Contender Chronicles: UFC on FOX 5 Lightweight Nate Diaz
The first time I interviewed Nate Diaz (16-7) in September 2008, I drove an hour past Cesar Gracie’s Pleasant Hill, Calif. jiu-jitsu academy into downtown Stockton to meet The Ultimate Fighter season five winner. He was 23-years-old and about to headline in the octagon for the first time by completing a five-fight win streak with a split decision against Josh Neer. It would have been more convenient in Pleasant Hill, however, the Diaz’s like the we-against-the-world Stockton isolation. Less people hang around to ask questions.
Diaz deflected my inquiry by continually insisting his older brother Nick Diaz should do the talking. It was a sign of reverence for Nick being the veteran that trained him and helped pave the way for his own success. It was mostly avoidance though.
It started with the location. They set the interview so I had to drive two hours to Stockton through rush hour traffic—a route they know well since they plan their Pleasant Hill training schedule around beating it—to meet at 8p.m. Then I had to wait until after practice to talk to him. Four hours of training later, I passed all the tests of patience Diaz’s camp laid out meant to ensure they exhausted every opportunity to escape the interview.
After handling the conversation professionally despite his reluctance, Diaz closed up Torres’ Pacific Coast Martial Arts with his Team Stockton training partners and headed home. He thanked me for my time without any wink-nod to the 10-minute talk to eight-hour wait ratio. Walking to my car, a kid zipped past on a bicycle. Diaz teased for me to watch out here—people are up to no good.
That’s the thing about a place like Stockton, the largest bankrupt city in the U.S. You never know what to think. Is that a kid on a bike or the catalyst to turn the naïve into victims?
Diaz’s up-down 6-3 initial run at lightweight followed by 2-2 trip to welterweight demonstrated tons of promise yet wasn’t the neatly packaged ascent fight fans demand from young contenders coming onto the scene with double-barrel middle fingers. Prior to Diaz’s current three-fight win streak versus former PRIDE champion Takanori Gomi, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Jim Miller, it seemed people didn’t know what to think about Diaz. Is this kid an elite level fighter like he was touted to be or is he a victim of lightweight’s shark tank division?
Now the 27-year-old facing off with UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson (17-2) at the Key Arena in Seattle, Wash. Saturday night for UFC on FOX 5’s main event leaves no doubt about the Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu black belt. He’s the best lightweight contender in octagon history.
That’s not to disrespect the two most decorated lightweights in UFC history, B.J. Penn and Frankie Edgar, they just didn’t have the well-documented momentum for their successful championship bids that Diaz currently holds.
Penn challenged for the belt twice before actually seizing it six years after initially trying for it. “The Prodigy” had to wait for Sean Sherk, the first to claim the UFC’s reinstated lightweight belt after Penn’s failures to become champ and contract disputes helped disappear the division, to vacate the title due to a steroid suspension before Penn captured the crown. Edgar, who tied Penn’s UFC lightweight record three title defenses (and beat Penn twice), came to his first championship bout straight from a preliminary bout victory against Matt Veach. Kimbo Slice got better billing than Edgar the night “The Answer” became no. 1 contender in December 2009. Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez simply weren’t believable threats the way Diaz has emerged to be.
Diaz entering the first UFC lightweight title fight to appear free on FOX has the benefit of a very visible, thrilling three-fight win streak to usher in his grab for the gold, which included headlining a FOX card in his last outing. With five Submission of the Night bonuses and five Fight of the Night bonuses, Diaz’s five year road through the UFC is the investment bosses Dana White and the Fertitta bros. gleefully make in fighters they believe can hold the belt one day—a titleholder that can sell marquee tickets, a distinction that only Penn has really substantiated in the division.
The 16 months Diaz needed to get to this moment through Gomi, the first champion on his record (UFC 135’s Submission of the Night), Cerrone (UFC 141’s Fight of the Night) and Miller (UFC on Fox 3’s Submission of the Night) set the Stockton native up with $215,000 in award bonus cash to invest in his camp for this UFC title bout. That is a tangible monetary value explaining Diaz’s star potential. Training in a stable of Strikeforce champions Nick Diaz, Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields, Diaz has the opportunity to be the first UFC champion to represent his camp—a nod to his world-class credentials in addition to draw power.
Nate Diaz’s appeal is the same as his brother Nick’s. Fight fans want to see the Diaz bros. because they are fighters, and more importantly, rags-to-riches fighters. In a sport celebrating college wrestlers, there’s something innately magnetic about competitors observes believe had no choice but to fight for everything, especially in America.
It’s romanticism that anyone chooses to do something like fighting when it’s so prone to chewing up participants and spitting them out without remorse. The practicality boxing preaches is fighting does the choosing. The only choice for born fighters is to die with fame and championships from fighting or die because fighting was done in the wrong avenues.
That’s the prize component of the Diaz’s bros. allure. Everything beyond the fight—every interview, every camera—is ridiculous pageantry celebrating the very violence they are asked to reject professionally despite having to give their lives over to it entirely to reach the sport’s championship level. It’s a running joke for them. Everyone wants to pretend gloves and a betting line civilize fisticuffs. That’s just not true. Not the way they fight (see Diaz-Cerrone when Diaz lands a UFC three-round record 258 punches at an astonishing 82-perecent rate). It’s all about being the better man: more prepared, more aggressive and more durable to be a survivor, not a star. The star is the unintended consequence element for them.
If Henderson retains, the Glendale, Arizona-based fighter moves to 3-0 in title fights in 2012 and notches his second title defense. A spectacular feat from a once-defeated fighter under the Zuffa banner yet to taste to defeat in five UFC appearances. If Diaz wins, he’ll begin to write his own place in UFC title history. It’s not likely Diaz cares to hear about all the accolades because it interrupts his insular approach to combat. The only sound he listens to, for better or worse, is the sound of slapping leather. There are better sounds to lend an ear to, however, organized violence’s rhythm plays out for him like a hit single stuck in his head.
While Diaz hears that, the world will listen to the Key Arena react to his struggle to have fighting recognized as something less pristine than the gold he stands to win in Seattle.
Read “Champion Chronicles: UFC on FOX 5 Lightweight Benson Henderson” here.