It’s a new year, so Combat Press is taking a look back at the best of MMA in 2016. Throughout the next few weeks, Combat Press will announce its award winners in multiple categories, covering everything from the action in the cage to the biggest stories surrounding the sport.
Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz have created one of the best rivalries in combat sports. However, entering 2016, the two men weren’t commonly associated with each other. That all changed at UFC 196.
The event was originally scheduled to feature McGregor looking to become the first dual-weight champion in UFC history. He was facing off against Rafael dos Anjos, the reigning UFC lightweight champ at the time. Those plans changed when dos Anjos was forced off the card due to an injury.
In an effort to keep its top draw on the card, the UFC put together a special fight with Diaz stepping in on extremely short notice to face the reigning featherweight champ McGregor. The two men wasted little time in selling the fight by engaging in one of the most memorable pre-fight press conferences.
McGregor was well on his way to reaching new heights of popularity after dispatching former UFC featherweight champ José Aldo in just 13 seconds in his previous fight. Meanwhile, Diaz looked equally impressive in taking out top lightweight contender Michael Johnson. Following the fight with Johnson, Diaz grabbed the mic and gave us one of the best callouts in MMA history.
Despite McGregor fighting well above his weight class, the UFC champ was considered the favorite heading into UFC 196. After all, he’d been preparing for the biggest fight of his life while Diaz was idle.
In the opening round, McGregor validated those that considered him the favorite. He peppered Diaz with power strikes. In typical Diaz fashion, blood began to flow down the face of the Stockton native. Diaz had a few moments in the opening frame, but McGregor seemed well on his way to a masterful performance for the majority of the round.
However, McGregor’s pace came at a heavy price.
At featherweight, opponents had crumbled under the storm of power punches from the Irishman. Diaz, known for his durability, weathered the early storm to stage a comeback. McGregor’s pace slowed significantly in the second round as the amount of power strikes drained the Irishman’s cardio.
The turning point came when Diaz landed a thunderous knee to the midsection of McGregor. Seizing the opportunity, Diaz began to turn up his output of strikes. Stockton slaps and 1-2 combinations were aplenty as Diaz began to take control of the fight.
Wounded and wobbly, McGregor shot for a takedown that was reversed by Diaz. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt quickly maneuvered through the ground game of McGregor, taking the Irishman’s back. It wouldn’t take long for Diaz to secure a tapout and shatter the aura of invincibility McGregor had built for himself.
Diaz’s submission of McGregor took home the award for Submission of the Year due to Diaz taking a fight against the sport’s biggest star on short notice. The win catapulted Diaz to super-stardom and helped establish one of the best rivalries in MMA history. It also allowed McGregor to showcase a human side as he acknowledged the loss, gave credit to Diaz and had a moment where MMA fans could relate to the defeated champion.
Other finalists: Ben Rothwell vs. Josh Barnett (UFC on Fox 18), Miesha Tate vs. Holly Holm (UFC 196)
Make sure you check out the rest of the Combat Press 2016 MMA Award winners.