Nate Diaz returned from a three-year-long layoff in style at UFC 241 in Anaheim. Diaz put it on Anthony Pettis in the co-main event at the Honda Center en route to a unanimous decision win. The crowd was deafening for Diaz all evening and his return was confirmation he is one of the UFC's biggest stars.
And the fun did not stop with the fight. In the post-fight interview, Diaz called his shot for his next fight. If he gets his way, Jorge Masvidal is next. And there is not a more enticing fight in the welterweight division than a clash between Diaz and Masvidal.
Everyone seems on board with this callout. The UFC is moving forward with Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington, but this is the fight everybody wants. It’s the money fight. It is the premiere bout in the entire company.
If these two dons step inside the cage, who gets their hand raised?
Jonathan Snowden: Mixed martial arts promotion is kind of funny. The UFC is a billion-dollar company with vast resources and access to media entities large and small. They have a promoter, Dana White, with a gift for dangling even the most curmudgeonly beat reporter like a puppet, a Svengali with dozens of media minions dancing to his tune.
And yet, despite all of that, UFC has a very difficult time getting fans invested in manufactured rivalries. Most of their attempts to create compelling bouts fall flat—fans can smell even the slightest whiff of phoniness and it takes a remarkable performer like Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey to make it all feel real.
But “real” has been the Diaz brothers brand since Nick finished one fight with Joe Riggs in 2006, only to start a second in the hospital after the bout. There’s nothing fake about either brother and it gives every utterance, every call out, every promise, an extra oomph few in the MMA space can match.
Jorge Masvidal has a similar energy. When he interrupted what was supposed to be an interview celebrating the biggest win of his own career to casually stroll over and deliver a three-piece and biscuit to a trash-talking Edwards, it was the most Diaz thing to happen in MMA since the brothers abandoned the sport in 2016.
When Nate called him out in the cage to contest the fictional “bad motherf--ker” championship of the world, it just felt right. His words rang true. It’s an authenticity you can’t manufacture—all UFC needs to do is step out of the way and let magic happen.
Scott Harris: To follow on Jonathan’s point, the UFC has a devil of a time stepping out of its own way. It’s like a drunk donkey.
And this drunk donkey has a rather outsized sense of self. The headliner of every UFC card is the UFC. In the case of Diaz vs Masvidal, that instinct could lead to the company cutting off its nose to spite its face.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see some real histrionics about this in the news cycles to come. Look for all sides to negotiate through the media, and for the process to come liberally seasoned with threats to walk away from the table. With the possible exception of Masvidal, none of these parties really, truly need each other—that’s an unusual negotiating reality for the UFC, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
In the cage, this is a very, very close fight to call. That’s reflected in the initial betting odds, which install Masvidal as a razor-thin -120 favorite (h/t MMAMania.com).
Ring rust is a real thing, but it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. In handling Pettis, Diaz showed it’s not an issue for him. Masvidal, meanwhile, is on the greatest streak of his life. His knockout of Ben Askren was one for the ages, but it was still a flash, almost gimmicky event. No one needs to be told that sort of thing won’t work on Diaz. Let’s also not forget that Masvidal has been susceptible to coasting throughout his career. That’s not going to work on Diaz, either.
Both of these guys are wily grapplers, but one imagines the ground phase will not be the primary component of either game plan. Both men also have great stand-up, with the jab being a potent weapon in each case. The key might be Masvidal’s movement and power. If he can keep his back off the fence and attack Diaz early (Diaz can be a bit of a slow starter as he works to wear opponents down) he can win. But Diaz is as tough an out as they come. If he can weather Masvidal’s storm he could win going away. Right now the pick is Diaz to survive and outlast in an instant classic.
Nathan McCarter: I’m going to do the unpopular thing and ride the fence on this one. Scott laid it out brilliantly, and it's why I stand atop the post looking at each opposing side.
In the Endeavor-owned UFC era, the non-title PPV main event has become a thing of the past. Since taking over the UFC there have only been two non-title main events — their first show with control, UFC 202: McGregor vs. Diaz 2, and UFC 234 when a late scratch of Robert Whittaker forced a new main event between Israel Adesanya and Anderson Silva (h/t ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto).
No more Rashad Evans vs. Rampage Jackson rivalry fight nights. No more stars, without titles, headlining. That means we are likely to get the short-end of the stick with this fight playing co-main event to a lesser fight, and it would only be scheduled for 15 minutes. Under that scenario, I favor Masvidal. His power shots will be more in favor with what judges want. He'll stifle some of the output from Diaz and have better moments in the early going as Diaz tries to warm-up and get going.
However, Diaz is one of the top draws in the company. Endeavor, or perhaps even ESPN, will see the potential with him as the A-side and make it the main event. In which case, give me Diaz. As Scott said, Masvidal has a history of coasting. In a fight where there'll be plenty of in-cage trash-talking, he'll likely hit lulls. Especially in the latter portion of the fight. That's where Diaz, who gets stronger as the fight wears on, will pick up rounds.
Regardless of three or five rounds, it will go to a decision. Who gets their hand raised will depend on what kind of fight we get to see.
The UFC's slogan for years was "As Real As It Gets". This is a throwback to that slogan and they are the two very best representation of it. Now it's time to see if the UFC dusts off its old playbook and gives the fans the fight they truly want to see - even without a shiny gold-plated up for grabs.