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Gilbert Melendez: If Nick Diaz wins at UFC 266, ‘he’s in title contention, everyone’s going to campaign to fight him’

Nick Diaz | Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Despite two title fights at UFC 266, the biggest story heading into Saturday night will revolve around the long-awaited return of Nick Diaz.

It’s been more than six years since Diaz last competed but he’s remained one of the most talked about fighters on the entire UFC roster even as he sat on the sidelines since 2015. His return for a rematch against Robbie Lawler — 17 years after their first encounter — has the entire combat sports world watching and wondering if Diaz can still compete amongst the best of the best in the UFC.

There was a time not that long ago that Diaz’s longtime teammate and friend Gilbert Melendez wondered if the former UFC title contender would ever fight again much less make his return at UFC 266.

“I did think there was a moment there where I didn’t see him coming back,” Melendez said during his appearance on The Fighter vs. The Writer podcast. “I felt like hey, he’s always staying in shape, always running, he’s always biking, he’s always living a good Pescatarian diet but not necessarily sparring all the time.

“But lately, the last year, we have been seeing him in the gym. We have been seeing him work and all of a sudden, we’re thinking wait a second — I think he’s working on something here. He’s not a guy of words, he’s a guy of action. So yes, there was a point where I thought he was retired, but I can tell the last two years, there was whispers of him talking about it and then you can see him training. He’s showing up in the gym. He’s in his gi, he’s in there sparring. He’s doing more stuff like that besides just running and doing the triathlete stuff and keeping a healthy diet. We did feel like this storm of Nick Diaz was returning.”

As one of the most magnifying draws in the UFC, Diaz coming back has immediately injected new life into the welterweight division where Kamaru Usman has been reigning as champion since early 2019.

Usman is currently preparing for a rematch against Colby Covington at UFC 268 after breaking his jaw in their first meeting just under two years ago. A win would mark Usman’s fourth straight title defense and a quick look at the welterweight rankings shows several more potential rematches awaiting him in the future.

That’s where Diaz coming back suddenly starts drawing attention.

Just a few weeks ago, Usman’s manager Ali Abdelaziz proclaimed that Diaz would immediately become the No. 1 contender in the division if he gets past Lawler at UFC 266. While that might seem illogical considering Diaz’s last win at welterweight came in 2011, his star power and the legacy attached to his name trumps reason or rankings.

“It’s huge. It’s a win for everybody,” Melendez explained. “If I’m Brian Ortega and [Alexander] Volkanovski, I’m pumped that I have these guys on the card that I’m headlining. These guys are going to bring eyeballs to me. If Nick is successful and he wins, of course, he’s in title contention. Everyone’s going to campaign to fight him. Everyone wants to challenge the legend. It only brings your stock up.

“We recognize now we’re not in the fight business, we are in the entertainment business. So you have to be a great fighter but you also have to entertain. You could be Conor McGregor with a 1-2 record and come back and just sell out arenas and they’re going to get the right fights because of that. So yes, it would be huge for Nick to be back, to win. All of a sudden, he might be directly for a title shot.”

Of course, Diaz first has to get through Lawler on Saturday night but regardless of his absence from the sport, Melendez expects to see his teammate put on an old school performance.

While he won’t be in his corner this weekend like he’s been for many of his fights, Melendez has seen the work Diaz has been doing at the gym and it’s almost like he never took six years off from fighting.

As for Lawler, he has been very active but the former UFC welterweight champion has also dropped his past four fights in a row while absorbing a lot of punishment along the way.

“It’s very hard to come back from a long layoff but if there’s anyone who could do it, it’s Nick Diaz,” Melendez said. “There are pros and cons to everything. Being away for six years, the cons are the mat time and being in there. The pros are he’s rested up, he’s excited. He’s here on his terms.

“Robbie’s been competing, he’s been staying busy. The guy’s an amazing fighter but he’s really been leaving his life out there. The Rory MacDonald fight, his Carlos Condit fight, his Matt Brown fight. He’s got a lot of mileage over the time while Nick’s been resting. Nick’s been recovering. These are things to look at.”

Melendez will certainly be pulling for Diaz to get the win but he’s also just looking forward to watching how this fight unfolds 17 years after the first fight.

On that night, Diaz faceplanted Lawler with a brutal punch just over 90 seconds into the second round and that win helped launch his career in the UFC.

There’s no telling if the rematch will produce a similar result but Melendez is excited to see how it all plays out.

“This is 17 years in the making,” Melendez said. “This is a rematch we’ve been wanting to see for a long time. We thought this might happen in Strikeforce, this might happen somewhere else and now here we are full circle, what better place than the place that it started, right here in the UFC.

“I think they’re both better fighters. I think they were young and aggressive back then but I think they’re more calculated now but they both have the same spirit. Both guys are warriors. They’re not these point boxers or point fighters. They’re there to conclude a fight and that’s what makes this fight very interesting.”

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