Conor McGregor has had a groundbreaking year. Well… when is this not true? Even still, 2016 stood out from the rest, and although I have no doubt McGregor will continue to flourish, this is going to be a pretty hard year to top. At least from a historic perspective.
The most recent accomplishment was the first of it’s kind. There have been a handful of champions who have held a belt in different divisions, but never simultaneously. That is, until UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden. Conor McGregor stepped into the Octagon at 155 pounds to challenge UFC Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez. It only took him a round and a half to dispose of the champ with punches, earning him a title in two separate weight classes at the same time.
With a belt on one shoulder and a belt on the other, Conor replicated his accomplishment from Cage Warriors. Only this time, it was on the biggest stage MMA has to offer. Now with a baby on the way, he has temporarily sidelined himself, making the world wait for his historic return. Who he will fight next is still unknown. But my pick is a rivalry that began in 2016, thus solidifying Conor McGregor as the 2016 Story of the Year.
I, of course, am referring to Nate Diaz. An athlete’s star power is only as valuable as his rivalries. The trash talk and the dominance helps, but every hero needs his heel. Throughout Conor’s meteoric rise through the rankings, he’s exchanged words with practically every fighter on the roster. He’s had beefs before a fight and beefs after. Nobody really stuck.
Many thought former featherweight king Jose Aldo may be his big test. Conor disposed of Aldo in 13 seconds. He was then booked to face Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 196. This was supposed to be the moment that made him a two-way champion. Instead, an RDA injury led to an opponent switch that likely played out even better for the Irishman. Well… eventually.
Enter Nate Diaz.
Stylistically, Nate may be toughest test for a guy like Conor. Great jiu-jitsu paired with outstanding cardio and arguably the best chin in MMA. Plus, he’s got a significant size advantage. This is a nightmare matchup for a striking specialist and knockout artist.
Sure enough, he fell short. After winning the first round, he began to tire, got caught with some hard shots, went for a desperation takedown, and got submitted. But in true Notorioius fashion, he demanded an instant rematch to undo his defeat. Less than six months later, he was back in the cage with Mr. Diaz. The rematch was insanely close – my pick for Fight of the Year – with McGregor edging out his new rival and setting records in the process.
The story lines are endless and the intrigue is unparalleled. Whether these two are exchanging jabs in the Octagon or at a press conference, there’s a certain x-factor to their dynamic that makes them impossible to ignore.
With the tiebreaker looming – this time with the championship on the line – it’s difficult to imagine a 2017 matchup that could top McGregor vs. Diaz III. And though Conor has always drawn a massive crowd, he’s never had a marquee opponent quite like Nate Diaz. For that reason, despite a loss, 2016 was the year of McGregor once more.
All hail the champ champ.
Honorable Mention: The Legalization of MMA in New York
Honorable Mention: USADA’s Impact on the Landscape of MMA