Nick Diaz and MMA's 7 Biggest Cult Heroes Right Now
MMA attracts a certain kind: the kind that doesn't mind violence or, like, not getting paid enough, and things like that.
As much as the sport has grown, at its center, a lot of the guys are outlaws and misfits. Outstanding athletes and highly skilled and courageous human beings, yes, but also misfits.
Ditto a lot of the fans. That's probably why the sport has (and, to my mind, will) always engender cult heroes. There is fertile ground for such things on both sides of the equation.
Here are the seven biggest cult heroes in the sport right now. To be eligible, one must be actively connected to the sport in some way, be it through active competition, the media, refereeing or something else. Retired fighters with active Twitter accounts don't count.
How does one define cult hero? It's a little nebulous. After some Internet around-digging, I am concluding that a cult hero can reasonably be defined as someone with a relatively small but highly passionate fan base, but also as someone for whom fan adoration comes for a quirky, ironic and generally non-obvious reason.
If you have a hardcore base of devotees who like you because you're good at fighting, that doesn't qualify you as a cult hero. Think of it as something akin to a secret knock or an inside joke; only fans in the know and of a certain mindset are going to get on board with the aforementioned brand of passion one needs to foster a cult following.
Nick Diaz is an obvious one. But there are six others that I identified as fitting this category. Here they are, listed in no particular order.
Though his cult status is obvious, peeling away the onion layers is a little more challenging.
It's more than the fact that he talks crap to fighters in and out of the cage. It's more than the missed news conferences or the marijuana busts.
The best part about Nick Diaz is that he seems constantly irritated (at best) toward everyone for making him do this. And the "this" changes and applies to pretty much everything.
He doesn't like fighting. He doesn't like interviews. He doesn't like training. He doesn't like people. He likes mountain biking and weed. That's the list. Everything else is just getting in the way.
There's also the small matter of fact that he treats UFC main events like street fights. But unlike the other 99.999 percent of the population, he's really good at making that emotional, seemingly simple style work.
Finally, there is the fact that he offers a terribly and beautifully unvarnished sound bite in a prepackaged sports world. There's a reason he's the Moby Dick of MMA interviews, and his reticence is only part of it.
He really is a savant, and will probably always be popular, whether he likes it or not. Probably the latter.
There's no confusion or complexity to this one. Mike Beltran is famous because he has a very large and long mustache.
He likes to braid it. When he's of a certain mood, he likes to let it down the side of the tower so that gallant princes might ascend it to beg his hand.
In all seriousness, Beltran seems like a devoted fight fan and very nice person, per his interview with BringItToAfrica.com. He also seems like a cult hero, as long as the facial tresses remain intact.
Roy Nelson certainly has a large fan base, as his massive social media followings document. I'm willing to make a bit of an exception to my definition, though, as I think Nelson has to be considered a prominent cult hero of the sport.
Why? This one is not rocket science. Nelson is overweight and, after a fashion, proud of it, rubbing his belly and detailing his drive-thru plans after UFC victories. He used to walk out to "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Fat." He should still walk out to "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Fat." But hey, that's me.
Plenty of fans and executives wish Nelson would just kind of go away. He certainly doesn't inspire balladeers to praise the image of the MMA fighter, what with his gut and his flowing mullet and his bird's-nest beard and all. What's more, his candor with the media gives him a sort of gadfly status that only adds to the irritation he seems to create.
But he's not going anywhere. You can't fire a folk hero. Especially not one who can punch through the side of a mountain. That's the kicker, the part it seems even Nelson himself doesn't really want you to know: "Big Country" has real fighting chops.
He's no spring chicken anymore and is kind of one-dimensional these days, but underneath all the shtick and spare padding is a serious fighter. To his cult following, that might be the best part.
And now for the other half of the main event of UFC Fight Night 52: Clash of the Cult Heroes.
It's not really called that. The cult heroes part, I mean. But when Mark Hunt locks horns with Nelson in September, it will be just that. Someone is going to sleep, and it will be the best novelty fight of 2014.
It's fun enough that these two might be the two hardest hitters of this or any era. Hunt, the kick boxer turned plodding but extraordinarily dangerous UFC heavyweight, has tickled fan imaginations for years, and he's still doing it at age 40.
Throw in his clipped interviews and I-can-beat-up-anyone nonchalance, and you have a bona fide cult hero. After all, you've never seen a Rally For Cain Velasquez on Twitter, have you?
Rin Nakai may be less familiar to fans than some of the other names on this list, but that's about to change.
The big-bicepped Japanese bantamweight is set to face Miesha Tate in her UFC debut. In the meantime, she's making quite a name for herself among the, uh, vivid-minded Japanese fan base and, increasingly, beyond. That's thanks to not just her muscular build but the edgy and downright strange photos and behavior (NSFW) she consistently feeds to the public.
She has also been the subject of scrutiny, with claims that her 16-0 record is padded, and that she's famous (and in the UFC) for things besides her fight acumen.
But cult followings care not for such things. Fight fans will have answers in September after Nakai's fight with Tate, but something tells me Nakai will be around in some form for quite some time.
Cody McKenzie is often described as a free spirit. But so are plenty of other people. McKenzie took it to a high level, though, when he was released by the UFC in part for wearing a new pair of basketball shorts (tag still on) into a fight. That's some pretty free spiriting right there.
And that's only one story about the native Alaskan. There are others, like his beer-drinking misadventures on the same night as Shortsgate. The man, he likes a good party.
His original claim to cultdom almost gets lost in the shuffle these days. His special version of the guillotine choke (aka, the McKenzietine) has earned him 11 of his 15 victories. When you have a move named after you, you might be pretty good at that move.
He's still in the MMA hinterlands for the moment, but just got his first post-UFC win this spring. Can he keep it rolling? One can only hope.
Who else in MMA could cause a minor panic by purportedly shaving his mustache?
No one else but Don Frye, that's who.
Thankfully, the mustache thing turned out to be a hoax. We all found out when the world continued turning. It was good news for us and for the Chuck Norris of MMA, the consummate cult hero. The media is lucky to have him in their ranks, regardless of the form he inhabits. (He seems like something akin to a frequent celebrity guest at the moment, though he has held commentary gigs recently.)
Frye is certainly not the most enlightened of guys. He has a sense of humor that gets him in hot water. He is apparently—brace yourself—a birther devotee. Or was. I don't know if that is still extant.
But no matter. He's a cult hero, and one of the biggest in MMA history. That's just the way it is, baby.
Scott Harris writes about the serious and less-serious aspects of MMA for Bleacher Report. For more of this type of thing, follow Scott on Twitter.