The mixed martial arts and sports world watched on Saturday night when Nate Diaz defeated Conor McGregor in the main event of UFC 196, but few had a front-row seat like Jake Shields. Not only did the former UFC and now current WSOF welterweight corner Diaz, but was party to much of the pre-fight squabbling between his teammate Diaz and McGregor.
More than that, Shields has been training with Diaz before the younger brother of Nick could even fight. It's that fuller perspective on Diaz's up and down tenure in MMA that makes Shields so happy for his friend.
"It was great because, like you said, Nate is like a little brother to me," Shields said on Monday's The MMA Hour. "I've known him since he was at least 15. I remember he was a young, little punk kid at the gym. I'd been working out with him, so I had to take him on like a brother. Obviously everyone knows he had a lot of issues with pay, getting screwed around by Dana [White]. For him to finally step up and win such a good fight in such exciting fashion and get paid, I couldn't be happier for him."
In addition to simply knowing Diaz, there was also extra motivation to back his friend, Shields confessed. Sure, Diaz didn't get this fight under the most promising of circumstances, but the world counting out the Stockton fighter's chances was only cause to back him further.
"I believed in him regardless," Shields said. "Obviously definitely the camp would've been a lot better, but I still like Nate was just the smarter fighter, the bigger fighter. I felt like he had a lot more experience.
"The camp would've been nice, especially since Nate was out in Cabo just a week before he got called, out there for a week partying, not training, drinking and having fun. That was a setback, but Nate has heart. The amount of heart he has," Shields explained, "I knew he was going to pull it out, anyways."
Shields argued the team liked Diaz's chances no matter what and that McGregor's vaunted mind games that worked on previous opponents didn't merely fall flat again Diaz, but backfired as it only served as further motivation to succeed.
"Conor was definitely making things worse," Shields argued. "The fact that he was insulting our whole team and everyone. I thought Conor crossed some lines. But Nate's smart, a veteran. I'm sure he knew this. When it came time to fight, I gave him advice before he went out there. I'm like, 'Hey, Conor's trying to get riled up. He wants you to run, make a mistake like [Jose] Aldo.' So I said, 'Don't do that. Go out there and fight your game.'
That was the plan, to go out there and not fight too hard the first round; to go out there, play around, let Conor punch himself out and bring the pace up on the second."
As it would turn out, that's what Diaz did and much of how the fight played out. The first round was largely McGregor's as the Irish fighter cut open and battered Diaz with a barrage of home run left hands. But as the second round progressed, the tide began to turn and as Shields saw it, Diaz began to take over. "He went out there and started picking him apart in the second," he noted.
"I knew it was over when he went for the takedown," Shields claimed. "You could see it actually before that. He landed a couple of shots and you could see it in Conor's face that he was broke. Conor hasn't really been in a war like that, if ever or a long time. I've never seen Conor in a war. He's used to going out there and bullying people. That's something I knew. Nate's a true warrior. If it does go deep and they try to battle, Nate's going to keep going.
"I could see it in Conor's face that he was done before that," Shields said. "By the time he shot, I already knew the fight was over."
McGregor would go on to submitting soon after the fight hit the canvas. The loss sends McGregor back to the featherweight division while Diaz, arguably for the first time in his career, has more desirable opportunities than ever. Still, Shields admitted if there's one thing you can't deny McGregor, it's his gusto.
"Nate is a small 70-pounder, of course. Nate's really a 55-pounder, but I still think Conor should've tried coming to 60 or 65," Shields argued. "I think he was too big. One thing about Conor, he does believe in himself. I'll give him credit. I might not care for Conor, but he is ballsy. He's got lots of balls and he truly believes in himself and he's willing to do big things. I'll respect him for that. It was a ballsy move that didn't pay off."
As quick as Shields is to praise McGregor, he's even quicker to note his respect for the Irish champion is real, but with very noticeable limitations.
"It's bulls--it to try and bring us in and get me mixed in on something that I'm not involved with," Shields said of McGregor insulting the Skrap Pack team members for banned substance infractions. "I think it's disrespectful and that's why I didn't really care for Conor. At the press conference, he tried mouthing off to me saying he would strangle me. That's just laughable. The guy needs to watch out who he talks s--t to. We're fighters and he thinks he can talk s--t to bigger, better fighters. He needs to be careful or he's going to get beat up."
Diaz's future has never been brighter in MMA, but one might naturally wonder why it took so long for Diaz to get to this point. Some might say the UFC didn't give him the promotional push, but Diaz also lost pivotal fights and, for a time, seemed disinterested in fighting. Why the turnaround now?
"I think it's a combination," Shields said. "He's probably maturing and coming into his own. I also think he was really burned out for a while. He felt like the UFC and Dana [White] were screwing him. He didn't even really want to fight. He was debating if he wanted to fight anymore. It was hard for him to stay motivated to do it.
Shields noted Diaz had been battling injuries and while he didn't look great in the fight against Rafael dos Anjos, "if you fight, you're responsible for it."
Still, Shields stressed, "[Diaz] wasn't himself."
No one knows what's next for the younger Diaz brother, but whatever the option, it's likely to be lucrative. For a friend and training partner who has been there for virtually all of it, Shields is thrilled to witness it come to life. In terms of next steps, he's got just the sort of fight in mind to keep Diaz as relevant as he is today.
"I think he will and I think he can fight 70 or 55," Shields noted. "Naturally, he's probably better at 55 because 70s are huge, but I heard people mention him against [Robbie] Lawler. I think that'd be a good fight, stylistically. That could be an awesome fight."