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A Tale of Two Diaz Brothers

He may be the lesser-known Diaz to some, but as Nate Diaz closes in on a chance to earn a lightweight title shot with a win over Jim Miller at Saturday night's UFC on FOX 3 event, we take a closer look at the formative years for one member of the fighting Diaz clan.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If you want to understand anything about the Diaz brothers, you should probably get yourself to Stockton. If you want to understand the important differences between Nick and Nate Diaz, and how the latter’s life might have turned out very differently if not for the former, you should probably go twice.

That’s how it worked out for me, anyway. In retrospect, I’m actually kind of glad it happened that way. But only in retrospect.

The first time I went to Stockton was in the summer of 2009, when I was sent there to do a cover story on Nick for Fight Magazine. I was there for three days, and I never even saw the man. Not once. Not even after I waited all afternoon one Sunday in a Mexican restaurant with a photographer who wanted to know if all MMA fighters were this difficult (they aren’t). Not even after I staked out his gym in downtown Lodi literally all the next day, only to have one of his blue belts flash me a confused look when I asked if he was expecting Nick to show up at any point.

"I wouldn’t think so," he said, as if the question itself was slightly ridiculous. I left yet another voicemail for Nick, then the next morning I left Stockton without my story.

I thought about that failed venture every time I heard Nick complain that nobody would put him on the cover of a magazine. I thought about it when he insisted that no reporters would dare come to Stockton and see the world from his point of view. You better believe I thought about it when the UFC Magazine wanted to send me back there to do a story on Nick’s younger brother a little over a year later. No thanks, I thought at first. I got a good look at that Mexican restaurant the first time. What reason was there to think that Nate would be any easier to work with than Nick had been?

I found out how wrong I was almost as soon as I got to town. Nate had just finished training for the evening, he told me via text as I made the drive from the Oakland airport into Stockton. Did I want to meet him and some friends of his for smoothies? After briefly considering the possibility that smoothies was slang for a crazy type of weed I didn’t even know about, I told him sure, I could drink a smoothie. When I showed up at the smoothie place and he was actually there, as promised, I knew we were already off to a better start.

We drank our smoothies outdoors on a warm October night and Nate explained to me why he hated the UFC’s practice of making fighters who might one day have to face each other in the cage share time and space at media appearances and in airport shuttles. The way he saw it, this was intentional. It was the UFC’s attempt to make professional fighting "like some sport," when, at least in his mind, there was nothing sporting about trying to break other people’s limbs and faces on live TV. To pretend otherwise was to buy into an illusion, which Nate seemed to believe would only harm his performance.

Better for his opponent to assume he was a psycho hell-bent on destruction, he explained, than for the guy to get comfortable in his presence. The tradeoff was that it made him out to be a madman or a thug in the eyes of public, and he knew it.

"People can think what they want, but if you hang out with me, I’m chill," he said. "The only time people see me is when I’m on TV fighting, and that’s when I’m at war. That’s not how I am all the time."

And that seemed true enough. We spent that night driving around Stockton in his souped-up Chevy Silverado with a Tupac CD as our soundtrack (the entire time I was with him, from the car to the gym, I don’t recall him listening to anything but Tupac). Nate explained how the Stockton I was seeing was a gentrified (my word, not his) version of the one he grew up in. These days it was strip malls and chain stores (though it was still on the verge of being named the most "miserable" city in America by Forbes magazine), but it had been much worse in the years prior. Growing up here, Diaz learned a certain tough guy code before he learned anything else. He learned how not to stare at people, and yet how not to look away. He learned when trouble was about to start up, and how to make other people believe he was ready for it.

But Nate will tell you now that it wasn’t until high school that he really learned to fight. Even then it was more Nick’s doing than his. Nick was the motivated one, the focused one. Nate was just the kid who wanted to tag along with his big brother. At first, Nate admitted, he wasn’t terribly interested in jiu-jitsu. He also wasn’t very good. What kept him coming back was that, after practice, the older guys in the class would usually buy him and his brother a burrito from the food truck that pulled up near the gym each night.

"That was actually the main reason I wanted to go train," he said. "I didn’t have any money. At home we didn’t have s--t. I was starving all day. So if I went to train I’d get something to eat. Sometimes I’d be sitting at home and it was like, well, if I go train with Nick I’ll get something to eat afterwards. If I don’t I’ll just sit here and be hungry. ...I was going for burritos and dinner, and hey, I wanted dinner every day. Before I knew it I was a blue belt."

As he got better at jiu-jitsu and went from being the tappee to the tapper, he also discovered a side effect he didn’t expect: happiness. The endorphins from the exercise briefly made him forget the anger and hopelessness he’d come to regard as normal. He wasn’t any good in school, and teachers were always telling him that the best he could hope for was staying out of prison, and they didn’t seem too optimistic about his chances of accomplishing even that. But after following his brother to the gym night after night, suddenly he had a skill worth cultivating. He had something resembling a future. And because Nick fought in local MMA events, it seemed completely reasonable that he should too. It wasn’t even much of a choice. Next thing he knew, he was a pro fighter.

Here’s where it’s difficult to overstate the influence that Nick Diaz had on his brother. Without him to funnel Nate’s energy into something productive, who knows what would have become of him. The same was true even after Nate had a career to focus on.

For instance, he said, there was the time the WEC wanted him to fight Hermes Franca for its lightweight title. At the time, Franca had more than 20 pro fights, whereas Diaz had about six. To make matters worse, when he showed up the week of the fight, the promoter had a few changes in mind that didn’t seem beneficial to Nate. He didn’t know better, so he was ready to agree to whatever the WEC management suggested. Then Nick stepped in. If they wanted his brother to fight, he told them, they needed to up his pay. After a little back and forth on the exact sum, Nick had argued the price all the way up from two grand to show and another three to win, to $12,000 -- win or lose.

As Nick put it when I asked him about it later, "They changed all the rules for that fight. ...We decided he needed to get paid as much as I get paid."

Nate remembered trying to keep a straight face throughout the last-minute negotiations, but internally it was a different story.

"I was just like, are you kidding me?! I couldn’t believe it. I thought, man, I’m going to be a thousandaire. I’m going to buy a house!"

He lost that fight, but he wouldn’t lose another one until Clay Guida took a close decision over him at UFC 94, nearly two and a half years later. By then, he was well on his way to becoming a seasoned pro and a UFC lightweight contender, and all while he was still less than a decade removed from being the kid who had only showed up to jiu-jitsu in order to get fed.

Does any of that happen without a big brother like Nick there to guide him and push him? Probably not. Probably something much worse happens instead. Probably most of us never learn Nate Diaz’s name, or at least not for any positive reasons. It’s easy for us to think about them as two halves of the same mean-mugging whole, as if they’re more or less interchangeable. We think about Nick’s legacy as a fighter and a genuinely fascinating, but also baffling figure in the MMA world. But when we think about him only as a fighter, we forget what he’s already accomplished as a brother.

The closest I came to getting a true glimpse of the importance of that relationship came just before I left Stockton for the second time. I’d spent all Saturday in their Lodi gym, though this time they were both there, for several hours. When they finally wrapped up a marathon training session I got to sit with Nate in the locker room and show him an old photo of him, his brother, and -- according to Nate -- their sister, which had been floating around the internet for the last few years.

Nate instantly recognized the photo when I brought it out, but it seemed as if he hadn’t looked at it in years. He certainly didn’t seem aware that it was on the internet, or that it had been passed around so much by fans who had become enthralled with the legend of the Diaz brothers and their life in the 209.

"We were like third grade or second grade here. It’s crazy," he said, his eyes misting over. "Man we grew up in poverty, in the ghetto, just a really s----y environment. Like right here, we lived in a hotel. Us and my mom, just living in a hotel."

Back then, he explained, his big brother was his guide to the whole world, just like he would later become his guide to the world of MMA. Their mother, he said, tried to keep them out of trouble and focused on the positive things in their lives.

"We were pissed off kids, but she’d say, ‘No, people are good,’" Diaz said. "But growing up, Nick was older, he knew everything was bad. He knew other people weren’t like this, they had good stuff and nice houses. We’d be sitting in the motel waiting for my mom to get off work. My sister and I didn’t know any better. As long as cartoons were on, we were fine. But Nick, he knew. People would always mess with Nick. He’s always been like that."

What are you supposed to say to these guys now that they’re grown men, living under the microscope of a sport that doesn’t always know what to make of them? How are you supposed to get them to play nice, to work well with others, after they spent most of their lives learning the opposite lessons?

Maybe the answer is that you don’t. It’s hard enough just to get the vaguest idea of who they are and what they mean to one another. Even to get that, you’ve got to go all the way to Stockton. You might even have to go twice. In retrospect, you’ll be glad you did. But only in retrospect.

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