Last Saturday night, Connor MacGregor won a narrow but fairly decisive victory over Nate Diaz at UFC 202. The fight was a rematch from several months earlier, wherein Diaz, who took the fight on just two weeks’ notice, choked MacGregor out in the second round to hand the Irishman his first, and thus far only, UFC loss.
With this win, MacGregor evens the score and cements himself — not to mention Diaz — as top box office draws.
But there’s so much more to it than that. Let’s rewind — okay, rehash — a bit.
MacGregor-Diaz 1 happened due to a combination of borderline insane circumstances, underscored by MacGregor’s celebrity and the classic Diaz “anywhere, anytime, anyone” mantra. “Mystic Mac” was coming off of a shocking 13-second KO of long-time featherweight king Jose Aldo, and his drawing power was at a premium. The UFC, deciding that Connor was already off the leash and figuring they might as well let him poop all over the neighbors’ yards, granted his request for an immediate shot at Rafael dos Anjos’ lightweight title, 10 pounds north. When dos Anjos pulled out of the fight due to injury with two weeks to go, the UFC tapped Diaz — thought to be a marketable yet winnable fight for MacGregor — to replace him.
But there was another catch. Citing the short notice, Diaz, who normally competes as a lightweight, told the UFC that he didn’t have time to make the rigorous weight cut, so the fight was booked at 170 pounds, the welterweight limit.
MacGregor looked and felt great. He didn’t have to go through the weight cutting process — he typically looks like a mass of tangled sinew on weigh-in night — and assumed, logically, that he’d be able to counter Diaz’ size advantage with his speed and technique. And for one round, that played out: he lit Diaz up with combinations, firing off his trademark uppercuts and atom-bomb straight left, landing nearly at will. But, Diaz being Diaz, didn’t go down, and when MacGregor tired in the second, Diaz struck, wobbling his opponent with hard combos, and securing a rear-naked choke.
MacGregor, who was and still is technically the 145-pound champion, became obsessed with erasing the loss, insisting on a rematch at the exact same weight. Again, it was granted, and this is how we arrived at Saturday night, where two lighter weight fighters — typically not the UFC’s money divisions — secured two of the three highest disclosed pay days in the company’s history: MacGregor made $3 million, Diaz $2 million.
It cannot be stressed enough how much these two fights changed the landscape of the UFC and mixed martial arts in general. I’m referring to the context of stakes here; in the span of two fights and several months, we are seeing a swing from the UFC title hunt as the apex of martial achievement to the advent of big-money “legacy” fights.
Keep in mind that MacGregor has not yet defended the featherweight title he lifted from Aldo back in December; he has not even competed at that weight, nor anywhere close to it. There were rumors, which are still mired in the tangle of anonymous substantiation and official denial, that, had MacGregor initially defeated Diaz in their first fight, he would have been granted a title shot at freaking welterweight against Robbie Lawler. Diaz, unranked at welterweight himself, is talking about title shots against current 170-pound champ Tyrone Woodley, or against 155-pound champ Eddie Alvarez, though he has not competed at that weight in nearly a year.
For their parts, Alvarez and Woodley have begun talking a similar game: Woodley, who has not yet proven to be a major draw, is calling out former pound-for-pound great Georges St. Pierre; Alvarez is angling for a fight with Diaz or Donald Cerrone, who has been campaigning at 170 for his last three fights.
True fight fans are also students of history, and so they must surely be watching all of this unfold with a mixture of fascination, trepidation and resignation. For years, one of the trump cards of MMA fans was to cite the logical matchmaking system, with champions defending their titles against worthy challengers and, largely, a dearth of line-jumping. And while several champions are still doing just that — heavyweight, flyweight, middleweight and light heavyweight have been fairly rote — we are seeing a shift to the boxing mindset: big fights, big money and a leverage of worth.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many fighters operating under this new MacGregor playbook have very bluntly said that they don’t intend to stay in the fight game for very long. It’s not a profession that encourages longevity, after all. MacGregor himself has stated that he intends to retire by the time he’s 30; he’s 28 right now. Light-heavyweight contender Anthony Johnson, who is 32, wants out at 35. And with the recent sale of the UFC to a media group, this kind of thing is going to proliferate.
In a way, the stakes involved now are more human. The phrase “UFC champion” looks great on a resume, on a career retrospective, or a Wikipedia page, and it brings prestige. But it also provides leverage, and a new generation of fighters are utilizing that leverage to maximize not just their earning power but also their long-term health.