In those rare instances where a sequel somehow manages to equal, or even surpass the original classic, everyone knows what happens next: everyone wants part three. If the first taste was good, and the second taste was better, imagine what the third taste will be like.
The first time Connor McGregor and Nate Diaz squared off in UFC 196, the fight was almost an afterthought (or at least as much an afterthought that a McGregor fight could be, anyways). McGregor was supposed to fight Rafael dos Anjos, but the latter had to pull out of the fight, and two other fighters also turned down the chance to fight McGregor; Diaz was put on the card only 11 days before the event. The last time McGregor fought someone not named Nate Diaz, he knocked him (Jose Aldo) out in 13 seconds… after assuring everyone, before the fight, that he would knock out. In typical fashion of today’s society, we (too) quickly began to wonder if McGregor was entering a Floyd Mayweather or Muhammad Ali-level of greatness: a competitor that was so much better than everyone else in his sport, with the commercial and cultural savvy to cash in on that greatness.
Diaz clearly didn’t get the memo. He weathered McGregor’s onslaught in the first match, and eventually landed the chokehold that ultimately led to McGregor’s defeat. Since then, and even between McGregor’s “false alarm” retirement right after the fight, his flirtations with pro wrestling, and the inevitable theatrics between each man’s camps, everyone awaited the rematch.
After all, the questions needed to be answered: was Diaz’ victory a fluke? How would McGregor respond, after losing his first fight? What about if McGregor somehow lost again?
The latter question seemed increasingly laughable as the rematch was underway. McGregor was brilliant in the first round, landing lightning quick strike after lightning quick strike, amidst leg kicks that were clearly weakening Diaz’ footwork. McGregor dropped Diaz twice with haymakers, and basically allowed him to get back up so McGregor could dole out more punishment. The commentators spent most of the first two rounds talking almost exclusively about McGregor, as if they were curating some documentary about his road to redemption.
But then the storyline began to change, almost like a script from an old Sylvester Stallone fight movie. After spending the first round-and-a-half getting pummeled, Diaz began to turn the tide. It was Diaz who started landing vicious combination after vicious combination. It was McGregor who, for the first time, began to look like he was over-matched.
The third round was as lopsided in Diaz’ favor as the first round was in McGregor’s favor. When McGregor would try to unleash his lethal counter-combinations to fend of Diaz’ unrelenting attacks, Diaz — with blood gushing from all different wounds — was the one smiling and taunting McGregor, even flipping him “the bird” while the two combatants stood in the middle of the ring. He looked like a man possessed, and fought like one as well. Conversely, McGregor seemed to be in “Tyson”-territory: we were so used to seeing his fights end early that nobody — perhaps even McGregor — was sure how he would fare in a fight that lasted into the later rounds. Diaz was the first fighter that took McGregor into round four or beyond.
Diaz clearly and decisively won round three, but the wounds opened up by McGregor early on in the fight clearly drained Diaz in Round Four. He counter-slugged and continued to go toe-to-toe with McGregor well into the fifth round, and his takedown of McGregor in Round Five was a valiant effort to win on the scorecards. But overall, it was the work that McGregor put in during the first two rounds, and the fact that Diaz couldn’t ultimately finish off McGregor once again, that spelled doom for Diaz.
McGregor and Diaz wasn’t supposed to be the most compelling rivalry that this sport has seen in years. But, life has a way of changing best laid plans; for the UFC, it couldn’t be any more for the better. There hasn’t been a
rivalry where two stars were so evenly matched, and where both competitors shared equal parts hubris of their own performance and awe of their opponents performance.
At this point, it’d almost be criminal to everyone — the fighters, the sport, and the fans — to not have a third bout. Everyone knows it.
So bring on the rubber match.
Editors Note: This article was originally prepared for and published at Salt Newspaper.