Thursday 22 March 2018

Conor McGregor: 'The whole lot of it brought out the best in me, forced me to look at myself truly'

The pair embrace after the fight. Photo: AP Photo/Isaac Brekken
The pair embrace after the fight. Photo: AP Photo/Isaac Brekken
Conor McGregor lands a punch on Nate Diaz. Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

Joe Callaghan

As the dust settled slowly in the desert yesterday, Las Vegas offered its own brand of respite after the excesses of the night before.

Marilyn Manson and Slipknot pitched up and were playing at the T-Mobile Arena - the same venue in which 24 hours earlier Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz served up a bout of bewitching brutality in the headline act of UFC 202.

The city had been left gasping for air as the rematch of bitter rivals descended into a mixed martial arts marathon, a battle of wills in which McGregor somehow stood tallest to get his UFC career back on track.

Given just how deep both fighters were forced to dig, the duelling death metallers of Sunday might just have made for a more palatable prospect for some.

By its utterly engrossing end, Saturday was a night that had all of the stuff that MMA aficionados love about the game. It also had a whole lot for those who can't stomach the sport.

The T-Mobile Arena is mere months old, all bells and whistles, shiny and new compared to the vaunted combat hall of the MGM Grand Garden Arena across the road.

A bloodied Diaz prepares to defend himself. Photo: Steve Marcus/Getty Images
A bloodied Diaz prepares to defend himself. Photo: Steve Marcus/Getty Images


But they'll likely need to invest in some new furnishings already: the canvass that McGregor and Diaz went toe to toe, blow to crushing blow on is unlikely to ever be anything but crimson again.

Just as there's no washing the cage covers clean, there'll be no wiping from the memory McGregor's resilience in the incessant wave of punches, elbows and kicks that were exchanged - almost 500 in total in 25 engrossing minutes.

Nor will the fight's final image be forgotten as Diaz, having stunned the combat sports world when he submitted the Dubliner back in March, leaned down and picked McGregor up off the canvass at the final bell, having got the takedown he had craved just too late.

An enraptured crowd shook the house to its only recently set foundations.

McGregor celebrating after his victory. Photo: Joshua Dahl/Sportsfile
McGregor celebrating after his victory. Photo: Joshua Dahl/Sportsfile

"It was a hell of a fight, he's a hell of a competitor," said McGregor after dragging himself to the post-fight press conference. "The whole lot of it brought out the best in me, forced me to look at myself truly.

"It was not easy. It was a war. I got to show my heart in there. I took it to him and stayed in it and got the win so, I'm very happy."

The win, and with it a settling of the score, came via a majority decision, with one judge unable to split the fighters.

While Diaz did inevitably find reason for arguments, the overwhelming majority saw a fight where McGregor won three rounds, Diaz won two and they both won a world of admiration, even if you were still left wondering why the build-up couldn't have been marked by a little of the same respect.

"The fight was over. We just fought 25 minutes," said Diaz of his moment of sportsmanship at the end of a fight in which he was dropped three times in the opening two rounds but turned the tide to often leave McGregor on the brink of a potentially devastating second successive defeat.

"He tried, I tried, to take each other out and it didn't get done. It's like, 'Hey man, until next time, it's all good, until we're set to go again it's all good'.

"What do you want to me to do - keep kicking the guy while he was down? It's all good, the fight was over."

McGregor's insistence that this duel with Diaz forced him to "look at himself truly" was telling. The 28-year-old had clearly seen shortcomings from the first encounter, which threatened to derail his juggernaut journey to the mainstream.

So much was put right here, the gruelling almost two-month long camp in Nevada paying off and then some.

The Dubliner mixed his approach much more, using leg kicks to debilitating effect early and often, eventually hurting himself in the punishing process.

When he floored Diaz with his left cross, he didn't rush into the propellers like last time. His conditioning was vastly superior this time, his defence so strong, even in those sapping last ten minutes. All in all, he followed his darkest night with his most defiant.

"Just the way it all went down," pondered McGregor, the informed pre-fight suspicion being that if it went deep, he was more likely to drown.

"I'm sitting back and I'm looking at everyone. I don't care what anyone says, I brought this game to another level. They can deny that all they want, but I did.

"They said I was done and it certainly lit a fire under me. Every single person doubted me. Every single fighter doubted me. Doubt me now."

It's again very difficult to. . . but not impossible. And in the long run, that might be no bad thing for McGregor. These two fights, and the rise back to redemption sucked in a whole new audience, particularly Stateside, where his appeal is potent.

As he drifted off into the lights of Las Vegas to celebrate with Rory McIlroy and Niall Horan, he might just have thought as much. More likely not.

Either way, after his most resilient night, McGregor is now firmly back in control.

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