By Raphael Garcia
Mixed martial arts is a sport in which competitors and fans alike need to be ready for sudden changes. Not only can any star lose on any given night, but any fight can change at a moment’s notice. The main event of UFC 196 was yet another bout that needed to be altered when one of the fighters was forced off the card. This time it was UFC Lightweight Champion Rafael dos Anjos stepping away from his fight with Conor McGregor. In stepped Nate Diaz to create a fight that is causing a lot of buzz around the sport. My MMA Ratings colleague Adam Martin suggested earlier in the week that Diaz is the best “Plan B,” but the face is, he is actually the safest pick for everyone involved.
No one is going to argue whether or not Diaz creates an “exciting” fight. When paired with the brash-talking McGregor, he immediately captures the attention of both mainstream and hardcore fans. The press conference from earlier this week created more one-liners than the Twitterverse could keep up with. Watching Diaz and McGregor battle on the microphone made some people wish that the UFC had more time to promote the fight.
However, when it comes to the fight itself, what can be argued is that Diaz is a safe opponent for McGregor. Diaz’s volume boxing and grappling abilities make him a threat in nearly any fight. Yet when you compare him to the other men that offered their services to the UFC, the game plan that he usually exhibits plays more into McGregor’s wheelhouse.
Diaz stands behind his jab with very little head movement; baiting his opponent to stay still and allow the combinations to come. Some would say that style is tailor-made for McGregor, as his ability to control range has allowed him to become one of the most dynamic strikers in the game today. It is for that reason that McGregor is expected to not only hurt the Stockton native, but to eventually finish him.
Frankie Edgar’s groin injury prevented him from taking this fight on short notice at 155 pounds, while Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone, and even Evan Dunham offered to step into the bout. Each one of those men poses a more viable threat to McGregor than Diaz does, for one reason or another. However, the UFC knew that Diaz would make the better promotional matchup, and that he will present a style to McGregor that can truly highlight the Irishman’s abilities, and possibly lead to a spectacular finish.
That outcome would benefit McGregor and the UFC. His luster would continue to grow, and a win at 170 pounds would appear to validate his claim that he can rule three weight classes. McGregor has been noncommittal about facing dos Anjos when he returns from injury, and he has consistently said he will not go back to 145 pounds. One can easily see him scoring a win over Diaz, then flexing his vocal muscles en route to a title shot at 170, before then moving back down to 155 for a shot at that belt -- all without a valuable win at either weight class.
Everyone between 145 to 170 pounds in the UFC should jump at a shot to fight McGregor. His name alone draws eyeballs and pay-per-view money that can change their careers. McGregor knows that, and the UFC knows that too. To maintain the financial viability of UFC 196 and keep McGregor positioned in the best spot possible, he needed to remain on the card. That meant finding a fighter to fill the void that will get people to watch, but without posing a dangerous threat to McGregor at this time. This makes Nate Diaz not the best pick, but certainly the safest one.
• Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz
UFC 196: McGregor vs. Diaz (formerly UFC 196: Dos Anjos vs. McGregor, UFC 197: Dos Anjos vs. McGregor) takes place on March 5, 2016 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.