Only a handful of mixed martial arts fighters are a big deal outside of the hectic world of combat sports. Since his second-round submission of Conor McGregor at UFC 196 in March, Nate Diaz has become one of them.
I sit with Diaz at a Starbucks in the middle of the MGM Grand casino floor in Las Vegas. It’s a little more than a month out from his Welterweight rematch with McGregor at UFC 202, which takes place Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in “Sin City” (10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view).
During our conversation about the upcoming fight, Diaz (19-10 MMA, 14-8 UFC) can hardly get a word in between interruptions. Fans frequently approach, some not even saying hello before stepping beside him with a camera for a selfie, or for me to a take the picture for them. Others are more pleasant, shaking his hand, expressing their fandom and wishing him luck in the upcoming fight.
One woman advances toward us with her young son, repeatedly telling Diaz, “You’re our favorite fighter, can he get a picture with you?” Diaz obliges. The same woman returns moments later with a look of embarrassment on her face, “Oh my god, I’m so nervous I forgot to ask for my own picture. I love you so much, I’m literally shaking right now.”
He laughs as she scurries away with her son, both of them gleefully satisfied. This same thing goes on, over and over, for the next 30 minutes. People of nearly every age, gender and ethnicity approach and become giddy being in Diaz’s presence.
Nate Diaz has long been a name MMA fans are aware of. At one point his primary claim to fame was being the younger brother of Nick Diaz, a standout fighter in his own right. Then he came onto the UFC scene in 2007, winning Season five of The Ultimate Fighter reality series. He’s got 14 Octagon victories to his credit, but none more significant than when he halted McGregor’s hype train with a second-round submission at UFC 196.
Diaz and his older brother have long carried a cult-like following in MMA circles. I ask if it has always been so overwhelming, or whether beating McGregor roughly five months ago changed how common folk react.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “It’s built up over the years and I almost expected it. I saw my brother when I was like 18-years-old getting this stuff. It’s pretty crazy – it’s pretty cool. It’s kinda fucked up.”
Diaz, 31, feels like he’s deserved this kind of attention for a long time. He doesn’t exactly love it, but in a way he does. Diaz isn’t the type to care about his number of Twitter followers or Instagram likes, but he knows it all ties together and is a reflection of his greater goals, which is to make a boatload of money during his brief window as a high-level fighter.
During a rare break in the seemingly endless stream of fan interactions, we leave the Starbucks and walk back toward the tower where his room is located in the MGM Grand. After just a few minutes I glance over my shoulder and witness a mob of no less than 40 people trailing closely behind us. A few come up and ask for a picture – which of course he agrees to do – while others keep a respectful distance as they can see he’s busy.
The general volume of people is heightened in a fight town like Las Vegas, especially on a UFC fight week. But regardless of his whereabouts, Diaz says this is his new normal.
He’s adamant he got into this position all on his own. Sure, he’s a UFC athlete, which on its own brings a certain level of vigor. But prior to UFC 196 he never got the “push” of someone like McGregor, even during the brightest moments of his career.
Diaz doesn’t have the poster boy image the UFC has historically boosted with promotional dollars. That right has been reserved for fighters like McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar and Chuck Liddell, among others. Despite that, he always thought that’s where he could be. So when he rallied from a first round in which he was bloodied and hammered with big strikes to submit McGregor in the second round of their fight, he says he finally forced the company’s hand and left no choice but to give him what he’s been searching for.
“They had to because I beat the guy,” he says. “I went out there and took what was mine. They did me no favors. I went out there and took that shit. When they talk about Conor, I’m pretty sure I’ve made that much money for the UFC over time. Everything Conor does is because they made him. My money was all strictly through fighting and entertaining. They weren’t using my personality; they were using my physical abilities. I don’t think [my personality] was the look they were going for. They weren’t realizing, ‘Wow, that sells.'”
It’s easy to understand why the UFC would want to promote McGregor. He looks good, dresses good, talks good and fights good. He’s tailor-made for the late-night talk shows, the big interviews, the red carpet opportunities and the front-page photo shoots. Moreover, the brash Irishman has a country of rabid fans that follow his every action.
Diaz, meanwhile, might not be as smooth on the microphone, but his intellect when it comes to the fight game is arguably on a level all its own. He’s also produced many memorable moments in the cage, from a 2008 win over Kurt Pellegrino in which he threw up both middle fingers at the camera in the midst of a fight-ending submission, to a 2011 fight against Donald Cerrone where he set a single-fight UFC record for most significant strikes landed (238), and of course, his thrilling performance against McGregor.
The Stockton, California-born slugger has voiced his opinion with regards to his worth in the sport time and time again over during his 22-fight UFC run. He’s butted heads with the big wigs at the promotion on more than one occasion, and while that may have hurt his career more than helped at times, it was all with a greater objective in mind. That was to show he’s one of the best fighters in the world, and get healthy paychecks that reflect that.
Prize fighting, and MMA in particular, is a sport where athletes are only worth as much as they can negotiate for. Diaz admits it took some time to realize only one person will truly nurture his best interests.
“I kept my mouth shut for a long time but at the same time I was only a 20-year-old kid, 21-year-old kid in the UFC,” he says. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m getting some money, I’m not supposed to even have a job, I’m not supposed to have nothing, I’m cool with this.’ I’m just like, ‘I want the flow.’ Then I realized I’m putting in way more than I’m getting back. Fuck this. Other people were not thinking about that. They were just happy to be famous. I’m not looking to be famous. I’m looking to fill my pockets and put food on the family plate.
“I’m not just content with being famous and not getting paid,” he continues. “I’m like, ‘Hold up,’ But if you want to be real about it I’ve been famous. I was famous eight years ago.’ I was on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ like 10 years ago. I can’t go in a mall or a gas station without someone noticing me for 10 years.”
That may be true in the fight world, but his signature victory over McGregor at UFC 196 caused a seismic shift in the value of his personal brand on a broader scope. The things he’s wanted and has been asking for finally started to come his way.
Diaz appeared on Extra TV just days after beating “The Notorious” for an interview that’s still the highest viewed clip on the show’s YouTube page at more than 700,000.
In the lead-up to UFC 202, Diaz has received more notoriety than he has in perhaps his entire career, including sit-down interviews on Conan as well as a skit on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He even briefly feuded with music sensation Justin Bieber who voiced his support for McGregor after his loss. Diaz has always had something to say, but now those outside the fight world are being forced to listen.
“He drew one of the biggest crowds that we’ve had,” says Extra TV host Charissa Thompson. “I thought he was wonderful. I had never met him but knowing his reputation before the interview – now when the name Nate Diaz comes up I think, ‘Wow, he’s wonderful.’ I have nothing but good things to say about him.
“I could see he was like, ‘Wow, because of what I just did I’m on a different level,’ she continues. “There was something sweet and endearing about his shyness and the juxtaposition of who he is in the Octagon. Mike Tyson for example is always that person I would relate someone like a Nate Diaz to because they will kill you in their respective sport but then you get them outside and you want to hug them. They’re lovable.”
Although Diaz has been embraced, he still at least partially carries the mentality that the man is trying to keep him down. In a way that what’s helped him thrive and reach his current position, but as such an outspoken and anti-authoritative figure when it comes to what he deserves, Diaz thinks the UFC would certainly prefer for McGregor to win the UFC 202 rematch and take the wind out of his sails.
“Three days later [after UFC 196] they called me about a rematch with Conor,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, they want me back out there and they want me to lose real quick.’ They wouldn’t let me sit back at all. They let him sit around all the time and they promote him up every single day. Right now Conor McGregor is everywhere. I just don’t think they want me to win. They want to throw me back in there and hope I lose real quick because they don’t want more of this.”
Beating McGregor once did wonders for Diaz’s career. He can take it to another level by doing it again on Saturday night. He currently has more value than any previous stage in his career, but still feels a strong contingent of reluctance from the promotion. Moreover, McGregor still appears to be as popular and compelling as ever despite the loss, appearing in the 2016 edition of ESPN’s “Body Issue” and as one of the covers on Men’s Health magazine.
But what happens if Diaz beats McGregor again at UFC 202 and the power swings even more strongly in his favor? I push him to reveal the answer, but there are some secrets he wants to keep close, even though it’s clear he’s already given it consideration.
Fans continue to stop him and ask for pictures and autographs through every turn throughout the MGM Grand. We near the hotel elevator, and finally I ask what he expects to happen when he’s locked in the Octagon with McGregor for a second time.
Diaz is not the type to guarantee victory, nor can he in the merciless environment of a fistfight. But after beating McGregor as an injury replacement on just 10 days’ notice in their previous clash, he’s confidant he can upstage his prior performance with the support of a full training camp. If that’s how it plays out, Diaz’s stardom will rise to even greater heights, and as we part ways he delivers a subtle warning about what could be on the horizon if Saturday’s fight goes his way.
“Right now they have to get behind me,” he says. “I’m catching up to Conor McGregor, and he’s only ahead because they’re pushing him harder. I’m going to go out there and win again, then everyone is in trouble.”