Nate Diaz’s recuperative post-fight enjoyment of CBD oil via vape pen and the reactionary fits and starts by an overclocked, hypersensitive USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) is yet another reminder, among many granted by August 20th’s UFC 202, that the story of any cardinal UFC event is always proportionately larger and more complicated than the fights alone—no matter how large that is. This is because each MMA card and contest therein is a lens through which the sport, and the art, renews its self-understanding. Is it sport, for example, or is it prize sport? UFC 202, whose main event saw a champion compete in a non-title bout two weight classes removed from the one in which he holds championship gold, is surely a persuasion for the latter—or so one might think.
But unless mixed martial arts is a new and alien entity to you, you know how to differentiate sport from promotion—in this case the premier promotion. Promoted or not, however, the story of a fight (or fights) is manifold and extracurricular, as mentioned, and UFC 202, in addition to being a fight card, is a portrait of the Ultimate Fighting Championship itself. What it exhibits, most of all, is a company at its peak by most considerations: it has the deepest talent pool it has ever had; it makes the most money it has ever made. And because it wants statements such as these to remain true year by year, simultaneously, “moneyfights” have become an equal interest, to its brass, alongside the pursuit of athletics legitimacy.
McGregor vs. Diaz 2 was a prize fight, without question, but also less counterintuitive to said pursuit than could have been precisely because it was not a title fight and had no (official) bearing on titles or rankings. Edson Barboza has since passed Diaz in lightweight rank, but given his victories over top-ten lightweights Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez this year and Diaz’s expanding absence from the division since his win over Michael Johnson last year, this makes sense independent of the UFC 202 result. Let’s talk about that result.
When McGregor’s hand was raised live, I did not feel it was deserved; Diaz’s volume in rounds three, four and five (and his takedown in the fight’s final seconds) were more emphatic of a win, to my eyes, than were McGregor’s three knockdowns in (and overall control of) the first two rounds. Upon watching the fight over again on my own, however, and removed from the raucous salmagundi of strangers with which I shared my initial viewing, it was clear that the Notorious, “Celtic Tiger” had not only definitively taken the first ten minutes, but round four as well—bringing the tally in line with the ringside judges’ majority decision and, generally speaking, the consensus among most analysts and fellow members of the UFC roster. (McGregor R1+2+4: 10-9’s; Diaz R3+5: 10-9’s.)
McGregor’s leg kicks were, above all, the difference maker (just as they had been earlier in the night for McGregor’s teammate, Artem Lobov, against Diaz teammate Chris Avila). These kicks, targeting both inside and outside the thigh of Diaz’s lead (right) leg, not only collected McGregor points on the scorecards but more essentially took away some of Diaz’s mobility and speed. Moments wherein Diaz was able to dissolve the distance with McGregor and enter a closer, purer boxing range were oftentimes his moments, and in the case of rounds three and five, unambiguously his rounds.
McGregor was successful (perhaps surprisingly so to many) in defending Diaz’s takedown attempts, and scored subtle but consistent volume in clinch exchanges which saw his back to the cage, even reversing the position several times. The fight reinforced Diaz’s appreciable conditioning advantage over McGregor, as well as most fighters, though no one needed the reminder; but of the two, the Irishman did more with the twenty-five minutes allotted them despite losing roughly ten (if not slightly more). It was a very close fight, and a very good one, and if the key lesson from the pair’s preceding bout at UFC 196 was to intelligently, strategically use one’s energy in a contest of this magnitude, the lesson here was the importance, even exigence, of opponent specific strategy.
UFC 202 offered specific prospective opponents for bantamweight Cody “No Love” Garbrandt and light heavyweight Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in champions Dominick Cruz and Daniel Cormier respectively. Garbrant, though, who is ranked sixth at bantamweight, should probably not receive a title opportunity over former champion and number-one contender T.J. Dillashaw (who suffered a close decision loss to Cruz in January) despite Garbrandt’s undefeated professional record and the promotional potential there (Garbrandt has repeatedly lambasted and called Cruz out in both the media and the cage this year). Perhaps a title eliminator between Garbrandt and Dillashaw—who at UFC 200 performed well but not galvanizingly so opposite fourth-ranked bantamweight Raphael Assunção—would be the ideal compromise. Anthony Johnson, number one in the light heavyweight rankings before his 202 thirteen-second knockout of second-ranked Brazilian Glover Teixeira, on the other hand, cannot be denied his rematch with champion Cormier no matter what.
Some have been calling the rematch between McGregor and Diaz the last breath of the promotion’s bicentennial (which in hindsight is a darker chapter than is owed to the Jones debacle alone) and it certainly feels that way. But it also feels, as do all cards consequential to the dizzied UFC landscape, like a potential fulcrum—a pivot into territory no one saw coming and still no one can really see, though it’s already here, and us with it. August 20th was our surefire reminder that an abandoning of “prize fights” would leave a void in the UFC just as the loss of rankings importance and ‘the sport behind the sport’ would. MMA is the art of misdirection, ultimately, and often the UFC seems poised to choose one corner while feinting toward the other. Will it still be “ultimate”, though, if it does?