Nate Diaz inhaled off his vape pen while the bruising from the evening settled in on his face. More than 12 minutes into the post-fight press scrum after UFC 202, someone finally asked the welterweight-lightweight-whateverweight what he was puffing so casually. Cannabidiol (CBD) oil, he said, a cannabis-derived, non-intoxicating substance to aid recovery and reduce inflammation. In between draws, Diaz ribbed Conor McGregor, UFC featherweight champion and the 168-pound opponent who just beat him.
"What did Conor do for this fight? He did exactly what I told his ass to do," Diaz said, before making fun of McGregor for riding his road bike without a helmet or clips, and questioning the patriotism of his American jiu-jitsu trainer. "…He followed the leader man. He hired these people and that was a good job, but who taught you how to do that? Your sensei here, man. [He] followed the leader as far as the martial artists, followed the leader as far as the business. If you think that I'm tripping and just talking out my ass, then you're obviously not that bright, because I'm supposed to have been fired already 20 times from this organization, and look where I'm at now, still doing my thing on the main card."
It was a self-assured perspective on what was, when you cram it into a paragraph-long synopsis, a bad night for Diaz: he lost by majority decision to his best-known foe and took a visible beating along the way. Of course, that doesn’t describe what happened at all: it was a fight that boiled down to perception of wild swings of momentum, it made Diaz rich, and it gave him a permanent place in MMA's celebrity class.
Diaz-McGregor II was a fight I originally planned to watch Sunday morning, and I'm glad that I didn't. Seeing it live, it was magic of the type that leaves your beard blood red and your cheeks looking like ripened eggplants. McGregor dropped Diaz and hobbled his right leg, showing restraint and commitment to the idea that this was going to be a long night from the outset. Then the script changed: Diaz flurried a tiring McGregor, slapped him, taunted him and flipped him off when the Irishman jogged away. McGregor looked like his lungs would never catch up with his heart, then he found a second wind. Diaz grinded against the fence for a takedown that never seemed to come…then he tripped McGregor with seconds left. Those five rounds exemplified why live fights are totally different organisms than the artifacts you call up with Google searches: you're watching best-laid plans and chaos and random chance all coalesce in the moment, and the ending is still a wide-open possibility.
When the end became fact, two judges gave the nod to McGregor 48-47 along with one 47-47 draw. It's routine for Diaz brothers to follow a loss with utter disbelief, halfhearted charges of conspiracy, and the flexing of modest biceps—as happened here—and if you think the man from Stockton beat the man from Dublin, you can find supporting evidence in the tallies of total and significant strikes. But in the five months between meetings, McGregor adapted to Diaz's fixed-speed, pressure-and-volume attack. Diaz didn't, and the kind of conditioning it takes a lifetime to acquire wasn’t enough to make the difference in the eyes of the judges beyond the rubberized fence.
Now, what was once a strange, joyless cash grab of a rematch looks like the second act of a trilogy, the next part of which will likely take place at 155 pounds per McGregor's post-victory request. Whether that third fight happens any time soon isn't clear. UFC President Dana White threatened to strip McGregor of his belt if he didn’t defend the 145-pound title next, while McGregor was noncommittal about his future at his own press meeting, capping the affair by cryptically saying that "shit is about to hit the fan, I feel." Diaz, meanwhile, said "…I'm not doing shit until we go for round three. You won't be seeing me until then."
Pumping up another Diaz-McGregor bout means just turning the crank and starting the machine again. Along with becoming the more competitively relevant brother in the half-decade since Nick notched his last win, since March Nate has proved to be the better adjusted Diaz when it comes to PR—he might throw bottles at press conferences and try to smack his opponents in the hotel lobby and suck on vape pens and post still frames of bongs on his Instagram page, but he can still show up and charm on Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live! And Diaz can more or less compartmentalize his fighting life when it's all over. Minutes after pointing and laughing at McGregor, the man who lumped up his face, Diaz helped him to his feet. "It's like, 'Hey man, until next time, it's all good until we're set to go,'" Diaz said at the press scrum. "What do you want me to do? Keep kicking the guy when he was down? It's all good. The fight was over."
The unlikely feud with McGregor has also been a financial windfall for Diaz. According to figures released to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Diaz's disclosed pay for the McGregor rematch was $2 million. Last December, after he beat Michael Johnson and cursed over the censors to set the wheels of the McGregor bout in motion, Diaz earned just $40,000—an abysmal wage for an exciting, finish-first fighter who won a season of The Ultimate Fighter and who challenged for the lightweight title in his eight-year UFC career. Diaz's pay raise sets a positive precedent for the rest of the UFC roster precisely because he doesn’t hold one of those scarce title belts: he's simply fought hard and often for a long time.
That Diaz has become one of the best paid and most high profile fighters in the UFC after almost a decade spent alternating wins and losses is testament to his resilience. McGregor brought himself and Diaz back to equilibrium. But they could fight each other three times or thirty, and no matter how bloody or hobbled or hopeless his situation seems from the outside, Diaz would still be standing at the end. The judges eventually have to turn in their scorecards and the spectators have to leave the arena, but there's Nate Diaz, ready to go another round or disappear in a puff of smoke.
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