Artwork by Grimoire
“I think you should beat everybody on your worst day, but you can never be ready enough for a fight anyway," Nate Diaz told TMZ about his short-notice welterweight fight against ballooned-up featherweight Conor McGregor at UFC 196 this Saturday. "Might get murked. I don't care though. It's all good. Or he might.”
That kind of fatalism, delivered with thrift of language, would make Hemingway proud. Heading into a professional fight with fewer than two weeks to prepare and without a belt or another tangible consequence on the line, save for the human ones, not getting invested in the outcome is a valid attitude to have. And it's one Nate Diaz has carried forward for more than a decade.
It's hard to believe it's been nearly that long since we saw Diaz freaking out and on the verge of slapping someone inside The Ultimate Fighter house on the show's fifth season. The mystique of Brother Nick—sidelined at the time after smashing and submitting Takanori Gomi in PRIDE, then popping positive for weed—rubbed off on Nate, and he looked like his doppelganger in the UFC, with preternatural jiu-jitsu skills years beyond whatever belt he secured to his gi and hands that earned high praise from Andre Ward. After shifting between 155 and 170 pounds, a trio of inspired performances against Gomi, Donald Cerrone, and Jim Miller brought Nate to a lightweight title shot in 2012. In that loss to Benson Henderson and in the layoff-laden years since, he's shown vulnerability against strong wrestlers and he's shown flashes of stand-up brilliance, most recently against Michael Johnson. Win or lose, Diaz's fights frequently become pissing contests: changing the plane where a fight takes place would mean admitting a kind of defeat. Better to lose on scorecards and conjure indignation and conspiracy than to back down.
That last performance against Johnson put Diaz in the running for the McGregor Sweepstakes, but it's impossible to talk about Nate Diaz solely in terms of how he fights, and it's impossible to talk about his appeal without continuing to invoke his older brother. They've resonated in part because they're symbols of a counterculture, or at least as much as one might exist in mixed martial arts. They play victims of the power structure: Beyond Nick’s fondness for a semi-legal plant—a concern that, given the short-notice nature of the McGregor bout, has also rubbed off on Nate—Nate took a fine for wearing his jeans to weigh-ins instead of standard-issue Reebok ahead of the Johnson fight. They're loyal to the people within their insular training camp, and while fads change and fighters move from tire-flipping to muscle-ups, Nate keeps putting in miles of triathlon and marathon work, the kind of long slow distance stuff that MMA strength and conditioning coaches so often advise against.
Diaz also gives moralists ample reason to think he's the worst thing that ever happened to MMA. He's made a reputation for extracurricular brawling, and he's endlessly hostile to opponents both current and future—he skirmished with Johnson in a lobby days before they fought each other in a cage. He's vulgar, extending middle fingers in victory and defiance, and saying "fuck," "bitch," and their variants to buy time before thinking of the next syllable. (Less amusingly than the jeans episode, in 2013 Nate was fined $20,000 and given a perfunctory suspension for tweeting a homosexual epithet at UFC bantamweight Bryan Caraway.) If you're inclined to look at Nate and see a dull thug, or a poor ambassador for his sport, you can cherry-pick your evidence.
But there's a contradiction here. Yesterday, the UFC released a two-minute promo video for this weekend's pay-per-view with the subtitle "UFC 196: Anybody, Anytime, Anyplace." The moniker speaks to a fighting philosophy that a sizeable audience fetishizes, one that says fuck the details, the fine print, the instincts for self-preservation, and bring on the fist-based violence. At the same time, another contingent longs for sportsmanship in fighters, an ability to treat MMA as a profession, to shake hands and say "nice job" before and after.
A willingness to fight anybody, anytime, anyplace doesn't reward pleasantries, and being polite to the people you might fight means that you aren't being entirely honest about what you both intend to do to one another. Punching, kicking, and choking aren't polite things to do, but the ornamentation that makes free-for-all fighting into a sustainable sport obscures that true nature. Nate grasps what's beneath the gloss—each fight becomes deeply personal and emotional because fighting itself is deeply personal and emotional. "So, what do you want me to do?" Diaz asks the person behind the camera shooting another promo video that was released yesterday. "Smile and hug the guy? I don’t think so. We’re at war here.”
Playing nice seems like the dumbest thing in a murk-or-get-murked world.
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