Esther Lin/Showtime Sports
A brief respite between fight events has given me the opportunity to do an in-depth analysis of two fighters whose contest is bound to be a very memorable affair. At UFC 158 we will be treated to a long-awaited contest between long-time welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre and long-time cannabis-user Nick Diaz. This will not be a prediction, per se, but rather a look at the skills of the combatants. Georges will get the treatment on Monday, but today we're looking at the man with the confused scowl, Nick Diaz.
(Note: I should mention before I begin that I'm not much of an expert on ground fighting. I'm far from an expert on striking, for that matter, but that is where the majority of my martial knowledge lies, and so I will be focusing more or less on the standup skills of these fighters.)
When it comes to Nick's boxing, I've heard it all. A widely circulated article compared him to the bareknuckle great Daniel Mendoza. He has been lauded for his incredible CompuStrike numbers, as well as his body punching, by every commentator that's ever worked one of his fights. The man himself isn't immune to the hype, either: Diaz vaingloriously challenged Roy Jones Jr. to a boxing match after his win over Frank Shamrock. And since Nick's next bout pits him against Georges St. Pierre, a man whose most obvious and dominant skill is his wrestling, many seem to believe that the Stockton native will have the advantage on the feet.
Well, I'm here to clear that up, and maybe piss off a few diehard fans in the process. And, one week from his fight with GSP, I figure there's just enough time for the following statement to really fester. You ready? Here we go.
Nick Diaz' boxing is overrated.
Now, before you give me the Stockton treatment, notice I did not say that Nick's striking is ineffective. His record, including a recently snapped eleven-fight winning streak, six of those by TKO and the rest decided in large part by Nick's fists, speaks for itself. But Nick Diaz does not have exceptional boxing skills. What Nick has are fast, accurate hands, incredible stamina, and the sort of pain tolerance that can only come with a healthy diet of In-N-Out Burger and medical marijuana. He’s unquestionably tough, and his punching-centric style has proven very effective in MMA. But with his latest outing against Carlos Condit, we saw how it can be nullified by someone who refuses to fight Diaz' fight. Diaz' style leaves a multitude of openings for a willing and able opponent, and he'll certainly have one in Georges St. Pierre next Saturday. Let’s take a look at some of his liabilities.
It has been pointed out many times by many analysts that Nick Diaz is susceptible to leg kicks. It’s hard to deny the truth of this statement. He spent the first round of his fight with Evangelista Santos getting his lead leg chopped to hell, until Santos ran out of gas and Nick was able to take over. I point out this fight not only because of Cyborg’s proclivity for leg kicks, but for the type of kick he chose to use. General consensus is that Nick’s stance, with his lead leg turned in, opens him up for outside leg kicks. In fact, there is a very common belief among mixed martial arts fans and analysts that such a stance is generally impractical for MMA for that very reason. But Cyborg didn’t land on Nick with outside leg kicks. He cracked him over, and over again with inside leg kicks, laying his shin across Diaz' inner thigh with impunity. Simple logic tells us that if turning the leg to the inside opens one up for outside kicks, then it should provide some measure of protection against kicks from the opposite side. But that clearly wasn’t the case.
Nick’s weakness to leg kicks does have to do with his stance, but the orientation of his lead foot is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant to this issue. Rather, Nick’s problem is his weight distribution. Look at these stills from Diaz' fight with BJ Penn.
You can see clearly that Nick stands very heavy on his front foot. This is poor form for a number of reasons, but in Nick's case it makes it difficult to check kicks with the lead leg, since a check requires the weight to be over the back foot. Nick has shown that he can make the adjustment, shifting his weight to the proper place when he deems it necessary, but this only ever happens after he's eaten a dozen or more kicks, as against Santos.
Worse, a front foot-heavy stance is bad from a purely boxing perspective as well. Nick Diaz is probably the most jab-able "boxer" in history. For someone who is renowned for his skill with his hands, Nick has proven incredibly susceptible to the most basic of boxing attacks, all because of the distribution of his weight, and the resultant positioning of his head. He certainly can pull his weight back--he often shifts his weight and moves his head after throwing his lead right hook, and he does the same when he occasionally decides to evade punches rather than headbutting them. But his face after every fight will tell you that he's quite susceptible to punches. To add insult to injury, it should be noted that the majority of mixed martial artists are not known for having good, technical jabs, which makes the claims that Nick would succeed in pure boxing with his current skillset all the more laughable. And, unfortunately for Nick's easily-cuttable face, GSP is one of the few fighters in the UFC who does possess a crisp, accurate jab.
I say that Nick's susceptibility to kicks and jabs is due to his weight distribution, but this is really all indicative of a larger flaw in his overall style. A back-weighted stance, advantageous though it would prove for a fighter who prefers to box, just does not suit Nick's fighting mentality, one in which he wins by always, always coming forward and readily absorbs one punch to give two back. And, given that Nick has fought this way in every fight, and will continue to do so until he's physically incapable of fighting any longer, he will probably always be weak in this area.
Footwork is a bit of a buzzword in combat sports these days. You'll hear it get tossed around by commentators as if it were the panacea for all fight-related ills, but its definition often proves elusive (there's a joke in there, somewhere). Broadly defined, footwork refers to a fighter's ability to put himself in a position to attack his opponent, or to avoid attack himself. The best uses of footwork accomplish both goals simultaneously. And whenever you hear cookie-cutter commentary teams offer axioms like "finding angles" or "stick and move," they are referring to the fruits of effective footwork.
Footwork is not a word you will hear uttered in the commentary of a Nick Diaz fight, unless immediately preceded by the words "bad" or "Carlos Condit's." Behold, Nick's utter inability to cut off the Octagon against the Natural Born Killer:
Diaz backs Condit into the fence. His weight is back this time, but it's obviously to load up a straight left, and Condit spies the telegraph. Nick throws his left hand, but his feet aren't in the right position for the punch to land. Condit has already moved well out of the way of the punch and, with a deep step to the outside of Diaz' lead foot, he throws a hard right to the body and pivots out, leaving Nick to cumbersomely turn and follow after him. Much to the frustration of the Stocktonian corner, this happened again and again throughout the fight.
Unfortunately for Nick, the footwork that lost him the Condit fight has won him every other fight for the last five years. This is how he fights now, and I fear it is too late for him to make any significant change to his style. He may not even see a need for change, as he and his head coach, Cesar Gracie, thought that he had done enough to beat Condit. Rather than assess what the judges saw that gave Condit the decision, Nick and his team chalked it up to bias and called it a day. This reluctance to acknowledge weakness means that Nick's footwork most likely won't be undergoing any radical improvements in the near future.
Despite all these flaws, Nick's boxing has proven undeniably effective for years now. There are a lot of positives to his style, and I don't mean the drug tests. He was able to beat KJ Noons by drawing him into his fight as he has so many other opponents, and outlasting the ex-professional boxer with his typical relentless pace and pressure. Nick is also one of the few fighters in MMA to regularly and effectively utilize body punching in his game. BJ Penn often catches criticism for his poor stamina, but some credit must go to Nick for causing the Prodigy to fade in their three-round bout with his rib-cracking assault.
Nick's head-forward style is at its most effective when he manages to get the fight to his preferred place, up against the cage. He bullies the opponent, grinding into them with his forehead and shoulders, crushing them against the fence and leaning his weight into them, all while digging to the body with accurate punches and occasionally pulling back to whallop his foe in the head with short overhand shots. This is why Nick faltered against Condit, as he wasn't able to consistently get his cardiovascularly gifted opponent's back to the wall. But it has worked against dozens of opponents in the past, and will continue to work against anyone willing to grant Diaz his will in the Octagon.
Time will tell if Diaz' ugly but dangerous striking will be enough to give GSP pause. The French-Canadian phenom is equally dangerous in all the same areas, but in very different ways. That's a story for another article, though. Check in Monday to see how the champ stacks up. Until then...