"Are you disappointed that your coach feels you need some time on the bench?", asked the reporter. "No. I'll do whatever I have to do to help this team. If that's going to help us win, I'll gladly take my seat.", said the player. A classic answer to a question aimed at instigating a little controversy. Athletes deal with these types of questions on a daily basis, watching what they say and pushing the company line that the team's interests are a top priority. Crash Davis would be proud to hear variations of his list of "friends" being used in every major sport in the world.
But cliché answers and flawless conduct aren't attractive attributes to fans who want to share an emotional connection with an athlete. Talent obviously has its place in the popularity contest of some of sports' most popular figures, but a showing of emotion can greatly increase that popularity despite performance issues. Just ask Cubs' pitcher Carlos Zambrano.
In mixed martial arts, Nick Diaz is one of those figures. A great talent, a hard-nosed competitor, and a fighter who epitomizes a view of what a fight represents -- a violent, physical struggle. Saturday night's main event title showdown with British striker Paul Daley was a classic performance that was highlighted by great striking, brute determination to win, and emotions on overdrive, culminating in an eventual stoppage that was accompanied with a spill of anger and finger-pointing.
Before the event, MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani caught up with Dana White to hear his comments about the card. White had some specific thoughts on whether Diaz could ever become a huge star with the UFC:
DANA WHITE: Here's the thing, when I listen to Nick Diaz talk. Ya know, this kid's talented, he's well-rounded. I like his attitude, the way he carries himself to a point. He always crosses the line every time he goes out there and talks publicly. He could be such a big star if he would just calm down a little bit and not be so angry with everybody. Who the f*ck wants to beat up Ariel Helwani, other than other reporters. Nick has this talent and he talks about the big money. He could be that guy, he could fight GSP, he could have all these opportunities. He's gotta tone it down a little bit. And I don't think I'm..., I don't think a lot of people would disagree with me. I'm not asking Nick Diaz to not be Nick Diaz. I like Nick Diaz, I like the way he is, it's part of his appeal.
We didn't get any sense of what context White was speaking in during the interview, but it likely points to the crazy antics that the former UFC fighter has been involved in over the course of his career. Anyone remember the fight that occurred at the hospital following the war with Joe Riggs? Perhaps Diaz's own attitude of not conforming to the company motto is a problem for Dana.
Diaz believes Strikeforce is trying to oust him from the title spot to bring in someone else. I believe it's the opposite however, utilizing him on multiple cards in a short time frame due to their lack of stars. Nick wouldn't agree, and it runs parallel with how Diaz has conducted himself throughout his career. Everyone is against him, and he'll let you know it by crushing anyone put in front of him. He'll also slap you if you try to instigate controversy with questions.
The interesting point that White made was that the "angry" act isn't going to make him a huge star. But I'd argue that it's exactly why fans are attracted to Diaz. In the sports landscape where athletes tip toe around team politics and sensitive issues, Nick Diaz says what he wants to say without any regrets. Fans love and hate him for it.
But that isn't Diaz's most attractive quality. One of the reasons why I love to watch Nick Diaz is because he brings a fight down to a level in which it is primal. We are bombarded in today's sports culture with a broad array of keys to winning a competition. Many analysts talk about the mental game, a specific strategy a team or athlete can use to exploit an opponent's weakness, the field conditions, the wind measurements, how cold it is, a player's ex-wife was out with a teammate, the list goes on. If we bulleted all those points onto a specific match-up, the list would be endless.
Diaz's methodology is simple. "I'm going to fight him, and I'm going to beat his ass." Short, sweet, and to the point. There isn't a lengthy discussion about dealing with an opponent's takedown defense or high level striking game. To him, the fight is exactly as defined... a violent struggle that he is going to win by any means possible.
In the cage, Diaz isn't the epitome of professional conduct. He's raw, in-your-face, "street" or thuggish as some fans have described him. He's one of the most highly-skilled fighters in the world, but he has a way in which he can make the viewer forget about those credentials. Diaz brings fans into a true street fight, complete with the vulgarity you'd expect. Instead of expertly breaking down Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques and eyeballing mistakes, we're all on the edge of our seats admiring the ballsy taunting and gritty drive of a true fighter.
There may be a case that supports Dana White's assessment. Diaz is, after all, a loose cannon with the media. He says what he wants, openly admitted to using recreational drugs, has had problems controlling himself in the cage for his own fights and his teammates' bouts, and isn't open to media interaction unless told he must do so. In other words, he isn't a company man looking to conform to the "establishment".
Perhaps that is part of his appeal as well. Diaz is a fighter that many fans love and hate. He has all the tools to be a world champion, and he possesses the personality that resonates with fans. Does Nick Diaz need to tone it down? A little bit, but how far does a little bit go? For now, I think Nick Diaz is perfect the way he is, simplifying the fight game to exactly what it is... fighting.
UPDATE: Edited the passage involving the interview. I thought it was following the event, but as some observant geniuses pointed out... I was wrong.