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Nate Diaz is fully realized, motherf*cker — even if the UFC doesn’t realize it

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Perhaps Nate Diaz’s greatest proof that he’s a realized star in the fight game is that during a rare off-week in MMA TMZ was asking Dana White about…you know, Nate Diaz. It’s hard to tell a tabloid that the subject matter of their clicks is delusional to think he’s click-worthy. Not that White told TMZ that exactly. He saved that bit for Yahoo, who asked him about Diaz as well a day later, after Diaz resurfaced on a special edition of The MMA Hour. Diaz, White said, is not a proven pay-per-view star — and he keeps turning down the chance to become one.

Like he did with the offered interim title fight with Tony Ferguson, a consolation bout while Conor McGregor is off chasing nine figures.

What White’s saying has been somewhat traditionally true. But if anybody should know how to roll with the punches, it should be the UFC president himself. Diaz has been slinking along as a “bubble” commodity since he came up on The Ultimate Fighter 5. Back then he was Nick’s little brother, the younger mean-mugger who talked like he was chewing cotton. Like his brother, he was never overly eager to endear himself to the fight public. Like an iconoclast with a bong and active middle finger, though, all those Stockton slaps and taunts begin to add up to something sincere. The Pellegrino “eff you” choke got people talking back in the day. The 258 punches he landed on Donald Cerrone at UFC 141 to end a six-fight winning streak was a reminder that he’s a baller.

You can string together a thousand Diaz moments that heighten the space he’s in now. And none was bigger than his rivalry with Conor McGregor. It’s not that McGregor made Diaz into a star; it’s more like McGregor helped everybody realize Diaz has always been a star. He’s the song that you listened to a hundred times but finally heard on the hundred and first. He was the sneaking suspicion that turned out to be right. All Diaz did was keep being Diaz until one day he became an enrichment to the fight game.

That’s what made White’s comments to Yahoo a little…outside of the times. The Diaz that headlined fight nights against Jim Miller and Benson Henderson was the one building up his stock and resentments. The one that exists in 2017 is a fully realized, fully animated, fully got Nate Diaz, and this one isn’t taking any shit, or any old notions.

“I mean, listen, at the end of the day, what is Diaz worth without Conor McGregor? I don’t know,” White told Yahoo’s Kevin Iole. “The kid isn’t in a position for pay-per-view or any of that type of [stuff]. But this [a fight with Ferguson] could put him in a position. If he fought Tony Ferguson, it would be for the interim title. Obviously, if you held the interim title, you would get a piece of the pay-per-view. Diaz has to put himself in a position to make the pay-per-view money.”

In hindsight, Diaz’s big turning moment is 20/20. As in, he was paid $20K/$20K for the crash-into-awareness fight with Michael Johnson on the main card for UFC on FOX 17. Having lost three of four fights, and out a full year since getting smoked by Rafael dos Anjos, Diaz quietly stole the show from the likes of Alistair Overeem (who made over half-a-million) and dos Anjos (who made $300,000). Diaz grabbed the mic after upsetting Michael Johnson and let fly some Stockton invective on Big Fox’s prudish airwaves, along with nine words that summed up his frustration, his optimism, and his mic smarts.

“Conor McGregor, you’re taking everything I worked for, mother f*cker.”

That was the moment Diaz truly arrived, in that he finally put intention and luck into the same sphere. He wouldn’t have gotten the McGregor fight, not where he was at the time with where McGregor was then, but an injury to dos Anjos in his UFC 196 fight with McGregor opened the door. To what? To the full Diaz. The raw streak of fighter who gleamed like a savior when announced as the replacement. The McGregor antidote; a principled, never-wavering, sincere fighter who would not be cowed by any amount of Irish smack talk. The impenetrable fighter who would compel people to tune in if for no other reason than a basic understanding that McGregor’s head games wouldn’t work on the 209.

That’s when Diaz became an interactive vicarious experience. McGregor may have spooked Jose Aldo, but Nate Diaz’s f*ck you attitude went fathoms deep. That’s when people converted a suspicion into a truth. By the time he choked McGregor out, and uttered the other four words — “I’m not surprised, motherf*cker” — he was already aloft in the fight game consciousness. What he’s been for so long finally stood out as something to fully understand.

He lost the rematch with McGregor at UFC 202, yet by conjunction broke the PPV record. Diaz is linked to that bit of history. He didn’t come out of the gates as a transcendent star, nor did he necessarily become one in the intervening years. McGregor came along, and Diaz became fully realized. That was the transaction.

And that’s where Diaz is in 2017. At a spot where people are compelled to see him fight again, whether it’s against Ferguson or against McGregor (or against anybody). Will they pay money to see him? The hunch is they will, because sometimes the needle moves the moment you take your eye off it.