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The ambiguity of stakes in the Conor McGregor-Nate Diaz sequel goes into its beauty

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

One of the classic moments during this UFC 202 fight week was when Nate Diaz, fresh off a Cypress Hill-fueled shadow-boxing display that was dubbed an "open workout," was asked if he would consider throwing this the rematch with Conor McGregor just to ensure there would be a trilogy fight. Diaz smiled politely and played with his knuckles a bit, before saying, "I’m here to win, straight up — you can’t pay me to lose." The question was ludicrous, of course, completely insane in the membrane. You can’t ask a competitor like Nate if he’d consider taking a dive. It’s absurd. That man should have been escorted out. What poppycock.

But, you know, that sort of thing gets you to thinking…

What exactly is at stake Saturday night’s main event? If Diaz beats McGregor again, he will seize a chunk of Ireland and do away with a trilogy fight (in all likelihood, you never know when McGregor will demand a best of seven). At that point, he’d go back into the pasture he’s been toiling in for last 10 years. He will be paid more, for sure, and his fights will take on a different sheen for a little while. There might even be a title shot in his near future, though (to his way of thinking) that whole belt thing has been dispelled as a bit of hocus pocus. But there likely won’t be another fight that’s big as in McGregor Big.

It’s at least possible that Saturday night is the high-water mark of Diaz’s career.

It’s an odd set-up. McGregor has been throwing around the trilogy word for the last couple of weeks as if that third fight is inevitable. It’s really just reinforced positive thinking, as McGregor is projecting that the series will be knotted at one apiece after Saturday night. Clearly Diaz would benefit from that scenario, too, even though it’s completely counterintuitive to waste time with. His paydays, his media, and his spotlight have looked a lot different since he inserted himself as the bane of McGregor’s existence. Still, his job is to break apart the very springboard he’s been waiting to come around and launch him for the last decade. It’s almost like Liz Carmouche’s task at UFC 157. She was fighting Ronda Rousey, the pioneer who broke women into the UFC, and to beat her was to strike a blow against the canvas beneath her feet.

The other side of it is all the things being said. UFC president Dana White, who’s been none-too-happy with McGregor’s lack of punctuality, insists that win or lose McGregor will show up in featherweight form in his next fight. That would mean a rematch with interim champion Jose Aldo, whom McGregor beat in just 13 seconds back in December. That could mean a trilogy fight, too, should Aldo get his revenge. Suddenly McGregor could find himself in the Cain Velasquez whirlpool of facing the same guys over and over.

At some point, people are going to want to see McGregor fighting people other than Diaz and Aldo. There are fighters like Max Holloway, Frankie Edgar, Eddie Alvarez and a million others who’d like a chance at a red panty night, too, while McGregor is still producing them. Yet if Diaz beats McGregor a second time, the undergarments might take on a different color. It’s all very reckless to predict.

What I’m trying to say, though, is that the stakes are big and weird for this fight. If Diaz loses, a third fight with McGregor has to take place at some point (unless McGregor suddenly deems it unnecessary). If Diaz wins, it’s very likely over.

It makes you want to appreciate things as they stand a little bit, as it’s one of the most fleetingest of fleeting times in UFC history. The contrast of personalities and styles in a moment where such things stand out so thoroughly, this moment when Diaz has both created his opportunity and capitalized on that opportunity, when he trumped the greatest talker in the fight game with defiant middle fingers, proving that Stockton was immune to the most refined psychological games going, when you weren’t entirely sure whose redemption story had the most poetry, McGregor’s or Diaz’s…

Well, if this is it, it’s been fun.

It always is when two players at the top of their game push each other to the brink and then play on the edge. After the Wednesday press conference water-bottle fight, their factions were banned to preempt a repeat of Nashville. The tension for this fight keeps threatening to spill over. Tension in the moment, stakes be damned. That has been the crux of this impromptu rivalry. Its beauty is that nobody gave a damn about the consequences.

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