The bout mixed gut-wrenching swings of momentum, buckets of blood, and the highest stakes one could imagine, creating the purest form of MMA drama.
For McGregor, the fight marked a shot at redemption as a mixed martial artist and the restoration of his aura as a sporting phenom. For Diaz, it was a free hit – for the second time in five months.
The short-notice nature of his presence in the pair’s first meeting, in March 2016, meant there was effectively no pressure on the Californian. After Rafael dos Anjos withdrew from his scheduled lightweight title defence against then-featherweight champion McGregor, Diaz stepped in on 11 days’ notice.
McGregor had psychologically beaten many of his previous opponents before they even entered the ring, but Diaz was unfazed. With his headline bout against McGregor at UFC 196 taking place at welterweight, Diaz was as comfortable physically as he was mentally, surviving his foe’s early onslaught and submitting the exhausted Irishman with a rear naked choke late in the second round.
Five months later, when the pair traded Las Vegas’ MGM Grand for the T-Mobile Arena, there was again no pressure on Diaz, who had become an overnight star by conquering McGregor, who in stark contrast had everything to lose.
McGregor had seemed unbeatable, until suddenly he wasn’t, but the question of whether he could maintain his status and image after back-to-back losses was left unanswered, as he outpointed Diaz 48-47 47-47 48-47 in a hellacious contest.
McGregor’s decision to forego many of his media duties in the lead-up to UFC 202 had disappointed his supporters, but it failed to prevent the event from selling more than any in UFC history to that point, and it was vindicated by this points victory – even if a number of fans disagreed with the result.
In truth, rewatching the fight only serves to reinforce the notion that the Irishman did enough to win, knocking down Diaz multiple times and evading most of the American’s strikes in his opponent’s most opportune moments for a finish.
Diaz predictably called for a trilogy bout, given the only thing more swollen than his face was his wallet, and considering the closeness of the judges’ scorecards. But McGregor was back on track for a lightweight title shot, as he looked to become the UFC’s first ever dual-weight champion.
In October 2016, McGregor did just that, before disappearing from the sport for two years. As he boxed Floyd Mayweather, vastly increasing his profile and net worth, Diaz waited.
He waited for McGregor and for a trilogy bout that would never come.
Since McGregor dissected Eddie Alvarez to win lightweight gold, the Irishman – now 33 – has fought just four times in the UFC, winning only once. Diaz, meanwhile, has competed just three times, also earning a solitary victory.
When McGregor suffered his second straight loss to Dustin Poirier this July – in a trilogy bout with the American – he was taking to the ring just one month after Diaz was outpointed by Britain’s Leon Edwards. It marked the shortest gap between McGregor and Diaz fights since their rematch.
As recently as 12 months ago, just before Poirier vs McGregor II was announced, any fan would have worn the most incredulous of looks if you told them the Irishman would complete a trilogy with ‘The Diamond’ before completing a trilogy with Diaz.
But McGregor, who knocked out Poirier in 2014 in their first encounter, was stopped by the American in the second round of their rematch this January, before suffering a broken leg in their third meeting.
Now, with McGregor recovering from that injury and targeting a return in the first half of 2022, he is in need of an opponent. Meanwhile, Diaz, 36, has just one fight left on his UFC contract.
One potential match-up for McGregor is a rematch with Max Holloway, whom ‘Notorious’ outpointed at featherweight in 2013 – long before the Hawaiian captured the belt at 145lbs and established himself as an all-time great in the division, before losing the gold two Decembers ago.
Holloway is one of the best strikers in the UFC when it comes to output, though his defence is often found wanting. The 29-year-old is in his prime, however, and has improved significantly since losing to McGregor. Although he lacks McGregor’s power – especially at lightweight – his volume and pressure make him an incredibly dangerous opponent.
Another option for McGregor is Michael Chandler, fresh off a narrow defeat in a fight of the year contender against Justin Gaethje. The former Bellator lightweight champion has the kind of wrestling threat that McGregor famously neutralised so impressively against Alvarez but has since struggled against. But if McGregor wants to get back to the lightweight title, a win against Chandler offers the quickest path.
McGregor no doubt sees Poirier as a possible opponent for a comeback fight – especially if the Louisianan wins the lightweight belt next month – but few others in the sport have any desire for a fourth bout between the rivals. Poirier has established himself as the better-rounded martial artist at this point, having outgrappled and outboxed McGregor in January, then doing the same as their brief trilogy fight progressed.
And what about Diaz? UFC president Dana White has said before that a third contest between the Stockton native and McGregor is always in the promotion’s back pocket. McGregor likely sees it as one of the most winnable out there for him. But would White risk Diaz beating McGregor once more then leaving the company as an even bigger name, positioned to improve the value and reach of a competing promotion?
It seems likelier that Diaz could be paired up with rising star Khamzat Chimaev, whose dominance and eagerness to fight regularly already have him on the path to a welterweight title shot. Boosting Chimaev’s profile while somewhat spiting Diaz is not out of the question for White.
Furthermore, an argument can be made that the trilogy bout between McGregor and Diaz has never ‘needed’ to happen. Their initial rematch can be seen as a stop-off for the latter en route to his lightweight title win – and as a wrong the Irishman needed to right, a score that no longer needs to be settled.
More casual followers of the sport would likely welcome McGregor vs Diaz III more eagerly than the most invested fans, who seem to prefer fresh match-ups for McGregor – especially considering that he is slowly approaching the end of his career.
For McGregor, a meeting with Chandler makes the most sense, a bout with Holloway would arguably produce the most fun, and a clash with Diaz would offer a sense of closure.
But McGregor has never really needed that closure, and most fans don’t seem to anymore, either.