–Kenny Rice

Nick Diaz is getting his title chance in the UFC this weekend against Carlos Condit for the interim Welterweight belt while champ Georges St. Pierre is recovering from knee surgery. It is the culmination of a circuitous and controversial journey for perhaps the most misunderstood fighter around.

A few weeks ago Diaz walked into the Inside MMA studio with an entourage of five. They had traveled with him that day from San Francisco. Well, kind of.  Diaz missed his early departure and eventually came on a later flight, as is his wont. Distance distinguishes him in many forms.

They hurried down to the local sushi restaurant on Ventura Avenue, stopped by a store for vegetables, and came back with the required vegan meal for him. As Diaz sat in a chair and ate by himself, the group sat on a couch. All watched in case there was any wish he might have. He didn’t need anything else, maybe just to be alone. Maybe he was amused at the attention for his first live appearance on the show.

Such is the paradox that is Diaz: an individual with an audience, an at times foul-mouthed talker with a deep core intellect, a complex man, yet simple in his approach to fighting and living. If we all have layers to get to the real us, Diaz has layers on top of layers.

Ask any of his Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu teammates: brother Nate, Strikeforce Lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez, former Strikeforce Middleweight champ Jake Shields; and they speak of great respect for his work ethic, his friendship, his loyalty. Nowhere is Diaz more accepted and, yes, understood than in this close-knit gym. In this family-type training environment, Nick is considered the embodiment of order and unity for the group, never a prodigal son.

Diaz has never hesitated to show he has the back of a teammate. That was never more on display than when Jason Miller took the CBS microphone away from Shields after he had defended his belt in April 2010 in Nashville and demanded a rematch. Nick was one of the first to push Miller aside; no one was going to disrespect his friend in what should be his moment. It wasn’t his first appearance in the ring when he wasn’t in a fight, only to have one ensue upon his arrival. Ironically it was Diaz taking the microphone in June 2008 in Hawaii at an Elite XC event, along with brother Nate, and challenging K.J. Noons to give him a rematch for the 160- pound title Noons had won less than a year before. Noons’s father even got involved, charging the brothers who dared to take away his son’s moment in his home state. He has always been, it appears, the match ready to ignite a fire.

Diaz would eventually avenge that loss to Noons, part of his current 11 fight win streak. Afterward there was none of the anticipated behavior. Rather there was a mutual respect, handshakes and words that didn’t need censoring. Two men who fought hard, a winner and a loser, but no place for animosity –much to the chagrin of many web bloggers and tweeters. It was the essence of mixed martial arts, admiration for the opponent and the effort.  Again, just when everyone thought they knew Diaz, they didn’t.

As we chatted away from the cameras before that show, it was easier to fathom the appeal Diaz warrants among fans, even foes. Behind those dark, sharklike eyes is a mind constantly in motion. A high school dropout with a doctoral degree in street sense. For all his antics that have drawn attention; four-letter tirades, middle finger gestures, puzzling spur-of-the-moment decisions, Diaz has always been true to himself. He has gotten his recognition as the rough and tough competitor who, even if his choices and intentions could be scrutinized, has never been an act. No buffoonery, nothing staged. No pre-designed clownish character he had to create as some fighters have. That would betray his real character, which is deep with commitment and belief.  He, as much as anyone, appreciates what goes into becoming a world-class fighter; work is the four-letter word that describes him best.

“I work in the gym, training, preparing at least eight hours a day. I always have. I grew up with people who worked at least that long each day. That’s what they had to do to provide for themselves, their families. I never understood how anyone who wants to be a professional fighter wouldn’t understand that. This is my job year round, why wouldn’t I approach it like anyone does with a job? Work eight hours a day, more if needed,” he speaks not to justify anything but to clearly state what he considers obvious. “I couldn’t imagine saying I am a pro fighter and not approach it as a job every day. It is what I do for a living, like everyone else out there making a living, working all the time.”

That includes a regimental diet the 28-year-old Diaz has followed since a teenager, being a vegan long before it was in vogue. He can break down food groups, what works best and what doesn’t, as easily as he can an opponent.

“It’s just another part of my job, staying healthy and staying in shape. From just a health standpoint we should all be aware of what we put in our bodies. You see these stories, read about them, the chemicals, preservatives in food. How this food is now bad for you that once was thought to be good for you. I am aware of what I eat for me as a person as much as a fighter.  I have never worried about losing strength, I always get the protein I need.” He intently leaned forward to further the point, “I’ve never had to worry about cutting weight. I’ve seen guys who lose power with cuts, that hasn’t happened to me. I walk around in shape. I can be ready pretty quick. This way I concentrate on the fight itself, getting ready for who I’m fighting and not worry about having to get in shape for the fight. My diet is part of what I do just like time in the gym, it all fits together.”

Perhaps there are those who’ve already recognized this, how Diaz fits together with MMA. His ability has never been in question. His approach, curtness to questions, choice of words, has most always been the points of debate.  It is his free-thinking, against-all-grain approach to his career, that macho in and out of the cage realness, that has made him both hero and villain depending on whom you ask. He is the man who had last fought November 2006 in the UFC. Then after brief stops in Pride and Dream, and a long stint in Strikeforce, returned to the UFC October 29th for a unanimous decision victory over B. J. Penn in the “Fight of the Night.” And with that, he became a major contender for the title.

What was startling though, happened prior to the fight when he blew off two press conferences.  Unthinkable for a fighter who was welcomed back to the good graces of the premier organization in the sport five years after they had released him.  Even the UFC’s no nonsense, straight shooting boss Dana White was so enamored with this oft-times brooding, always ready to go fighter, that he only gave him a slap him on the wrist. Denying a then title contest with St. Pierre, but allowing Diaz to be the co-main even with Penn. That turned into the main event when GSP withdrew from the Condit fight because of a knee injury, and gave Diaz the biggest of platforms to call out the champ in the post fight presser. Suddenly he was moved ahead of Condit to fight for the title, which didn’t happen after St. Pierre announced his surgery.

It is that bad boy charisma that separates Diaz from almost everyone else because there is a genuineness in him that is more transparent than any other facet of his lifestyle.  That is what his fans see in him, and what White sees in him. A Charlie Sheen of the cage allure, edgy but sincere and dare I say likeable? At least say respected.

In his first UFC go-round, Diaz threw a shoe at Diego Sanchez in the locker room after he lost to him. He followed that antic with more bravado after losing to Joe Riggs by unanimous decision in UFC 57. A fight so brutal both were taken to the hospital where Diaz continued the deal, hitting Riggs and leading to a scuffle of such magnitude the local police were brought in to break it up. Another fighter would’ve been fired on the spot, but Diaz had three more UFC fights, two wins and a loss, after the hospital fiasco.

His first fight after the UFC release was an impressive win over Takanori Gomi in Pride 33 in 2007. That was later ruled a no contest and Diaz was fined and suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission after testing positive for marijuana. Diaz argued marijuana was not a performance-enhancing drug and that he had not used it directly before the fight as he had been accused. It was typical Nick, no apologies, no in depth explanation and no running away from the issue. You don’t hear him say it was everyone else at fault, as some fighters have tried to excuse their foul ups. Instead Diaz never denied use, only challenged the Commission’s claim it gave him an advantage, and even more vehemently denied that he was so cavalier, he would do it before entering the ring.

In 34 fights he has never been submitted, a testament to conditioning as well as his equally well-conditioned mental toughness, forged from basically taking care of himself from a young age. He is self-made. He knows what it takes most many years to learn; you have to make yourself happy. You are responsible for you. That Diaz has always appeared to understand this is his strongest suit.

His training also includes triathlons, right there along with MMA as one of the most individual sports imaginable. Alone in thought, isolated on you, and what lies ahead. Of course it was a natural gravitation for Diaz, he has routinely done this in and around his training camps.  “I enjoy it that’s the main reason, the challenge of pushing yourself, finding out about yourself. Of course it helps with cardio, with my MMA training.”

On a road course, in a gym, he is possibly as much his own man as any fighter ever. There are mere peeks into his inner self.  If he seeks advice it is secretively guarded. If he feels he must do something, he does it and the consequences can be addressed later if he wants. In 2011 it can be argued no fighter drew as much attention as he did. He registered a spectacular first round TKO over Paul Daley to defend his Strikeforce title in one of the best fights of the year, only to vacate it. He sent out word he was leaving MMA because unless he got a shot at the best, the UFC and GSP, he would turn to pro boxing. Gracie confirmed there were talks going on about an opponent.

All the while this could have been one of the best career plans in the history of the sport. It has all worked out. Diaz got back in the UFC and now gets his title shot, interim or not, it is another step forward. He even gave a rare, flat out laugh when he was told by Bas Rutten and me, that this was all a great marketing ploy.

For those who still don’t get Diaz, he always gets himself. He walks what he talks. Every time he enters the cage, with his 26 wins, 13 via KO, he is dangerous. That is understood.


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