LAS VEGAS — Nate Diaz isn’t going to change, even in the most intense spotlight, even on the night of his most significant win. And that’s why the veteran from Stockton, Calif., has a major fan following.
Conor McGregor mocked Diaz, taunted him at every turn and predicted a first-round finish during the intense 10-day promotion that came about when lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos pulled out of UFC 196 because of a broken foot.
Seconds after he submitted the heavily hyped McGregor on Saturday in the second round of their welterweight bout at the MGM Grand Garden, Diaz grabbed the microphone and said, “I’m not surprised, [expletive].”
In addition to being one of the world’s best fighters, Diaz is the UFC’s undisputed king of F-bombs, and he dropped one in the cage Saturday as he was basking in the glow of his greatest victory.
His win capped a wild night for the UFC, one which saw Miesha Tate choke out Holly Holm as time ran out in the fifth round to win the women’s bantamweight title.
UFC president Dana White made a brief appearance at the post-fight news conference and said the show was tracking to be the biggest pay-per-view in the company’s history, surpassing UFC 100.
It’s yet more evidence of McGregor’s star power, but Diaz’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s hard to imagine the pay-per-view would have been as big with the relatively sedate and largely unknown dos Anjos opposite McGregor in the main event.
Diaz has long complained of not being pushed by the UFC, and he took the chance to make the point that he as much as McGregor was responsible for the massive sales.
“My fights are always pulling big numbers, you know,” Diaz said. “They keep putting me on Fox for some reason. … I’ve got a big following. Between me and my brother [Nick], they come in hard. No one has a bigger following than me and my brother. I made it … a lot more interesting than the dos Anjos fight [would have been].”
McGregor, though, was the star of this show. He opted to stay on the card following dos Anjos’ injury, even though as he said afterward, “they gave me every opportunity to pull out.”
He promoted the match with Diaz hard, and turned fans who showed up at a UFC gym in Torrance, Calif., for a hastily thrown together news conference into a frenzy with his taunts.
The fight was going his way for much of the night, but he learned a lesson that welterweights are vastly different than featherweights. He started slowly, but by the mid-point of the first round, he was picking Diaz apart.
McGregor opened a cut over Diaz’s right eye and his fast hands were getting through and hitting the mark.
But when McGregor hit featherweights like Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes and Dustin Poirier with those shots, they fell and he finished them.
Diaz, though, not only took them but relentlessly kept pushing forward.
“It is what it is,” McGregor said. “He’s a heavier man. It was simply me fighting a heavier man. He can take a hell of a shot. Him and Nick have that kind of style where they can take it and remain in there and remain in your face. … I make no excuses. It is what it is. I took a chance and it didn’t pay off, but I’ll be back.”
Most likely, he’ll be back at UFC 200 in July. Whenever he’s back, it will be at featherweight, he said. That means he’ll defend against either Aldo or Frankie Edgar.
Aldo celebrated McGregor’s loss on Twitter, which didn’t sit well with McGregor, who knocked out Aldo in 13 seconds in December to win the featherweight belt.
“He had an opportunity to show up here and he didn’t,” McGregor said of Aldo, who was offered the bout when dos Anjos was injured. “He could be sitting where Nate’s sitting right now. He was first choice, and he’d said, ‘Any time, any place, anywhere.’ And then, it wasn’t any time, any place, anywhere.
“Then, another man gets a victory over me and he celebrates it. That’s the sign of a loser. That’s the sign of a runner-up. That’s not the sign of a champion.”
Diaz isn’t a champion, but he may have earned himself a shot at dos Anjos’ belt. Dos Anjos holds a win over Diaz, but with Diaz’s momentum, he may get the shot.
But he lost a valuable opportunity to make his case at the news conference. Instead of calling out the champion, he said nothing of substance when he was asked what he wanted next.
“I’m at the top now,” he said. “But that’s their call.”
He will, though, get something big. He earned that with a performance few saw coming.
With less than two weeks to train and odds stacked against him, he was a decided underdog.
But his win was proof that in MMA, just about anything can happen.
McGregor reached for the stars, in an attempt to do the impossible. Diaz, though, showed what heart and an indomitable will to win can do for a fighter.
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