No Need To Front
Nick Diaz has the face of a pugilist from another time. In every facial feature there’s a story of his past. The brown eyes are inherently distrusting, and they tell you very quickly how his nose got to be so wide and tenderized. He is a fighter by definition. The notches talk of pain, the lines in his forehead of worry. Like Jake La-Motta of the 1940s, he has a strong jaw and is leathery about the eyes. His eyebrows protrude out sharply, the result of surgeries to remove scar tissue. His hair is short black, wet and wavy. And if you think his trademark scowl is a put on, you don’t know Diaz—he doesn’t put on. It’s why he’s one of the most controversial figures in mixed martial arts.
He’ll tell you it’s a profession that consumes him completely.
“I fight three times a year,” says the 27-year-old Stockton, California, native. “I don’t have time to go runaround and do shit. I don’t have time to have a life. I don’t have any life… If they paid me to race triathlons as much as they paid me to fight, I probably wouldn’t fight, to be honest.” If Georges St-Pierre said that, Under Armour would be designing him a full body neoprene suit to compete in. Butit’s Nick Diaz.
He says these things sitting on a dingy office chair outside the Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Pleasant Hill, California. There’s an upside down bucket between us. It’s from the sushi shop adjacent to the world renowned gym, pre-arranged with an empty pack of Marlboros, a toothpick, and a rusty razor blade.
“I fight so that I can win, and I win so that I can fight,” he says. There’s a certain amount of realism to everything Diaz says.There’s also Diazisms, which heal one understands. He doesn’t care if what he says is paradoxical, or even foolish. He doesn’t easily revere anything, or anybody. No punches are held, no apologies given, no sloganeering. He doesn’t give a damn for consequences, except when it comes to fighting. And that’s really what strikes you about Diaz—by not censoring himself, he becomes authentic.
“They like to say I’m not good for the sport, yet I’m very sportsmanlike…but it’s just not tennis,” he says.
There is uneasiness, too. Not in talking to him, but in him talking to you. Behind all the public rage, Nick Diazis a shy, polite kid—he doesn’t particularly enjoy media scrutiny. It’s a dichotomy. MMA loves its bad boys, yet Diaz is derided for being too bad, too much like a street thug and not like a man doing a professional job. There’s an out cry that guys like him set the sport back, especially on the heels of the post-fight melee that he was involved in with “Mayhem” Miller at the Strikeforce card in Nashville.
“I think it’s not so much me being the bad guy or whatever, it’s me not trying to look like something I’m not, so I just come off this way,” he says. “Fuck Mayhem.”
Diaz is always fighting against some form of mayhem—money, respect, titles, etc.
One common theme that Diaz touches on is money, however, you gather it’s not for lack of compensation. Everything is rooted to respect and being real, and these things should be paid. Fighting professionally since it was legally possible—everything from ma-and-pa shows to the biggest promotions—Nick Diaz still looks upon the prizefighting world with a healthy suspicion. As his street sense and survival skills mesh with his personality, this is often exemplified by his double barreled middle fingers.
BAD BOY RISING
Like most people coming from Stockton—a notoriously depressed Northern California town—Diaz didn’t have much growing up. Rather than steering off on a delinquent course like so many around him, he accepted things as they were and internalized it. One of the cheap activities he could do was swim, something that has remained a passion and has become a staple in his revered cardio training. His mother encouraged him to stay in the pool, but a young Nick was scrapping in the backyard with family and friends—his kid brother Nate included—going back to his earliest days. It wouldn’t belong before martial arts caught his eye and, by the time he was a teenager, he was participating in MMA.
“When I was a kid, I was just like, okay, we’re gonna fight everybody,” he says. “I can fight this guy, I can fight that guy. Of course I’m not afraid to fight these guys; I should be afraid to lose. I’m gonna hurt this guy more than he can hurt me. He can’t tap me out, but I can tap him out. I wasn’t thinking about losing rounds. I was thinking, I’m not afraid to fight this guy because…why should I be?”
He started with the Shamrock 2000 team in neighboring Lodi. It was there that he linked up with Steve Heath, who introduced him to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and Diaz began an odyssey that has taken him everywhere from Japanese Buddhist temples to Sin City casinos. He would earn a black belt under Gracie in 2008, becoming one of the game’s patented masters at the guard.
Before he knew it, he was no longer a kid with IFC posters hanging in his room. He was in the cage as a prizefighter. In 2001, at just 18 years old, he debuted in Oroville, CA, and beat Mike Wick; then he decisioned Chris Lytle—yes, that Chris Lytle. In his UFC debut against Jeremy Jackson at UFC 44 in 2003, the final chapter of a trilogy, he arm-barred the veteran while still just 20 years old. He stepped in there with Robbie Lawler, Diego Sanchez, Joe Riggs, and Sean Sherk after that, taunting each opponent beforehand and perpetuating a now rampant bad boy reputation. All this happened before he was 23 years old. Diaz fought 10 times in the UFC, going 6-4 during the stretch. After defeating Gleison Tibau via TKO at UFC 65, he went to PRIDE. This would be Diaz’s biggest triumph. Momentarily, anyway, before it became his biggest fall.
It happened on February 24, 2007, at PRIDE 33: Second Coming, in Las Vegas.Diaz came in as a 3-to-1 underdog versus the most feared lightweight in the world, Takanori “The Fireball Kid” Gomi. It was one of the more memorable fights in MMA history, a violent affair that ended when Diaz submitted Gomi with the unicorn of submission holds—the gogoplata—despite suffering a broken orbital bone.
The most significant win of his career, however, was rendered a no contest by the record when the Nevada State Athletic Commission discovered Diaz tested positive for marijuana. Though he was medically licensed by the state of California to use the drug for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Diaz went from freshly minted lightweight royalty to another bad boy headline.
“I understand how Michael Phelps feels,” he says. He served a six-month suspension for his failed drug test.
“If I had a mohawk and I’m a joke, will you like me now?” he asks. A siren grows loud as it nears, then disappears toward its appointment. “I’m not gonna live my life as a joke. I’d rather have people look at me like I’m some criminal than I’m some clown.”
Other fighters like Chael Sonnen and Josh Koscheck cultivate heel images for themselves, and gladly cash in on them. Diaz is just being himself. Frankly, he doesn’t really care which way you perceive him. But calling Nick Diaz the bad boy is too obvious, and too tiring at this point. He just wonders why no one is declaring him a martial artist—what comprises most of his personal identity.
Without martial arts grounding Diaz by giving him an outlet, curses and controversial quotes would be the least of his worries as the Stockton streets could have landed him in prison or worse.
“When you do jiu-jitsu, you want to start with a strong foundation and you build up, you know?” he says, two years after becoming a Cesar Gracie black belt. “I never started with a good foundation for my personal life. I didn’t start with a strong foundation, so I’m kind of left with nothing but fighting.”
There’s a sense that Nick wants his fighting style to be emblematic of his life itself—which is forward, forward, forward. And when things go to the ground, work. Whether it’s for fighter contention or simply rising from the gutter, the idea is upward mobility. Diaz has called mixed martial arts “warfare” in the past, just the kind of extreme statement that colors him in the media. But, after a few minutes listening to a man with 30 professional MMA fights and one pro boxing bout, a few things become certain: He is constantly at war. He feels his voice has never been heard. He is searching for peace or its closest variations. He is still very young, despite the hard road he has traveled.
“There’s no martial artist,” he says one minute, tired by this talk of him as a back-street brawler. “Nobody recognizes anything.”
The next it’s, “I have a game plan to beat Anderson Silva! I have a game plan to beat everybody! I will write it down and lay it all out, put it on the table for the world to see and still use it to beat ’em.”
There’s a spark—angry inspiration—on his face that says it all. He’s serious. It’s all you can do to keep up with the Stockton Bad Boy.
DEEP IN THE 209
Nick Diaz’s first martial arts school looks like a 1970s kung-fu B-movie set imported into a rundown, forgotten about neighborhood. This is the 209—the Stockton area code he backs with pride in every battle, whether it’s a sanctioned bout or in a backyard. Those digits signify a connection to a city that’s living proof that the American housing bubble burst. While many places across the U.S. struggle to shake the recession, Stockton appears to be fighting off a recession that goes back decades. This is Diaz’s home.
He stands in front of a fence swiftlymoving through some nun chuck combo she’s recently picked up from YouTube. A nervous, itchy man in an orange Hawaiian shirt walks in past us. Two cop cars screech, sliding in unison to trap the bow legged stranger in the parking lot. He protests as they arrest him. Diaz observes and looks away. He’s immune to it. That’s life in the 209, ranked Forbes’ fifth most dangerous city in America in 2009.
Lodi, the more well-to-do neighboring town, considers Stockton the ghetto—and there’s disdain the other way, too. Diaz says that years ago, when he tried to re-enter Lodi High School to wrestle—with the coach vouching for him—he was denied the inter-district agreement to join the wrestling team and to finish his schooling. He soldiered on. He learned some wrestling on his own and continued cross-training as a teenager when few UFC fighters were.
Back in his living room, he demonstrates more nun chuck skills. The world moves at a fast pace, he says, but in his neighborhood he has the luxury of making the most of it by slowing it down. He can spend his days studying traditional martial arts without distraction. Diaz is fascinated by martial arts in all forms—he has been as far back as he can remember. He started aikido at 4 years old and quickly moved onto karate. The way he punches—the rangy, pawing, jab-heavy style, geared toward cumulative damage rather than a single kill shot—stems from his early days in karate. KJ Noons recently called Diaz’s punching style “advanced patty cake.”
Sitting amidst his sodden town, he says he’s open-minded when it comes to any martial art that can add to his skill set. He even says he’d train with action film star/aikido practitioner Steven Seagal, a la Anderson Silva, if the opportunity presented itself.
“If martial arts are better for me, it makes it worse for you,” he says. “If I knew kung-fu, that’s some scary shit. If it’s good stuff, it’s good stuff.”
One of the guys he learned from early was Mauricio Machado, who tapped him the very first day he stepped into Cesar Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu Academy. Diaz and Machado are roommates in one of the various fighter houses Diaz spends time in. He constantly prods Machado throughout the day to engage in Eskrima—a Filipino form of stick fighting—to pass the time. Machado isn’t as enthusiastic.
Machado, Jake Shields, Gilbert Melendez, little brother Nathan, and Luisito Espinosa are his training partners and friends. Indistinguishably. Like the guys at American Kickboxing Academy, he says he wouldn’t fight his teammates—because this band of brothers have agreed to navigate the same road, with each lighting the way for the other.
Diaz’s first thoughts on Jake Shields a decade ago when they met weren’t “What a nice guy,” but “I have better jiu-jitsu, he has better wrestling.” Ever since their first encounter, they’ve been fiercely competitive with each other.
“If I go in there and I’m having a bad day, Nick or Nate will choke me the fuck out. Gilbert is gonna drop me,” says Shields. “We’re great friends who take care of each other, but that doesn’t mean they’re gonna back up on me if I feel under the weather. That’s not how it works.”
He liked Gilbert Melendez immediately, too, and sort of saw him as Shields’ little brother. Over the years, Diaz has admired Melendez’s growth into a family man, his brother’s development into a dangerous UFC competitor, and Shields’ work ethic that has converted him into a multiple champion.
“The right way is the right way,” Diaz says, “I feel like I’m just pointing them the right way.” And vice-versa. That’s why Diaz drives countless hours everyday to train in Pleasant Hill, San Francisco, or anywhere else in Northern California where his training partners are, because he has no interest in leaving Stockton.
“I don’t have time to be Nick Diaz,” he says. He can’t move out of Stockton because, he contends, there isn’t time for anything outside of fighting (except for maybe a triathlon here and there)—and even if he did, it’d be too much of a culture shock. Taking time off is not in his nature. He refuses to turn down a fight because he says he needs the money, and he needs a fight on the horizon to concentrate his energy. Besides that, turning down a fight is a little too close to coming off as a coward to him.
“I get respect because I don’t sell out, and I ain’t no bitch,” he says.
But the kicker is, amidst the crime and dilapidation and all the ruin, he likes it in Stockton. “You just have to be rich to enjoy it,” he jokes, and he’s quick to point out that he’s never been rich (though, it should be mentioned, this is his perception—he did make $100,000 in his January fight against Marius Zaromskis).
“This whole thing has painted a big picture for me, and it’s even on television,” he says. “It’s plain to see. The last thing I am is crazy at this point in time. I’ve got it all right there on paper. My whole life, from fight to fight, every three months, is all split up. It’s on Sherdog.”
People don’t take shit seriously when it comes out of Diaz’s mouth. That’s howhe sees it, anyway, and if his opinion is invalidated, what does anyone expectto hear from him? The rub is that cameras and microphones only follow him when he’s preparing for a fight, hearing the battle drums in his head. People have pigeon holed him as a weed-fueled inner-city thug, causing them to neglect unprecedented in-cage accomplishments, such as putting up boxing-type numbers, landing 125 of 221 strikes versus Scott Smith—in the second round. Everyone can laugh at and understand those middle fingers a lot easier than they can figure out how he avoided becoming another Stockton statistic.
“I don’t mean to complain, but if you ask me why I’m bitter or pissed off and I say, ‘fuck you, double fingers,’ it’s because every time I walk out of the cage, I feel like I stole something,” he says. “I had to steal it—It’s not like it was there for me.”
It’s a colossal grudge he has. When Diaz’s achievements make him feel like a thief, it’s because he feels the negativity surrounding him never ceases. The comparison of the Diaz brothers to criminals, like the people they grew up with but never became, weighs more because they had to work ten fold to avoid it.
“People have treated me like that my whole life,” he says. “I think when you expect it, you probably get it a little more. Whatever—I’m not gonna go put on a front like, hey, I changed my ways or something. I don’t have anything wrong with me to begin with. I just think that I’m from Northern California and they don’t pay attention to where I’m from. Anybody else would just try and claim they’re from somewhere else and try to represent somewhere or some people that are more important. I’m just trying to represent Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, my team, and martial arts academy.”
Hanging with him in Stockton and seeing how content he is in his lifestyle—what he’s after is simplicity. If he could work out, eat healthy, organic food, and stay home, leading a nice, quiet life, that’s what he’d do. But it’s a profession that never sits well in comfort zones, literally, figuratively, or otherwise. He’s defiant by nature…because it’s how he restacks the odds in his favor.
As everyone has seen, Diaz’s competitive mode is terse and angry. Hand shakes and square-offs at press conferences easily become middle fingers to the face (as he did with Frank Shamrock) and nose-to-nose tension. You would think he hates his opponent. And he does, because whoever is put in front of him is an obstacle, and he doesn’t like people getting in the way of his goals. Ditto his brother Nate’s pre fight disposition.
Nick says this attitude, which so many mistake for fight-hype antics, actually stems from anxiety. “If you don’t have anxiety, you probably shouldn’t be fighting,” he says. “You probably haven’t made it that far. This sport is 24-hour anxiety.”
His anxiety is actually pretty profound, because he can’t help the wheels from spinning. He doesn’t do seminars because a flight will mess up a day of training, which will in turn mess up a week, and a month, then a year. If Diaz’s attitude comes off as divisive, it’s because he looks at it as if he’s protecting his way of life.
He’s not afraid of anybody. From the time he stepped in Gracie’s academy and began rolling, to developing one of the nastiest guards in the sport, to gaining confidence in his hands via boxing coach Richard Perez and knocking out heavy favorite Robbie Lawler in a classic highlight reel, to elevating his jiu-jitsu to new levels after losing to Karo Parisyan, to his fights with KJ Noons…he has come a long way. Ask him about it all, and he’s as likely to say “fuck you” as he is to detail it. That’s Nick Diaz. Once upon a time Steve Heath pounded home the point—“nobody can deal with your guard, Nick, nobody can deal with your guard”—until it became the truth. And it extends to the guard he keeps over who he is.
Outside of a local taco shop in Lodi, on his way back to Stockton, Diaz adjusts a worn belt holding up his jeans. It’s a dead ringer for an old jiu-jitsu black belt, complete with a red ranking sleeve. Nick Diaz smiles.
“UFC belts, Strikeforce belts—this is the only one that matters.”
Diaz’s rage seems so far away at that moment. It’s probably his favorite joke: In fighting, if you win, you win, and if you lose, you still win.