A funny thing happened on the way to Montreal.
The UFC visited the freezing-cold jewel of the Quebec province on Wednesday morning for a press conference to launch ticket sales for the March 16 UFC 158 event. Headlining welterweights Georges St-Pierre and Nick Diaz, along with UFC president Dana White—himself coming off major surgery designed to combat Meniere's disease—appeared on the dais.
That Diaz appeared at all was something of a win for the UFC, given that he lost his original title shot at St-Pierre over a year ago because he failed to show up for pre-fight media obligations in Canada and the exact same type of press conference in Las Vegas.
Diaz has spent the better part of the last four or five years proclaiming his distaste for St-Pierre. He's bashed St-Pierre's conservative fighting style and consistently claimed that he, not St-Pierre, is the best fighter in the welterweight division. After beating B.J. Penn in his return to the UFC, Diaz called out St-Pierre and said the champion was afraid to fight him.
Knowing all of that, and considering all of the history between St-Pierre and Diaz, you'd expect fireworks to develop at today's press conference.
You would be wrong.
The version of Diaz that traveled to Montreal left most of his animosity for the welterweight champion back home in Stockton.
"I like my opponent," he said when asked about his long-standing ill will towards St-Pierre. "That’s why I want to fight him. I don't mean to say it like that, but he’s the No. 1 guy to beat. That's what you want. I’ve been wanting his spot. He’s got the spot. He’s the guy to beat."
The reporter pressed Diaz to elaborate, perhaps hoping to get a different, more controversial answer.
"I like him just fine," Diaz responded.
It's a weird thing, this version of Diaz, and I'm not sure I like it. He's a fighter who has developed a large and rabid cult following by breaking the rules and then giving the proverbial (and sometimes physical) middle finger to those who question his decisions. That's always been the Diaz way, and it's endeared him to plenty of fans around the world.
It also turns off plenty of people, but there's no question that even among those who believe Diaz to be immature and bad for the sport, he's still a must-watch commodity when he conducts fight week interviews and when he steps in the cage. Like a train hurtling towards a fiery explosion, you can't take your eyes off Diaz.
That fire is the main reason that anticipation is high for his fight with St-Pierre. It's certainly not because he deserves the title shot from a sporting perspective; losing your last fight and then serving a one-year suspension for a drug test failure isn't really the traditional method of securing title shots.
But Diaz was given the shot because he'd done enough to draw the ire of St-Pierre, a consummate professional who rarely has a bad thing to say about his opponents. St-Pierre was tired of the talk and tired of being disrespected, so he pleaded with White and the UFC brass for a chance to shut Diaz up, once and for all.
He got his wish. Only now, Diaz isn't talking, and that's not good for the promotional vehicle surrounding UFC 158.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not a guy who cares how many pay-per-view buys the UFC does on any particular event. I care about the fight and the little stories that surround the fight, about what goes on once the cage door is locked and each man pits his respective skills against the skills of his opponent.
But this fight, St-Pierre vs. Diaz in Montreal, is one that's only occurring because of the animosity that has existed between the two combatants. And now, without that animosity, the main event of UFC 158 just doesn't hold the same level of interest.
Given what we've seen from Diaz in the past, I'm almost certain that things will change once fight week arrives. The days leading up to a fight are when Diaz typically becomes more and more angry and annoyed. I'd wager that the respectful words Diaz had for St-Pierre on Wednesday will morph into angry scowls and clenched fists come March 12 or so.
I hope that's the case, anyway. Because angry Nick Diaz is the best version of Nick Diaz. He goes into the cage with a chip on his shoulder, and he takes out all of his frustration on his opponent. The moments when Diaz feels disrespected—when he has something to prove—are the moments when we see the very best of Diaz and when we see the snarling, trash-talking world-class fighter truly emerge.
So you see, I'm not asking for Diaz to revert to his old ways simply because I think it'll be more entertaining. I'm looking for the old Diaz because that's when he's at his best, and he'll need to be at the very top of his game to have any chance of competing with St-Pierre.
At the end of the day, that's all I want: a great fight between two world-class athletes. And if that means Diaz needs to break a few eggs or bruise a few egos on the way, then so be it.
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