There was no championship on the line when Nate Diaz walked into the cage for the first time in almost three years to face Anthony Pettis at UFC 241 on Saturday in Anaheim, California. The UFC tried to manufacture a grudge match in the weeks leading up to the bout, but no one seemed particularly convinced. As big fights go, the stakes were relatively low.
For Pettis, it was another important bout in a career full of them, a chance to stake his claim in the title picture. For Diaz, it was something else—the one thing more important than a belt wrapped in gold: his opportunity to reclaim his status as one of the sport's brightest stars.
After three furious rounds and three unanimous scorecards, Diaz was back at the center of the MMA universe, the welterweight division revolving around him as if no time at all had passed. Three years removed from the game, he proved two things: that he belongs with the sport's elites and that ring rust is a myth, at least if you're a precision cardio machine who was born to fight.
The Diaz brothers (Nate's sibling, Nick, is a former Strikeforce champion) are like water and fire, surging and swelling until their opponent is trapped against the fence—and then unleashing fierce heat in the form of winging awkward blows that come from unusual angles. Pettis was witness to classic Diaz for 15 minutes, his will tested by the consistent action and, like most Diaz opponents, was found wanting.
The key for Pettis was movement, preventing the unyielding Diaz from overwhelming him with a steady diet of leg kicks. Instead, he spent much of the bout with his back against the fence, wondering at what crazy angle the next punch would come from, eventually finding himself desperately defending on his back against Diaz's legendary Cesar Gracie-schooled jiu-jitsu.
The crowd knew it was watching something special from the first time Diaz appeared on screen. He had been the star of the event before the first athletes entered the cage, profiled in the New York Times and featured in an ESPN interview that spread beyond the insular world of MMA. His pre-fight UFC Countdown video racked up more than three times the numbers its main event counterpart accumulated.
JE Snowden @JESnowden
I hope the UFC is compensating Nate Diaz appropriately. Fans are more interested in his bout with Anthony Pettis than they are the so-called main event between Miocic and Cormier. The Diaz-Pettis Countdown video has more than 3 times the views on YouTube. #UFC241 https://t.co/8uiNPF4RKB
In the days before the fight, he made further news by puffing on a joint before his official workout. But becoming tabloid fodder is a different beast than stepping into the cage and competing with one of the sport's elite fighters. And Diaz had been away from the cage so long, he felt more like a myth than a man.
The last time he'd been in the Octagon, it had been in Conor McGregor's shadow, victim of the Irish superstar's disciplined game plan and two judges' verdicts. This time he was the star, posturing and posing with arms held wide.
Mike Chiappetta MMA @MikeChiappetta
Things that have occurred since Nate Diaz's last fight: -121 UFC events have taken place -11 of the 12 UFC championships have changed hands at least once -GSP unretired, won UFC MW title, retired again -Donald Cerrone fought 10 times -Over 200 fighters made their UFC debuts
After the dominant performance, he entertained again with a typically wildly discursive interview with Joe Rogan in which he both awarded himself a championship and called his next shot.
"The reason I was off is because everybody sucked," Diaz told Rogan after the fight. "There was nobody to fight. With this belt, I want to defend it against—Jorge Masvidal had a good last fight.
"All respect to him. There's no gangsters in this game anymore. Nobody who does it right except me and him. I know my man is a gangster, but he ain't no West Coast gangster."
It was no "I'm not surprised motherf--kers," but it will do.
A delighted Masvidal would be more than happy to step into the Octagon with Diaz next, but the UFC may have bigger game in mind for Nate to hunt. After all, McGregor still lurks at the periphery, a constant presence that overwhelms the entire industry at times.
He and Diaz have split their two legendary bouts, both among the bestselling in UFC history. It would be a shame for either to walk away for good without settling the only question that matters in the world of combat sports: Who is truly the better man?
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.