It’s about three years to the day since Nate Diaz last appeared in the UFC’s octagon but, despite his prolonged hiatus, the controversial Californian still holds all the cards when it comes to the biggest fights in the 170lb fold.
A lot has happened in the world since Nate Diaz last threw a punch in anger. His previous opponent, Conor McGregor, the brash Irishman with whom he split two dramatic (and very lucrative) fights, has won and lost the UFC lightweight championship, and boxed Floyd Mayweather.
Daniel Cormier was the UFC light heavyweight champion and was still two years away from winning heavyweight gold. Khabib Nurmagomedov had recently returned from an extended knee injury to defeat Darrell Horcher. Hell, Donald Trump wasn’t even President of the United States yet.
Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder but this doesn’t ring especially true in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of professional prizefighting, where metrics such as pay-per-view buy rates and social media engagement gauge an athlete’s commercial viability at an almost continuous rate.
And this is the reason why the return of Nate Diaz flies in the face of conventional fight promotion.
The UFC marketing machine has bankrolled the rise of many a promising mixed martial artist. The babyfaced, almost Golden Retriever-like Sage Northcutt is one example of the UFC’s occasional practice of identifying talent and backing it early – something which appeared to backfire in Northcutt’s case.
Anthony Pettis, who Diaz faces on Saturday night, is another. His appeal was cultivated from his days in the WEC, to the UFC title and then subsequently transplanted to a Wheaties box, and, while Pettis never quite transcended to the ranks of the UFC’s elite moneymakers, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.
These moves that the UFC make are calculated, but require participation from the fighter in their spotlight – so, what happens when participation isn’t a given?
For all of his popularity, Diaz has made his name without much of a helping hand from the UFC. After all, how do you build a marketing strategy around a guy who won’t even show up to press conferences? Further still, how do you put a belt around that guy’s waist? Plus, we’re not too sure as to ESPN’s stance on smoking joints during open workouts but we suspect they’re not crazy about it.
I’m beyond pumped we get to see the return of Nate Diaz at #UFC241. The numbers he’s pulled this week have been insane. It does however remind me of a media scrum in Dublin 5 years ago where I asked Dana White about him, where he said Nate isn’t a needle mover. (via @MMAFighting) pic.twitter.com/u5rXAwQUBK
— Chamatkar Sandhu (@SandhuMMA) August 17, 2019
A little over five years ago, Dana White attended a press conference in Dublin ahead of a UFC event and was asked about Diaz’s current status – to which the response was that he wasn’t a ‘needle-mover’, White’s term for a fighter who isn’t resonating with his audience. Little did he know that another man in the building that day, Conor McGregor, would combine with Diaz to make (at the time) the two biggest PPV events in UFC history just three years later.
Proceedings have since dictated that White was clearly wrong in that assertion but his position at the time suggests one of two things: 1) They didn’t recognize Diaz’s potential to become a superstar, or 2) They were unwilling to get behind it.
And this speaks to the appeal of Diaz. He set the table for his first fight with Conor McGregor by grabbing the microphone following his win against Michael Johnson to address McGregor and tell him that he was “taking everything I worked for,” meaning that the quick-witted, promotional genius of the Irishman was currying favor with the UFC hierarchy when, in fact, it was the hard work, grit and determination of Diaz which should more suitably have been rewarded.
Strangely, this blast at the UFC’s promotional tactics prevailed when he was drafted in to replace Rafael Dos Anjos against McGregor to the fight which he won by second round submission, a result which crowned him as a true superstar of the fight game and ripped White’s ‘needle-mover’ comment to shreds.
This brings us to today, where a win for the returning Diaz will open up a range of potential fight opportunities. A third bout with McGregor has been spoken-of by both men, while more recently Jorge Masvidal has said that he would sign a contract to face Diaz “in a heartbeat“.
Both of these would command huge fan interest and generate income for both the UFC as well as broadcast partner ESPN, who are understood to have sway when it comes to the placement of the UFC’s marquee match-ups. Either of these bouts would be at home in the organization’s November card in Madison Square Garden
Against Pettis though, Diaz finds himself on familiar ground. He is up against another popular, flashy striker and a fighter whose ascent to the top of the game was, at the very least, nudged in the right direction by the UFC.
Diaz’s popularity, meanwhile, seems to have come in spite of – and not because of – the UFC’s marketing of him, and you can be sure that the Stockton man will take some satisfaction in the situation if, on Saturday, he is able to replicate the result of that first fight with Conor McGregor.
Nor will he be surprised.