Nate Diaz shows every sign of a fighter hitting his prime. His last three wins have all been dominant, with finishes of Jim Miller and Takanori Gomi, as well as a one-sided decision over Donald Cerrone. Now, he looks to take the final step and unseat Benson Henderson to become the UFC lightweight champion.
The UFC on FOX 5 matchup will almost certainly generate an exciting fight, with just enough style differentials and similarities to make determining a winner a confusing task. Diaz is a ground wizard and a sly boxer with inexhaustible stamina, while Henderson is a powerful wrestler with kickboxing chops and, yes, inexhaustible stamina.
The most likely deciding battleground between them is likely to come in the middle space of tie-ups, clinches and groundwork.
Henderson (17-2) is clearly the superior wrestler of the two; of that, there is no question. He was a two-time NAIA All-American in college, and has averaged three takedowns per match since fighting under the Zuffa banner. Although his takedown accuracy rate is just 48 percent according to FightMetric, that's far better than Diaz's 28 percent rate.
More troubling for Diaz (16-7) is his inability to stop the shots against him. While fighting in the UFC, he's only been able to ward off 48 percent of attempts against him. Against someone as tenacious as Henderson can be, that's a major concern.
But here's where the storyline shifts: on the ground. Who has the edge there? While Henderson is more likely to have top position, Diaz poses a severe danger with his ability to create submission attempts from nearly every position. After all, 11 of his career wins are due to tapout.
It will be incumbent upon Henderson to stay out of the traps. For most of his career, he's excelled at that. He's only been submitted once, and that was in his third pro fight back in 2007. Since then, he's been in combat with multiple Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts including Miller and Mark Bocek, and escaped unharmed. His ability to contort and escape armlocks, for one, earned him the occasionally used nickname "Bendo."
Few of the names he's faced are able to pressure from the bottom like Diaz, who is never in a hurry to escape the position due to his faith in his own ability to find an angle of attack. And keep in mind there could be a series of prolonged battles on the ground as the fight is scheduled for five rounds. Unlike some fights which can go to the ground and stall, that is unlikely to happen here because of Diaz's willingness to generate offense from the bottom. That should lead to some nail-biting moments for Henderson and his supporters.
Of course, much of that is dependent on Henderson, and whether he truly wants to tangle with Diaz on the ground. If he wants to, he can take the Frankie Edgar approach and score occasional takedowns just for the sake of mixing things up and scoring points while not doing much with the position unless a strike or two is open. If he does that, he could create a staccato tempo that plays into his favor.
Or he could opt against takedowns. In each of his fights with Edgar, for example, he tried just one takedown, content to bang it out on the feet despite close rounds. Against Diaz, that might prove to be a mistake. Diaz not only has three inches of height and six inches of reach on Henderson, he is also, according to FightMetric, a more accurate striker who lands more volume, a combination that would likely tilt rounds in his favor.
As noted, their respective standup approaches are quite different. Diaz's style mimics that of his older brother Nick, with a boxing-heavy slant and frequent targeting of the body. That approach has worn down many an opponent over time, because not only do the Diaz brothers have better stamina than their opponents, they sap them of energy with strikes to the body and relentless pacing. It is an unforgiving combination. Henderson, meanwhile, throws some of the hardest kicks of anyone in the division, and has illustrated the ability to slow opponents with that weapon alone. Though his hands have improved, he's not to the level where he can trade punches with Diaz.
One other factor of note are the fighter's chins. Diaz has faced many heavy-handed punchers and has never been KO'd and rarely ever been in any kind of trouble. Henderson though has been rocked several times in his career, and even though Diaz isn't known for power, sometimes quantity can add up and result in a knockdown.
Picking a winner is like reading a balance scale. Henderson's side has hard kicks, strong wrestling, good positional control and solid ground and pound, while Diaz has excellent hands, dangerous jiu-jitsu and unmatched conditioning. As I see it, in the match of styles, Diaz brings more danger but Henderson brings more stability and a more direct route to victory. He can steal rounds with takedowns, and as he's always managed to stay out of submissions, we have to assume he'll be prepared for most everything Diaz can throw his way. While I'd venture to say that if the fight is finished, it will be Diaz who ends up on top, it's hard to forecast a stoppage on a fighter who historically does not get stopped. Instead, we have to assume the fight goes all five. Diaz's record is littered by losses to wrestlers, and the styles suggest that this will be another one. Henderson wins by decision in a barn-burner.