What a night UFC 205 turned out to be. All 3 title fights delivered in pretty much every sense of the word and despite losing 2 of its most anticipated bouts in the lead-up, the card still managed to be full to the brim with exhilarating match-ups involving several legends, veterans, title-contenders and showstoppers.
However, it was the Notorious Irishman, Conor McGregor, who came away from last weekend’s event firmly stuck in the minds of the MMA community as a whole. His complete and utter destruction of lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in less than 2 rounds earned him his second UFC title, with him becoming the first man to ever achieve such a feat inside the octagon.
His gameplan was perfect, his execution flawless and his technical advantage over his opponent, astounding. McGregor, in my opinion, has grown more in the last year than perhaps anyone could have predicted. It’s no secret that after his earth-shattering defeat to Nate Diaz at UFC 196, he went back to the drawing board somewhat; understanding that he did indeed have his limitations and that – in being human – he would face the same brick walls that any other fighter or man would encounter in life.
The first Nate Diaz fight came as a result of the late injury pull-out of then-lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos. Diaz was drafted in as a late replacement and many – including McGregor – had discounted the very real threat the Stockton native posed to him, especially on such short notice.
Diaz was a long, tall polished boxer with a black-belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and a chin of stone that rivalled his brother Nick’s. His cardio was legendary and he was the first opponent Conor had faced that held both a height and reach advantage over him.
McGregor at that time was untouchable. His 7 bouts in the UFC had seen him win each and every time. His knockout of the former-featherweight champion Jose Aldo, brought a 10-year unbeaten stretch to a halt and with his sights set on history and the admiration of fans across the world to fuel him, all was well in the world of McGregor.
At that time his detractors – though far from few in numbers – loomed in the shadows for the most part. There were questions about Conor’s game that were yet to be answered but as far as the general public were concerned, McGregor could do no wrong.
So when Nate shocked the world and submitted the 145lb champion in the 2nd round, it was a sobering moment for the man who – had RDA not pulled out – would have faced an absolute killer without the ego-check that I believe has been an essential part of his success.
I’m not saying Conor couldn’t have beaten dos Anjos if given the opportunity, but instead, I feel that the positives gained from such an embarrassment moulded him into a radically improved fighter, a fighter who after years of dreaming of history, would be 100% ready to make it all a reality.
Following his loss at UFC 196, McGregor retreated out of the public eye, doing this – in his own words – to go back to the life that got him this life. He looked at where it all went wrong in the first fight and demanded he be granted a rematch, under the exact same circumstances. Conor had tasted defeat on a greater scale than ever before, and in doing so it lit a fire in him that would drive him to never taste it again.
There was a cold, methodical edge to the preparations made by McGregor the second time around. He decided to forgo his usual, non-specific training style, bringing in several new training partners to replicate the body-type and skill-set of Nate Diaz. For a man so consistently vocal about his past opponents and how they were all the same in his eyes, he admirably admitted in public that to train in this manner for Nate would not be enough.
McGregor accepted the gravity of the task in front of him and his team and made no effort to downplay the strengths and attributes of Nate to the public. He accepted that he was up against it. His naysayers were standing by like vultures, waiting to jump on any mistakes or weaknesses he would show and in Nate, he faced a man whose mind was nearly as impenetrable as his chin, who also held at least 15 pounds of weight and a height and reach advantage on him.
Coming off of a loss, McGregor was at risk of going 0-2 in the year 2016, something that would have done irreparable damage to the mystique and status he had spent the last 3 years building up. It was the biggest UFC card of all time (at that point) and for Conor, the stakes had never been higher.
‘Win or learn’ is a motto often put forward by SBG head-coach John Kavanagh, showcasing his own healthy attitude to defeat. Only associating a loss with all of the negative aspects that come with it is a dangerous thing to do in combat sports, where mentality and the importance of a growth mindset are paramount.
So when Conor stepped into the octagon to face Nate once more, he went in there with his defeat pushed to the forefront of his mind. To shy away from and repress such a devastating setback would have been the end of him. I think that a lot of the confidence that was apparent in McGregor in both the second Diaz fight and his recent win over Eddie Alvarez stems from the fact that – having lost – he came into each bout understanding himself more than he had ever done.
I remember watching an old pre-UFC interview with Conor where he spoke on the 2nd loss of his career, a 1st round submission by the hand of Joe Duffy back in 2010. He recalled how prior to that bout, he had not been taking mixed martial arts seriously. He believed that his skill on the feet would serve him and paid no mind – or at least not enough mind – to the art of jiu-jitsu.
Following that defeat, Conor said he would simply never let it happen again. He would never find himself in the situation where a loss like that would happen if it could have been avoided. Now, indeed he did experience a drop in momentum again all of those years later, but his initial reaction to his first loss saw him go on a 15 fight win-streak, catapulting himself to the featherweight title and amassing 13 knockouts in the process.
His loss to Diaz came in equal parts as a result of his ego, his inadequate preparation and his growing emphasis on remaining in the public eye. When he walked out of that octagon defeated that night it was Joe Duffy all over again.
I feel like this was the moment Conor matured into a man. His return to action showed us the power of a strong mindset and gave us a new Conor McGregor, a battle-hardened McGregor who already had the skills to change the game, but now, possessed an entirely new level of experience. The type of experience I firmly believe is necessary to be considered amongst the all-time greats.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena