OK, so actually the road to UFC 202 on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas hasn't been long at all. This rivalry went from zero to 100, as they say, in a hurry.
Five months ago, McGregor was on top of the world, calling out lightweight and welterweight champs with every breath. Now he's staring down the barrel of a second consecutive loss to Diaz, who was so disgruntled with the sport and his contract in 2014, he actually requested a release from the UFC.
Mixed martial arts moves quickly, and every storyline around this rematch is a testament to that. Let's take a closer look at this welterweight rematch. Don't agree with the pick? Let me know on Twitter: @bokamotoESPN.
Nate Diaz (19-10) vs. Conor McGregor (19-3)
Odds: Diaz +115; McGregor -125
Moments before the second round of their first fight, McGregor looked across the Octagon at Diaz and said, "I can go all day. All day long."
About two minutes later, McGregor gassed. Diaz hurt him with one left hand and the whole dam broke. "Flood Diaz." McGregor tried to circle away but couldn't evade the bigger, longer man. He went to his tried-and-true left hand to back Diaz off, but that failed as well. Eventually desperation forced him to shoot the takedown.
Here are perhaps the most basic observations one can make from that fight: McGregor did very well early -- and once the tide turned, he was all but helpless.
That's worth noting because it so clearly shows how important it is for McGregor to maintain constant control of this fight. That's always true when you're talking about a fighter moving up in weight, but it's amplified here because of Diaz. You can't weather a storm on the feet and hope Diaz gasses because he doesn't gas. You can't force a takedown to buy time and clear your head because he'll choke you unconscious.
In other words, there's no safe place for McGregor if he loses control. If at any time he finds himself in trouble, it means he's in a lot of trouble.
Now don't panic, Ireland, working in McGregor's favor in all this is that he is quite good. Even taking into account the fact Diaz had no camp for the first fight, McGregor's tactics in the first eight minutes were fantastic. He repeatedly came over Diaz's jab with the left. He landed several hard counter left uppercuts. We've all come to know McGregor as this towering featherweight who aggressively mauls opponents, but he's actually a very skilled counter-striker as well.
Throughout his career, Diaz's lead leg has been vulnerable to kicks. McGregor threw effective side kicks in the first fight, and his coach called for more but they did not show up huge in his game plan. He conceded afterward he fell in love with the left hand and the lack of leg kicks is evidence of that.
On the ground, it's safe to assume Diaz holds a massive advantage. McGregor is not inept on the floor -- certain criticisms of his grappling have been, in my opinion, a bit exaggerated -- but at the same time, it's true he hasn't had to show submission defense often in the UFC. Diaz's jiu-jitsu is some of the best in the division. The canvas is not where McGregor wants to be in this fight -- ever.
Diaz didn't seem intent on taking him down in March. The one takedown he was credited for came off a McGregor body kick, which he caught. Diaz's wrestling is mostly set up out of the clinch, which I could see him trying to use a lot. If McGregor's intent is to step off the gas and pace himself, forcing him into a clinch fight against a bigger man is a good way to blow that energy again.
What is McGregor's game plan on Saturday? Is it actually a very similar approach, just with different physical preparations? Is it a complete change in character -- move in and out, leg kick, circle, score points, avoid exchanges? I expect the pace to remain high but fewer power shots. Attack that lead leg and work the body more than he did the first time.
PREDICTION: Two fights against Diaz will make McGregor a better fighter -- but a dimmer star. Diaz by fourth-round submission.
Featured undercard bouts
Anthony Johnson (21-5) vs. Glover Teixeira (25-4), light heavyweights
Teixeira has all the tools to wear out Johnson over time, but Johnson's ability to just crack a dude is second to none. It's otherworldly.
Prediction: Johnson via second-round KO
Donald Cerrone (30-7) vs. Rick Story (19-8), welterweights
Cerrone is the better fighter when it's all said and done, but at 170 pounds, with a strong ox of an opponent, Story can make this a dogfight that favors him.
Prediction: Story via third-round TKO
Cody Garbrandt (9-0) vs. Takeya Mizugaki (21-9-2), bantamweights
Garbrandt is the front-runner for breakout fighter of 2016. Mizugaki is a steely veteran who could always ruin the party. This storyline never gets old.
Prediction: Garbrandt via second-round KO
Neil Magny (18-4) vs. Lorenz Larkin (17-5), welterweights
One of the more overlooked bouts on the card. Larkin should have advantages on the feet, but Magny brings a more complete package. Close fight.
Prediction: Magny via second-round submission