It is hard not to be drawn in to the anticipation flooding through the MMA fanbase as they prepare to watch Nick Diaz fight for the first time in six years. It is hard not to understand the excitement in seeing the American, arguably the UFC’s greatest ever cult personality, taking on Robbie Lawler in a rematch 17 years in the making.
But boxing’s recent descent into carnivalesque contests, with older competitors chasing yesterday – yesteryear, even – has taught us that a bout such as Diaz vs Lawler II is more likely to end in blood, sweat and the wrong kind of tears than in candidacy for fight of the year.
Diaz, older brother of Nate, last competed in January 2015, his decision defeat by Anderson Silva later overturned to a No Contest when the Stockton fighter tested positive for cannabis. The awkward southpaw’s third marijuana-related failed drugs test led to a five-year ban by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and he is only now returning – at the age of 38.
Before his middleweight loss to Silva was nullified, Diaz was looking at a third straight defeat, and he was doing so just one month after Lawler captured UFC welterweight gold by edging a split decision against Johny Hendricks. That result came in the middle of a five-fight win streak for ‘Ruthless’, who would then drop his strap to Tyron Woodley in July 2016. Diaz’s fellow Californian responded one year later by beating Donald Cerrone, but the 39-year-old has since lost four in a row.
So, in one corner this weekend you have a combatant who has not fought in six years and not won in a decade – and who has had a noted proclivity for partying during his extended absence; in the other corner you have a much more active fighter, but one who is without a victory in four years and without a knockout – the kind that made him famous – in six years. Both men are pushing 40 years old.
The fight is only the second in UFC history to be scheduled for five rounds despite not being for a title or in a main event spot. The first, earlier this year, featured Nate Diaz. For that meeting with Leon Edwards, the stipulation was sensical. Here, it threatens to underwhelm.
Rather than an expectation of sublime in-ring showings on Saturday, it is narrative and nostalgia that are undoubtedly the fuel for the anticipation and excitement ahead of this match-up in Las Vegas.
Lawler has fought 34 times since he was knocked out by Diaz at UFC 47 in April 2004; 209 months have passed, in a surreal but fitting connection to the 209 Stockton area code that fans frequently reference in tribute to Nick and Nate.
The first clash between Diaz and Lawler, also staged in Las Vegas, ended 91 seconds into the second round, with Lawler having been “spooked” by his opponent’s taunting – as Diaz put it this week – and having walked on to numerous counter strikes. The shot that finished off a then-22-year-old Lawler was an almost blind jab, thrown by a 21-year-old Diaz as soon as his opponent had freed himself from the briefest of clinches to wing a right hook.
The way in which an unconscious Lawler fell face-first to the mat has become one of MMA’s most iconic moments, his hands by his side as he toppled forward but raised just in time to prevent a bruising landing. The scene continued with Diaz attempting to circle past the referee to throw one last punch on a discombobulated Lawler, forcing his beaten foe to stagger backwards into the fence as if he had been struck again. In a way, that moment within a moment felt symbolic; Diaz’s taunts had as much of an impact on Lawler as his fists did.
That victory marked the first of three particularly potent memories placed in UFC fans by Diaz. The other two came in his final two bouts before his long, enforced absence. Before the American famously laid down while in the ring with Silva, as if wanting to be painted like a French girl, he came up against Georges St-Pierre and represented the perfect foil for the straight-laced, straight-faced welterweight champion.
With those contests against two of the greatest of all time ending in Diaz being outpointed, many of his fans prefer to place stock in the third major memory of the jiu-jitsu specialist’s UFC run: the knockout of Lawler.
What the pair’s rematch means for Diaz is unclear. The fight was changed from a welterweight bout to a middleweight meeting this week, with theories circulating that Diaz’s team were keen to prevent him from cutting too much weight out of fear over the potential physical impact of such an effort.
Even if Diaz makes it through the week and fight night unscathed – victorious, even – there is far from any guarantee that a sustained UFC run is on the cards for the former Strikeforce welterweight champion.
In fact, making it through the week unscathed in itself would be a victory for a 38-year-old without any competitive ring time in more than half a decade and with a minor identity crisis entering UFC 266.
“It’s hard to go back and keep it gangster or whatever,” Diaz said this week, referencing fans’ perception of his character and old antics.
“It’s not a good look. I don’t really want to push that ‘cause I want to teach… I like to teach the kids and they’re all grown up now. And putting in work with those kids, it’s really good for me.
“I’m not going out there to call him names. I’m gonna be a lot more sportsmanlike out there. That’s not what won me the fight last time – that surprised him a little bit.
“I feel a lot different now than I used to,” Diaz told ESPN. “Some days I feel great, some days I’m not all with it.
“I don’t feel great – I feel great to fight, I don’t feel great about everything – but if I don’t do this, I don’t know how I'm gonna feel about myself.
“This is not an enjoyable thing. This whole thing is for everybody else, I’m glad the fans are happy and it’s what gets them going. It got me going when I was a kid.
“All the people around me, all the money and sponsors, they won’t let me get away from fighting... There’s things I could do, but that’s not gonna work out. I might as well just go and take my punches.”
Bookmakers have this fight as a pick ‘em. The intangibles certainly add intrigue. The reality is, however, Diaz can be considered a winner if he enters and exits UFC 266 as a healthy man.
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