Fontana: Conor McGregor wasn’t ready for weight jump

In much the same way as the mythical Icarus, Conor McGregor flew too close to the sun. In the Irishman’s case, it was a Nate Diaz rear-naked choke at UFC 196 on Saturday night in Las Vegas that melted his metaphorical wings.

McGregor, perhaps the biggest draw in combat sports today, wasn’t content with his fledgling run as undisputed UFC featherweight champion. So, the Irishman opted not to make even one defense of his crown before setting his sights on further accolades, namely the lightweight title.

Natural charisma, the gift of gab, and undeniable work ethic and athletic ability — plus the capacity to generate big bucks for himself and his employers — made it hard to say “no,” even as previous champions who mused about chasing such dreams were denied. But just 11 days away from fight night, a broken foot forced 155-pound kingpin Rafael dos Anjos to withdraw.

McGregor clearly loves to fight. He also loves to get paid and live lavishly. So he chose to stay on the card, handpicking Nate Diaz as his opponent at welterweight.

As spin doctors told it, McGregor moved up two weight classes to fight a bigger man, and a win might catapult him past lightweight into a megafight against welterweight champ Robbie Lawler.

Here’s the reality: Diaz is a large lightweight who opted against a last-minute big weight cut, but a lightweight nonetheless. Not even a former champion, nor a fighter who was a win away from a title shot at the man McGregor was scheduled to face.

The betting odds were ever in McGregor’s favor, capping at minus-400. Writers — myself included — foresaw a win for the champ in an action-packed bout.

Part of that prognostication came to pass. McGregor and Diaz put on a spectacular display in the octagon at MGM Grand Garden Arena. McGregor gained the upper hand in the first round, busting up Diaz’s right eye. Diaz, however, was not overmatched or close to being finished.

“Usually, when I fight a man in the division I am champion in, they crumble under those shots,” McGregor said post-fight. “But Nate took them very well. I think the weight allowed him to take those shots well.”

That McGregor failed to anticipate how well a bigger fighter could absorb his punishment is telling of how much thought he gave the execution of fighting up in weight. Perhaps the realization helped lead to the next round’s shift in momentum.

Diaz did not wilt. The proud native of Stockton, California, loves a good scrap. Like something out of “The Walking Dead,” he continued toward McGregor. It paid off, as Diaz stumbled him with a left and kept at it, never letting McGregor get his feet back under him.

In an uncharacteristic move, the Irishman went for a sloppy takedown after entering what he later referred to as “panic mode.” That gave Diaz the opportunity to win the scramble — one of his greatest strengths — and cinch in the choke to get a tapout at 4:12 of the second frame.

And so fell the UFC’s Icarus into the sea of haters. Pound-for-pound staples Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson trolled McGregor over a perceived dis. Jose Aldo, the man McGregor knocked out in 13 seconds just three months ago to claim his featherweight crown, tweeted, “Your fairy tale is over.” Even dos Anjos, the man originally set for the main event Saturday, cautioned on Twitter, “This is not feather weight.”

To his credit, McGregor digested his slice of humble pie with aplomb. He even produced an on-the-nose retort for Aldo, who turned down a short-notice rematch despite no disclosed injuries.

“He said anytime, any place, anywhere. And then it wasn’t anytime, any place, anywhere,” McGregor said at the post-fight news conference. “Now, another man gets a victory over me and he celebrates it. That’s the sign of a loser.”

Why all the ill will from fellow top fighters? It’s the idea that McGregor jumped the line.

Yes, the Irishman holds wins over Aldo, Chad Mendes and Max Holloway — three of the top five contenders at featherweight. But Aldo realistically deserved a rematch after a 10-year unbeaten run — McGregor admitted as much after Saturday’s loss. Frankie Edgar, who once lorded as champion over the same lightweight division McGregor sought to conquer, has a strong case after he knocked out Mendes in December for his fifth consecutive win. Featherweight is far from cleaned out.

Then there’s the fact that the highest-ranked current lightweight McGregor had defeated was No. 10 (13 in my rankings to release Monday) Dustin Poirier — in a bout contested at featherweight 18 months ago. He had never faced Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis or Eddie Alvarez — high-ranked lightweights who lobbied publicly last week to face McGregor on short notice. In other words, the featherweight champion has proved next to nothing as a lightweight.

Technically, he still hasn’t. But Saturday’s result suggests chasing the welterweight title is a pipe dream, and the lightweight belt is in no dangers of heading to Ireland in the near future.

Instead, McGregor will have to settle for making million-dollar paydays while picking fights against men his own size. That’s better than Icarus ever got.