Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ -- Just when you thought no Nick Diaz in your life meant MMA got a little more boring, here comes brother Nate Diaz to pick up the slack.
Nate is young and fast and talented, and now, we can say he is elite, too. If you had any remaining doubts about that after his throttling of Donald Cerrone last December, you probably don't after he became the first man to finish Jim Miller at Saturday night's UFC on FOX 3.
Think about this: Miller is a man who's stepped into the cage with current lightweight champion Ben Henderson, current No. 1 contender Frankie Edgar, and the last No. 1 contender Gray Maynard. None of them finished him. None of them came close. But Diaz did it, and in a scheduled five-round fight, needed less than two of them to pull it off. That left even Miller in a complimentary mood.
"He fought a beautiful fight," Miller said. "He had my number."
When you get someone as proud as Miller to say something like that, you know it's checkmate. Those aren't words he's easily uttered in the past. He came into the fight with a lifetime .875 winning percentage, and had been a divisional standout in the UFC, at one point winning seven straight fights and knocking on the door of a title shot.
But against Diaz, Miller found little success. The two may have fought a fairly even first round -- two judges scored it for Diaz while one scored it 10-10 -- but he still didn't look comfortable trying to close the distance against Diaz's five-inch reach advantage. In the round, Diaz out-struck him 49-17, according to FightMetric.
But in the second round, Diaz really turned it on. All of the sudden, it was as if he was locked in. He started taunting Miller, talking to him, playing with him, really. And whatever he threw, he landed. At one point, he put his arms down, invited Miller to hit him, and then connected on a front kick. Diaz was simply in the zone, landing 48 strikes to Miller's 10.
"I don't even remember what he was saying," Miller said. "It didn't affect me. It was the strikes he was landing that affected me. I shouldn't have given him the opportunity to be speaking … He took the momentum and held it."
That is the kind of thing a Nick Diaz opponent walks away saying, which makes you wonder if Nate's career is about to follow a similar career trajectory in terms of success. At one point of Nick's career, he was 15-7 with 1 no contest, and then, everything seemed to click, and he rolled off an 11-fight win streak, taking him to the brink of a UFC welterweight title shot, an opportunity he lost through his own no-showing of two press conferences.
Nate was 15-7 heading into last night's fight, and suddenly he was as good as we've ever seen him. Could that same kind of streak be coming? It could. Diaz's biggest problem has always come from wrestlers, and Miller certainly took his chances to get it to the mat. Diaz was simply better than him, shutting down four of five tries. There are certainly better functional MMA wrestlers in the UFC lightweight division than Miller, but Diaz's performance in this aspect can only be seen as a positive.
Another promising quality? The sideshow circus that comes with Nick's behavior seems to be no issue for Nate. UFC president Dana White has repeatedly noted how Nate has been no problem to work with, and does what's asked of him.
Diaz wasn't outwardly celebratory after the fight. Sitting at the post-fight press conference podium, Diaz spent most of his 30 minutes there checking congratulatory text messages on his phone, occasionally looking up when he received a question. Perhaps surprisingly, Diaz said he was willing to wait to get a shot at the lightweight title, something he was promised during fight week if he won.
Since Diaz has entered the UFC, we've seen a lot of him. According to MMADecisions.com, his 16 fights over the last five years is the most of anyone in the UFC during that time, far ahead of a slew of guys with 13. That activity has made him sharp, but it's also the reason he doesn't mind taking a breather while Henderson and Edgar sort out the division.
Diaz may always have a problem with wrestlers -- and with either Henderson or Edgar, he's guaranteed one -- but at least at 155, he won't be giving up size and muscle as he was in his brief move to 170. Much like brother Nick, Nate has learned that unwavering striking volume and an attacking ground game make for a dangerous combination, even against a wrestler.
That's the message his win over Miller sent to the rest of the division. Nate Diaz is no longer just Nick's little brother. When it comes to lightweights, he's now elite.
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