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That could get you in trouble at times, but Diaz has never shown any desire to follow a particular path in his professional career. Yeah, he wants to make money just like the next guy, but he’s been willing to shoot himself in the foot, if only to prove that what really matters at the end of the day is your performance. And whether you stand for or against mixed martial arts’ version of antihero, you will agree that he always performs when the lights hit him in the Octagon.
“Every time you watch Nick Diaz, you’re about to see a fight and you can’t guarantee that with all these matches,” said Diaz’ friend and longtime training partner Gilbert Melendez, the current Strikeforce lightweight champion. “A lot of people treat this as a sparring session or they could be a little boring, but when you see Nick Diaz, he’s there to fight and you’re gonna see a full-on exciting fight. The guy comes at you to fight; not to win on the scorecards and not to win the points, but to come out and finish the fight. He’ll test your heart, he’ll test your chin, and he’ll test everything about you. If you try to stall him out, he’ll talk you into a fight. He’ll tell you ‘stop being a sissy, fight me.’ I think the other thing about Nick Diaz is that he’s very bold and blunt, and he’s consistent. A lot of people get frustrated with a lot of the things he says, but most people wish they had the guts to be as honest as he is.”
Honesty is a dirty word to most professional athletes, and at times you can understand why. You’ve got teammates and coaching staffs to worry about, image issues to protect, and endorsement deals to keep intact. In an individual sport like MMA, there is a bit more in the way of “real talk,” but no one has taken it to the level of Diaz. Yet the best part of this aspect of his personality is that this is who he is. He’s not playing a character for the cameras.
The first time I spoke to him was in 2005, shortly before his fight with then-unbeaten Ultimate Fighter winner Diego Sanchez at the TUF2 finale in Las Vegas. At the time, Diaz was 4-1 in the UFC, with finishes of Jeremy Jackson, Robbie Lawler, Drew Fickett, and Koji Oishi sandwiching a lone split decision loss to Karo Parisyan. Diaz, looking to close in on a shot at Matt Hughes’ welterweight title, didn’t think a victory over the upstart Sanchez would move him any closer to that goal, but with it being a nationally televised bout on Spike TV, he took the fight. Then again, he took every fight because that’s what he did. And despite the athletic gifts that were made evident over the years, he never saw himself as being like his peers when it came to natural talent. He was a fighter, not an athlete.
“My best way to say it is that most good athletes are just that – good athletes,” he explained back in 2005. “They were brought up being athletes; they had somebody pushing them, encouraging them, taking them to practice – whether they were playing football, doing swimming, boxing or wrestling. That takes a lot of money and positive encouragement. That’s stuff people like me don’t get. It doesn’t work like that.”
“All the athleticism that I have, it’s because of me,” Diaz continued. “I didn’t even have a dad around. I didn’t have a dad to put me in some wrestling camp, and I didn’t have aunts and uncles coming around to help me out. My mom, she’s been working at Lyon’s restaurant in Lodi for like 25 years. She took me to swimming practice when I was younger. For some reason she stuck me in swimming, and I’d be trying to run off and cut practice, and she’d drag me back to practice just so I did something.”
Eventually, Diaz would find jiu-jitsu, and then mixed martial arts. He turned pro in August of 2001 with a first round submission of Mike Wick, and two years later he was in the UFC. By late-2005, Sanchez was the only obstacle standing between him and the next level in the organization, and with so much on the line, Diaz’ usual intensity ramped up ten-fold.
Backstage at the Hard Rock that night, with only a black curtain separating the two camps, Diaz and Sanchez began jawing at each other, with the fight almost kicking off before fans even got a glimpse of the two combatants. Consider that in 2005, many veterans of the sport believed that anyone coming off the new Spike TV reality show weren’t “real” fighters, so to Diaz, Sanchez represented everything he was fighting against.
“It wasn’t so easy, especially starting out,” Diaz admitted back then. “I fought all hard guys and I didn’t have ten people coaching, training, and feeding me. I had to start out learning how to eat right, all by myself with nobody telling me how or by reading any books. I learned just by training so hard and feeling like garbage when you do the wrong thing.”
“This is me and this is what I do,” he continued. “I don’t have any fallback plans like the rest of these people. If Diego Sanchez starts doing real bad at this, and he goes ahead and quits, he’s gonna have something else he’s doing. He’ll go back to school or do something. Let me tell you, I ain’t going back to school.”
When the dust settled, Sanchez won the fight against Diaz that night via unanimous decision. But in a year of memorable battles (including the first bout between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar and the rematch between Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg), Sanchez-Diaz earned its place among the best of 2005. As I wrote in a year-end piece on the best fights of that 12 month period, “After (Rashad) Evans - (Brad) Imes and (Joe) Stevenson - (Luke) Cummo, Diego Sanchez and Nick Diaz had a pair of tough acts to follow, but they delivered with a connoisseur’s treat – a battle of bad blood and jiu-jitsu that saw Sanchez prove that he belongs among the contenders at 170 pounds, while Diaz showed MMA fans that you don’t need to be on top to have an effective ground attack. And though the judges’ scores of 30-27 would make observers think this match was a blowout, it was anything but that.”
Diaz stumbled after the loss, losing consecutive bouts to Joe Riggs and Sean Sherk before a win outside the Octagon against Ray Steinbeiss put him back on track to finish out his UFC stint with wins over Josh Neer and Gleison Tibau.
So as 2007 dawned, the scouting report on Diaz was that he was talented, but flawed; good, but not good enough to win at the next level. Yet the world would get to know a new Nick Diaz over the ensuing four years, one who kept true to himself outside of competition, but who went to the woodshed and elevated his game inside of it.
The first revelation was his win over Takanori Gomi in a 2007 PRIDE battle in Las Vegas. The result was later overturned to a no contest when Diaz tested positive for marijuana after the fight, but anyone who saw the fight knew who the winner was and whose stock rose significantly, and it wasn’t Gomi.
After an EliteXC win over Mike Aina and a cut-induced TKO loss to KJ Noons, Diaz went on a tear that hasn’t subsided yet. He’s won 10 in a row, earned the Strikeforce welterweight title, and has defeated Noons, Paul Daley, Frank Shamrock, Scott Smith, “Mach” Sakurai, and Evangelista Santos along the way. Nine of those 10 wins were finished before the final bell, and with his busy striking attack, Cesar Gracie black belt level submission game, and undeniable toughness, Diaz went from solid B-level fighter to one of the best in the game. As Melendez points out, his friend’s improvement may be pegged to a long adjustment to the intricacies of the professional fight game.
“Obviously his boxing game has just become phenomenal,” explains Melendez. “He used to know how to throw a lot of strikes, but now he knows how to slip punches better, and he’s so much better tactically. He knows how to block in the pocket, he can fight outside the pocket, he can make you feel anxiety and he can come at you, and his jiu-jitsu game has just evolved even more. He stays on top of his game the whole time and I think the main thing about him now is that he fights his fight. Before, he would fight to try to play the game with the scorecards or try to figure it out because these fights have time limits. He’s the type of the guy that if it was a fight to the death, Nick or (brother) Nate Diaz would win every time, but it’s not to the death, it’s to the scorecards, so I think he had a lot of time to adjust to winning a fight in 15 minutes, and now he’s adjusted. He’s putting people away in one round because he knows how to take them to that place they don’t want to go. And he’s willing to go there.”
What Diaz hasn’t been willing to do is change, and when he lost a lucrative and perhaps life-altering title shot against UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre at UFC 137 later this month after no-showing press conferences in Toronto and Las Vegas, he hurt himself on the business front yet again. By the same token, his stance may have earned him even more fans as the rebel who is willing to take a proverbial bullet to stick to his guns.
“Sometimes it can get a negative reaction, but in the long run, just being consistent and real a hundred percent, at the end of the day if you can keep that track record, there’s no better compliment you can get from someone than saying ‘hey man, this guy’s for real.’ And that’s what Nick is,” said Melendez. “At times it might give him a little bump in the road, like this time with the miscommunication and everything, but for me, as a friend, I think that if he continues to keep it real one hundred percent, it will be a positive in the future.”
Diaz would lose in a lot of ways, financially and otherwise, when he was dropped from the St-Pierre fight, but he also found a way to land on his feet when he was put into the UFC 137 main event slot against former two division world champion BJ Penn. Why, you may ask, after all the UFC’s plans for a GSP-Diaz bout went up in smoke? Well, it may have to do with the fact that for whatever quirks Diaz has in terms of showing up to media events on time, or at all, or his lack of accessibility at times (well, most of the time), once you do catch him, he’s not at all what you would expect from the reputation he’s had all these years. Is he like most of his peers? No. But he doesn’t hide from who he is either. Nick Diaz is true to himself, and if he simply wants to let his fighting speak for itself, so be it, because you can’t help but appreciate the fact that, for him, this isn’t a sport, and from the first time I spoke to him nearly six years ago, he made that clear.
This is war.
“I just think in my head that the guy that I’m fighting had it easy,” said Diaz in 2005. “They haven’t been where I’ve been and they’re not as crazy as I am and that’s the way it is. You’re just not. I know you’re not. I know it. That’s the way I think. I know you’re not trying to get up out of this hell hole. You’re just trying to be the best that you can be. I’m gonna come out of my hell hole and I’m gonna beat you.”