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Imagining a fight world without Nick Diaz

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

One day, we're going to have to give Nick Diaz back to real life. We've had him a long time already. Diaz had just turned 18 years old when he made his pro fighting debut, a kid really. He's 29 now, and he's thinking about walking away from mixed martial arts. This is getting to be a trend now, Diaz publicly contemplating retirement after each bout. The way he tells it, it's a sport that he doesn't really want. The way I hear it, it's a job that he probably needs.

All this time, we needed him, too. Wherever you lie on the Diaz love/hate spectrum, you must begrudge his success, you must admit his many contributions to this sport he practiced, and how things would have been quite a bit less interesting without him. He's given us the "Stockton slap," Don't be scared, homie," and most recently, "wolf tickets." There was the hospital fight with Joe Riggs, the hotel confrontation with Georges St-Pierre and the time he threw a shoe at Diego Sanchez. He was the Michael Jordan of press conferences, dominating them with such ease that the rest of the participants were often completely ornamental. And that was only when he showed up. He was nearly as fascinating for his unpredictability.

That was the other side of Diaz, the temperamental malcontent who never seemed to get what he wanted. He was so head-scratchingly, mind-numbingly confusing that if Saturday night was his last time, it was perfect.

All of who Diaz was, was perfectly summed up during the UFC 158 post-fight press conference, by a Canadian reporter who pleaded with Diaz for some clarity.

"Nick, I need your help here because Dana came [here] telling us you were not going to be here, and here you are. Immediately after the fight you said you were going to retire, and you walk in here and you say you want to fight Georges and you want to fight Anderson Silva. Please, tell me what I write for my readers."

What, indeed?

Diaz went on to give a typically rambling answer that explored multiple possibilities. At least that's the way most heard it. You know how different parts of the brain control separate functions, like emotion and reason and focus? I've come to believe that he simply lets each part of his brain speak its piece. How many of us have clear, perfect thoughts on deeply personal issues? Most of our thoughts go through internal debate. Diaz chooses to live some of his in public, unfiltered.

What each fan will remember of Diaz will be personal. Maybe it was something he said, or his general attitude, or some moment he authored in a fight. There is no shortage of possibilities, which says plenty about him.

Mostly, Diaz was real. He said whatever was on his mind. He didn't come to the show to play nice and make friends. He came to this world in fight mode. He didn't graduate high school. This game was all he had. He grabbed on to it and probably held on too tight. He trained like a madman, everyone around him will tell you. Maybe too hard. Maybe too often. But Diaz always wanted you to know you'd never outwork him. You'd never be in better condition. He wanted you to know that if this were a real fight that went until the last man was standing, you would be conquered. He judged his fights this way regardless of what the officials who actually had the power to determine winners and losers said.

Diaz kept it so real that he would often admit things that few others would. As tough as he seemed, he said he was scared to fight. As street-wise as he appeared, he admitted that he'd never paid his taxes. If you asked a question, you better be ready for the answer, because you never quite knew what he'd say.

MMA's not quite to the level where its athletes are polished, but most of them make an effort to present themselves in that kind of refined and professional light. Diaz wasn't worried about being anything other than who he was. He often wore "Stockton" sweatshirts, because his roots made him. On Saturday night, to the amusement of many, he wore jeans to the cage.

Much of what made Diaz compelling were the things he said and did, but they would have been ignored without his fighting prowess. An athlete doesn't get noticed without success. He was good enough to be considered among the welterweight division's best, even if he always felt he wasn't given his just due. Against St-Pierre, his biggest deficiency caught up with him. He has never excelled as a wrestler, his only kryptonite. Sure, he practiced it, but he didn't care for it. Wrestling could win fights, but it couldn't finish them, and that's what he prized. MMA that went for broke. Offense first. Endless aggression.

In discussing his possible retirement, Diaz said he wasn't too interested in facing the young guns. He didn't like the direction things were headed in, with wrestlers able to stall the action. The fights were becoming too slow, the words were becoming too political. It wasn't his sport anymore. Even if he fights again, those complaints hold some truth. He came from a time that was raw and gritty, when the sport was fighting for its survival. In many ways, it mirrored him. Time has a way of dulling those sharp edges. Diaz isn't the same angry kid he used to be, even if he's still the same individual.

It seems that the general belief is that Diaz will return. He's still young, after all, and making good money. But who knows? Who has ever been able to predict what Diaz will think or say or do next? That's why we cared so much about him, even when he drove us crazy. He's a singular talent and individual, and when he's gone, he'll be irreplaceable. The truth is that even in a world of order, you need a few rebels to shake up the system and determine its true worth. Diaz may not have been the poster boy for MMA, but despite his brawling on CBS, his taunting and name-calling of opponents, his constant calls for respect, Diaz walked a road parallel to the sport he never wanted to represent. It was sometimes raw, unflinchingly honest and demanding of attention. The sport would never leave us, it would only grow up in the spotlight, but Diaz was always eventually going to disappear. Despite the bumps and bruises, the headaches and the head-scratchers, the two were better off for each other's company.