Welcome back to TGIFighting, where we talk to top fighters, preview the weekend's combat sports action and make crotchety observations about the combat sports news of the day. Ready? Let's proceed.
The fight week for UFC 266 has been one for the books. But this book has some dark chapters.
On the all-time Mount Rushmore of MMA drama kings, you've got Conor McGregor, Nick Diaz and two as-yet-unfilled spots. In the case of UFC 266, which goes down Saturday in Las Vegas, the drama is focused halfway down the main card, where Robbie Lawler (28-15 [1 NC]) is looking to get off a four-fight losing skid in a rematch against the inimitable Diaz (26-9 [2 NC]), who hasn't competed in more than six years.
Mercurial as ever at age 38, Diaz has thrown curveball after curveball, leaving a bewildered Lawler no choice but to take the road bumps in stride. For example, Team Diaz's demand early this week that the bout take place up at middleweight instead of welterweight prompted a lukewarm "it is what it is" from Lawler.
With all this Diaz drama, it can be easy to forget that this fight carries huge stakes for Lawler, the former welterweight champion who is now 39 years old. The famously cool-headed headhunter has 20 knockout wins to his name, but last won a fight in 2017.
Here are five questions and answers from an exclusive conversation I had with Lawler last week. He was in a slightly more talkative mood for this one, weighing in on a variety of topics, fighting and non-fighting alike.
When the UFC called you about a rematch with Nick Diaz, what was your first reaction?
Lawler: Honestly, I was like, all right, let's go. I mean, it's pretty simple. Obviously he's a big name; the fans are more excited than I am for sure.
But I'm happy the fans are excited. They're excited to see two fighters get in there and go to battle. We're both fighters. That's who he is and that's who I am. He comes to fight, and when push comes to shove that's what we do.
Is there any one performance you think was particularly special among all your wins?
Lawler: Obviously the Rory MacDonald [22-8-1] fight was pretty good. [Note: Lawler defended his title in 2015 with a fifth-round TKO of MacDonald in a bout widely considered one of the best in UFC history.]
But to me the Bobby Voelker [33-14] fight in 2013 is up there. It was my second fight back in the UFC after competing in Strikeforce. I just felt like it was my coming-out party for the UFC, and I was clicking on all cylinders that day.
Your first bout with Diaz came all the way back in 2004. How have you changed over the years from a lifestyle perspective to evolve yourself over the course of such a long career?
Lawler: I'm always evolving, always trying to stay young. Always trying to eat better. You're always trying to do different things. But back in 2004 I fought with a little bit more emotion, and I wasn't so seasoned or technical in my skills.
As far as lifestyle, I've had to change my diet to fight at the highest level. I'd say one of the main things is breathing and meditation. It's breathing exercises and just focusing on what you want and being positive. It could be sitting there not thinking anything, just relaxing and feeling your body. I get extra massages, extra stretching.
What do you like to do after you've unplugged from fighting?
Lawler: I like to watch soccer with my son. He's 11 and his name is Glenn. What we've been doing lately is having Nerf wars. We watch The Office, watch movies. We like Marvel movies, we watch a lot of Marvel movies. We keep going back and watching them in order again and again.
Would you encourage him to follow in your footsteps and be a fighter?
Lawler: That's something that everyone has to choose for themselves. But yeah, if that's what he chooses, that's what he chooses. I want to give him all the possibilities to be great. Anything I can give him to make him good at whatever he wants to do. But fighting or whatever you want to do in life, that's something you have to choose for yourself. No one else gets a say in that, I don't think.
Nick Diaz: A Troubled Saga Continues
It's not cute anymore.
There was a time when Nick Diaz was endlessly entertaining, both in and out of the cage. In his prime, he was one of the best quotes in UFC history. And his brash fighting style, which included outlandish taunting and trash talk while in the heat of battle, made him must-see viewing.
But at a shopworn 38 years old and his last victory coming in 2011, the reclusive and erratic Diaz is not at the top of his game at UFC 266.
First, there was the mysterious weight-class change. That's not something fighters do when they're comfortable in their own skin. It's a testament to Diaz's popularity that UFC brass let him get away with it.
Then on Wednesday, Diaz no-showed media day, arriving hours after the allotted time and even then failing to meet the press.
Diaz did have time to sit down with ESPN—not a shock, as it's the UFC's broadcast partner—where he opened up about not having any confidence (or, dare I say, courage) going into the fight.
"I always feel like I'm going to get trashed out there," he said. "Every fight I've ever done. 'How do you feel against Robbie Lawler?' I feel like I'm going to get the s--t beat out of me. … This should not happen. Whoever set this up is an idiot. I don't know why I'm doing this. I don't know why this happened."
Diaz tried to walk back those comments a bit at Thursday's news conference—he made it!—where he implied the remarks had been taken out of context. At least that's what I think he was trying to say.
"Either way, when I get somebody in front of me, I seem to be right back," Diaz said. "I've always trained with the best and I've always held my own with the best. ... I'm not so used to this much heat, to this much expectation."
Fair enough, I guess. He also said he'd keep fighting after Saturday "especially if I get my ass whupped." Lots to unpack there, but that's a task for another day.
In Wednesday's ESPN interview, Diaz called out welterweight champ Kamaru Usman (19-1), maybe the best fighter in the world today and one who on paper is a terrible matchup for Diaz. Still, Diaz said he'd "beat the s--t" out of the champ. If he's worried about Lawler, why wouldn't he see Usman as a downright existential threat? I mean, he is. Who knows? As money talks, there's at least a reasonably hypothetical chance this could actually and sadly happen.
This isn't the first time in recent history Diaz's mindset has been questioned—including by Diaz himself. Speaking in 2019 to Ariel Helwani while he was with ESPN, Diaz's rambling, slurring interview, which ended early when Diaz walked off the set, touched off a wave of worry in the Twittersphere.
So, in short, everyone wants Diaz to do well and be his usual colorful self, even as the chances of that happening sink deeper and deeper into the Swamp of Sadness. If Diaz can win Saturday—or even fight a respectable fight—he'd do so against an ever-stiffening headwind.
Stone-Cold Lead Pipe Lock of the Week
Looks like it's all Diaz-Lawler this week here at TGIFighting. So why not cap it off by naming Lawler the favorite in Saturday evening's co-co-main event? I'll certainly be taking the moneyline on Lawler, who seems to have an advantage off paper as well as on.
Lawler is a -140 favorite on DraftKings to handle Diaz; with everything going on this fight week and Diaz fighting off massive amounts of ring rust besides, there's plenty of value in this pick. If you're really discouraged by Diaz, go for the finish as well. Lock it in.
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