Oft-disgruntled ruffian Nate Diaz (16-9) is set to clash with wrestle-boxing bulldozer Gray Maynard (11-2, 1 Draw, 1 No Contest) for a third time in the TUF 18 headliner. Swagger seems to be at stake here -- both gamers were steadily rising and brimming with confidence in past encounters, but have now planed off after unsuccessful title shots and unexpected knockout losses.
After a 50/50 stint at welterweight in four turns, Diaz returned to lightweight and pieced together a solid three-fight roll (submissions over Takanori Gomi and Jim Miller, decision over Donald Cerrone) before falling to then-champ Benson Henderson in a title bid. The shocker came when Strikeforce crossover Josh Thomson cracked the Stockton rep with a blistering high kick in the follow up and handed Diaz his first loss via TKO. For the record, the only other time we've seen a Diaz brother crumpled by strikes in MMA was when Nick got dropped by Jeremy Jackson in his fifth fight circa 2002.
Maynard was still unbeaten when vying for Frankie Edgar's title in 2011 but walked away from the back-to-back sequence with a frustrating draw and his first official loss. The split-decision win over Clay Guida that followed was odd and uninvigorating: through almost comically exaggerated movement, Guida avoided the perils of Maynard's wrestling and boxing but didn't offset his defensive prowess with any significant offense. Then came T.J. Grant and his rejuvenated concoction of spindly Muay Thai and Maynard toppled to the canvas by way of a heat-seeking right cross in the opening stanza.
Who knows? Perhaps a sour dose of humility is exactly what Maynard and Diaz needed. Or perhaps their unforeseen downturns signal that they've reached the proverbial ceiling of their potential.
My personal opinion: these circumstances seem to emphasize the need for a style tweak from Nate Diaz. Both Diaz brothers are among the most widely revered -- or at least respected -- scrappers in the sport, but have yet to embrace evolution, which is an imperative essential for those seeking top-level longevity. I'm not sure if the answer is more movement, angles, wrestling or grappling ... however I am convinced that slogging forward in a straight line and being content to roll the dice with mediocre defense, high-volume/low-impact strikes and a litany of insolent taunts is simply becoming too predictable. And regardless of how talented any fighter is, even if endowed with any conceivable amalgam of respectable attributes -- predictability is a flat-out killer in MMA.
The Diaz phenomena has almost come full circle. When Nate and Nick were on the way up, fans wondered how the duo of scrawny street-fighters and submission stranglers could ever compete with the elite. Actually, that question was never answered, even when they did cement themselves among the division's best. Despite what seems like obvious weaknesses in their fight styles, and even though every opponent knew exactly what was coming, Nate and Nick just made it work. It's part of the Diaz brothers' mystique and why we can virtually categorize them both as one entity in conceptual discussions.
If there's anything that will -- or should -- inspire Nate Diaz to change up his style, it's a loss, especially a maliciously decisive loss like the one Thomson dealt. More motivation can be found in the second Diaz vs. Maynard fight: though enjoying an unquestionable wrestling advantage, Maynard dismantled Diaz on the feet with short-range jackhammers, capitalizing on Nate's predictable stalking, lax defense and unimposing punching power. Maynard is a rough match-up for Diaz just based on wrestling alone. The fact that he out-struck Nate on the feet whilst barely implementing takedowns does not bode well for Diaz in Saturday's rubber match.
The biggest point of concern for Nate is his penchant for "taking a few strikes to give a few back," which is always risky but even more so for a volume-based striker without one-punch power. Not to be overly harsh, but that outlook might be the worst approach for Diaz, who's willing to eat a hard and memorable shot in order to land a medley of mid-power swipes. Judges recall the former much more than the latter and, since 80% of Nate's career losses are by decision, the judges' traditional impressions should start becoming an influential factor.
To enhance his striking efficacy, the starting point should be Nate's attack patterns -- err, attack pattern, rather, as his M.O. consists of soldiering straight at his opponent and trying to punch him in the face a lot. The addition of any non-linear movement would be lucrative or, even if he's not into circling, angles or pivots, more of an in-and-out or back-and-forth assault would still enhance his straight-line tendencies. Again, any forward pressure that's not flat footed, in a straight line or at the same pace couldn't possibly hurt.
Though widely heralded for his cryptically rhythmic boxing, and since offensive potency accounts for the second half of Nate's struggles, experimenting with ways to impose his ridiculously technical submission grappling is perhaps the most viable option. After all, submissions are responsible for nearly 70% of his career victories, including his non-official armbar win over Maynard on TUF 5. And that's where the wrestling aspect comes into play; a trait that's long been considered an Achilles Heel of the Diaz brothers.
However, many stellar submissionists have persevered in MMA despite having anywhere from average to nonexistent abilities in the striking and wrestling departments. There is no mysteriously obscure method to be prescribed here: submissions spring from either pursuing a standing catch, pulling guard, succumbing to an opponent's takedown or landing your one of your own. Much like the way that the mere presence of an imminent takedown can disrupt a striker, simply attempting to make his complex Jiu-Jitsu a part of the fight would be another weapon in Diaz's arsenal that Maynard would be forced to react to and deal with.
More pure speculation: if you injected the submission grappling prowess of Nick or Nate Diaz into a fighter with average athleticism and auxiliary skills, and one who doesn't give a shit about anything but getting the win, that fighter would probably perform pretty damn well in the UFC. In plain terms, Nate Diaz has some of the most technical and serpentine grappling in all of MMA, yet it generally gathers dust on the shelf. That's something to look into for a fighter who desperately needs to augment and diversify his offense.
One could argue that Gray Maynard has pretty much showed the same skill-set throughout his career too, but the difference is that Gray isn't plagued by basic defensive no-no's and consistent singularity like Nate is. Additionally, wrestling, the great equalizer in MMA, is Maynard's foundation -- even if he had the same liabilities as Diaz he could fall back on shooting blast doubles to regain ground with top control.
Maynard became a scary prospect when his boxing became just as formidable as his wrestling. Though nothing about it is flashy or atypical, Maynard's developed a strong grasp of basic boxing fundamentals that complement his aggression and power nicely. His improvements were on full display in his last encounter with Diaz, as Maynard played the role of counter-puncher by boring straight shots through Nate's lackadaisical guard and pivoting off-center with stiff hooks to exploit his straight-line engagements.
Maynard comes in as a slight favorite to conclude the trilogy, which makes sense, as he beat Nate handily on the feet last time without even relying on his wrestling. The entire theme of this analysis is the importance of options and having different pathways to victory. As of now, that favors Maynard. It's not often that we can get away with saying a certain fighters has a truly unparalleled and unique set of skills in MMA, but Nate Diaz is one exception. The only other fighter who mirrors his atypical blend of preying mantisesque striking and silky smooth submissions is Nick. You can't really argue that the Diaz brothers are without a vast command of wide-ranging technique -- but you can easily argue that they only draw from a tiny portion of it.
If that doesn't change, I expect Maynard to adopt the same, simply strategy of blasting his fists through the myriad holes in Nate's defense and/or putting him on his back with takedowns en route to a decision win. When most fighters hit a career downturn and need to evolve, it usually requires spending countless hours in the gym to master a new set of attributes. Nate Diaz already has those attributes -- the bad news is that he just doesn't use them, the good news is that implementing them is perfectly within his control. Maynard is clearly the logical pick here, which obviously means ...
My Prediction: Nate Diaz by submission