Moving with the Current: Nate Diaz Takes What's His Ahead of UFC 202

Josh GrossMMA Senior Columnist August 19, 2016

Nate Diaz speaks during a UFC 202 mixed martial arts news conference, Thursday, July 7, 2016, in Las Vegas. Diaz is scheduled to fight Conor McGregor at UFC 202 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Atop a short staircase on the quiet side of a doorway that shields out the July afternoon sun, Nate Diaz wades into a fast-moving current of his own making.

Less than three weeks from Diaz's second fight with Irish UFC star Conor McGregor, the 31-year-old idealist is mostly indifferent to starring in a taped sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live! What matters, though, is that he's agreeable to doing the spot.

All that's required of Diaz is to emerge undetected from a nondescript entrance on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and step to anyone who says McGregor will get his revenge in the main event of UFC 202, which takes place Aug. 20 in Las Vegas.

It's silly, but it's supposed to be.

With a browbeating likely to follow, the scenario figures to spur enough on-camera angst to create at least some nervous laughs. That's a matter of taste, but for "Cousin" Sal Iacono and the Kimmel writers, the plan is a fair calculation. Riffing on the angry, middle finger-raising version of Nate Diaz (the one most often ascribed to him throughout his mixed martial arts career) is to choose the simplest path to amusement.

As the Kimmel sketch commences and a fan opines in favor of the dynamic McGregor, Diaz is forced to listen to the first of several predictions of his demise.

"Can we find people with nice things to say?" he jokes before covering his ears with a pair of headphones and tuning his gaze to a monitor that relays the unfolding scenes from Hollywood Boulevard. In fairness, no, nice isn't going to make the cut, and Nate's role hardly calls for him to strain his nonexistent range as an actor.

It's an odd thing for any fighter to have to experience.

Diaz waits for his cue and soon enough inserts himself into the scene with a light nudge at the back of the detractor's left shoulder. Playing it cool, Diaz doesn't have to do much else to make the guy look silly.

Back from the street, he shrugs and smiles.

"That was stupid."

Adding to the discomfort, on-camera victims need to slide past Diaz as they head to the plush Jimmy Kimmel Live! lounge, where they will hang until the skit is done.

"I don't think that's how the fight is going to go," stuttered one victim, moments after calling McGregor the Irish Muhammad Ali. "I just want to get on TV."

This is the kind of thinking, a facade on a Hollywood lot, Diaz dislikes immensely.

But he's being a good sport and playing along. It's not until the sixth participant predicts McGregor will be bullied like he was in March—when the Irish fighter tapped out to a rear-naked choke—that Diaz gets any love. The analysis earns cheers from Diaz's team congregated along the stairs.

To no one's surprise the endorsement didn't make the final sketch that aired the following week on ABC.

The Kimmel spot isn't about digging below the surface; it is about exposing Diaz to new audiences even if it means playing on common perceptions and understanding the value in doing so. He was always one to go against the grain. After more than a decade in the game operating on his terms, this feels so different.

Diaz had not plotted to appear on late-night talk shows when he held firm, pushed back and took risks in the face of real consequences to his livelihood. Media attention. Celebrity. These aren't the reasons he stood up to the UFC and stood up for himself in recent years. These aren't the reasons he fights. Never have been. But they are metrics of some types of success, and at the moment Diaz's Q Score is registering more than it ever has. By a mile.

The previous evening a lighthearted and cheerful time with Conan O'Brien on TBS made for a Diaz doubleheader few Hollywood stars get to experience.

By assessing his worth, by questioning what he was getting compared to what he was giving, by strangling the sport's most famous mixed martial artist when the opportunity presented itself, the lofty expectations Diaz set about the state of his MMA stardom have finally been realized.

Exposed to the world, Nate often comes across as agitated, especially when a fight approaches. That's his public persona, and for legitimate reasons, hard and fast notions of Diaz and his crew are well earned.

Grounded by the harsh truths of fighting, Nate is happier and shrewder a character than most people think. He has a way about him that suggests very little thought goes into what happens next. But that's not so. Nate is always thinking.

When fans talk about the people who step in a cage to fight like they're characters in a video game, Diaz is keen to speak to the consequences. "You really want to see someone's neck get broken?" he'll wonder out loud. So he's not belligerent and isn't a threat to slug any of the camera-hungry people who apparently have little else to do during the middle of the week.

This is a thoughtful guy, most of the time.

During the final press conference for UFC 202 on Wednesday, for instance, Diaz reacted and walked out after McGregor showed up a half-hour late. The Irish fighter, the current UFC featherweight champion, didn't have much of a chance to settle in and run the show because Diaz wasn't willing to sit there and be quiet for him. Instead, Nate and his team hurled F-bombs and bottles, prompting McGregor to return the favor.

"Nate will give you the shirt off his back, but before a fight he'll be flipping people off," said Nick McDermitt, a childhood friend serving as Nate's personal videographer ahead of Saturday's anticipated rematch. "It's a real intense environment. He kind of reacts to it."

(Warning: Video below contains NSFW content.)

If the skirmish did anything it probably helped to sell a few thousand extra pay-per-view buys. UFC President Dana White told The Herd that the card, scheduled for the recently opened T-Mobile Arena, is trending as the company's biggest buy rate in history, meaning McGregor and Diaz could hold the top two spots on that important list after Saturday night.

Their first encounter in March was booked on 11 days' notice.

A crazy confluence of events resulted in White telling ESPN Radio (via MMA Fighting) that the fight amassed 1.5 million pay-per-view buys, the UFC's most lucrative fight card yet, and regardless of what McGregor has said since—and he has said plenty—this was not about dumb luck.

"I demanded the fight," Diaz argued. "I hear him saying, 'Oh, you won the lottery when you got the call.' Look, I was ahead of the game on all these motherf--kers so don't think I'm stupid like everybody else because I knew what I was going to do. Also on top of that, my contract was almost up. And when my contract was up, Conor McGregor was also my plan. No, I'm not doing s--t anymore for this company. I'm not fighting here anymore unless I get more than that little new guy gets. I don't think anybody says that. But that is what was going to happen."

Few fighters understand the inner workings of combat sports better than Nate, because in his world being a pro fighter ran deep. Fighting for everything was just the way of the world.

In May of this year, in response to Diaz breaking McGregor, the State Assembly of California bestowed on him a legislative resolution that recognized his work with at-risk youth in Lodi, California. Nate was the sort of kid who would have qualified for this program growing up with his older brother in the Morada neighborhood of nearby Stockton.

"Everyone for some reason would have a problem with Nick, and he would always be in some kind of drama around the neighborhood," recalled McDermitt, who attended elementary school with Diaz. Nate had his moments too. There were too many fights on the baseball field to count. "They'll never back down from anything. They're not scared of anybody."

Eleven years ago, though, perhaps not even Nate's biggest supporter could have foreseen how far he'd come. Pausing on a bridge that connected one section of Atlantic City's Trump Plaza to another, Nick Diaz turned and pointed at the skinny kid lagging several feet behind.

"You see him?" Nick said. "That's my brother Nate. He's going to be better than me and a bigger star."

After midnight the pair found themselves wandering around the hotel casino because there wasn't much else to do. Nick was scheduled to fight in a couple of days, June 4, 2005, against Japan's Koji Oishi in the opening contest of UFC 53. His natural energy and the three-hour time difference between New Jersey and California made it useless to try to sleep.

Atlantic City, Stockton or anywhere else, the brothers tended to stay up all night consumed with fighting. Back home at the time, the floor in Nick's room was matted so they could grapple whenever they felt like it. And they often did. They lifted weights until 5 a.m. They watched a VHS copy of Choke—the documentary about the legendary Rickson Gracie that every aspiring MMA fighter and fan needed to watch to be considered legit back then.

"He was all on it, and I just lived in the room next to him," Nate said of his brother. "I had no choice but to be here today because my room was connected to this guy's. He had a plan. He had a mission. He had an objective. And everything he said he was always right, too.

"He would subliminally put me on a path and tell me to do stuff, and it would just happen."

Nate began fighting adults when he was 16. Boxing smokers. Kickboxing smokers. Amateur fights. Brazilian jiu-jitsu contests. Toughman contests. Pankration bouts (mixed fights with open-hand strikes to the face). You name it, and he was thrown into it. This was how he prepared for the future.

They spent much of their time at a gym, Pacific Martial Arts, doing what they could to learn and spar. Nick often asked a local trainer, Richard Perez, if he could get in some rounds with his top student, pro boxer Rodney Jones. Perez eventually agreed and was impressed with the brothers' attributes.

"I could see these guys were ready to fight, and nothing was going to stop them," said Perez, who understood how they felt. He grew up the youngest boy in a boxing family, and from an early age the life of a pugilist was ingrained in him. Epilepsy prevented Perez from pursuing a pro career, but it couldn't keep him away from the gym. He saw that same desire in Nick and Nate.

Nate (left) and his older brother Nick (right).
Nate (left) and his older brother Nick (right).Esther Lin/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"They work hard. They don't give up," Perez said. "They go on and on and on. They'll train all day and night. They're always doing something. You never see those guys sitting around."

If Nick was a bundle of nerves standing on that bridge in Atlantic City, Nate gave off the languid impression of a maturing high school sophomore. In many ways, yes, Nate was his brother's disciple, but he persisted with his own mannerisms, attitudes and decision-making. As their careers progressed, Nick often found himself in trouble with the authorities, while Nate made it through unscathed.

Where the brothers mirrored each other most was in their firm desire to mix it up. Anyone. Anytime.

"They were good students," Perez said. "They were eager to learn. They wanted to know everything they can. They had heart. They were strong. They had a good mind. They weren't scared of anything. They weren't scared to fight."

In his second bout as a pro, Nate found himself in the main event of a card in Tokyo—against Oishi, whom Nick destroyed him with punches in 84 seconds two months earlier. It was clear the Japanese viewed this as some sort of revenge proposition that would let them save face. And though Nate lost the bout on points, he was better for the experience as his education in the fight game accelerated.

"Nick told me how he would always find the baddest dude in the room and do everything that guy did," Nate said of his brother's example. "Who was the hardest guy in my room? My brother. Outworking everyone else. I just followed the leader."

All the years learning and battling paid off in the spring against McGregor.

Diaz listened as McGregor ranted in 2015 and 2016 about winning belts at 155 and 170 pounds. Having campaigned at lightweight for most of his career, Diaz was never going to call out smaller fighters, but here was the loudest loudmouth in the UFC begging for someone to step up to him.

So Diaz did.

Without the benefit of a training camp at UFC 196 (he only had eight days to prepare), Nate endured some tough spots throughout his dramatic second-round victory. As the rematch unfolds, Diaz is expected to be much better prepared having gone through the rigors of a full camp, all the while balancing an assortment of media opportunities outside the gym, most of which were fulfilled with weeks remaining before the bout.

McGregor told ESPN he's as prepared as he possibly could be after spending $300,000 on camp since the day Diaz beat him, setting the conditions for an intriguing rematch in which Diaz seems to hold all the advantages.

John Locher/Associated Press

"Everybody talks about what McGregor can do, but nobody sees what Nathan can do and what he's going to do," Perez said. "They're always looking at McGregor because it looks like he's a star. He's not a star. He's a fighter. Just like Nathan.

"So Nathan is better than him, but people are just putting him up on a pedestal because he's beating everyone at 145—little guys. Now he's trying to come up to a big guy, and the big guy slapped him around last time and let him roll on his belly and tapped him out. Made him look silly. That was embarrassing. I mean, I would be embarrassed."

A come-from-behind effort against an abnormally popular fighter along with his unique approach to life propelled Diaz to where he stands now, wading deeper into a current carrying him places he chose to go rather than battling against the flow.

"If you think about it, when I was 21 years old, I was pretty much more famous than anyone I knew," Nate said. "Me and my brother."

In Stockton over the last decade, that could very well be true. Now the wider world is paying attention, and another victory over McGregor would elevate Diaz further into the mainstream consciousness.

"I feel I'm in the position I'm in because I put myself in this position," Diaz surmised. "It's not great. It's not horrible. It is what it is."

And that's all he ever wanted.


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