. In the fourth, Nurmagomedov struck for another takedown, advanced to mount and cut loose with punches before moving to the back. Soon after, his arms were wrapped around McGregor’s neck and submission had become the only option.
Afterward, Nurmagomedov scaled the fence and attacked Dillon Danis, one of McGregor’s cornerman, his actions inciting a melee on the floor of the arena. Meanwhile, two men in Nurmagomedov’s entourage—most notably Zubaira Tukhugov—entered the cage and took swings at McGregor, with the former champion returning fire in self-defense. Pandemonium ensued, marring an otherwise memorable event and leading to disciplinary action against the parties involved.