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The Great Divide: Should Nate Diaz headline UFC 230 at Madison Square Garden?

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Nate Diaz faces Dustin Poirier at UFC 230.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a new reoccurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which writers debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments section below.

First up this week, Chuck Mindenhall and Shaun Al-Shatti tackle a question that’s been on everyone’s mind: Without an obvious main event for the UFC’s upcoming return to Madison Square Garden, should Nate Diaz vs. Dustin Poirier be the headlining attraction of UFC 230?

NO

Mindenhall: One of the fun subplots that came out of the Conor McGregor-Nate Diaz series was the notion that Diaz — a casual elusive for so many years — had emerged as a star. That is undoubtedly true. Millions of people paid closer attention to Diaz’s every move for both fights, namely because he offered McGregor something McGregor hadn’t dealt with before — that is, a foil with zero f*cks to give, a mega-ton chip on his shoulder, and a psyche that was impervious to even the shrillest Irish cackle.

Of course, it helped that those of us within the MMA bubble knew the truth…that, you know, Diaz actually has many f*cks to give. Many, many, many f*cks. More f*cks than just about anybody, really. F*cks for days. Nobody is in tune with his public like Diaz. Every time he takes a step he’s watching himself take it on a screen in his mind; he is the star of his own movie, and he has a good feeling that the audience is smart enough to pick up on his complexities. He storms out of a presser? He knows we love the impulse. He pretends to spark a spliff on national TV? He knows that speaks louder than words.

Why?

Because Nate Diaz is never fighting any one man. Nate Diaz is always fighting The Man. The media understands the subliminal contract he has signed for that particular bout, and cherishes the ideas within that deep meaning. That’s why he is beloved. And McGregor, who has earned something like a bazillion dollars in the very same UFC that paid Diaz $40,000 to show for his bout with Michael Johnson, just happens to be The Man. He is the very special treatment that Diaz stands against. His grudge against flourishing coattails has been communicated so well that in two years away from the Octagon his celebrity has reached an all-time high.

And that’s why Diaz isn’t suited for a headlining spot at UFC 230 at Madison Square Garden. Dustin Poirier is not the man. Poirier is in the same rat’s nest the rest of the contender’s are, fighting for his place atop the common ranks. Poirier is Donald Cerrone or Rafael dos Anjos or Jim Miller. A Diaz-Poirier fight is fascinating from an action standpoint, and promises to deliver. But it lacks the bigger meaning that makes people care about Diaz. Why did he seem like an epiphany to so many in his fight with McGregor? Because he was Stockton’s version of Tom Joad. He was fighting not just for himself, but for every other fighter’s place to stand. Subconsciously, he was a feeling of exhilaration in the stomach. Those switches he was throwing were aimed at Dana, Endeavor, Lorenzo, and everybody else who has ever made a buck off him.

Poirier isn’t bringing that out, not as a kid from Louisiana with problems of his own. The fight is perfectly placed on the main card — below a Jon Jones’ bout? — and will be like a match hitting a dry barn, but it’s a fight that only goes yay deep. If McGregor beats Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229, and calls for Diaz to take care of business in New York City so that they can meet again? The UFC would be dumb not to capitalize on that (and perhaps even help in the orchestration). As is, Diaz is fighting Dustin Poirier in what looks like a damn good banger, but that’s not enough to carry a major PPV.

YES

Al-Shatti: First off, I preface everything I’m about to write with the caveat that if Jon Jones is somehow freed from his USADA issues early — a proposition that once sounded ridiculous but is increasingly seeming to be in play — then this entire argument is null and void. Make no bones about it, if Jones is available on Nov. 3, then he should headline Madison Square Garden, especially with the former light heavyweight champ out here looking more like a bricked-up heavyweight with each passing day.

But if that ends up not being the case, and Jones is kept in USADA purgatory through the fall, then there really is only one solution for UFC 230’s vacant main event. Only one man with the kind of mainstream cachet that justifies a one-off experiment to finally figure out if the UFC has another of those elusive second-tier stars on their hands, the sort that may fall well below the McGregor/St-Pierre/Lesnar stratosphere but can still bank the healthy 300,000 to 500,000 pay-per-view buyrate that has become hard to find in recent years.

And conveniently enough, that man is already on the card: Mr. Nathan Diaz.

Let me begin by saying I believe Diaz’s reentry into the game has been botched from the start, botched in a way where it now feels like less of a big deal than it should.

Think back to Aug. 3, when late in the night, the UFC effectively blew up MMA Twitter with the abrupt announcement that Diaz was returning at last from a two-year absence to meet Dustin Poirier in a banger at UFC 230. Honestly, I can’t remember a more joyous reaction to a fight announcement this year — and it wasn’t just us crazies. The news carried outside of the bubble too. Anecdotally, there are many non-MMA fans in my life who couldn’t care less about T.J. Dillashaw’s brilliance or the comings and goings of Amanda Nunes, but they still care very much about Diaz. It makes sense. The last time they saw him, he was touring the mainstream as a rockstar. His unlikely rivalry with Conor McGregor made outsiders actually care about him, and it cannot be overstated how hard that is to accomplish. Again, this is purely anecdotal, but the barrage of non-MMA fans in my life hitting me up about “NATE DIAZ IS BACK?!” stretched well into the weekend following UFC 230’s announcement.

But then things fell apart.

Rather a big spectacle being made of the return of Nate Diaz, People’s Champion, the younger son of Stockton was shuttled into a press conference as one face among many. A comeback two years in the making, and instead he fielded three questions — three questions! — from a small group reporters who were understandably concerned about ensuring every fighter had a turn on the mic. What followed? A rushed Nurmagomedov-McGregor announcement, and within a span of 24 hours, that joyous celebration of Nate Diaz’s reentry to the game was lost into the McGregor vacuum. In barely the blink of an eye, one of the UFC’s last potential stars was cast as just another face in the crowd.

Instead, let’s say I’m running Al-Shatti Promotions and it’s my call, here’s what happens:

1) I make a giant scene of The Return of Nate Diaz. Promos and posters, the works. Replay the McGregor footage over and over. Revive the momentum of UFC 202, make him come off as the star people remembered. Think about the last time this guy was in the public consciousness. He was breaking records as the B-side to the two biggest fights in history. Those fights sold well because of McGregor, of course, but because of Diaz as well. There’s a reason Alvarez vs. McGregor didn’t approach UFC 202’s pay-per-view numbers.

2) I hold a giant press conference where it’s just Diaz and Poirier. Force him into the spotlight. No other big announcements. Just let the Diaz vs. Poirier quotes flow and allow the sport to revel in them for a few days.

And finally, the point of this entire debate, 3) I put him in the main event.

Everyone is so wrapped up in title fights headlining shows these days, but that’s a relatively new edict. Take 2011 as an example: Eight of the UFC’s 17 pay-per-views were headlined by non-title affairs. This glorification of title fights at all costs is unnecessary and just one of many reasons we’re being force-fed so many silly interim belts. Instead, pump UFC 230 up as The Diaz Show. Throw a lower-drawing title fight below it, maybe a Rose Namajunas or a Henry Cejudo, and with everything else UFC 230 already has booked — Weidman-Rockhold, Adesanya-Brunson, Jacare-Branch — you have yourself a damn fine pay-per-view.

Maybe the card won’t be huge, but with the right kind of creative marketing, it’s a show that could certainly land in the range of 300,000 to 500,000 buys, which is an overwhelming win in today’s current climate. Remember, too, this will all be in the shadow of the recently decided Nurmagomedov-McGregor bout. Use that! Remember when Diaz brawled with Nurmagomedov in crowd of a WSOF show? Again, there’s a way to get creative here. The Nate Diaz brand still carries value with casual fans in a way few others do.

Because ultimately, what other options are out there?

I have yet to hear a better solution. Heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight, welterweight and lightweight — those titles are already tied up, as are women’s featherweight, bantamweight, and flyweight. Max Holloway’s health is a mystery and Georges St-Pierre isn’t coming back to fight anyone who’s currently available. Barring a miraculous turn of events in Jon Jones’ USADA case, there literally isn’t a better option.

This isn’t about Dustin Poirier. It’s about giving the only potential untapped draw on the roster a chance to prove whether he really can do decent numbers on his own.

(And really, selfishly, don’t we need to see Nate Diaz vs. Dustin Poirier for five rounds?)