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Nick Diaz: A Man Apart

In his UFC Magazine feature interview, Nick Diaz talks up his upcoming superfight with Anderson Silva, discusses what motivates him to fight and why he's one of the most misunderstood athletes in the sport.
 
Nick Diaz is not a villain. He is one of the baddest men to ever compete in a sport that sets the bar in terms of mental and physical fortitude. But the photos of him flipping off the camera and mean mugging do little to reflect his true nature. You can find out for yourself if you head to the gym he runs with his brother Nate in Lodi, California, put on a gi and train. Just leave your preconceived notions at the door.

“You better quit eating those Doritos,” Nick Diaz gently scolds his friend and assistant Jeff Torres. Diaz, standing in the boxing ring in the back room of Gracie Fighter Jiu Jitsu Lodi, goes back to putting on his gloves. Jeff laughs, finishes the chips and mutters how he knew Nick was going to say that. If it’s processed, Diaz doesn’t eat it. And he looks after his friends, pointing out when they should do the same.

It’s around 9:30 at night. The rest of his crew—consisting of his brother, UFC lightweight and champion of season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter, Nate Diaz; Kron Gracie, son of PRIDE legend Rickson Gracie; training partner Martin Sano Jr.; cornerman and friend Victor Galdon; and two-time UFC middleweight title challenger Gil Castillo—are rolling in the mat room next door with the students from the evening BJJ class. Diaz is getting in some rounds of sparring with world-champion kickboxer Matt Baker. Baker’s coach, Dan Black, offers advice to both fighters in a muffled tone. Other than that, the only sounds in the gym are from gloves and shin guards landing. Despite being months out from the fight and weeks from camp starting in earnest, the tension in the air is palpable. No one is here to play.

Diaz hasn’t fought since March 16, 2013, a unanimous decision loss to then-welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Diaz says the time off has served him well. He’s physically rejuvenated and his effort to find new management seems to have paid off. He has a bona fide superfight on the books—a January 31 headliner against returning legend Anderson Silva at UFC 183 in Las Vegas.

According to Diaz, the match was a concept he pitched years ago that finally came to fruition. The fight will mark his debut at middleweight. Two days of following Diaz has revealed some interesting facets. When it comes to nunchaku skills, he could stand in for Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. He doesn’t like the way he’s typically portrayed in photos. The pictures of him mean mugging in the arena on fight night is part of his job and does little to reflect his true personality. He’s a student of the game who constantly consumes fights through the lens of a martial artist.

“I’ve watched nearly all the fights out there, at least the important ones,” said Diaz. But he’s not much of a fight fan. He’s not much of a sports fan in general. Standing in his kitchen, he casually asked if there was some kind of baseball game on while his friends watched game seven of the World Series in his living room. He’s loyal to his friends and teammates. He has built his entire life around the martial arts. If you want to meet the real Nick Diaz, go to the gym he runs with his brother in Lodi. Put on a gi and take a class.

Since that’s not exactly feasible for every fight fan, you can get a small glimpse into the mind of Diaz here by reading what he had to say about how he came to the fight game, what’s kept him going and how much longer he’s planning on sticking around. 

 

WHEN DID YOU PUT OUT THE PITCH TO FIGHT ANDERSON SILVA? Back in Strikeforce, maybe when “Feijao” [Rafael Cavalcante] and I were fighting on the same card I spoke to Ed Soares. At the time I didn’t know Soares was Anderson’s manager. But I was telling him I wanted to fight the pound-for-pound best in the world—or the best fight I could get—and that was pretty much that. I told him I wanted to fight Georges St-Pierre or Anderson Silva if I could. And then he started saying, “That could be a possibility.” 

IS IT ALL ABOUT FIGHTING THE BEST MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE FOR YOU? Yeah, initially that was especially it. And now if I have the opportunity to fight the best, of course I’ll do it because that’s going to be the only thing worth it for me to be out here fighting. And that’s just how I feel about it. If I’m going to fight, I need to fight for a title or something big. I’ve had a lot of fights. All my fights, though—I was supposed to lose all of them. Everyone had me to lose. 

DOES THAT BOTHER YOU, BEING SEEN AS THE UNDERDOG? No. I’m doing more in this sport than most, and I’m always trying to excel or move to the top. It’s been a race for me since the beginning. 

IN WHAT WAY? There was, like, a generation of us, maybe 12 of us—me, Karo Parisyan, Georges St-Pierre—who came in a little late really. Drew Fickett and these guys were all older than me. The guys out of that group that I didn’t beat have all fallen off. I’m one of the last of that era of fighters. Diego Sanchez is still fighting, though he’s moved down in weight. Rob Lawler is still fighting. I think he’ll probably beat [Johny] Hendricks. 

IS THE WEIGHT OR SIZE OF YOUR OPPONENT SOMETHING THAT CONCERNS YOU AT ALL? I’ve fought at 180 a couple of times. Scott Smith wasn’t small, but he made 170. He was way bigger than me in the fight. But I was lot quicker than him. It’s really hard for me to get in shape and cut to 170 pounds. That’s why I’ve been so busy, having on average three fights a year. I don’t have time to get out of shape to try to make the cut again. 

IS IT TRUE THAT YOU’VE NEVER ENJOYED FIGHTING? I’ve never enjoyed fighting. Of course I don’t enjoy fighting for money. It’s what I do for a job. I love martial arts. I love the competition because it helps me do what I have to do. It gives me a goal to work toward and become stronger. Initially it’s what set me off on this big race; to get ahead. Once you’ve made that type of investment it’s hard to let it all go down the drain. So, you know, you’ve got to uphold your investment. It’s a big weight on your shoulders. After a while it’s not just about fighting. 

WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOU EARLIER IN YOUR CAREER? I was happy after I fought my first fight. “Ok, I’m a fighter now!” I was happy after I got my black belt. I was happy after I became Strikeforce champion. I don’t need to become UFC champion to be all right. But if I’m going to make a living fighting, I’m not out there to just get kicked around. I can get by like a lot of people that live out here: They don’t need much, so why do I? I don’t. And fighting and martial arts has helped me understand that. I love it for that. I don’t love being a prizefighter, but I’ll do it for as long as I have to. 

 

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THE MARTIAL ARTS THAT APPEALED TO YOU SO MUCH GROWING UP? It’s the only thing I was good at. It’s still the only thing I’m good at for the most part. On account of me being good at it, it’s taken me out of every other aspect of life—or a lot of it, anyway. That’s why this year off has been so beneficial to me. It’s been a good experience. 

WHAT WAS THE FIRST MARTIAL ART YOU FOUND? It was aikido and judo. My uncle was a black belt in aikido and judo here in Stockton. There’s a big Filipino martial arts presence in Stockton, so there was some of that going on in the same dojo. I tried to participate whenever I could and enroll in any programs and be as consistent as I could before I moved onto something different. I think it was good for me to start out with judo and aikido because initially I got into martial arts because of [Jean-Claude] Van Damme, 3 Ninjas, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—stuff like that that made we want to kick and punch. 

WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOU GROWING UP? I got punched around by older cousins and friends. My dad wasn’t always around, so I was getting kicked around when I was acting up. Nobody was there to tell me to shut up. So everyone wanted to teach me a lesson. [Laughs] I moved around to so many schools. Sooner or later I found a gym. And in martial arts I found something where people needed something from me. And I was happy to give it to them, happy to show it to them. Once I started doing jiu-jitsu it was really natural for me. Once you’re in the gym everyone is helping each other, and I was a part of something. I just started to develop my social skills from there. Everything else was just doing what I could. I got in trouble as a kid, but there were worse. But I straightened out when I really started training. I started taking fights and doing jiu-jitsu tournaments at 16. 

WHAT DID YOU DO BEFORE YOUR CAREER AS A FIGHTER? I’ve had two jobs ever. I worked for a collections agency, and I ran wires under buildings for a couple months—clocked in and made some money. Then I knocked it off. I would come home too sore from training, be too wired and stay up all night. I couldn’t make it to work at five in the morning. I thought, Screw that. I want to train. I had enough money. I lived with my parents anyway. And I had a fight coming up. [Laughs] 

SO THERE WAS THAT. Yeah, and the next fight I got paid twice as much. And it just kept doubling from there. And then I made it to the UFC and went up the scale. I went to PRIDE and made good straight-across money [versus show-and-win money]. Showtime did the same thing. I feel like I fight better under those circumstances since I’m not doing this for fun. [Laughs] It enhanced my sense of security, knowing I’m going to get paid regardless of whether I do well or not. It probably had a lot to do with why I came out so crazy and had a hard time controlling my temper early on. Everybody’s trying to be friendly out there when the other guy is fighting to take half of your money away from you. Nobody is happy about it, no sense in pretending. They aren’t your friends. You stay on your side of the line and I’ll stay on my side of the line until we get down to business and we’ll be OK. I don’t have a problem. My opponents shouldn’t either. 

DO YOU THINK OTHER FIGHTERS HAVE SIMILAR OPINIONS ON THE SPORT? I think every fighter is different and in it for different reasons. In the beginning I thought everyone was in it for the same reasons I was, which was a lot of martial arts. When I got into this sport I thought there were guys in other countries training in the woods in Thailand somewhere. Then I started to understand this ranking system and who was actually out there fighting MMA. And once I got to a certain level, I figured out that no matter who walks into the gym, if they don’t have a certain amount of experience they’re not going to win a fight. Good luck trying to win against a guy who has had 10 fights. If you’ve just been doing jiu-jitsu for a couple of months and you’re a hard puncher, it takes a little bit more dedication. It’s an investment. It’s hard to walk away from that, especially if that’s all you’ve got. I never had the time to step away. 

DO YOU WANT TO REMATCH WITH GEORGES ST-PIERRE, OR DO YOU THINK HE WILL STAY RETIRED? Yeah, I’d like to fight him again. Of course I think I can win. If we had fought when I was ready, when I had earned the fight, I think I would have won. I had some things go wrong. I felt lethargic in my warm-up. I got some bad vitamins in my IV that didn’t work well with me. Come the day of the fight I couldn’t get a warm-up without feeling like I was burning up all the energy I had. So I had to save it. Right away in the fight, instead of having a strategy I thought, I have to have this guy work out or I’m going to have problems. Because I don’t need to be drained in two rounds. So I tried to make him work the best I could instead of trying to take him out. I still could have put it together and won that fight. A few times if I had started off the right thing in the first round instead of worrying about the condition I was in I think I would have had a better run. That was the worst I ever felt in the last four fights. I don’t know what went wrong. Win or lose this fight, I’ll fight for the title at 170 for the right deal. I’ll fight fights like [Silva] if it’s worth it to me to do it. Winding up in some rankings—I’m not going to be one of those fighters. I was on my way in quick, so I need to get out quick. 

YOU SEEM LIKE A FAN OF THE SPORT THOUGH. No. I have a really good understanding of the martial arts, and I have insight on what’s going on out there. 

DO YOU LIKE THE TECHNICAL ASPECT RATHER THAN JUST BEING A FAN OF THE SPORT? It’s who’s who and what’s what and where they came from. Everyone started somewhere, and if you don’t stay aware of that then, before you know it, you don’t know where everyone has gone. And that’s what I bring to the table. You’ve got MMA fans out there who know more about MMA than the fighters. Of course, they’re not fighters. 

YOU THINK FANS HAVE BETTER KNOWLEDGE OF THE GAME THAN SOME OF THE FIGHTERS TODAY? Yeah, I know guys here who haven’t seen old fights. They don’t know where their opponents come from. And that’s why they can’t tell the difference stylistically between kickboxing and judo. And when they can’t consciously put it together and understand why they need each art individually it’s just messed up. This whole thing gets watered down. They don’t understand that it’s mixed martial arts we’re doing out here. And you’re dealing with each individual aspect. Let’s say they didn’t get started when they were 16 years old. That’s where I come in. I’m not the strongest or the fastest. But I’ve stuck it out. I capitalize on the part you missed out on.

 

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