UFC 196 goes down this weekend inside MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The main event won't be what we expected, but then, that's par for the course when featherweight champion Conor McGregor is involved.
Originally scheduled to challenge Rafael dos Anjos for his lightweight championship, McGregor will instead face Nate Diaz in a non-title welterweight bout. Dos Anjos' decision to withdraw because of a broken foot marks the fourth time in eight UFC appearances that McGregor's opponent has pulled out. Diaz took the fight on 11 days' notice.
The pay-per-view will still showcase a UFC title fight, however, as bantamweight Holly Holm seeks her first defense against Miesha Tate. Let's break down the top two fights and predict other key matchups. Don't agree? Let me know (nicely, of course) on Twitter: @bokamotoESPN.
Conor McGregor (19-2) vs. Nate Diaz (18-10)
Odds: McGregor -420; Diaz +375
Mixed martial arts is difficult. Mixed martial arts on short notice is very difficult. Mixed martial arts on short notice, against Conor McGregor? Near impossible.
We discussed this last time, back in July when Jose Aldo withdrew from a title fight against McGregor at the last minute and Chad Mendes took his place. Mendes wasn't in fighting shape and it showed. McGregor is a busy unorthodox foe who relentlessly targets the body. That's a lethal combination to go up against if you're not in peak condition.
Stylistically, the thing about Diaz is that for each thing he does well, there's a corresponding hole in his technique. He's as flawed as he is brilliant, in other words. His volume can eat another man alive, but he doesn't have superb cage-cutting skill and he leans heavy on that lead leg, which leaves him vulnerable to kicks. He's good from the clinch -- knees, trips, occasional throws -- and his jiu-jitsu is slick, but he has been physically overmatched in the past by opponents with strong wrestling.
Diaz will be the biggest opponent McGregor has ever fought in the UFC. That said, Diaz might not be the hardest puncher. It's all volume with him. He attacks with the jab or that wide, slapping right hook. He's clever with the straight left and can vary its timing, but he has a low knockdown rate. Even when he knocked out Gray Maynard in 2013, Maynard never even went down in that fight.
It's worth talking about Diaz's lack of home run power in this matchup. McGregor can play the role of counter striker and aggressor equally well. He's willing to take a punch, which should be dangerous fighting at 170 pounds, but he's not the flat-footed type who will find himself consistently on the end of Diaz's punches. Couple of times in an exchange? Sure, McGregor could get hit. Consistently walked down over the course of a 25-minute fight? It would have been interesting to see if dos Anjos, a phenomenal aggressor with good wrestling skills, could have accomplished that. Diaz on short notice? Not likely.
Unless the size difference truly throws McGregor off, this looks like his fight. Diaz by submission is probably Stockton, California's greatest hope. If he's able to tie McGregor up into a clinch and get him to the floor, he has a far better shot of finishing the fight than short-notice Mendes did. As long as the fight stays standing, though, there's a chance McGregor makes this look pretty easy. His striking simply has more layers and he'll be the much faster man. Diaz is fond of the counter right hook when he's forced backwards. Keep an eye on that in this one, as it might open the door for McGregor's patented left.
PREDICTION: McGregor via second-round TKO.
Holly Holm (10-0) vs. Miesha Tate (17-5)
Women's bantamweight championship
Odds: Holm -360; Tate +300
Tate has talked all week about turning this into a dirty fight. It doesn't have to look pretty -- in fact, it probably shouldn't. She's not lying when she says this.
The challenger needs an ugly fight. As much as Tate has polished her relatively rough edges, she needs to be herself in this matchup and that's somewhat chaotic. If she attempts to play into a technical, clinical contest with Holm, she's probably doomed. Tate needs scrambles. She needs to lure Holm into prolonged exchanges and she desperately needs takedowns.
That's not to say she should be reckless. Clearly, after watching Holm dismantle Ronda Rousey in November, reckless aggression is a good way to get hurt when fighting Holm. It's on Tate to find a balance. Press but take little damage. And when she commits to a takedown, drive low and chain wrestle. Tate is good from the clinch, but after watching Holm defend several takedown attempts against Rousey's Olympic judo clinch, I don't see Tate having a ton of success in that area. Holm's too strong, too athletic, too physical in those clinches.
And speaking of Holm's physicality, that's a challenge in itself for any opponent looking to beat her. She has advantages over Tate in height, reach and will likely outweigh her on fight night. Typically, that cut in weight translates to a disadvantage in cardio, but Holm seems to have a never-ending gas tank. In her first two UFC fights, her output went up as the fight progressed. She has a pretty absurd work rate and is in constant motion. Still, give Tate a slight advantage in the later rounds, but not as much as you'd think. Holm is special in that way.
Also: Don't sleep on Tate's improved power punching. She has spoken about that over the past year and it's a real improvement. Holm, after all, has had a long boxing career, and while she has shown no hints of a weak chin in MMA, there is some tread on that tire. And of course, don't forget about Tate's heart. She beat Sara McMann with a broken orbital. She refused to tap to a pretty horrific armbar against Rousey in their first fight. She thought the third-round beating she took against Cat Zingano was stopped prematurely. Basically, don't expect her to go quietly.
PREDICTION: Holm via decision.
Rest of the main card
Amanda Nunes (11-4) vs. Valentina Shevchenko (12-1)
Shevchenko was pretty marvelous in her UFC debut in December, but Nunes really turned a corner in 2015. Look for her to keep it going.
PREDICTION: Nunes by decision.
Brandon Thatch (11-3) vs. Siyar Bahadurzada (21-6-1)
Thatch stumbled last year under the weight of high expectations. They've lowered some, but stylistically, he should have his way against Bahadurzada.
PREDICTION: Thatch via TKO.
Jim Miller (25-7) vs. Diego Sanchez (25-8)
Two veterans on the downswing of their respective careers. Sanchez always brings the fight, but I think Miller is the more skilled of the two.
PREDICTION: Miller by decision.