The upset losses of Conor McGregor and Holly Holm at UFC 196, particularly the former, shook up several different UFC divisions in one crazy hour.
McGregor was making noises about being a three-division champion, but after being submitted by Nate Diaz, a lightweight -- even though the fight was at welterweight -- it was a major reality check regarding the limitations of size.
McGregor is simply too small for welterweight. To get to that size, he would have to carry weight, even if it's muscle, that slightly slows him down. More gets him tired faster. McGregor had never shown an inkling of a conditioning problem at featherweight. He had gotten bigger and the weight cut had seemed more and more difficult. But it wasn't an issue facing Chad Mendes, who he had a major reach edge on, and the Jose Aldo fight was over in 13 seconds. It wasn't necessarily going to be a factor.
With Diaz, he no longer had the reach edge, and got tired.
Had McGregor won, a fight with Georges St-Pierre would have broken all company records, particularly in a UFC 200 setting. St-Pierre was even at ringside for Saturday's fight, although was noncommittal as to why, and remained coy if he's even interested in fighting again. Rumors were swirling, although Dana White claimed St-Pierre vs. McGregor was not something being discussed. He also said he didn't know if St-Pierre would fight again.
But McGregor vs. welterweight champion Robbie Lawler was discussed beforehand. The idea was intriguing, although the reality was that Lawler was a bad opponent for McGregor. McGregor's style of having no fear of taking punches had worked against featherweights, but the difference in power against one of the sport's hardest hitting welterweights would make that style far too dangerous.
There is still question regarding what would have happened had Rafael dos Anjos not pulled out. An in-shape Diaz was a tough opponent stylistically for McGregor. But Diaz went in as a heavy underdog with the feeling he was taking the fight on short notice and giving up the conditioning edge. As it turned out, it was the conditioning that made the difference. Diaz, aware of his limitations, started slow, absorbing the early onslaught and then took over in round two.
Even though dos Anjos beat Diaz in a one-sided fight, McGregor would have had the reach edge and height over dos Anjos. Whether he could stop dos Anjos takedowns , survive his ground game, stand up to dos Anjos' punches and now the conditioning question are still the unproven factors if such a fight was to happen. Either way, it wasn't a fight McGregor was talking about after the loss.
McGregor is and still will be a star maker in UFC. Diaz, who was always popular, is now a superstar who can headline the biggest shows. If McGregor fought at lightweight, everyone he faced, whether it would have been dos Anjos, Donald Cerrone, Tony Ferguson, Edson Barboza, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Anthony Pettis or Eddie Alvarez, would have benefited greatly. With his talking ability combined with the depth of legitimate talent, lightweight would have likely become the company's marquee weight class.
But that may not be in the cards any longer. And even if it is, it will have to wait.
The biggest beneficiary of the Diaz win, besides Nate Diaz himself, is the featherweight division. Instead of being placed on hold while McGregor chased new belts, McGregor indicated he's coming back. Exactly how the loss will affect his drawing power is unknown. There are no featherweight fights that would have done the business of McGregor vs. St-Pierre, but McGregor is going to draw strong numbers as long as he doesn't go on a losing streak and keeps talking.
Whether that means 1 million buy pay-per-view shows and $8 million live gates, that's to be determined. The rule of thumb is that one loss doesn't kill a real marquee player's drawing power, but falling out of the title picture does. UFC has never had anyone at McGregor's drawing power level. The closest comparison is Ronda Rousey, who is likely to draw bigger when she fights next because of the prospective opponents, but that's an untested theory at this point.
Chuck Liddell drew until he retired, but not at the level he drew as champion with the belt. Brock Lesnar's numbers fell significantly for his fight with Alistair Overeem after his loss to Cain Velasquez, but that also wasn't a championship fight. Chael Sonnen, the closest thing to McGregor as a talker, drew well with Jon Jones even after two losses to Anderson Silva, and was a strong television ratings draw even after that. Sonnen's drawing power actually increased with his first loss to Anderson Silva due the fact he was winning the fight until the latter stages, but there was a difference after the second Silva fight.
The women's bantamweight division direction also underwent an overhaul.
The idea going in was Miesha Tate was someone Holly Holm was facing enroute to Rousey, and another of the biggest fights in UFC history. Now, everything is up in the air.
In a perfect world, Rousey would return and face Tate, someone she's beaten handily twice, win the title and then face Holm. Those would be two monster fights from a business standpoint. But it's not a perfect world.
Rousey has movie commitments for much of 2016. While the talk in UFC is that she'll return in November, there are plenty of questions about even that time frame. If Rousey failed to win the title from Tate, a lot depends on how the right goes and if Rousey was willing to continue. Rousey vs. Holm would still be a big fight, but it's unknown if it would happen.
Tate wasn't the level of athlete that Holm was. It was clear throughout the fight. But she couldn't be mentally broken, and was clearly superior on the ground, and that spelled the difference. Holm very well could win a rematch.
With Rousey on the sidelines, that could happen. Putting Tate against anyone other than Holm before Rousey comes back risks the current dynamic. Based on comments Dana White made the week of the fight, the company probably wasn't thrilled the guaranteed Holm vs. Rousey 2 fight was jeopardized by Holm being so adamant about fighting now. They would likely be less willing to risk an even bigger hit should Tate lose to anyone other than Holm next.
Let's look at how fortunes changed on what will likely be remembered as one of the more historic nights in company history:
NATE DIAZ - Both Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta after Saturday's show were talking about Diaz challenging Robbie Lawler for the welterweight title. Looking at the business end, only a return by St-Pierre would mean more than Diaz as challenger.
But it's also an illusion. Diaz (20-10) was hit and miss at lightweight, and not even competitive with Rory MacDonald the previous time he fought at welterweight. From a sports standpoint, beating a 145 pound champion and getting a title shot at a 170 pound champion are world's apart. Many felt Carlos Condit beat Lawler in a classic fight, and a rematch is deserved. UFC is always going to look at the fight that would make the most money, especially with UFC 200 on the horizon. And that fight is Diaz.
If Lawler was to beat Nate Diaz, that also opens up a natural Lawler vs. Nick Diaz fight down the line. If Condit is to be believed, that could also end his career since he's talked about retiring if he doesn't get the shot.
CONOR MCGREGOR - McGregor after the fight was talking about defending his featherweight title next, with the
obvious contenders being former champion Jose Aldo (25-2) and Frankie Edgar (20-4-1).
He said he'd give his opinion based on what fight he thinks the fans want the most. On a worldwide basis, because of the Brazilian market, the answer is Aldo. In the U.S. market, it's trickier. McGregor vs. Aldo was heavily pushed by the UFC since 2014 and the one fight they had ended in 13 seconds. If any title loss doesn't warrant an immediate rematch, that would be it. But there is question of what would happen if that punch hadn't landed, and Aldo was a dominant champion who had been unbeaten for 10 years.
Still, Aldo turned down a fight with McGregor when offered when dos Anjos pulled out. Unlike Edgar, who had a torn groin, his reason was that he wasn't ready. While a valid reason, it doesn't help with a company where people, like Nate Diaz, often make names by taking those type of risks.
Edgar really earned a shot in late 2014 beating Cub Swanson, and solidified that with a win over Urijah Faber. He put the exclamation point on it with a knockout of Chad Mendes. Quite frankly, he probably deserved the shot from a sports standpoint more than McGregor did, and as much if not more than any challenger in any division.
The gut says Aldo is the business choice and McGregor seemed leaning in that direction when he was talking. The key caveat is that Aldo has pulled out of so many fights that McGregor is reluctant to commit to him.
Either way, the success of that fight depends far more on the value lost in McGregor. And it is a must-win for McGregor, because with another loss, the damage to him as a draw would be far more significant.
MIESHA TATE - Tate (18-5) took the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride like few fights in history on Saturday.
An underdog, Tate teased the audience in round two where she nearly finished Holm. But then after rounds three and four went like round one, Holm was back in control.
Going into round five, Tate could win the round and get a draw. But she seemingly couldn't get the takedown nor win the fight standing. Just as the audience was resigned to the fact Holm was going to win, she got Holm down and finished her in one of the most dramatic title finishes in UFC history
The question is now about waiting for Rousey. If it was a lock that it would be November, or even December, it's a no-brainer. But if it's going to be longer, things are more cloudy.
The leading contenders would be Holm (10-1), Amanda Nunes (12-4), Julianna Pena (7-2) and Cat Zingano (9-1). Zingano beat Tate on April 13, 2013, and Tate has long wanted a rematch. But Zingano hasn't fought in more than a year. Pena and Tate have been friends for years and have trained together. Nunes is dangerous early in a fight but then fades, and it would be a huge blow from a business standpoint if Nunes beat Tate before a Rousey fight could take place. Holm is the safest business choice, but it's another rematch, something UFC is often criticized for, particularly after a clean finish here.
But the nature of how the fight played out does leave questions about whether Tate could win a second time.
HOLLY HOLM - Holm's next direction is dependent on that of Tate. If Rousey isn't committed to fighting before the end of the year, a Holm vs. Tate rematch is the biggest fight possible in the division. It's also the closest thing to a no-lose for UFC.
If Holm wins, Rousey vs. Holm remains the monster fight. If Tate is going to wait for Rousey, Holm's prospective opponents are the same list of Nunes, Pena and Zingano. If Tate fights one of them, Holm's best choices would be the other two.
There is also the intrigue of a catch-weight fight with Cris Cyborg Justino, which Holm has said she was willing to do. It's clearly Holm's biggest fight other than Tate, but it has no long-term benefit. Cyborg has closed the door as far as moving to 135, meaning that there's no future for her in UFC unless the company opens up another division.
From most accounts, if a new women's division were to be added, it would far more likely be 125 than 145.
Holm losing to Cyborg will hurt the Rousey fight, a risk UFC shouldn't be taking at this point. A year from now, the situation could be completely different.
AMANDA NUNES - After beating Valentina Shevchenko, Nunes immediately called for Dana White, who wasn't there, to ask for a title fight. She reiterated it at the press conference, and Tate answered that she'll face whoever the promotion wants.
Nunes is one of the key pieces among the moving parts of the division. If she beats Tate, or Holm, at least right now, it costs the promotion big.
Nunes has another key issue in her style of coming out fast, but then slowing down. She finished Shayna Baszler and Sara McMann quickly, but after nearly finishing Zingano in the first round, Zingano turned the tables when she faded. With Shevchenko, the fade was in round three, which was enough to give her the win in a three-round fight. But in a championship fight losing stamina after winning two rounds is the difference between a win and a loss.
Where Nunes fits in can't be decided until the promotion first takes care of its direction for Tate and Holm. She could face either, but in both cases it doesn't feel like it's the right move.