Nate Diaz spent a good part of this week with the yacking class of sports talk TV. On Fox Sports Live, he smirked while remembering how mad he was the last time he encountered his interviewers and their disembodied laughs in his earpiece, before co-host Jay Onrait assured him they were laughing at the fallout from his latest press conference with Conor McGregor and not Diaz specifically. “Well yeah, it’s hilarious, if you’re not fighting in a cage,” Diaz replied. On UFC Tonight, in what was a minor miracle for a fighter to whom family and fighting are both famously personal, he stood a few feet from UFC middleweight Michael Bisping—who's campaigned for a fight with brother Nick—without even flying off the handle. And on ESPN's SportsNation, he talked about running into Justin Bieber and making amends. "He said, 'Let's squash the beef,'" Diaz said. "I was like, 'Hey, I got real beef out there, so it's all good between me and you."
With a rematch against McGregor at UFC 200, rumored to be coming any moment, Nate Diaz is spending a sustained moment in the spotlight. He's also transforming right in front of our eyes, just by opening up and showing everyone else who he's been all along.
It's at least a little different from the fighter a lot of us thought Diaz was: terse, belligerent, vulgar. That didn't matter so much when he was contracted for the usual tasks thrust upon a late-notice replacement opposite McGregor at UFC 196: show up more or less in shape, keep pre-fight tensions running high, and serve as a reliably grumpy contrast to the extroverted McGregor. In the aftermath of swarming and submitting the Irishman and wondering aloud whether the UFC would give him a PR push, the cameras and microphones and airtime that would have been gathering words and images of McGregor have instead turned to Diaz, keeping him at the center of the news cycle three weeks after he won that bestseller of a fight.
For the media-averse Diaz, this most recent round of interviews looks like immersion therapy—a drawn-out grind to get him to laugh and answer questions he finds less than stimulating with polysyllabic answers, to shore up social skills that pale compared to his pugilistic ones. Perhaps because he's not starving and drying himself out right now, he's handling the undertaking with good humor. He banters and jokes with talking heads without falling back on either polished athlete-speak or (too much) cursing. It's as though Diaz is being groomed for a higher profile, whether he beats McGregor or whomever else. That he could smile through the grind so soon after walking out of an interview with "the money channel" shows that maybe he had the composure to do it all along.
For as long as there have been complaints that the Diazes are bad for the sport, there's another contingent that has sworn that the brothers are upstanding, friendly, low-key people—if only you got to know them and if only they weren't so guarded. And it's easy to forget that most of our impressions of fighters are forged from sound bites gathered from minds running on restricted calories yet still conscious that they're sharing a room or a phone line with someone who wants to beat them up. On the Fox Sports Live segment, Diaz talked about his distaste for fight week and the person he has to become. "I gotta get the in the cage and I gotta fight the guy, so it’s kinda hard to act right, talk like a civilized human being when I’m in a very uncivilized situation."
A follow-up question about whether he truly hates McGregor elicited an even more compelling insight. "I never hated him. I never hated anybody I fight. It's all good, Conor…It's all good with everybody. If we ain't fighting, and we're not lined up to meet and fight, then it's all good with everybody. But if we're gonna fight, stay your ass over there and I'll stay over here. That's how I feel. Everybody else is like, 'That's unsportsmanlike.' But this is not a sport, you know what I'm saying. We're on Fox Sports and everything, but this is a fight and that's genuine…I'm the only one acting like we're in a real fight because you know why? Because we are in a real fight. That's a real attitude and the way I really feel about it. And sometimes it makes me the bad guy because of that."
This is introspective stuff. One person contains multitudes, or at least a duality that depends on circumstance. Being irritable, profane, and quick to scuffle before a fight is a sign of stress, not necessarily the default setting that sticks around after wins and losses are in the books. In the fight game, there's a time to be abrasive and there's a time to go along and get along. Nate Diaz can tell difference. The trick is getting him to get in front of a camera and say it over and over until everyone else understands too.
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