Nate Diaz: Built for Success

I ain't suprised motherfuckers. Photo by Paul Thatcher.

Every Tale of the Tape contains a hidden message: There is no such thing as a “fair fight.”

At the elite levels of most modern sports, coaches, scouts, and statisticians are always searching for the next great champion—the diamond in the rough. There are often specific factors to look for when scouting athletes, whether it’s a physical build, clutch play ability, or a very detailed performance metric, such as shooting accuracy or fastball speed. NBA team advisors pay special attention to “anthropometrics,” or the measurement of human physical attributes, when drafting players, because a guard with long arms may cause more turnovers. In the military, Special Forces instructors speak of filtering candidates by the right combination of genetics and work ethic. Having a genetic disposition to certain types of muscle fiber can also create a significant advantage in athleticism, just like musculoskeletal size. Succeeding at anything ultimately requires having good innate potential to begin with, then maximizing that potential through hard work.

In MMA, the Tale of the Tape tells us the basics of age, height, weight, and reach, and each of these data points contains important information. However, deciphering what’s most important requires us to look at the fighter population as a whole to understand what is good as opposed to what is exceptional. Among these metrics, age is critically important, as fighters reach their physical peak in their mid to late twenties, and older fighters are prone to knockouts. Analyzing UFC fights in general also reveals that reach is definitely important in the striking game, but surprisingly, in the submission game as well. What’s missing from the Tale of the Tape, however, is fighting stance, and here, natural left-handers or fighters that can switch stances tend to do better in MMA. Interestingly, two current UFC champions, Jon Jones and Anderson Silva, are rangy southpaws—long-armed left-handers who have dominated the competition. Moreover, other than Silva and the sidelined welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, all other UFC champions are under the age of 30.

When looking at the Tale of the Tape, what is the ideal lineup of basic anthropometrics for MMA? The answer: we want to find lefthanded fighters with long reach for their weight class who are still in their twenties.

When combing through the ultra-competitive lightweight division, a few names immediately pop up as hitting the Tale of the Tape trifecta. These guys are young, rangy southpaws, and they have bright futures in the division.

Nate Diaz tops the list of lightweight contenders, both in Dana White’s opinion and in the Tale of the Tape. Diaz is the rangiest southpaw of them all, and he is currently fighting in the peak age range. But excellence isn’t born, it’s developed over time. No matter their natural gifts, high level athletes must train to maximize their physical potential.

In MMA, we look broadly at the skills of striking and grappling. And while grappling is harder to quantify, no one doubts the jiu-jitsu skills of Cesar Gracie phenoms Nick and Nate Diaz. In recent fights, few mixed martial artists have attempted to test the Diaz brothers on the mat, and look no further than the first-ever submission of black belt Jim Miller to verify Nate’s credentials when it counts.

But we do want to look deeper and assess Nate against other fighters. Fortunately, there are a few statistics that correlate highly with success in the UFC. The creators of FightMetric ran the mother of all multivariate correlations to find that one great performance indicator. They call it Significant Strikes Landed per Minute (SLpM). Significant strikes are the ones that really count. The focus is on power strikes that can do damage and win a fight. The statistical question to validate our hypothesis that Diaz has championship potential is, how does he stack up against other rangy southpaw champions or against the other lightweight champion contenders in terms of performance?

It’s clear that Nate Diaz has excelled in his return to the lightweight division. His successful performances also relied heavily on his striking ability, not just his already well-respected (and feared) jiu-jitsu. While his accuracy in landing significant strikes is eclipsed only by Jon Jones and Anderson Silva in this analysis, Diaz’s pace of striking already exceeds them all, especially his lightweight peers. In fact, on the all-time list of Significant Strikes Landed in the UFC, Nate is number six overall, within proverbial striking distance of Rich Franklin, BJ Penn, and GSP. Being the youngest fighter on the top 10 list means that Diaz will likely rank first overall in this key measure of Octagon performance and experience at some point in his career.

Searching for the next great fighter has brought us an interesting gem in Nate Diaz, arguably the diamond in the rough of the lightweight division. The young, rangy southpaw has not only the ground skills that no one wants to tangle with, but the striking skills that few have been able to deal with. He presents a fascinating conundrum for whoever walks away with the lightweight belt at UFC 150 in August. Whether it’s Benson Henderson or Frankie Edgar, each will have their hands full with the next number one contender. And much to the surprise of many fans, the first UFC champion named Diaz just may be Nate.

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