LAS VEGAS – Nick Diaz’s return is complicated.
I have been speaking with professional fighters since 2009, but I have never had an interview like my conversation with Diaz was this week. Diaz, 38, returns from a six-year absence on Saturday against Robbie Lawler at UFC 266. He has done very little promotion in preparation for this event, and one can see why, given his interview with ESPN.
With just four days left of the fight, Diaz grimly admitted that he really doesn’t want to do it. He said he tried to walk away from fights for the past six years but inevitably brought him back because it’s the only thing he can do for himself and those around him. When asked if there was a single aspect of this comeback that he could enjoy, he instantly replied, “No, nothing.”
Diaz says he feels that way before every fight. He says he never feels safe, nor does he expect a fight the way we are used to hearing so many fighters describe it. A common phrase in MMA is: “The camp is the work, the fight is the fun part.” None of that is fun for Diaz, and it never has been. He has felt that way throughout his career.
However, all of this carries a different weight now, compared to earlier in Diaz’s career. And many people are feeling that weight behind the scenes, as well as those who see it unfold from the outside.
On the one hand, Díaz’s return to MMA is cause for celebration. He was suspended from the sport for 18 months in 2015, after testing positive for traces of marijuana. In hindsight, that suspension, which was originally five years but was reduced on appeal, was unfair. UFC athletes do not undergo marijuana testing in 2021, and earlier this year, the USADA “essentially” eliminated marijuana use as a punishable offense. UFC Senior Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance Jeff Novitzky stated that its use “has no effect on their ability to fight.”
This sport owes something to Díaz. He is a pioneer of MMA and a favorite among his fans. People love it. He’s had a tortured relationship with fighting, and by sharing that, he seems more human, more relatable. There are two title fights topping UFC 266, but the biggest draw of Saturday’s event is undoubtedly Diaz.
Even Lawler, who has reason not to be happy with Diaz after Diaz requested a weight change for their fight this week, speaks enthusiastically about him.
“I have a lot of respect for Nick and all that he has accomplished, and who he is,” Lawler said. “He marches to the beat of his own drum, which I respect. He doesn’t take shit —. He is who he is, and I have respect for that.”
But on the other hand, no one can watch Diaz’s candid interview Wednesday night and not wonder if this comeback is a good idea. During his six years away, Diaz didn’t see himself as someone who missed fights. In fact, he seemed content to be left alone.
In an interview with ESPN in 2019, Diaz was asked if he wanted to resume his wrestling career. “Of course not,” he replied. He was eligible to return to the sport much earlier than now, but he never did.
On top of all this is the success of Diaz’s younger brother, Nate. Over the past five years, Nate Díaz has become one of the biggest stars in the sport and one of the highest paid. Of course, Nick is happy for his younger brother, but the question arises as to whether there is still time for him to have the rewards as well. After years of hard work, Nate was able to get money back from the sport, in a way it hasn’t for Nick yet. When Nate fought Conor McGregor at UFC 202, his revealed purse for that event was $ 2 million. Nick’s standout bag, his fight against Anderson Silva at UFC 183, was a quarter of that.
So here is Diaz, headed for a fight he doesn’t want. He says the last thing on his mind as he walks towards the Octagon is, “Why am I doing this?” And that sentiment will double on Saturday, after this long absence from MMA.
Should Diaz even be fighting? With a single look at Diaz’s life, the rise of the Stockton streets, the success of his own MMA academy, the fame and admiration for the success of the UFC, it’s easy to see how much good the fight has done. But then hearing him talk about it makes it seem like he should never do it again.
You may be excited for the return of Nick Diaz. You may want to see him fight Lawler this weekend, and even want to see him fight beyond that. You may want him to collect a handful of paydays and eventually walk away from the sport with financial security to fall back on.
But once you understand some of the torment she’s going through, it’s impossible to feel 100% good about it. And that’s why this comeback, and Nick Diaz, is so complicated.