After losing his last two fights at welterweight, Nate Diaz returned to the lightweight division at UFC 135 and put on what is arguably the best performance of his career.
Facing Takanori Gomi, a former Pride champion and MMA legend, Diaz peppered his opponent with straight lefts and rights for the first half of the fight. Noticeably flustered, Gomi shot in for a takedown, only to find himself in Diaz's dangerous guard. The Caesar Gracie-trained fighter quickly locked in a triangle choke before transitioning to an armbar, and ultimately forced Gomi to tap.
It was just one fight, his first at 155 lbs since January 2010, but the impressive display begs the question: Can Diaz be a contender in the lightweight division?
His record over the last two years would suggest otherwise, as he's only won two of his last five fights at lightweight, but Diaz is still young and growing as a fighter. If he can fix a few key holes in his game, there's evidence to believe he could be force in the division.
Diaz is a big lightweight fighter. Standing 6'0" tall, he has a reach advantage over virtually anyone in the division. Combine that with his crisp boxing and excellent jab, and he can give most fighters fits on the feet.
Perhaps the best jiu-jitsu fighter not to hold a blackbelt, Diaz's grappling is also world class. As he exhibited Saturday night, no one is safe while inside his guard, and with 10 submission victories to his name, the Stockton native is one of the most dangerous fighters on the ground.
Besides his skill set and potential, Diaz has also proven he can hang with the best in the division. He holds wins over top contenders Gray Maynard (during The Ultimate Fighter Season 5) and Melvin Guillard, and had an extremely close fight with Clay Guida, as well as Gray Maynard in their second fight.
Finally, there's still lots of time for Diaz to make his mark.
Guida and Guillard are proof that all it takes is a good winning streak to rise from gatekeeper to contender status. At the end of 2009, both fighters held middling UFC records and didn’t appear to be going anywhere inside the division, but since then both have put together impressive winning streaks and find themselves a win away from possibly fighting for the title.
However, if Diaz is going to go on a similar run he needs to shore up one key hole in his game: takedown defence. The new breed of MMA fighter is well versed in submission defence and it’s becoming increasingly harder to finish fights from the bottom.
This isn’t to say it can’t be done, Diaz certainly proved in his victory over Gomi that it’s still possible. The problem is that in the judges’ eyes whoever is on the bottom is losing the fight, so grapplers either have to find a submission quickly or risk getting docked points on the scorecards.
Some people say Diaz never really loses a fight, he just runs out of time. That may be true, but unfortunately “running out of time” equates to a loss on his record, and it’s something he needs to be aware of moving forward.
So what’s next for Nate Diaz?
The UFC will likely give him another tough opponent to see where he’s at (Anthony Pettis might be a good fit if he defeats Jeremy Stephens at UFC 136). If Diaz keeps improving, and keeps putting on fights like the one against Gomi, he may have a chance to move up the lightweight ranks.