Tough Talkers: McGregor vs. Diaz & The New UFC
Part of MMA’s appeal is the lawless mystique of 1993’s UFC1, but the time has come to let go of the street-tough image.
Some fans thought McGregor vs. Diaz 2 was a great fight, others thought it was an embarrassment to the sport. The blood, the trash talk, the personal vitriol… It was ghosts of 20th century cage fights. You may be one of those who love a good brawl, but this isn’t a good thing for new owners WME-IMG.
What it was
I’m no MMA expert, but I follow the sport pretty closely. Not only am I a lifetime boxing fan, but until knee injuries in my teens, I thought I wanted to be a UFC fighter. At the time, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz were still fighting for 200-pound supremacy. Traditional martial arts guys, like myself, preferred Liddell’s persona over Ortiz’. It’s wild to think, 12 years later, how the loud Ortiz made guys like Liddell seem quiet and reserved.
The champion in my weight class was Jens Pulver. An explosive puncher, known for a back-alley style. I always felt that Pulver’s pool of competition would improve to a point at which punching was not enough.
Back then, many within the boxing and traditional martial arts communities, saw most UFC fighters as more brawler than trained fighter. This isn’t to say that some black belt off the street could walk into an octagon and wrest the UFC title from Liddell — but we were still a few years away from serene practitioners like Georges St-Pierre or Lyoto Machida.
The men who populated the UFC for the first decade and a half were real tough guys. The kind you want on your side if you ever get jumped in a dark alley. Street toughs. Street fighters. Brawlers. Guys who came up in the streets and learned as much about fighting outside the gym as they did inside. It was no surprise that they talked like street guys too.
Nate Diaz and his brother Nick are very much of the old UFC mold. I doubt either Diaz brother sounds any different at home than they do at a press conference.
Conor McGregor, whatever his upbringing, has shown himself to be multi-faceted. McGregor is putting on an act most times. Sometimes he’s the sage-like introspective McGregor who seems pretty laid-back. When promoting fights, he’s the wild vintage WWF-promo trash-talker.
The acts rocketed McGregor from knockout UFC fighter to million-dollar household name … until the 145-pound Irishman talked himself into a match with Nate Diaz at 170-pounds, and lost by submission. …To a fighter who no one would pick to win any UFC title.
The loss hurt McGregor’s ego and pocketbook, sending him into a ‘retirement’ that looked like the beginnings of a fighters union. Of course, this was quickly revealed to be the desperate negotiation tactic of the sinking McGregor hot-air balloon.
McGregor, finding no sanctuary in boxing or WWE, dedicated himself to retribution against Diaz.
What it isn’t
The buildup to McGregor vs. Diaz 2 had all the trash talk fans could ask for. The fight itself promised no technical advancement over the first. Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz is a bad stylistic matchup for both guys. Even with better conditioning, McGregor can’t knock out Diaz. And while Diaz can finish fights with submissions, he has no way to get McGregor to the ground.
McGregor’s greatest strategic feat in the rematch was refusing to engage Diaz on the ground. Even when Diaz appeared to be dropped by a punch, and hurt. Alistair Overeem employed this strategy in his 2011 fight with Fabricio Werdum. I want to see fighters push for victory wherever the fight goes. I would have liked to see “The Reem” test his grappling with Werdum.
But even with the entire battle occurring on the feet, exchanging strikes, McGregor couldn’t finish Diaz. Even with blood pouring from Diaz’ face, he was still in the fight. Don’t get it wrong, McGregor can hit, but it’s going to take more than an inflated lightweight to KO either of the Diaz brothers.
This is when the trash talk ramped up. It is important to recognize the sequence of events here. McGregor and Diaz didn’t start jawing with each other because “they’re just so damn tough”. They started talking because they couldn’t do anything else to each other.
There is a group of fight fans who lovvvvvvve the cursing, and the bird-flipping, and the threats. But it’s all a load of bull. McGregor and Diaz are always going to talk trash, to anyone, but this was desperation. McGregor was getting tired, realized he couldn’t stop Diaz, and wanted to play to the crowd in another way. Diaz was in bad shape, knew he couldn’t stop McGregor, so just tried to piss him off.
Understand this as well: trash talk is always gamesmanship. McGregor consciously uses his talk to gain publicity and psychological advantages.
Having developed his barbed-tongue in childhood, Diaz may not consciously weaponize it, but trash-talk is a tool on the streets as well.
Why did Ali talk more trash to Frazier than any other opponent he faced? Because he recognized that he needed every advantage he could get over Smokin’ Joe. If you’re talking, you’re wary of your opponent’s strength. Or to simplify: If you’re talking, you’re scared.
This is the difference between a street fight like McGregor/Diaz and a brutal MMA contest like Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald 2. Lawler and MacDonald let their fighting speak for them.
What it will be
McGregor/Diaz 2 could not have aired on free Fox. The fight would have been stopped due to the bloody mess on Diaz face, or heavily censored for bad behavior. Fox didn’t sign up for the UFC of Ken Shamrock, Tank Abbott, or even Tito Ortiz’ days. Fox wanted the Georges St-Pierre UFC. Fox wanted the next NFL.
There are some tough guys and trash talkers in the NFL, you say?
Psychological warfare is present in all competition, but it’s the gravy on top of a hearty steak, that is all. The NFL thrives on elite athleticism, not street-level theatrics. Even WWE has to put on an acrobatic show, or the trash talk is meaningless. So when a fight devolves to two guys walking toward and away from each other while talking smack, it leaves fans unsatisfied.
Fox and WME-IMG can’t do anything with this kind of fight. Fans who come to UFC for this kind of action are a shrinking minority (why order UFC Pay-per-view when you can watch bum fights on YouTube?!). The real money is in mainstream appeal, and that means a cleaner product.
McGregor and Diaz will probably never grace the box of a kids cereal. Fighters with their eyes on a career in this new UFC should strive for the Wheaties box, because that is the future of the UFC. Obviously, athletes are flawed human beings like anyone, but some flaws are more easily hidden than others.
A degree of talk is great for promoting a fight and making a name for yourself. But if free TV can’t broadcast your athletic performance, it has no value in our corporate world.
Jon Jones beat Daniel Cormier in the octagon, but who’s winning at the bank? Early in his career I was one of the fans who thought Jones could become the Michael Jordan of MMA. Jones’ problems outside the ring, and off the record, have essentially destroyed his marketability. Meanwhile, the more family-friendly Cormier collects a steady paycheck as a commentator when not fighting.
McGregor and Diaz are two tough dudes, and pretty great martial artists as well, but will either of them survive in the new UFC?
What do you think? Will McGregor clean up his act? Will Diaz last?
Is there a market for the “Ultimate Trash-talk Championship”?