LAS VEGAS -- It doesn't matter what Nick Diaz
says, you want to hear it. It doesn't matter who he fights, you want to see it. It doesn't matter if you want him to win or lose, you have a strong opinion either way. In a matter of weeks, he has become the most riveting, polarizing man in MMA
Soon, he might become its biggest star.
That may sound a bit illogical right now, but excuse me, I've spent the whole week absorbing the philosophies of the 209's most famous export, and I'm sold. Illogical is the new normal.
There are obviously several stars in the UFC
sky that eclipse Diaz in the popularity department, from Brock Lesnar
to Anderson Silva
to Georges St-Pierre
. But that could change.
Diaz's allure is two-fold. In the cage, he's a tremendously skilled athlete with unshakeable belief in his skills and unbreakable stamina. Outside of it, he is a fascinating subject with a unique world view and an inability to hold back from saying what is truly on his mind.
In the past, the only thing holding him back from real stardom was a lack of visibility. After Diaz left the UFC in 2006 -- after two straight wins, by the way -- he began an odyssey of fights around the world, in promotions from PRIDE to EliteXC to DREAM to Strikeforce
No matter how well he fought -- and he went 11-1 with 1 no contest since the start of 2007 -- the perception existed that he was cleaning up in the B leagues. Now back in the UFC, that argument is no longer valid.
Just a few months ago, Penn was fighting top welterweight contender Jon Fitch
to a draw. On Saturday, Penn, could do little with Diaz, especially after the first round. According to FightMetric, Diaz out-struck Penn by an overwhelming total of 218-58 in the last two rounds. He also bloodied and bruised him in a way we've rarely seen.
Diaz also may benefit from his own counter-culture behavior. Polarizing is always good. Many sports superstars are loved and hated in equal measures, including LeBron James and Tiger Woods. Diaz isn't a bad guy, he's just a different breed. Like all great athletes, he is intensely driven. He doesn't have a chip on his shoulder; he has a boulder.
But he does make us scratch our heads. As you're probably aware, he missed two press conferences leading up to UFC 137
that cost him a title match and led to a matchup with Penn that he didn't especially want. The switch angered Diaz, but it also helped raise his profile. People who supported him rallied around him. And those who didn't know much about him invariably spent time trying to to learn more about him and whether he was self-destructing or simply didn't play by anyone else's rules.
By the time the UFC 137 conference call came about, and Diaz was late, he had become such a story that he was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter. And by the time his fight with Penn came about, certainly nearly anyone with any hint of interest in MMA had his interest piqued.
"He blew up out of nowhere," UFC president Dana White said. "Part of it is his attitude, but I think people love a real fighter. He's definitely a real fighter."
Diaz's words and actions are so magnetic that it appears there's no one he can't pull into his forcefield. After beating Penn, he hung out bait for welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre.
"I don't think Georges was hurt," Diaz said. "I think he was scared."
St-Pierre, who was sitting cageside, smiled and pretended his hands were shaking. But the UFC machine was already in hyperdrive.
According to White, St-Pierre approached him backstage and said he felt disrespected by Diaz. In White's words, the normally composed GSP "flipped out." He wanted Diaz, and soon. So White audibled, contacting Carlos Condit
and asking him to step aside.
Condit, stuck in a terrible situation, agreed, and White had his matchup.
To Diaz, that was hardly a reward. Even though he'd won, even though he'd been granted a title fight and a big paycheck, he seemed torn up by everything that had come before it. He characterized his own performance as "poor" and "stupid," bemoaned fighting while injured, and as has become the norm, complained about money.
If you didn't know any better, you would have thought he lost the fight.
I asked him if he took any joy in what he'd just accomplished, and he said no. I asked him if moving into a title shot and getting a big payday would make him feel any better. No, he said again. Because in his eyes, he had already earned those things. In Diaz's mind, he had to be the bad guy to get what had already been promised to him.
"The only reason I'm getting this fight is because people want to see me take an ass-whipping right about now," he said. "So, alright, great. I worked for it. I'll take my ass-whipping, I'll take my money, and I'll go home."
That may not be so true though. While Penn was the crowd favorite on Saturday, Diaz heard his fair share of cheers coming in, and he certainly got a star-like reaction upon winning. Then, he moved on to the press conference. He joined it in progress, and from the moment he walked on stage until the moment it was over 30 minutes later, not a single question was directed to any of the other five fighters on the stage.
On a night when BJ Penn and Mirko Cro Cop both said they were done fighting forever, all of the buzz was about Nick Diaz. He managed to steal headlines. He managed to steal back his title shot, too.
UFC 137 was supposed to be about Diaz vs. GSP, and it was. Just not in the way we thought. Instead of the culmination, it was just a masterful setup. Should Diaz win, stardom beckons. Because now, everyone knows who Diaz is, and everyone knows how he can fight. Whatever he says, we'll be listening. Whatever he does, we'll be watching.