’s 2016 Fighter of the Year

By Brian Knapp Jan 2, 2017

Conor McGregor outdid himself -- and all of his predecessors -- over the past 12 months, making history as the first man or woman to hold Ultimate Fighting Championship titles in two weight classes simultaneously. While his sailing was not entirely smooth, the unprecedented nature of his achievement left him in a class all by himself and made him the “Fighter of the Year” for the second straight year.

McGregor overcame an inauspicious start. Then the featherweight champion, the ambitious SBG Ireland export accepted a challenge from Nate Diaz at 170 pounds in the UFC 196 main event on March 5 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. McGregor entered the cage on the strength of a 15-fight winning streak but tapped to a rear-naked choke from the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt 4:12 into Round 2.

A replacement for injured UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, Diaz absorbed a copious amount of punishment from the Irishman. He was on the receiving end of probing left hands and jarring uppercuts but never checked out. The 30-year-old entered the second round battered and bleeding from a cut near his right eye but still very much in the fight. Diaz stunned “The Notorious” one with a straight left and kept throwing punches until an exhausted McGregor went for a desperate takedown. After bailing on a guillotine, Diaz climbed to full mount and forced McGregor to surrender his back. The choke was in place soon after and the tapout was close behind.

Their rivalry was just beginning. Diaz and McGregor were slated to headline UFC 200 in July, their rematch front and center for one of the promotion’s most anticipated events of the year. However, McGregor tweeted a supposed retirement announcement on April 19, and the UFC pulled him from the card. UFC President Dana White later clarified that McGregor’s removal was related to his refusal to fulfill media obligations.

The controversies did not end there. With fences between the UFC and its biggest star apparently mended, the McGregor-Diaz rematch was rescheduled for late summer. During a pre-fight press conference, McGregor was involved in an incident in which he threw water bottles and a Monster energy drink at Diaz. An MGM Grand Garden Arena security guard was reportedly injured in the fracas, as the Irishman and Diaz fired objects at one another with a crowd of onlookers stuck between them.

Their battle in the UFC 202 headliner on Aug. 20 exceeded expectations, as McGregor took a majority decision from Diaz at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Judges Derek Cleary and Jeff Mullen awarded McGregor 48-47 scorecards, while Glenn Trowbridge ruled it a 47-47 draw. The long-awaited non-title rematch resulted in a “Fight of the Year” contender and pulled McGregor even at 1-1 in their head-to-head series.

The John Kavanagh protégé focused on Diaz’s lead leg early in the bout, ripping into his thigh with crushing kicks. It led to a more stationary Diaz and left him susceptible to punches. McGregor knocked down the Californian three times in the first two rounds but failed to generate the stoppage he predicted. His pace slowed late in the second round and into the third, as Diaz upped the pressure and began slamming multi-punch combinations into his body and head. He was also effective in the clinch, as he trapped McGregor along the fence and unleashed with punches, knees and occasional standing elbows. None of it was enough to put away “Mystic Mac.”

McGregor found his second wind in the fourth round and began peppering his rival with lefts and rights upstairs. Bleeding from multiple cuts, Diaz kept firing back and beckoned McGregor to do the same. With the outcome still in doubt, Diaz made a last-ditch move in Round 5, where he whiffed on two takedowns but executed a third. He spent the closing seconds on top pummeling McGregor with ground-and-pound. However, the finish Diaz needed failed to materialize.

“I dropped him three times,” McGregor said. “I could’ve went in there and pressed, but I was patient. I learned that lesson. He does this thing where he uses his range where he pulls. Then as the fight progresses, he steps in, so when I anticipate he’s going to be far, he steps in close. That was one thing that flustered me in the first contest, because I was anticipating him to be far and then he was here. I anticipated that a bit better, I was lighter with my shots and I was slapping him a bit. I just had to be patient, not fall into my shots, not rush. I anticipated him to be there for the full five rounds, and he was. The game plan worked.”

His admiration for Diaz’s fighting spirit grew.

“His face was all bloodied up, and he’s still just coming,” McGregor said. “You’ve got to respect Nate and the style of fighting that he brings. How can you not?”

The bill for McGregor’s water-bottle shenanigans came due in October, as he was hit with what many viewed as an obscene $150,000 fine by the Nevada Athletic Commission. “I acted wrong,” he said. “All I can say is I’m sorry. My emotions got the best of me.” White later indicated McGregor would never again compete in the state of Nevada because of the excessive fine.

New York, not Las Vegas, called McGregor’s name next, as he accomplished a feat for the ages in the first-ever UFC event at Madison Square Garden. On Nov. 12, he stopped Eddie Alvarez with second-round punches to claim the lightweight championship in the UFC 205 main event. Alvarez succumbed to blows 3:04 into Round 2, giving McGregor possession of promotional gold at 145 and 155 pounds.

McGregor kept the Philadelphia native on the end of his punches, floored him twice inside the first five minutes and established his superiority with breathtaking ease. A little more than midway through the second round, he cut loose with a blistering four-punch combination that sent Alvarez crashing to the canvas and prompted referee John McCarthy to intervene on his behalf.

“It feels great. It feels familiar. I saw it so clearly, I swear to God. I saw it so consistently,” said McGregor, who was stripped of the featherweight title due to inactivity two weeks later. “I’m very satisfied, very grateful, very happy, but I’m not surprised. I’m comfortable with that style of opponent. I don’t know. I feel good. I feel like I’m only reaching my prime. I’m only 28.”

McGregor had plenty of competition in the “Fighter of the Year” race, as first-time UFC champions Michael Bisping, Amanda Nunes, Stipe Miocic and Cody Garbrandt all made strong cases. Bisping upset Luke Rockhold for the middleweight crown at UFC 199 in June and also posted victories over two all-time greats in Anderson Silva and Dan Henderson. Meanwhile, Nunes bested Valentina Shevchenko, took the women’s bantamweight title from Meisha Tate and then successfully defended it by obliterating returning former champion Ronda Rousey in 48 seconds. McGregor, Bisping and Nunes overshadowed Miocic’s stellar work, as he rose to the top of the heavyweight division with consecutive first-round knockouts against Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum and Alistair Overeem. Finally, Garbrandt graduated from prospect to full-fledged superstar, as he went 4-0 with wins over Augusto Mendes, Thomas Almeida, Takeya Mizugaki and Dominick Cruz, the latter bringing with it the UFC bantamweight championship.


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