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Patience the key to revenge for McGregor as new strategy required to conquer durable Diaz

The rematch takes place tonight in Las Vegas.

– Paul Dollery reports from Las Vegas

FORMER UFC WELTERWEIGHT champion Georges St-Pierre had one of the more interesting assessments of Conor McGregor’s defeat to Nate Diaz last March at UFC 196.

“If I make an analogy, it’s like Conor McGregor was pacing himself for a 400-metre race,” said GSP. “He gave everything, but at the end of this 400-metre race, now somebody was telling him, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not done yet, you have another 400 metres to do’.

“And if you didn’t pace yourself, if you go all out thinking you’re going to arrive at the finish line at 400 metres, now you have another 400 metres — you’re done.”

inpho_01095620 (1) Source: INPHO/Tom Hogan 

Being gassed is an excuse commonly used by fighters in the wake of a loss. It’s convenient; an acknowledgement of failure but only to a minor degree. A cardio issue can be much easier to rectify than a deficiency in one’s skillset.

But there was more to McGregor’s first UFC setback than that. If the Irish superstar truly felt that he lost the fight due to being “inefficient” with his energy — which he claimed was the difference in the immediate aftermath — then he’d have amended nothing other than his strength and conditioning in the build-up to tonight’s rematch at UFC 202.

However, McGregor has admitted that many changes have been made to his approach. Structure and routine have been introduced to combat the complacency that had crept in, as well as sparring partners with the ability to mimic Diaz.

Following a recommendation from Michael Conlan, top Irish amateur boxer Conor Wallace was drafted in to help McGregor to become accustomed to trading punches with a tall southpaw, while elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Dillon Danis, a native of New Jersey, was tasked with sharpening McGregor’s grappling.

“I am facing a taller, longer and heavier man. I need to prepare correctly this time,” McGregor said in a statement last April when this fight was in the process of being removed from its original billing at UFC 200 on 9 July, due to a dispute between the UFC and the Dubliner over his media obligations.

Was McGregor’s cardio really such a key factor in his first outing against Diaz? It certainly didn’t appear to be an issue when he marched out from his corner at the beginning of the second round, while yelling at Diaz: “I can go all day.”

Two-and-a-half minutes into the round, McGregor was doing just fine — still in the ascendancy following a first round that went in his favour on all three scorecards. But the tide then turned. Was he gassed, or simply rocked by the precise left hand that Diaz planted on his chin? That was the beginning of the end.

Punch

Nevertheless, former Irish cycling champion Julian Dalby has been handed the responsibility of ensuring that McGregor’s gas tank can’t be used as a scapegoat should things not go his way again. There’ll be “no excuses” says McGregor’s head coach John Kavanagh.

More than it being a case of running out of steam, the main reason McGregor shouldn’t expect a 400-metre sprint this time is because when you face someone as durable as Nate Diaz, it’s very likely to be a marathon. Slow and steady wins the race.

In his pre-fight comments, McGregor has been adamant that he won’t change his strategy: “I’m going to play the exact same game. I’m going to march out, I’m going to press forward, I’m going to butcher him on the feet, only I’m going to have a lot more in the tank this time. I’m going to be a lot more prepared specifically for this opponent.”

If McGregor is true to his word, it could be a naive tactic. Patience will be pivotal, as his team-mate Artem Lobov told The42 this week. Be ready to go the distance but keep picking him off with shots and he’ll eventually go down in the later rounds — that was Lobov’s message.

McGregor has been pushing a narrative which claims that Diaz was on the verge of being finished before the pendulum swung in his favour at UFC 196. While McGregor was certainly on top, the extent of his dominance has indeed been embellished.

Although he was eventually cut above his right eye, Diaz proved to be quite evasive and avoided the vast majority of what was being thrown in his direction. With his range and McGregor’s reach disadvantage, it only took Diaz 90 seconds of the first round to recognise the difficulty McGregor was having in landing his strikes — as evidenced by the smirk that follows here as McGregor misses with a straight left, right uppercut, left uppercut combo.

Smerk

The more he missed, the harder he tried to connect. As Robin Black points out in his excellent pre-fight breakdown, McGregor abandoned his own mantra of ‘Precision beats power, timing beats speed’. Perhaps it stemmed from frustration for a man whose victories usually require significantly less output.

But therein lies the difference. McGregor treated Diaz like one of the many opponents he has blitzed in the featherweight division. From the outset, he sought to herd him around the octagon while picking him apart, just like he did to the likes of Diego Brandao and Dennis Siver. However, against a man of Diaz’s physical stature, McGregor sacrifices the size advantage that he benefits from at 145lbs, so the same approach won’t suffice.

McGregor has predicted a second-round finish in his favour, while also acknowledging that he’s prepared for all five rounds if they’re needed. As is the case with his older brother Nick, Diaz often improves as his fights progress — a quality that certainly isn’t hampered by regularly competing in triathlons.

“I think Conor’s going to come in very motivated — bigger and stronger — but he’s not going to be able to hurt Nate,” former UFC welterweight champion Pat Miletich said in an interview on Submission Radio last week.

“Look, I’m training for a 100-mile run in two-miles altitude. The Diaz brothers do stuff like that on a regular basis. You cannot get them tired, you cannot hurt them. What can Conor McGregor do to Nate Diaz that doing a 50-mile or 75-mile run can’t do to him?

“There’s something different that happens mentally and I’m learning that now. Training for a fight and getting in a cage is honestly — now when I look back on things — kind of a joke.”

Nate Diaz after defeating Conor McGregor Source: Raymond Spencer/INPHO

It’s likely that McGregor’s team have advised him not to pursue a stoppage too enthusiastically again, which contributed to his downfall in March. That may require a significant psychological adjustment for a man whose career has revolved around the theory that fighters aren’t paid overtime. Only once in 22 professional fights has McGregor seen beyond the second round, with 13 of his 19 victories coming in the first.

Appearances can be deceiving when it comes to Nate Diaz. Substantial scar tissue contributes to his emergence from many fights as a bloody mess, but behind the eyes he’s much harder to break down. Diaz looked battered and bruised when he gained the upper hand in the second round of his victory against McGregor.

Resisting the temptation to go in for the kill in similar circumstances may well be a challenge for McGregor, particularly in the context of the fracas at Wednesday’s press conference, which left McGregor furious. Slow and steady.

“Patience will be essential for Conor in this fight,” wrote John Kavanagh in his most recent The42 column. “I’m veering towards a fourth-round finish in his favour, following an opening three rounds which I expect him to dominate in the same manner he did in the first frame of the previous fight.

“I’ve been asked if I’m concerned about that dominance potentially tempting him to go after the finish a little too eagerly again, but I’m not. Maybe I would be if I hadn’t seen how focused and keen he is to right the wrongs from the last fight.”

Nate Diaz in action against Conor McGregor Source: Raymond Spencer/INPHO

Diaz’s reach advantage eventually paid dividends last time out, so McGregor now knows that one area which will require improvement on this occasion is his footwork. Get in, connect and get out before his opponent can counter — as opposed to his previous policy of get in and stand flat-footed, which made him susceptible to the return fire which ultimately engineered the turning point.

Forcing Diaz to initiate some of the exchanges might also be a wise move. Previously, McGregor was constantly the aggressor, fighting on the lead and pushing the pace. The aforementioned reach advantage of a bigger opponent often makes this a risky policy, so McGregor should remind himself that his counter game is strong enough — just ask Jose Aldo — to instigate a role reversal in a game of cat and mouse. Josh Thomson, the only man to knock Diaz out, reaped the rewards for that approach when they fought in 2013.

It takes something special, like Thomson’s spectacular head-kick, to put Diaz away inside the distance, so McGregor must be prepared to accept that — while calling the judges into action isn’t normally his style — there’s a strong chance that the scorecards will be needed if he’s to avenge his only UFC defeat so far.

But he must tread carefully. Relying mostly on basic one-two combinations — like the one that stunned McGregor — Diaz’s boxing isn’t what you’d call sophisticated, but it certainly is effective. He’ll be waiting for McGregor to enter his domain in order to put it into action again.

Should the fight end up on the ground, McGregor displayed some impressive jiu-jitsu in their last encounter with a sublime reversal towards the end of the first round. However, there’s only likely to be one winner from any prolonged grappling exchanges.

There’ll be nothing elaborate about Diaz’s approach tonight. Trade and pounce. Every contest for the Diaz brothers is a gun fight. The more chaotic it becomes, the better. His granite chin has withstood inordinate amounts of punishment over the years, but he witnessed McGregor’s letting him down just five months ago.

Conor McGregor dejected Source: Raymond Spencer/INPHO

Against a bigger man in a weight class which he has no business being part of, McGregor’s outlook needs to be far more measured and methodical. He can win this fight. He knows the route that can take him there. It may require a deviation from his penchant for stunning finishes in the early rounds, but that’ll be a small price to pay to settle the score. However, in the heat of battle with emotions running high, it remains to be seen if he can deploy the patient mindset that will be required.

John Kavanagh has said that McGregor has been working on new techniques which he hasn’t used before. It will be interesting to see if leg kicks, which Diaz has often been vulnerable to, will be one of them. They’re unlikely to finish a fight, but they can be instrumental in chipping away at an opponent.

For our money, from what we’ve learned from the careers of both fighters to date, something new from McGregor will be essential if he’s to pull this off. With his durability, stamina, superior skills on the ground and effective striking, the avenues for a Diaz victory over the course of a potential 25 minutes just seem more abundant and accessible.

Prediction: Diaz via submission in the third round.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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