Having covered this sport for over a decade, I've had the privilege of watching UFC make stars, just as I've had the privilege of watching stars make UFC.
It's a two-way street.
But stars are a dime a dozen in the world of
sports prizefighting. When one burns out, another flares up to take its place.
Brock Lesnar came and sold a shitload of pay-per-views, then got a tummy ache -- as well as a couple of shots to the dome -- and boarded the first trolley back to the neighborhood of make believe. Georges St. Pierre ruled the welterweight kingdom for over six years, but da preshure of da yew-eff-see make him take da tyme off. Even the mighty Ronda Rousey skipped town when the ball didn't roll her way.
Not to worry, Conor McGregor is here to pick up where she left off.
"Notorious" is the next big thing in combat sports. He moves the needle, shuts down entire countries, and gets Hollywood A-listers to come and watch him fight. That's why division integrity is an anachronism in today's world of money first, merit second MMA.
So too, is UFC 196 headliner Nate Diaz.
Diaz isn't a star, Diaz -- like his older brother Nick -- is a fighter. Stars can be manufactured, fighters cannot. That's because they fight from sunrise to sundown, not just when the cage door closes in "Sin City." Sometimes against themselves, sometimes against other people.
And sometimes, fuck it, just for fun.
Suggesting that McGregor is a star and not a fighter is not meant to imply that he's not a skilled martial artist, or a lethal technician for the 15 or 25 minutes he's summoned every few months. "Notorious" is both, as well as an exceptional athlete.
His list of featherweight victims speaks for itself.
But like St. Pierre and Rousey before him, McGregor is as much a businessman as he is a face puncher and knows how (and more importantly when) to play the game. Diaz, for all his bravado, still does not. Or maybe he does and just refuses, which would be hard to accept from a fighter nearly nine years into his UFC career.
"Conor McGregor's been saying all the same shit that I've been saying for the last five years and the UFC is pushing that," Diaz told reporters back in December. "And then when I say some shit like that, they're like 'put him on the end of the year card.'"
Frank Sinatra once said the best revenge was massive success, and Diaz now has a chance to punish UFC for its recurring sins -- some real, some imagined -- in the aftermath of his career-defining win at The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 5 finale way back in 2007.
It probably won't happen.
For Diaz to upset McGregor in the UFC 196 main event, which takes place this Sat. night (March 5, 2016) in Las Vegas, Nevada, he would be required to implement a winning gameplan. That means protecting the lead leg, working the wall-and-stall, and trying to get the fight to the ground for a submission opportunity.
That doesn't sound like any Diaz fight I've seen over the past few years.
The irony is that he may end up a winner regardless. I don't expect him to prevail this weekend in "Sin City," but let's face it, McGregor has set the bar so unbelievably high -- even for him -- that he could be one loss away from having it all come tumbling down around him.
Like UFC President Dana White once said, "You're one punch away from being worth zero."
Diaz, on the other hand, is likely to keep plugging along. Primarily because his career was built on being a fighter, not a star, and fighters can afford to lose. Every time there's been a changing of the guard, Diaz managed to hang on and bubble back up to the surface. In fact, he enters UFC 196 ranked No. 5 in the world.
Translated into Diaz-speak? "I'm still here, motherfucker."