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From very early in his Ultimate Fighting Championship career, Nick Diaz has been one of the sport’s most exciting fighters. Diaz’s bout at UFC 47 was thought to be a paradigmatic striker-versus-grappler showdown, with the heavy-handed Robbie Lawler taking on the Cesar Gracie disciple in Diaz. That Diaz was perfectly content to stand with Lawler was remarkable enough; that Diaz outstruck and knocked out Lawler was more impressive still. However, the key to the performance and what has attracted fans to Diaz ever since was the bravado with which he fought. He taunted and talked trash with an authenticity from which you couldn’t look away.
The 20-year-old Diaz that showed up that night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas is largely the same character we’ve seen in the public eye for the 15 years since. He has never attempted to be anything other than himself. He’ll fight in the cage and he’ll fight in the hospital, as Joe Riggs found out. He remains the only fighter in MMA history to spend fight week of a major event talking about how the grudge component of his bout was manufactured. That somehow made his fight with Georges St. Pierre even bigger.
Few fighters have Diaz’s track record for exciting performances, from his bouts with Karo Parisyan and Diego Sanchez to those against Takanori Gomi and Paul Daley. A big part of that excitement has always been the way Diaz approaches fighting. No fighter has ever seemed to care less about winning on the scorecards. If Diaz’s opponent tried to strike with him, he’d try to knock him out. If the opponent took him down, he’d be happy to submit him. Most of the sport’s best fighters try to exploit their opponents’ vulnerabilities. Diaz always seemed to want to beat his opponent on his opponent’s terms. It was thrilling to watch.
Following an interview with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani on Monday, discussion is once again surrounding a Diaz return. Diaz seemed more interested in a fight with Jorge Masvidal than he has been interested in any other fight in quite some time. Perhaps Diaz will take that fight or some other fight in 2020; perhaps he will remain on the sidelines. If Chuck Liddell can get a fight weeks before his 48th birthday, we can’t rule out another Diaz fight anytime soon. However, it’s time either way to recognize that the fighter who was such a joy to watch fight has moved on.
Much was made of the nature of Diaz’s first interview in years, but that’s beside the point. Diaz has always been difficult to decipher. He has talked about his anxiety issues, and his love of marijuana with all its associated effects is well-documented. It’s fruitless to try to gauge too much from listening to one of his interviews. The unique way Diaz communicates his thoughts isn’t the issue; the issue is that he ages like everybody else.
When Diaz fought GSP at UFC 158, he was 29. He’s now 36, and he’s only fought once since then. Diaz made his money and elected to step away from fighting. Good for him. It’s a paradox that an athlete who seemed like such a natural for fighting was one of the few willing to step away in his prime, but that’s exactly what he did. Diaz withdrew into his own world during his peak athletic years, and now those years have mostly passed.
This isn’t to say Diaz might not have one or two more memorable fights left in him. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, for example, went 1-3 after the point he reached Diaz’s current age, but his one win against Dave Herman was a memorable and satisfying one. The odds, however, are markedly against lighter-weight fighters as they approach their late 30s. That’s even for fighters who do everything they can to keep improving and staying on top of things as they age. It’s an entirely different task for someone to step away into a private life for the vast majority of their 30s and then to try to successfully return to professional fighting against younger world-class opponents who have spent their time training and competing.
If Diaz wants to fight again, that’s his prerogative. He would likely make more for one fight than he made in total for the majority of his career, and he may want to scratch that competitive itch, as well. Diaz has given so much to the sport that he deserves to live the life he wants. Still, fans should recognize the situation as it sits. It’s so easy to remember the moments in time that emotionally attached us to a fighter as he or she gets older. We tune in hoping to see those moments recaptured. It becomes easy to forget how much time has passed and how much has changed. Diaz had a full career, and it’s unrealistic to expect much more at this point than perhaps a brief coda.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.