U.F.C. Needs an Antihero: Nate Diaz Returns Just in Time

 nytimes.com  08/15/2019 21:32:07   John Branch

After a three-year hiatus, the pot-smoking, Dana White-antagonizing Everyman returns for a (co-)main event.

ImageNate Diaz trained at a gym in Manteca, Calif., for his coming U.F.C. welterweight fight against Anthony Pettis.
Nate Diaz trained at a gym in Manteca, Calif., for his coming U.F.C. welterweight fight against Anthony Pettis.CreditCreditBrian L. Frank for The New York Times
John Branch

STOCKTON, Calif.  Nate Diaz was stoned in an ice bath.

The antihero of the Ultimate Fighting Championship was on his patio, neck-deep in training for his first fight in three years. He closed his eyes behind his sunglasses.

Summer in Californias Central Valley was in full heat-blast mode. Landscapers trimmed the vast lawn with their buzzing mowers while Diazs father-in-law tinkered with a construction project by the pool. Diazs friends were in the shade, smoking marijuana.

The days group training would begin in a while  a seven-mile run in the 100-degree heat, a middle-of-the-night session at the gym  but the biggest concern of the afternoon was running out of weed.

So maybe now Im hella high, but if I hop in the ice bath itll kick me up, wake up my cells, Diaz said. It turns me from I dont want to go to lets go real quick.

U.F.C. brands itself as the counterculture edge of the sports world: brash, bloody and unscripted. But as mixed martial arts have bulled into the mainstream, Diaz remains a reliable mutineer. He is the pot-smoking, straight-talking, Stockton-representing renegade who, at the top of his career, had the gall to essentially disappear for three years.

Diaz stands out in a tent of circus performers by doing nothing but being himself. That much was on display when he strolled into his open workout on Wednesday smoking a CBD joint from his own cannabis business, and proceeded to pass more out to fans. He had planned to stop smoking marijuana a couple of weeks before his fight against Anthony Pettis on Saturday at U.F.C. 241 in Anaheim, because the compound in weed that causes psychoactive effects, THC, remains a banned substance for which fighters are tested.

Myself and the fans, his fans, have just come to learn that he is very unique, the U.F.C. president, Dana White, said in a phone interview. He looks at things completely different than most normal people do.

Maybe a refresher is in order: In his second-to-last U.F.C. fight, in March 2016, Diaz pummeled and temporarily quieted Conor McGregor with a second-round submission.

ImageDiaz, top, defeated Conor McGregor in March 2016. He lost to McGregor a few months later.
Diaz, top, defeated Conor McGregor in March 2016. He lost to McGregor a few months later.CreditBrandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC, via Getty Images

It was, at the time, the biggest pay-per-view event in mixed martial arts history, and when Diaz was handed the microphone after ending McGregors 15-fight winning streak, he uttered four words  Im not surprised, followed by a 12-letter obscenity  which together became the most famous quotation in U.F.C. history. The words are memorialized on a mural of a bloodied, victorious Diaz painted on the side of a building in his hometown, the last word replaced by an ellipsis.

The upset rocketed Diaz from crowd-pleasing journeyman to genuine star, out of the shadow of his older brother, Nick, also a top U.F.C. fighter. There were mainstream television appearances, as rough-edged and unscripted as Diaz himself, everywhere from Kimmel to Conan. He ate tacos with Anthony Bourdain.

In his last fight, a grueling rematch with McGregor five months later, which raised their old pay-per-view record, Diaz lost by split decision. A defeat without disgrace, there was instant talk of a trilogy, as if McGregor and Diaz were U.F.C.s Ali and Frazier or Leonard and Duran.

It did not happen. McGregor, a cultural crossover act, cashed in the next year by boxing Floyd Mayweather. Diaz, to the disappointment of his 2.9 million Instagram followers and millions of fight fans, mostly disappeared.

Three years later, at a time when U.F.C. seems a bit lost, needing to fulfill its media contracts and finding few stars, one of its biggest was in his backyard, looking lean, smoking pot and telling stories.

Unfolding himself out of the tub, Diaz, 34, picked up his phone and zoomed in on U.F.C.s promotional poster for the fight. He shook his head at the scowl.

Look at this picture theyre using, Diaz said. They always want me to be that. &  And here he referred to himself by that most unprintable of nouns.

Diaz in an ice bath, stoned.CreditBrian L. Frank for The New York Times

They always promote one and demote the other, Diaz said. Im always being demoted.

Diaz wanted the poster changed.

Do you know how many fighters have called and complained about the poster in 20 years? White said. One. One guy.

This fight could lead to more Diaz fights, including that third one with McGregor, sure to be bigger than the others, though a pending sexual assault investigation of McGregor remains an obstacle. It is not hyperbole to suggest that even after Diazs three-year layoff, todays U.F.C. might need him more than he needs U.F.C.

Diaz lives about a mile from where he grew up, within earshot of Highway 99, unglamorous Central Californias clogged major artery. His parents met at a diner. His mother was a waitress. His father was a line cook, and still is. Diaz is looking to buy them a restaurant of their own.

The stucco house Diaz shares with Misty Brown and their 1-year-old daughter, Nikayla, is sprawling and cluttered. It is decorated in the competing styles of Pottery Barn and Little Tikes.

The walls look to be Diazs domain. A Bruce Lee poster hangs over the mantel. Bob Marley smokes a joint over the guest toilet. A den turned into a workout room has a painted caricature of Diaz and Tupac Shakur over the tagline Thug Life, a stoned Mickey Mouse titled Hollyweed and a framed copy of a 2017 Dope Magazine cover featuring the Diaz brothers.

See how its crooked? Diaz said. I framed that myself.

Diaz at his home in Stockton, Calif.CreditBrian L. Frank for The New York Times

Diaz and Brown have been together for 12 years. They met long before that, at nearby Salas Park, when she was at cheerleader practice and he was at football practice.

He was always running laps, she said. Even then he was getting in trouble.

Diazs first fight was in sixth grade (I headlined the park, he said), and he followed his brother into jujitsu, out of high school (both boys dropped out) and toward sanctioned fighting. At 21, with his brother rising in U.F.C., Diaz was cast on the Ultimate Fighter reality series, which he won.

The Diaz brothers are known for taunting opponents before, during and after matches, but it was Nate who gave two middle fingers to an opponent in the middle of a fight. In 2013, U.F.C. suspended him for tweeting gay slurs.

While Nick has faced significant charges of his own outside the sport  including three counts of domestic battery, which were later dismissed  the pairs close connection is part of their draw. Nick, two years Nates senior, failed or dodged drug tests before being given a five-year suspension for a positive marijuana test after a 2015 fight. It was later overturned, but he has not fought since.

Through their ownership of a CBD business, Game Up Nutrition, and Nates insistence on vaping marijuana during the McGregor postfight news conference, the Diaz brothers proclivity for cannabis is a part of what made them rebels. Or helped turn marijuana mainstream.

Thats all me, Diaz said. And my bro, who planted the seed. Youre welcome  and he added that familiar expletive.

Corey Robbins, 10, center, and his brother Riley, 7, are fans of Diaz and visited him at the gym.CreditBrian L. Frank for The New York Times

Brown rarely accompanies Diaz into the spotlight, but is quick to defend him  to her own skeptical family years ago, to all those who judge Diaz by his public persona.

Its wrong that he comes off as the middle finger mean guy that you cant have a conversation with, when deep down inside hes one of the most passionate people Ive met, Brown said. Theres the portrayal of him on TV, and when people meet him they say, oh, hes not mean at all.

At home and among friends, his default emotion is ease, not anger. His laugh is a sort of giggle, and when he smiles his face scrunches up and his eyes tighten. It looks like hes doing a Robert De Niro impression.

Brown echoed what Diaz has said before: He does not like to fight.

Its just something he knows how to do, Brown said.

It is a job to Diaz, but entertainment to everyone else. He has no patience for the false rituals of showmanship, angling instead to be the anti-McGregor.

Hes got a facade of some sort, Diaz said. All of them do. They dont even realize it. Theyre just jumping into the line. Theyre like robots.

Diaz took a deep tug from a pipe.

Im a little politically incorrect, but on accident, he said.

Moments later, he stood up without a word, trailed by his English bulldogs, Machiavelli and Liz. He climbed a ladder to the 10-foot roof of a pool house under construction, paced off his approach, then ran and flung himself over a stretch of concrete into the pool.

For most of a decade, Diaz was better known for taking abuse while outlasting opponents in action-filled fights. Officially, his U.F.C. record is 20-11, but only two of those losses did not go the distance.

He credits his endurance to triathlons. He was training for one in the spring of 2016 when McGregors next scheduled opponent, Rafael dos Anjos, backed out with an injury. U.F.C. was desperate to keep McGregor atop the card. Diaz stepped in as a replacement 11 days before the fight.

Triathlons teach you about pace, controlling exertion, Diaz said. He stood to pantomime his swim, bike and run at a recent race near Lake Tahoe. He talks with his whole body.

You got to know not to redline, Diaz said. Thats what happened to Conor.

The two quickly agreed to a rematch, set four months later, but Diaz said he instantly regretted signing the contract, feeling undervalued. When White canceled the fight over McGregors questions about promotional obligations, Diaz saw an opportunity. He raised his asking price when U.F.C. called again, and forced White to treat him to a steak dinner to hash out a deal, the same as White had done with McGregor. Diaz also persuaded White to let him deliver a Stockton Slap, which the fighter promptly posted on Instagram.

Thats what this culture loves, White said, explaining that Diaz gives the finger to the man and does his own thing. Nate Diaz is absolutely difficult to deal with, but I dont dislike Nate Diaz.

Diaz, left, sparring at night. The M.M.A. fighter A.J. Agazarm, center, and Diazs crew watched from behind the ropes.CreditBrian L. Frank for The New York Times

After McGregor exacted revenge in the rematch, Diaz had talks for other fights, but no matchups he loved. White grew tired of waiting, publicly suggesting that Diaz turned down dozens of fights. That infuriated Diaz further.

For most of two years, Diaz publicly vacillated on the reason he was reluctant to accept deals. Behind the scenes, though, he was being sued by his management agency, Ballengee Group, which claimed that Diaz owed it more than $1 million after Diaz cut ties with Ballengee between the McGregor fights. Diaz worried that future payouts might get caught up in the quarrel.

The suit, filed in Texas, was dismissed in 2018 because of questions over jurisdiction, and Ballengee threatened to refile it in California or Nevada, where Diaz lived and mostly fought. Then an appealing opponent surfaced in Dustin Poirier, and Diaz and Ballengee settled for an undisclosed amount.

The fight was scheduled for last November at Madison Square Garden, but never actually happened. At a news conference featuring Diaz and Poirier, U.F.C. announced a McGregor fight. Diaz stormed out, furious at being upstaged again. Caught by cameras on the street, he dispensed his most colorful language toward U.F.C. and White.

Poirier backed out, citing an injury.

Though the Diaz-Pettis fight on Saturday is scheduled before the heavyweight bout between Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic, U.F.C. is calling the two bouts co-main events, and there is little question where true anticipation lies. This week, YouTube viewership of the Diaz-Pettis breakdown reached a million views in less than 24 hours, nearly triple that of Cormier-Miocic. ESPNs 40-minute interview with Diaz had more than a quarter-million views within a few hours of its release on YouTube.

Diazs first fight in three years is Saturday, against Pettis, at U.F.C. 241 in Anaheim, Calif.CreditBrian L. Frank for The New York Times

The shadows were long as Diaz led five others on a run, winding through the quiet two-lane roads and irrigation canals on the edge of Stockton.

There was a late-night stop for sushi, then time at a downtown apartment that Diaz rents to accommodate training partners and friends leading up to fights. Some furniture was moved aside for an exercise area. A bong sat on the coffee table.

It was after midnight when Diaz heated up a leftover Starbucks espresso in the microwave and took control of the remote. He watched a few of Pettiss latest fights, pausing on maneuvers and narrating moves. He came across the 2007 boxing match between Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya, and watched all 12 rounds.

It was after 2 a.m. A couple of friends left. Diaz signaled to the remaining three that it was time to go to the gym.

He has no long-range plan. He does not know where this fight leads, win or lose. To more fights? He hopes so. To McGregor? Maybe. But he wants what is left of his career to be about him.

Im not going to take a fight just to make a name for someone else, Diaz said. Ive been making names for other fighters my whole career.

John Branch is a sports reporter. He won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Snow Fall,” a story about a deadly avalanche in Washington State, and was also a finalist for the prize in 2012. @JohnBranchNYT

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