In less than two weeks, the biggest opportunity of Nate Diaz's fighting career will come front and center.
The Stockton, Calif., product will step into the Octagon with current lightweight champion Benson Henderson in the main event of UFC on Fox 5 in Seattle. He will attempt to capitalize on a hard-earned and long-awaited title shot, which has come as the result of a blistering tear through one of the organization's most competitive divisions.
Over a three-fight run that has included dominant victories over Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller, Diaz has become the man to beat at 155 pounds. The victory over Miller at UFC on Fox 3 earned the younger Diaz brother the next shot at the lightweight strap on Dec. 8, and the meeting with Henderson is one of the year's most anticipated fights.
For Diaz, the bout has the potential to be the crowning moment of a career that has experienced its fair share of twists and turns, and winning the title would cap one of the most impressive about-faces in UFC history.
No Answers to Be Found at Welterweight
Nearly two years ago, Diaz teetered on the cusp of irrelevancy.
His decision to try his hand in the welterweight division was not producing significant results. Granted, he found victory in his first two efforts against seasoned veterans and journeymen Rory Markham and Marcus Davis, but when it came time to jump into the flow of contention, Diaz saw his momentum brought to a halt.
A tough outing against Dong Hyun Kim handed the 27-year-old his first loss in the 170-pound weight class, but it was his next bout which would turn the tide.
For the better part of three rounds, Diaz was rag-dolled by rising prospect Rory MacDonald at UFC 129 as the young Canadian controlled, suplexed and outworked his counterpart, en route to a lopsided, unanimous decision victory.
In the aftermath of the fight, the typically brash Diaz persona appeared deflated, as he had no answer for what MacDonald brought to the table. It was a difficult loss for Diaz, not only because it was his second consecutive, but because it came in a fashion with which he wasn't used to dealing.
Throughout his young career, Diaz had certainly been on the losing side of the judges' cards in previous efforts, but he had never been dominated in the fashion in which MacDonald dominated him.
It was time for Diaz to make a decision, and rerouting his course back into lightweight waters proved to be a brilliant one.
Rise to the Top of the Division
In his return bout in the 155-pound weight class, Diaz faced Japanese bomber Takanori Gomi. "The Fireball Kid" had been unable to gain any footing under the UFC banner, and their bout at UFC 135 appeared to be a make-or-break point for both fighters.
Unfortunately for Gomi, the new and improved version of Diaz that appeared in Denver proved far too much for the former Pride star to handle. The season-five TUF winner took the action to Gomi's wheelhouse, as he chose to stand and trade, rocking the Japanese fighter to the head and body. Once the action hit the ground, it was just a matter of time, as Diaz hit a slick transition from triangle to armbar to secure the victory.
It was the caliber of performance that made the MMA world sit up and take notice. By no means would anyone consider Gomi an easy out, and Diaz completely steamrolled him in just one round of work.
While buzz began to grow around Diaz's performance at UFC 135, it would be his next showing against Donald Cerrone that would amplify the sound to a deafening level.
The matchup between Diaz and Cerrone became one of 2011's most anticipated affairs. The buildup to the fight was filled with nasty verbal exchanges, classic Diaz mean-mugging and a faceoff for the ages in which "Cowboy's" signature Stetson became the recipient of the "Stockton-swat."
It was one of the best buildups in recent memory, and when the action got underway, Diaz unleashed a storm on Cerrone. From the opening bell, Diaz used his range to back Cerrone against the cage and batter him from the outside. Using nasty combinations, Diaz snapped the Colorado native's head back repeatedly, leaving Cerrone's face marked and bleeding at the end of Round 1.
It would be a trend repeated over the next two frames, as Diaz imposed his will on a fading opponent.
The only reprieve Cerrone could offer came through sweeping leg kicks that put Diaz on his back, but an unwillingness to go to the mat with the Cesar Gracie student allowed Diaz to get back to his feet and continue the onslaught.
When the final bell sounded, the judges' cards read a unanimous decision for Diaz, and he immediately rose into title contention.
With Benson Henderson and Frankie Edgar sorting out their situation in the championship tier of the division, Diaz found himself in the position to face fellow contender Jim Miller in his next outing. The victory over Cerrone made a strong case for a title shot, but a win over the gritty Miller would cement his place in the rankings.
Once again, Diaz proved his point in impressive fashion.
Following nearly two rounds in which Miller had zero answers to Diaz's striking attack, the AMA-trained fighter attempted to take the action to the canvas late in the second frame. In the process of doing so, Diaz caught a guillotine choke and ultimately forced the black belt to tap.
It was his third consecutive victory over quality opposition, and following his performance in New Jersey, UFC president Dana White officially said that Diaz would get the next shot at the lightweight title.
That would put Diaz on the sidelines while Henderson and Edgar went to war in their rematch.
A Showdown with Smooth
After 10 rounds of back-and-forth competition, Henderson ultimately emerged as the undisputed lightweight champion. While there was no lack of controversy concerning both decisions, "Smooth" walked away from UFC 150 with a clean grasp of the title and a future bout with Diaz to prepare for.
The matchup between Henderson and Diaz presents several interesting angles, as both men sit on polar-opposite sides of public presentation. The former WEC champion turned UFC strap-holder takes a confident yet humble approach to competition, while Diaz makes no secret of the fact that he is coming to break you down.
Neither man has played into the pre-fight hype game thus far, but when fight week arrives and both men are in the same location, the likelihood of Diaz ratcheting up the intensity levels is fairly high.
The fight becomes all the more interesting when you look at the approaches of the two fighters from a stylistic viewpoint.
Henderson has risen to become champion behind his physical strength, unstoppable cardio and willingness to take risks. It is not uncommon to see Henderson locked in a bad position, but past oppositions' inability to keep him there has resulted in Henderson gaining tactical advantages on the ground. It has been a formula which has rarely failed the champion, and it will be interesting to see if he takes this approach in Seattle.
For Diaz, the bout with Henderson has the opportunity to be the culmination of years spent on the grindstone. When he steps into the Octagon next Saturday night, it will be his 17th appearance in just under six years in the UFC. There have been times when he has looked ready to live up to his potential, and others when he's appeared far from reaching what people have expected him to become.
Not that any of this even registers with Diaz.
He marches to the beat of his own drum, and it's a rhythm which has found an increased intensity over the past 15 months. Since making the decision to return to the lightweight division, the Cesar Gracie black belt has set the weight class on fire, and he will have the opportunity to take the next step against Henderson.
Whether or not Diaz becomes the new lightweight champion remains to be seen. But the one sure-fire guarantee is that Diaz is going to show up to fight.
And lately that has been a brand of scrap no one seems to have an answer for.
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