The Conor McGregor show is back in action, this time making his debut at welterweight.
After claiming the featherweight belt at UFC 194 in December, McGregor set his sights on a second championship in a new weight class. But after lightweight strap holder Rafael dos Anjos withdrew from his scheduled title fight against McGregor, citing a broken foot, the UFC inserted veteran Nate Diaz as a replacement. McGregor and Diaz have agreed to fight at 170 pounds for their UFC 196 (10 P.M. EST, Pay Per View) headliner, which goes down this Saturday, March 5 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
It's an unprecedented move for McGregor (19-2, 7-0 UFC), who is competing 25 pounds above his normal fighting weight. However, even without a title on the line, the matchup strikes intrigue, as, for the first time in his UFC career, McGregor will concede both height and reach advantages to his opponent. Diaz's long and wiry frame may play an important role in the way the bout unfolds.
To McGregor's advantage, he has had a full training camp to prepare for Saturday's bout, unlike Diaz (18-10, 13-8 UFC), who is basically stepping in on one-week notice. But the Irish phenom will need to close the distance on the Stockton, California stalwart, who is adept at using his jab to keep opponents out of striking distance.
McGregor, who is riding five-consecutive victories via TKO/KO, does appear to have the edge in the power punching department as well. But Diaz knows how to absorb strikes; he's only been knocked out once in 21 Octagon appearances, as a result of a Josh Thompson head kick in 2013. McGregor, while using a hybrid-Karate stance, rarely throws kicks up high, although he will likely attack Diaz's body with spinning attacks and punches to the midsection.
On the ground, Diaz, a 12-time performance bonus winner, holds a significant advantage in the submission department as a result of his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu acumen. But first he will need to get McGregor to the mat.
Looking back at his UFC 189 victory over Chad Mendes, McGregor has shown some holes in his takedown defense. But unlike Mendes, Diaz is not a traditional wrestler who shoots for double leg takedowns. Diaz normally uses his boxing to pressure opponents and create chaos inside the Octagon, before scrambling for a choke. Against McGregor; however, it will be difficult for Diaz to startle and confuse the cool and focused featherweight champ from his normal plan of attack.
And while this bout, on paper, has the potential to be one of the most interesting matchups in recent memory, it will likely end in yet another McGregor knockout, although the Irishman will need a few rounds to move past Diaz's boxing and defense.
Conor McGregor by TKO in round three.
Co-main event: Holly Holm vs. Miesha Tate
Back in November 2015, Holly Holm (10-0, 3-0 UFC) went from relative obscurity straight to the limelight after knocking out Ronday Rousey at UFC 193. And with an immediate re-match against Rousey off the table, the UFC women's bantamweight champion was partnered against former title challenger Miesha Tate (17-5, 4-2 UFC), who enters the UFC 196 co-headliner on the heels of four-straight victories.
Holm has proven that she possesses some of the finest, precise, and refined kickboxing in all of mixed martial arts. In her performance against Rousey, Holm demonstrated her ability to nullify stylistic challenges, while implementing her own game plan. And while Holm needed just about seven minutes to pick apart Rousey, she'll likely need a little more time against Tate, who relies on her wrestling base.
Tate will provide a stronger opposition than Rousey, who favored judo. The wrestling threat will force Holm into a more conservative takedown defense, taking away the early kicking threat. But heading into the later rounds, the champion will frustrate and stifle Tate, and eventually swarm for the TKO.
Gian Villante vs. Ilir Latifi
This light heavyweight matchup between Villante (14-6, 4-3 UFC) and Latifi (11-4, 4-2 UFC) will likely end early, as both fighters favor the pressure game and like to take care of business right out of the gate.
Villante, the taller and longer of the two, has been inconsistent inside the Octagon. But he did land a masterful knockout of Anthony Perosh back in November. Latifi, who is one of the shorter fighters at 205 pound, is a wrestler who likes to move inside and trade quick shots, which usually end in his favor.
Racing out to the center of the Octagon, Latifi will swarm Villante with overhand punches in an attempt to clinch against the fence. But the Swede will have difficulty taking Villante to the mat. The New Yorker will eventually wear Latifi down with takedown defense before ending this fight via TKO in the first.
Corey Anderson vs. Tom Lawlor
A former winner on The Ultimate Fighter, Corey Anderson (7-1, 4-1 UFC) has long been touted as rising prospect on account of his pressure, athleticism, and volume punching. Tom Lawlor (10-5, 6-4 UFC), who has only fought twice in the last three years, is a crafty veteran coming off of two straight wins.
Lawlor does hold the power card up his sleeve; he also has a win over their one common opponent -- Villante. But despite the MMA math, this bout should be all Anderson, who will be able to move around the Octagon with ease and pick Lawlor apart with his boxing game.
Anderson by decision.
Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko
A battle of top-10 bantamweights, this matchup between Amanda Nunes (11-4, 4-1 UFC) and Valentina Shevchenko (12-1, 1-0 UFC) pits grappler against striker.
Nunes, who has won two straight and sits very close to title contention, has looked better every time she steps into the Octagon. Primarily a Jiu Jitsu practitioner, Nunes has shown improvement in her ability to use strikes to set up the clinch game. And against Shevchenko, Nunes will have to move inside very carefully.
A decorated kickboxing world champion, Shevchenko looked durable and sharp in her lone UFC appearance. But Nunes is a big step up in competition, and it remains to be seen how Shevchenko will handle the more versatile Brazilian.
For Nunes, a finish doesn't seem out of reach, but she will have to work for it. And while Shevchenko will be able to thwart Nunes' advances early in the fight, the Brazilian will eventually bring the fight to the ground where she will earn the stoppage.