What began with the most interesting fight week of 2016 ended with a fight of the year candidate as Conor McGregor defeated Nate Diaz via majority decision at UFC 202.
The journey to the main event was a long one.
Originally signed to headline UFC 200, the fight was postponed after McGregor had issues with the media obligations before the fight. Next were tweets that caused a media fire storm, starting with a retirement announcement from the Irish mega-star and ending with him falsely stating he was back in the seminal event.
Plenty of headlines followed McGregor in the build-up. The irony that Jon Jones was pulled from UFC 200 at the last minute and McGregor could still have headlined was not lost on anyone. The press-conference in which water bottles and energy drink cans were thrown provided the final punch of media attention during fight week.
When McGregor and Diaz finally collided in the cage a second time, the pair didn’t disappoint. The two put on a back-and-forth affair in which the Irishmen weathered several barrages from the bigger and strong Diaz.
Despite an efficient strategy in the first round of mixing leg kicks and counter-punches, McGregor gassed out toward the end of the second. Just as in the first fight, Diaz turned up the pace when he felt the Irishman fading and it looked as if he would get a stoppage at the end of the third.
Going into the fourth, the Stockton native had full control of the momentum yet appeared to taper off in his output. McGregor, who had been reduced to shying away from Diaz in the third, found his second wind and began landing clean counter shots to the already bloodied face of his opponent.
The deciding fifth round featured more counter shots from McGregor however Diaz spent a lot of time keeping the Irishman against the fence. Diaz stole the round with a late take-down after having been unsuccessful earlier in the round.
After displaying much animosity for each other the last six months, the two displayed great sportsmanship after the fight in helping each other up and congratulating each other.
The final scores were 48-47, 47-47, and 48-47 in favor of McGregor.
It should be noted, referee Glenn Trowbridge gave Diaz a 10-8 score in the third round which gave the fighters a draw on his score card.
After the fight, McGregor showed respect to Diaz but said that if there is going to be a third fight then it would be waged at 155 pounds.
Diaz was visibly angered with the decision and stated his desire for the third fight.
Now, as exciting as the bout was, there is little question that both have business to return to in their respective divisions before a third fight should be considered.
Diaz, a natural lightweight, is fourth ranked in the division and had rebounded to a loss against former champion Rafael dos Anjos with a victory over Michael Johnson prior to the fights with McGregor.
While names like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson remain ahead of him, a match against surging contender Edson Barbosa could be a fight that sets him up to get a title shot in the near future.
For the featherweight champion, the obvious answer is a fight with interim champion José Aldo. Aldo looked phenomenal in his tilt with Frankie Edgar at UFC 200 and has been campaigning for a rematch after being KO’d by the Irishman in 13 seconds in December.
Of course, the possibility of a lucrative payday against Eddie Alvarez is an option. One thing that has become clear is that McGregor has not been held to the same rigid rules as other champions in regards to having to stay in his weight class.
Should McGregor choose to fight Alvarez then he would be forced to vacate his featherweight title. Aldo would be promoted to undisputed champion and likely defend immediately against top-contender Max Holloway.
Should “The Notorious” win the belt at 155, he would become only the third fighter to win a world title in two different weight classes in the UFC.
The reason all of this is possible is because McGregor is such a huge draw at a time when the UFC is without stars like Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones.
It needs to be understood, McGregor’s popularity is so great that even if he did vacate his title and go on to win at 155, he would still be granted a title shot at 145 whenever he wanted.
In the big picture of the division, McGregor’s absence puts an asterisk over elite talent like Aldo and Holloway who would be pestered with questions about Conor at every turn.
In terms of PPV, McGregor is certainly still king in 2016. In terms of inside the cage, he has been gone so long that his kingdom is ready to forget him if doesn’t return in his next appearance.