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Nick Diaz: The first modern MMA fighter

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Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch takes a look at the idiosyncratic game of Nick Diaz, the forebear of great pace-pushing UFC champs like Max Holloway and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

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Joanna Jedrzejczyk photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images, Max Holloway and Nick Diaz photos by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

16 years ago, Robbie Lawler was one of the most hyped young prospects in the UFC. In 2002, he hit Tiki Ghosn so hard, his memory short-circuited.

“They stopped it because of a cut,” Ghosn famously recalled, moments after his cornermen managed to scrape his corpse off the canvas. Lawler was fast, powerful, and scary.

Nick Diaz didn’t give a damn. Or, at least, he did a convincing job of pretending not to. So when Diaz and Lawler met for the first time in 2004, Diaz, regarded as a submission grappler with suspect standup, proceeded to give Lawler one of the UFC’s first boxing lessons. He walked Robbie down, ate his best shots like measly 5 milligram edibles, and drowned him in a sea of long, ropy punches. It was the first of many such fights in what would prove to be an incredibly successful MMA career that ended, after 14 years of barnburners, in 2015.

Well, we thought it ended, anyway. For whatever reason—money, pride, nostalgia—Nick Diaz is back after six years on the sidelines, ready to face Lawler once again this Saturday. In fact, “ready” may be too strong a word. If you’ve seen the clips of Diaz shadowboxing this week, you’ve probably drawn the same conclusions as me: he looks dejected, slow, and more than half asleep. The feeling that pervaded Diaz’s last few years in the UFC seems even stronger now: the sport has passed him by.

But whatever happens, this weekend’s UFC 266 retiree rematch presents us with an opportunity to appreciate all that this man did in his time. Because the curve Nick Diaz appears to have fallen so far behind today is the very one he first described 16 years ago.

If the last decade of MMA has been defined by any one trend, it is an increase of volume. Striking output has skyrocketed. Fighters like Max Holloway, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Robert Whittaker routinely throw 300 strikes or more per 25-minute bout. It’s not uncommon for a random undercard fight to deliver higher numbers than even the most active championship contests of yesteryear. Last August, Kai Kamaka III and Tony Kelley threw a combined 411 strikes on the prelims—and that was despite Kamaka spending a full five of their 15 minutes controlling Kelley against the cage or on the ground.

A sport once dominated by muscle-bound meatheads loading up on one punch every 20 seconds has transformed into a playground for lithe strikers with endless cardio.

And if you’re looking for someone to blame, Nick Diaz is your huckleberry.

Diaz’s oddball game was perfectly designed for the meathead era he came up in. When the prevailing MMA mindset was, “If I have to trade punches then I’d better throw the hardest shot I can,” Diaz came in with an awkward, decidedly low-impact approach. He would paw, poke, prod, and even slap his opponents. For every ten pellet-gun pops he scored, he might lay in one good, heavy blow, and then it was right back to the metronomic bap, bap, bap.

As for targets, Diaz didn’t discriminate. While his opponents were obsessed with measuring chin against chin, Diaz was always happy to hunt the body. Occasionally he would throw a goofy, glacial kick that stung the pride worse than a hundred middle fingers ever could.

Robbie Lawler was the first meathead to fall to Diaz’s awkward, pitter-patter boxing game, but he would not be the last. Drew Fickett, Josh Neer, Scott Smith, Paul Daley—the list goes on.

Nick Diaz vs Frank Shamrock back in 2009 Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Perhaps the finest (and funniest) performance of Nick’s career came when he took on Takanori Gomi at PRIDE 33 in 2007. Gomi was the terror of the lightweight division at the time, riding a 13-fight hot streak broken only by a single loss to Marcus Aurelio—a loss which he got back in the same year. He was the quintessential MMA power puncher, a wild man who threw caution to the wind in pursuit of that slobber-knocker KO.

Nick gave his thoughts on Gomi in a pre-fight interview with Sherdog, full of characteristic contradictions and an uneasy confidence that, in retrospect, reads like clairvoyance:

“That fucker, he looks like a munchkin, a little bobblehead, whatever, you know? He’s a great fighter. I think he’s gonna have to nail me with something and melt me right off the bat… land a hot one or something, take my head off. But if I can keep my head on my shoulders… I think I’m gonna be putting an ass-whooping on that little guy.”

Gomi took Nick’s advice. Two minutes into the first round, he came as close as anyone ever has to melting Nick Diaz, dropping him with a savage right hook. But Diaz kept his head, used his jiu jitsu to survive. Almost as soon as he got back to his feet, he was tattooing Gomi with triple jabs and double hooks. By the end of round one, Gomi was well on the way to whooped. Arms hanging, head lolling, legs unsteady, he retreated to the corner to spend the shortest minute of his life sucking wind.

The assault continued into round two, as a desperate Gomi repeatedly gestured at the blood dripping down Diaz’s face, hoping against hope that a gore-averse referee might save him from the indignity of defeat. No dice. Gomi shot for a desperate takedown, fell on top of Diaz, and had just enough time to breathe a sigh of relief before Nick laid a shin across his throat and choked him out. It was the first gogoplata most MMA fans had ever seen.

In this fight, fans saw the uncanny completeness of Diaz’s game. He had the chin and the conditioning to absorb punishment early, enabling him to press his opponent from the jump. He had the reach to make even the steeliest fighter flinch, and threw punches with such dismissive nonchalance that his typically tense opposition rarely reacted in time, no matter that Nick was usually slower by far than his more explosive foes. And, of course, he had the submission skills ready for that inevitable moment when his panicked adversary would try to save his bacon with a takedown.

It was a game full of gristle, equal parts scar tissue and connective, each component supporting the others. That relentless pace enabled Nick to seize the initiative and never let it go. Power punchers used to scaring opponents off with heavy swings would try their best, only to discover, about two or three minutes into the bout, that they had been fighting Nick’s fight all along. Guys who wanted to throw power soon realized that they had to throw power; guys who didn’t want to throw power had no choice.

All of them suffered the same fate. Forced to fire back, they would load up and swing for the fences. Each exchange took another bite out of their stamina, already being nibbled away by Nick’s body assault. Bit by bit they would crumble, till they were left stumbling away from a madman who talked mad shit as he stalked them down.

It was often ugly, and analysts such as myself have found ample opportunity to critique the finer points of Diaz’s technique. But in moderating power in order to elevate output, Nick Diaz was far ahead of his time. In bouts like Diaz vs Gomi, one can detect a prototype of Max Holloway vs Jose Aldo, or Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs Jessica Andrade.

After his own loss to Diaz, Robbie Lawler took the long route to success. The lessons learned in that infamous beatdown took a long time to sink in, but eventually they did. Lawler grew into a patient, poised fighter, learning to fill the space between his power punches with smart defense and rhythmic throwaways very much like the ones Nick used so well against him.

Looking at the recent footage, it seems that even the Robbie Lawler Diaz bested in 2004 could take his head off now. This version of Lawler might just deck him in seconds. But no one can deny that Nick Diaz made his mark on Robbie Lawler, and on the sport of MMA, all those years ago.

So don’t forget: the great pace-pushers of today stand on Nick Diaz’s narrow shoulders. If you’re a fan of fast-paced fights, you owe him a debt of gratitude.


For more on UFC 266, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.