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Nate Diaz is MMA’s most compelling star, and maybe its biggest

The look of the UFC 241 fight poster was never quite right, though entirely fitting. In it, Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic took center stage, dominating the landscape like a couple of overlords battling for control of the kingdom. In a way, they were. With the current UFC heavyweight champion fighting its most recent titleholder, the visual made sense. Below them, Anthony Pettis and Yoel Romero struck power poses. From behind Romero’s boulder traps, Paulo Costa peeked out from under his powerful brow line, demanding to be noticed.

And then there was Nate Diaz. Standing in Pettis’ wake, half-concealed, Diaz glared out, looking as aggrieved as an afterthought.

What was Diaz—MMA’s most compelling star—doing there, almost hidden? Was it an intentional slight? Was the UFC hedging its bets just in case he didn’t show up? Was there actually a question about how he’d be received after 1,093 days away from the Octagon?

Three years away from fighting will dim the star power of most. For Diaz, Saturday night was a test of both his fight skills and the fame he’d built over more than a decade in the sport. If there was ever any question about it, it was answered with gusto. Sellout crowd of 17,304. California MMA record gate of $3.237 million. Rabid audience of fans going wild for the prodigal son’s return. It may have been Cormier and Miocic’s event, but it was Diaz’s show.

“He’s a needle-mover now,” UFC president Dana White said in the post-fight press conference, a callback to his infamous 2014 comments deriding what he saw as Diaz’s inability to draw at the box office or on television.

All this time later, turns out that Diaz is rust-proof, a benefit of his inimitable style. Inside the cage it’s his incredible stamina that carries him through; outside it, it’s his raw, authentic personality that has made a lasting connection. Both of those traits are weaved into his DNA; so, too, is the inability to play it safe. He fights with aggression and he speaks unfiltered. Fight fans eat up both.

It has taken a long time for Diaz to reach this point of superstardom. He’s 15 years into his professional career and a dozen years into his UFC run. Most of the names he’s fought are long gone from the UFC; many are completely retired from the sport.

“Everybody’s here and gone, here and gone, and I’m like, ‘What’s up?’ I’m still here,” he said.

The UFC used his name to prop up its network events on FOX, and to support major pay-per-views, but largely because he started alternating wins and losses as he reached the upper tier of competition, the UFC blinked on promoting him to the moon. Most everyone in the organization knew he was interesting, but they couldn’t see him as a champion, and so his value had a ceiling.

Due to the UFC’s calendar, such an oversight is somewhat understandable. The promotion rarely has time to reflect or to do deep analysis on trends. But if they did, they might have noticed Diaz’s value growing right around the time White was critical of him in the media. Then again, maybe they knew exactly what they were doing. Some of White’s words might have been a negotiating ploy; after all, when you admit a fighter is a draw, you will eventually be asked to pay accordingly. But whatever the case, his value could no longer be hidden after his back-to-back pairings with Conor McGregor.

The two were perfect foils for each other, ready-made rivals who could verbally joust with aplomb, casually parrying and countering the other’s attack. What McGregor served up in searing intensity, Diaz countered with rambling cool. It was fascinating. He was fascinating.

When he exited stage left following the rivalry, it made him all the more intriguing. Who leaves at the height of their popularity?

A break? Sure. A sabbatical? Maybe. But straight-up bouncing out of the sport with no real explanation? That’s fairly unheard of.

He was something like the movie-character thief who artfully plans one last score and actually sticks to his word, which is to say, he is nothing like the movie-character thief because they always, always, always break their word. With Diaz, we never quite knew where he was going or what he was going to do, and that is part of the fascination. He is an unpredictable enigma.

Against Pettis, he wasn’t vintage, but he was strong and surprisingly sharp given his lengthy hiatus, and when he won, he left us with a final gift: the knowledge that he is likely to return. In true Diaz style, he zigged when we might have expected the zag, ignoring the possibility of a McGregor trilogy bout in favor of a callout of the surging Jorge Masvidal.

“Now we’re fighting for the baddest-motherf***er-in-the-game belt, and that’s mine,” he said in the post-fight press conference.

Just like that, a matchup few had considered suddenly became something we can’t live without. Then again, whatever Nate Diaz does is must-watch material. There has never been someone like him in the sport. He doesn’t need a title to draw. He doesn’t need to be a nearly perfect fighter like Jon Jones; he doesn’t need to have the backing of an entire country like McGregor. He just has to be himself. He was already MMA’s most compelling star. Now, he may be its biggest.

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