Tomorrow night’s UFC 196 event will take place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, NV and it sets the stage for what could be a feast or famine scenario for the UFC. Originally scheduled for 155 lbs, Rafael dos Anjos was set to defend his belt against the featherweight champion, Conor McGregor in an anticipated bout, but the lightweight champion suffered a broken foot during training. After the Werdum/Valesquez debacle that forced the cancellation of the initial 196 plans, management was scrambling to find an opponent for McGregor just weeks before the pay-per-view.
Former 145 lbs kingpin, Jose Aldo, declined a rematch with McGregor, citing lack of time to prepare. Frankie Edgar, who was vocal in the past about getting a title shot, was offered the contest, but is recovering from an injury of his own at the moment. So, who was going to step up to fight the brash Irishman?
Nate Diaz, a former light weight contender, agreed to the bout, but at his current weight class of 170, which means that McGregor is taking a fight two weight classes above where he’s the champion. There was some dispute at a press conference about if Diaz would’ve been willing to fight at a lower weight, but the fight is signed for 170 lbs. It’s certainly a bold move for the Dublin native and he’s certainly risking much of the momentum he has with very little to gain by taking a welter weight fight in an effort to save the pay-per-view.
With Anderson Silva’s embarrassing positive tests for banned substances last year (one was an out-of-competition test and the other was a post fight test following the Nick Diaz fight) and subsequent loss to Michael Bisping last week, along with the Jon Jones debacle, the UFC is looking for star power. Add that to the hiatus of Georges St. Pierre, the retirement of Brock Lesnar, and the recent KO of Ronda Rousey, it’s obvious the Conor is the top draw for the promotion. Don’t get me wrong, the company has many great fighters on the roster, but the general public pays to see the stars fight and that’s where the major money is for the business side of the UFC. Within the past 5-6 years, it’s been a transition period for mixed martial arts, as many of the competitors that were the centerpieces of the boom in popularity for the sport have mostly retired and a series of incidents (Silva’s positive test, Jones getting arrested etc.) have made Zuffa search for a new top star.
I’ve often described Conor similar to Chael Sonnen in the sense that he can talk his way to selling a show, but McGregor actually has the skills to live up to the hype. Conor also has much more of a fan following because his Dublin background allows him to identify with the blue-collar fan base. Make no mistake about it, Conor McGregor is a charismatic and dynamic fighter, which equals box office for the UFC.
As mentioned, Conor is risking a lot of his stock taking a fight at 170 because if he loses, there’s just not as much momentum for him going into an eventual fight with Dos Anjos in an attempt to win titles in two different weight classes. If McGregor gets the victory, it adds even more hype for him heading into the title fight at UFC 200 later this year, hence the feast of famine aspect of the Diaz bout. As for the actual bout, Nate Diaz is a serious test, especially at welter weight and it would seem wise if McGregor kept the fight standing to avoid a grappling battle with his jiu-jitsu black belt opponent. If there’s an aspect of Conor’s game that is lacking, it’s the ground game and the only two defeats of his career were submissions so he definitely has to be careful grappling with Diaz. For Nate Diaz, it’s a win-win situation, either he wins and elevates his own profile or he loses a fight he took on barely a week’s notice while making main event money. Again, McGregor is risking a lot here and doesn’t have much to gain with a win against Diaz. Some have asked, why Nate Diaz? The answer is simple, the abrasive Stockton fighter talks trash and when you add that to McGregor’s Ali-inspired promotion style, it makes for an easy sell for a pay-per-view the UFC machine doesn’t have the normal time frame to hype to generate buys. As for a winner, I will say McGregor gets the win because how can you bet against him? That being said, it will be interesting to see how he handles fighting at welterweight and I would guess it will be a tough fight for him.
Nearly lost in the shuffle of the McGregor buzz is the co-main event with Holly Holm defending the women’s bantamweight title against Miesha Tate. Holly, the multi-division boxing champion that shockingly KO’ed Ronda Rousey last year to claim the title, is making her first defense, which you would think would be enough to sell the show. However, I think the reason that Holm/Tate wasn’t bumped up to the main event spot was mostly because Holly isn’t really established on her own yet and is still known as “the one that knocked out Ronda,” while Tate isn’t perceived as a major threat to the title because of her previous title shot against Rousey. While Tate might not be considered a threat by the causal fan, she definitely has the skills to be a test for Holm. Tate also brings a four fight win streak into the octagon at UFC 196 so the argument could be made that she’s probably the biggest threat to Holly’s belt outside of Rousey. If Holly can keep this a striking battle, she could use her tremendous boxing ability and foot work to land enough punches to win the fight within a few rounds, but if Tate can get it to the ground, she could score enough points to win a decision. I will pick Holly Holm to win it, but I don’t think it will be nearly as dominating of performances as the Rousey fight because Tate will be more cautious and look to win on the score cards.
The bottom line is, Conor McGregor is the draw for the UFC and the result of his fight at 170, while the featherweight champion will either stall his momentum or solidify his spot as the top star in the sport.
image credit – @TheNotoriousMMA
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