mma / Columns

Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz Three Years Later

March 11, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Conor McGregor - Stephen Espinoza

On February 23, 2016, news surfaced that UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos had suffered a broken foot and would not be able to defend his title against Conor McGregor, UFC’s new featherweight champion and perhaps its biggest star, on March 5. Later that day, UFC confirmed that Nate Diaz would step in as McGregor’s new opponent.

The ripple effects of these events are still playing out three years later. They put McGregor on the path for the second-richest combat sports event in history. Diaz became one of the biggest names in MMA. Dos Anjos was the odd man out, forever losing the biggest opportunity of his career.

Conor McGregor had been on a rocket since debuting in the UFC. Within two years he proved to be a significant television draw. Then he became the biggest live event draw in UFC history. After that he was neck-and-neck with Ronda Rousey as the promotion’s biggest pay-per-view attraction. He closed 2015 by taking the featherweight title from Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, and then stated his intention of capturing the lightweight title as well. Rafael dos Anjos, who tore through Donald Cerrone in 66 seconds one week after McGregor beat Aldo, was more than happy to accept McGregor’s challenge. The UFC made the fight official the following month.

Often, fight hype comes late, and you cannot definitively state how a fight will perform on pay-per-view from a lack of hype a few weeks out. Having established that, dos Anjos vs. McGregor did not have the same hype or appeal that McGregor’s bout with Aldo did. There was less history, less time to build the fight, and the verbal sparring hadn’t truly begun. And so, when Diaz replaced dos Anjos, it was an upgrade in hype—Diaz being much more compelling and willing to engage on the microphone than dos Anjos—but there was some concern that there wasn’t enough time to maximize the matchup. When UFC announced McGregor vs. Diaz, there were only 11 days to fight time.

But this was a fight that didn’t need a UFC hype special, billboards, or other traditional means of fight promotion. It had the media, and McGregor and Diaz clicked as opponents. It became a bigger fight than dos Anjos vs. McGregor could have ever been, despite the idea that it was more predictable. McGregor opened as a small betting underdog against dos Anjos, but was around a 4-to-1 favorite to beat Diaz.

The result of McGregor vs. Diaz is one of the most famous fight results in MMA history and needs to thorough description. Diaz pulled off the upset with a second-round rear naked choke, cementing his place in history. He assured that he wouldn’t be a guy that had one big fight, lost, and never came close to that height again. He also assured himself a rematch—an even bigger opportunity.

McGregor stumbled after a resistance-free path to the featherweight title. The only move he could make that would keep his career on that same path toward unexplored heights was to rematch Diaz. That is what he demanded, and after some rockiness with the UFC (which included one of the shortest retirements in combat sports history), that is what he received.

As McGregor and Diaz geared up for their rematch, dos Anjos returned to defend his title after recovering from his broken foot. Instead of fighting Conor McGregor in front of 15,000 fans on a million-buy pay-per-view, he fought Eddie Alvarez in front of 8,000 fans on UFC Fight Pass. The cut down to the 155-pound lightweight limit had been brutal on the 31-year-old dos Anjos, who would later state that he passed out during his weight cut for the fight. Alvarez upset dos Anjos, knocking him out in the first round.

The loss cost dos Anjos the opportunity for the McGregor fight that could have changed his life. There was an alleged agreement for dos Anjos to fight McGregor in May 2018 that fell through, but not everything adds up with the story.

McGregor and Diaz fought again in August 2016. It was the biggest pay-per-view event in MMA history to that point (eventually to be eclipsed by Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor), and delivered one of the best main events in UFC history. After dominating the early portion of the fight, McGregor tired, and Diaz began taking the fight to McGregor. As Diaz fatigued, McGregor was able to sneak out with the fourth round, which decided the fight in his favor. He took the decision on an extremely close margin.

Diaz has yet to return to the cage since the McGregor fights. Evidently, he earned enough money in the bouts to live comfortably. He appears to be available to fight, but only for the right price. In 2018, he agreed to fight against Dustin Poirier, but when Poirier fell off the card, so did Diaz.

The Diaz series only pumped more momentum into McGregor. He went back to his lightweight title aspiration, won the belt from Alvarez, and landed the opportunity of a lifetime with a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather. Earning somewhere in the $80-$100 million range for the Mayweather fight, and emerging as a much bigger star, McGregor held all the cards for a UFC return. He sat out for more than a year before returning against Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018.

These events splintered off from one event: Rafael dos Anjos’s broken foot in February 2016. If McGregor for dos Anjos on March 5, 2016, and lost, there probably wouldn’t have been an immediate rematch. He might have gone back down to featherweight to defend that title to regain his momentum. Perhaps he doesn’t build up the steam needed to make the Mayweather fight a reality. Without the McGregor fights, Diaz is likely still competing regularly and not nearly as famous as he became.

All of this from a broken foot.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.