AP Sports Writer
LAS VEGAS — Holly Holm could have kicked back and prepared for the rematch while Ronda Rousey regroups from the beating Holm gave her four months ago.
Conor McGregor could have played it safe and waited for another title fight after Rafael Dos Anjos dropped out of their bout last week.
Instead, Holm and McGregor eagerly accepted matchups at UFC 196 that more cautious champions would have avoided.
Their hunger to fight allowed the UFC to create a blockbuster pay-per-view card on Saturday night headlined by two of its biggest stars taking unnecessary risks.
“I’m here because I’m passionate about fighting,” Holm said. “I don’t want to do anything because it’s more strategic. I just want to fight. … I told myself when I got in this sport, ‘Passion first. Everything else falls into place.’”
Holm (10-0) takes on veteran title contender Miesha Tate (17-5) for the bantamweight belt shortly before McGregor (19-2) faces hard-hitting brawler Nate Diaz (19-10) in a non-title welterweight bout — 25 pounds heavier than the usual limit for McGregor, the UFC’s featherweight king.
Neither champion needed to take the fights they’re facing, but neither betrays any sign of worry about stepping into the MGM Grand Garden Arena cage. The fans clearly appreciate it: Thousands lined up outside the arena several hours before Friday’s weigh-in for a card that ranks among the UFC’s hottest tickets in recent years.
Holm spent the past few months in a whirlwind of publicity and attention after her stunning head-kick knockout of Rousey, the most popular fighter in mixed martial arts. But when Rousey decided she couldn’t fight again until the fall, Holm agreed to a showdown with Tate, a gritty wrestler who hasn’t lost since Rousey beat her for the second time in 2013.
“I feel like this is a really tough fight for me, but what else am I supposed to be doing here?” Holm asked. “I want to fight all the girls that are the best, because that’s what makes the best victory. Obviously this is a really big challenge for me to take, and a lot of people think it was even silly.”
When Holm violently dethroned Rousey, she cleared a path for McGregor to rise atop the sport. The Irishman with a 15-fight winning streak seized that chance with both fists, winning the 145-pound title with a 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo in December.
And while Holm and Tate are willing promoters of their fight, nobody can match McGregor’s showmanship. His presence on a card guarantees huge attention and revenue when fans and cameras behold his verbal gifts, which were in sharp form at this week’s news conference.
“You’re like a gazelle,” McGregor said to Diaz. “I’m a lion in there, and I’m going to eat you alive. Your little gazelle friends are going to be staring through the cage looking at your carcass getting eaten alive, and they can do nothing. All they can say is they’re never going to cross this river again.”
Holm and Tate grinned as they watched from the stage while McGregor and Diaz lobbed insults at each other.
“They’re over here flipping each other off under the table, and Holly and I are making each other friendship bracelets,” Tate said. “I’m having a great time.”
McGregor planned to become a two-division champion this week, but Dos Anjos hurt his foot late last month. Rather than waiting for the lightweight champ, McGregor agreed to a non-title showdown with Diaz, one of the sport’s most entertaining fighters and an awfully good foil for McGregor’s verbal jousting.
“I’m certainly going to toy with the young boy,” the 27-year-old McGregor said of the 30-year-old Diaz. “I’m going to play with him. His entries and his exits, his retreats, his feints are all identical. He can’t break out of his patterns, out of his set routines, so he is very, very predictable.”
Diaz is the biggest man McGregor has ever fought, with advantages in height and reach. McGregor’s extra weight should give him added punching power, but it could also affect his quickness — not that it worries McGregor, who took on his “Mystic Mac” persona to predict that he’ll stop Diaz late in the first round.
“Skill-wise, I made a big, big jump from the (Chad) Mendes performance to the Aldo performance, but I didn’t get to show a lot of that because the fight was so quick,” McGregor said. “Part of me wants to stretch it out to show that, and to show the fans some new sequences, some new movements, some new forms of attack and defense. I just hope Nate can last.”