There are some people who start competing in mixed martial arts because they want to test themselves. They want to be the best in the world. There are others who fall into the sport because they like fighting, not competing. They really just want to fight.
Recently, old footage has surfaced online of a skinny 16-year-old Nate Diaz competing on the mats against an adult. Diaz, with infamous “Stockton Slaps” and all, managed to submit the 40-odd-year-old man in a contest where the rules were not exactly clear. The footage, however, is the best reflection of how Diaz has been for the vast majority of his career. He’s a fighter.
As obvious as that sounds, Diaz is a different breed of animal compared to the typical mixed martial artist. The very thought of the “art” side of things doesn’t even register with Diaz when he’s inside the cage. He’s a fighter. No matter what, he knows that he’s there to fight. He always has known this.
At the the age of 19, Diaz made his professional MMA debut at WEC 12. He walked away with a submission victory, the first of what would become many in his career. His willingness to fight anybody and everybody has always been evident, right from the humble beginnings of his UFC career inside a secluded house in Las Vegas.
The fifth season of the UFC’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter featured a cast of 16 lightweights coached by UFC legends B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver. These fighters were competing for a “lucrative” six-figure contract with the UFC. Among the cast of hopefuls stood a 21-year-old Diaz, who was entering the series with just two years of professional experience and a record of 5-2. His two career losses had come at the hands of veterans with years of experience.
Diaz impressed in the series, winning all three of his bouts on the show by way of submission and then later going on to defeat Manny Gamburyan by way of TKO in the co-main event of the show’s finale. For Diaz, this was the start of something big. His career in the UFC got off to a flying start with five straight victories. He was fighting and winning, but he wasn’t really making that good of a living out of the time he spent inside the Octagon.
Over the course of the three years from 2009 until 2012, he suffered back-to-back losses on two separate occasions and made a move from the lightweight division to the welterweight ranks. Diaz took on all challengers, and did so in his usual exciting style. He talked the talk and, for the most part, he walked the walk, even when he didn’t come away with the win.
After an unsuccessful stint at 170 pounds, Diaz’s returned to lightweight and secured a title shot on the back of three straight victories. His UFC contract was renewed along the way. After proving unsuccessful in his title shot and then suffering a subsequent TKO loss, Diaz had a lot to ponder. He returned to the win column by defeating Gray Maynard in the very first round of their December 2013 bout. Following the fight, Diaz took a long break, although it was not all by his choosing.
Following the public announcement of Diaz’s displeasure with his newly signed UFC contract, UFC President Dana White came out and said that Diaz wasn’t a “needle mover” after losing two of his last three fights. White used those fights to justify why Diaz wasn’t going to be getting a higher rate of remuneration for his efforts inside the cage. With seven years and just under 20 fights in the UFC, Diaz was told that he wasn’t someone the company considered a major player. He was told he wasn’t a fighter that fans were watching in droves. At the time, Diaz had 11 post-fight bonuses to his name, but that apparently wasn’t enough. He didn’t demand the premium in his contract. It was as simple as that.
The falling out happened just after Diaz had signed the long-term deal with the promotion. You could call it a case of buyer’s remorse. Diaz had a history of just being happy to fight anyone, anywhere, for whatever the company thought he should be paid. He signed the contract like it was just another day at the office. He did have his intentions of trying to renegotiate during the course of the eight-fight deal, but the reality was that this was never going to happen.
On a whim — and to secure a title shot against Benson Henderson, the reigning lightweight champion at the time — Diaz signed his life away. It was a decision he would live to regret two years later. Eventually, he came to terms with the UFC. However, it was evident that Diaz wasn’t happy. Diaz missed weight for his December 2014 bout with Rafael dos Anjos, and his heart just wasn’t in the fight.
There really was a lot for Diaz to think about.
In 2015, Diaz, fresh off his first victory in two years in which he defeated Michael Johnson by unanimous decision at UFC on Fox 17, put a play in motion that would lead to the biggest fight of his career. With a heavily censored rant, he made his intentions clear.
“Conor McGregor, you’re taking everything I worked for, motherfucker,” Diaz beamed out with Joe Rogan by his side. “I’m going to fight your fucking ass. You know what’s the real fight, what the real money fight is. It’s me, not these clowns that you already punked at the press conference. Nobody wants to see that. You know you beat them already. That’s the easy fight. You want that real shit right here.”
At the time, it didn’t seem like the pair would ever cross paths. So many fighters had been calling out McGregor, looking at him as nothing more than a payday and a ticket to a whole lot of promotion from the UFC. Diaz was just another name on a long list of hungry fighters.
That is, until the aforementioned dos Anjos offered a lifeline.
“Motherfucker, I’m the show!”
The 11 days of media prior to UFC 196 offered up the most attention that Diaz had ever endured. Questions were thrown at him left and right. During joint media commitments with McGregor, the pair engaged in a number of epic back-and-forth battles. It had turned into the fight that should have always been, with the prospect of McGregor being a dual UFC titleholder now all but forgotten.
The fans, the media and the fighters were eating up the newfound rivalry. However, when Diaz took the short-notice opportunity to compete in a welterweight bout against the UFC’s featherweight champion — and arguably the company’s biggest drawcard — there were a lot of people that wrote him off.
McGregor had been preparing for the biggest fight of his career, a lightweight championship bout against the dominant dos Anjos. It was one of the most anticipated fights of the year, but the fight fell apart on the home stretch. With just over two weeks until the event was set to take place, dos Anjos suffered a broken foot. The UFC was left scrambling to find an opponent.
After José Aldo and Frankie Edgar both declined the fight for various reasons, Diaz took a chance on short notice to step inside the cage with McGregor, who had worked through a full fight camp. Diaz, fresh off a few days of partying, was preparing himself for what was set to be the biggest paycheck he had ever seen in his fighting career.
Diaz owes a lot to dos Anjos. The Brazilian’s misfortune took Diaz from netting a reported $40,000 in base salary three months earlier, to being paid more than 10 times that. The fight broke records and took Diaz’s stock to a whole new height. He had become the first and only man to defeat McGregor in the UFC cage.
Diaz’s prowess on the ground proved to be too much for McGregor. Fans, analysts and peers from all around the world were gobsmacked by what had transpired. Diaz, however, wasn’t.
“I’m not surprised, motherfuckers!”
These famous words were uttered after Diaz defeated McGregor in the second round of their UFC 196 bout. They can now be seen on a mural in the city of Stockton, Calif.
The six-figure contract Diaz won in 2007 pales in comparison to the reported $2 million salary he netted in the UFC 202 rematch with McGregor. Diaz thought his life was set when he was crowned the winner of The Ultimate Fighter. He really thought he was going to be set for life. It took almost 10 more years for that to actually eventuate. Now, finally, Diaz is at his peak when it comes to fighter worth.
It didn’t take long for Diaz to agree to a rematch with McGregor. The bout was more for McGregor’s benefit — to construct the narrative of avenging a loss and ensuring that his successful journey in the UFC wasn’t going to be derailed. It was the fight McGregor just wasn’t going to let go. After a somewhat bizarre contract dispute of the Irishman’s own, the fight was made. UFC 202 was set to be another record-breaking show.
In what turned out to be a controversial fight, McGregor walked away with a majority decision victory. Many fans and pundits had the impression that Diaz had done enough to win the fight, but when a fight with numerous close rounds is left to be decided by the judges, anything can happen. In his post-fight interview, Diaz said he wanted “number three.” With those simple words, Diaz has left the UFC with a proposition from which the company could certainly benefit.
Diaz also revealed in his post-fight interview with Rogan that he went into the UFC 202 bout sporting some injuries that impacted his performance. Diaz’s boxing coach, Richard Perez, shed some light on what this meant for Diaz in the lead-up to the highly anticipated rematch in an interview with Submission Radio.
“The knee was bad and the ribs were bad, because when he hurt his knee, he couldn’t run. So then when it got a little better, he wanted to start sparring, and he’s not in shape because he wasn’t really doing much,” Perez said. “You know, you work on a little bit of mitts and you work a little bit of sparring and he got better and better. And then when he got [Alan] Sanchez in there, he went a good four hard rounds and he was doing real good, but he was getting a little tired, and that’s when Sanchez caught him in the rib and that then put him out there for a while. So he can’t back out of the fight.
“I know that if he wouldn’t have been injured, McGregor would have gotten stopped again and Nathan wouldn’t have got hit as much as he did in that first round. Because he was really sharp. He was sparring with guys McGregor’s size, really good boxers, and he was whooping on them. So that’s why I knew it wouldn’t happen that way. But it did, and it came out as the best fight of the night. But he got cut, you know, and if there would have been another 30 seconds, he would have tapped him out, cause McGregor was ready to go anyway.”
Disclosing an injury after a loss, especially one as high profile as Diaz’s injury, isn’t typically the best way to handle a loss. What it does in this case, though, is to pose some questions for the way the fight played out. Could a 100 percent healthy Diaz have handed McGregor the same fate as when they first met? Without the evident damage sustained by Diaz, would the scorecards still read the same? Most importantly, when are we going to see the rubber match?
No matter how much the fans want to see McGregor defend his featherweight title, the truth is that a trilogy match between he and Diaz is likely to surface at some point in the near future. Not only will the fighters finally put the rivalry to bed, but the UFC will have another crack at making bank. Both times Diaz and McGregor met, the box office had a hefty night. At UFC 196, the total live gate was reported at $8 million. For UFC 202, it was reported at $18 million. As far as gate revenue goes, the two events ranked in the top three for the highest in 2016, and among the top five of all time for the promotion.
It’s unlikely that Diaz’s next bout will be opposite the charismatic Irishman. It’s even less likely Diaz accepts just anybody in his next UFC outing. Perez offered his own insight into what the UFC should do next when it comes to matching Diaz, and it’s not surprising to say the least.
“You know and I know and the media knows that it was such an awesome fight. I mean, it was like a storm. Everybody’s telling me, ‘I wanna see that again,’” said Perez. “They want to see that again. That’s gonna be the most big payday for both of them, and for the business, the new UFC people that own it. So, if they’re smart enough, they would do it. They will set that up. There’s nobody else.
“If Nathan goes and fights B.J. Penn or Georges St-Pierre or anyone like that, or even if McGregor [fights them], that’s not gonna be a money-maker, because those guys haven’t fought in a long time and they’re not action fighters like Nathan fighting McGregor. If anything, Georges St-Pierre will take him to the ground and just hold him and just wrestle him around. And then he’ll probably beat him up, because McGregor’s not good on the ground — so [St-Pierre will] probably tap him out.
“If I was the UFC owner, I would say let’s do number three again. After that, [McGregor] can go back to 145 [pounds] if he wants, or 155. That’s where they’re fighting at, 155 — which is good if they fight at 155, because if Nathan wins, he can go for the belt. But that’s not what he wants. Just like McGregor, they want the money. They want paydays.”
Diaz’s future certainly lies within the lightweight division, with welterweight all but reserved for his rivalry with the UFC’s featherweight champion. Diaz has reached heights that probably weren’t expected from him after he won the fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter. This year has showed the UFC that Diaz is in the forefront of the minds of the fans. He may close out his UFC career without holding a championship belt, but that’s not to say he won’t be remembered. Prize fighting isn’t just about belts. It’s about a fighter making the most of the business opportunities placed in front of them. Win, lose or draw, an exciting fighter is going to be remembered.
No matter how mixed martial arts is interpreted, it comes down to entertainment. Diaz has earned 15 post-fight bonuses throughout his UFC career, the most of any fighter in the promotion’s history aside from fellow TUF alum Joe Lauzon, who shares this record with Diaz.
With an overwhelming willingness to sell a fight and a fan-friendly fighting style, Diaz can and will always bring entertainment with him to every fight.
He always has.