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Top MMA storylines of 2016: 10. The rise of Nate Diaz

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UFC 202 Photos
Nate Diaz celebrates at UFC 202.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When 2016 began, Nate Diaz was a fighter with a cult following on a modest one-fight winning streak. He had been dubbed previously by UFC president Dana White as someone who did not move the needle as far as ratings and pay-per-view buys were concerned.

Now, just 12 months later, Diaz is one of the UFC’s biggest stars, a participant in two of the highest-selling events in the sport’s history.

The narrative started when Diaz called out Conor McGregor following a win over Michael Johnson in December 2015. At the time, though, a McGregor-Diaz matchup seemed far-fetched. McGregor was poised to try and win a second UFC title against Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 196 in March.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

But 11 days out of that fight, the entire foundation of MMA shifted. Dos Anjos broke his foot and Diaz stepped to the plate, just about right off a yacht from his vacation in Cabo San Lucas. Diaz didn’t want to cut all the way to 155 for the fight. McGregor said, Fine, let’s do it at 170 pounds.

The rest is history, the fast evolution of one of the great rivalries in MMA lore.

McGregor was a sizable favorite, the UFC featherweight champion going up in weight and the biggest drawing name in the promotion. He was just three months removed from knocking out all-time great Jose Aldo in 13 seconds. Diaz was a durable boxer-grappler from the streets of Stockton, considered a top-10 lightweight at the time, but not much more than that.

When Diaz stopped McGregor via second-round rear-naked choke submission, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas — filled with many fans who flew in from McGregor’s Irish homeland — was stunned.

The fight’s nine minutes were as exciting and action-packed as any you’ll see. McGregor rocked Diaz multiple times in the first round, but couldn’t knock him down. Or stop him from coming forward. By midway through the second round, McGregor was sucking for air; Diaz was just getting into his rhythm.

He rocked “The Notorious” with a combination, forcing him to shoot for a desperate takedown. That put McGregor right where Diaz wanted him. Seconds later, Diaz was on the Irishman’s back, forcing the tap.

UFC 196 photos
Nate Diaz chokes out Conor McGregor at UFC 196
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC 196 drew an estimated 1.6 million pay-per-view buys, putting it right there with the top UFC events of all time in terms of revenue, an absurdity considering the main event only came together in less than two weeks.

McGregor was so obsessed with the loss, the first of his UFC run, that he refused to defend his featherweight belt and demanded a rematch with Diaz — right back at 170 pounds. The two met again at UFC 202 in August with McGregor eeking out a majority decision victory.

By many counts, UFC 202 ended up as the highest drawing UFC pay-per-view ever, coming in at around 1.65 million buys. Afterward, McGregor called for a trilogy bout at 155 pounds and it will almost surely come to fruition.

This feud was more than just what occurred inside the Octagon. There was the heated press conference at UFC Gym in Los Angeles, the bottle- and energy drink can-throwing before UFC 202, the countless (and hilarious) TV interviews and quips. (“What is this, the Money Channel?”)

The rivalry brought out the best in both men, but, perhaps most importantly, it allowed the star in Diaz to emerge.

After nearly a decade in the UFC, without ever getting the kinds of opportunities afforded to the likes of McGregor, Diaz arrived in 2016. There’s not much anyone can do to hold him back now.