Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
MONTREAL -- At one point, while fans and media were waiting around at the Complexe Desjardins, speculating on whether or not Nick Diaz would show up, it struck me what a bizarre scene that UFC 158 is.
Carlos Condit wants Rory MacDonald, but can't have him. Jake Ellenberger wants Johny Hendricks but can't have him. Hendricks wants Georges St-Pierre but can't have him. St-Pierre wants Diaz but is now in jeopardy of not getting him. And Diaz? Nobody knows what he really wants.
Yes, UFC 158's welterweight rumble is a series of plan B's for most. If you subscribe to the theory that the underdogs have the most to gain, then Diaz could be the night's big winner when Saturday night is done. He's a major underdog, with most books seeing St-Pierre bet up to around a 5-to-1 favorite. Yet on Wednesday, Diaz put his title shot in serious jeopardy by skipping a mandatory open workout. For now, he's still in the fight, but that will almost certainly change if he doesn't show up for Thursday's press conference.
It's a fight he's spent years asking for, but his willingness to risk it a second time puts into context what a theater of the bizarre this is turning out to be. Bizarre is not always bad. Diaz is a one-man cult of personality, a counter-culture anti-hero who is a perfect match for a sport that began its life as an outlaw endeavor. As it has mainstreamed, its athletes have also moved towards the center. There are few real outliers, and Diaz is one.
Diaz has never really been a troublemaker on any grand scale. He's not a regular on police blotters, and truth be told, he has an enviable work ethic. But yes, he's had his problems. He's failed drug tests for smoking marijuana. He's missed media obligations, and flights, and interviews, but most of that stuff is quickly dismissed by most of this sport's observers, young and progressive as they usually are. This is a sport for individuals, and Diaz is about as individual as it gets.
He also seems to have the ability to bend reality to fit him, rather than the other way around. For example, it was supposed to be Hendricks fighting St-Pierre now, especially after knocking out Martin Kampmann in 46 seconds last November. But instead, it's Diaz, who lost in his last fight, but got deep enough under St-Pierre's skin that the champion couldn't scratch him out, not without fighting him first.
"When Georges was sidelined with his injury, when Diaz said, 'Hey, you're faking your injury, I don't think you're really hurt,' I think it pissed Georges off because he was kicked when he was down," GSP's trainer Firas Zahabi told MMA Fighting. "That was a very dark time for Georges, when he was injured. Georges' whole life is based on training and he was sidelined. It crushed him emotionally because he couldn't do what he loves the most. And then some guy came along and kicked him while he was down. That pissed Georges off, and he's still carrying that with him a little bit."
That sent a domino effect through the elite of the welterweight division. Hendricks was sent to fight Condit, and Ellenberger drew Nate Marquardt. Yes, the same Marquardt who was once cast out of the UFC forever. Bizarre, right?
But for Hendricks, his sights haven't changed. While he says he's exited to fight Condit, it's only because a win would be inarguable proof he's a worthy contender.
"If I beat Condit, nobody's in my way. GSP can't hide forever," he said.
He's not the only one with eyes past this weekend. Ellenberger understands the value of a name opponent like Marquardt, but couldn't hide his frustration with losing the bout with Hendricks.
"I'm still looking forward to getting in there with Johny," he said. "That's the fight I wanted. I didn't have the argument he wasn't the No. 1 contender. He was. But that's the fight I want."
It all makes you wonder if everyone is truly focused on what they should be focusing on. It's hard to imagine professional athletes could lose their concentration and let their attention wade too far into the future, or the past, or anywhere other than where it's supposed to be, but it happens. Marquardt, for instance, blamed his recent loss to Tarec Saffiedine on issues with his mind set in the days before the bout.
On the other hand, there are 24 hours in the day. It is possible to focus 100 percent on one topic for a few hours, and then move on to something else with the same intensity. It is possible for Hendricks to voice his championship desires in one moment, but be completely devoted to preparing for Condit in another. It is possible for Diaz to loathe the process of standing around and talking about himself, but to love the competition of the sport. It is possible for St-Pierre to have mentally lined up Diaz, then Hendricks, and then Anderson Silva, as some have suggested.
Mixed martial artists are by definition, multi-taskers, capable of moving from one discipline to another in a flash. Their minds are capable of the same instant shifts. But that doesn't make UFC 158 any less bizarre. On a card where most of the welterweight six are thinking about something other than what they're getting, what role will those distractions play, if any? Who knows. But at least in this case, bizarre isn't a bad thing. With Diaz involved, it almost couldn't be.
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