Matthew Ross’ profile of Nick and Nate Diaz originally appeared in the Feb. 2008 issue of FIGHT! Magazine. Diaz will fight Marius Zaromskis for the vacant Strikeforce Welterweight Championship at Strikeforce: Miami on Jan. 30.
“These fighters are scary in a way that boxers and kick-boxers aren’t. They are savage…Whoever wins the fight, the unspoken signifier of victory is, I could have killed you. There are no excuses in the rules. If we were alone, in some back alley or on a deserted island, and we fought without all these people watching, then I could have killed you.” –Sam Sheridan, A Fighter’s Heart
Stockton, a small city in California’s San Joaquin Valley, is best known for its perpetually high crime rate (#2 nationally in auto thefts per capita as of 2005) and its ignominious distinction as the capital of the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007. There have been more foreclosures here than anywhere else in the country, and as I drive through the outskirts of town I notice a depressingly large number of “for sale” signs. The down and out quality of the place reminds me that Stockton was the setting for one of the greatest, grimmest boxing movies ever made: 1972’s Fat City. Poor cities breed fighters, and this place most definitely fits the bill.
Stockton also happens to be the city the fighting Diaz brothers, Nick and Nate, call home. Nick, 24, is by far the more accomplished fighter. During his tumultuous six years as a professional, Diaz has distinguished himself as much for his technical mastery of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and his lethal striking ability as he has for his reputation as an unpredictable rage machine incapable of drawing the line between athletic competition and all-out mortal combat. He’s floated in and out of various organizations (including two stints in the UFC), and while he’s taken out some of MMA’s most fearsome warriors, mainstream stardom and a major championship have continued to elude him, thanks to a series of controversial losses as well as a penchant for bad behavior. But while Nick’s outrageous behavior hasn’t endeared him to sponsors or promotional companies, his performances inside the ring, coupled with a slew of infamous acts outside it, have made him something of a legend among hardcore fight fans.
The 22-year-old Nate may not boast the same giant-killing résumé as his older brother and mentor, but he may be better known to the casual fan. Earlier this year, Nate appeared on The Ultimate Fighter reality series, eventually winning the show’s lightweight championship against the talented Manny Gamburyan (who submitted in the second round after injuring his shoulder). Like Nick, Nate is a BJJ prodigy who likes to bang. But so far, the up-and-coming lightweight has done his talking in the ring, not out of it.
The Diaz boys live with their mother, Melissa, in a modest two-story house on the outskirts of town. I arrive at their place on a chilly November afternoon, and Nick answers the door. The first thing I notice about Nick are his brows, or to be more specific, the scar tissue that covers them. Diaz suffers from a double whammy of bad genetics for a professional fighter: prominent bone structure and skin that cuts easily.
Those unfortunate facts of his physiology explain why, on this particular day, he isn’t in the best of spirits. Two weeks earlier, Nick suffered perhaps the most frustrating loss of his career, when the ring doctor stopped his televised live bout on Showtime against KJ Noons for the EliteXC 160 lb. championship during the first round. Noons, a camera-ready former pro boxer that EliteXC promoter Gary Shaw has been pushing heavily as a future star, opened up a pair of nasty cuts over both of Nick’s eyes, leaving the ring doctor with little choice but to stop the fight.
Upon hearing the doctor’s verdict, Nick promptly stormed out of the ring with both middle fingers raised high in the air, while Noons jumped around as if he had just won the lottery. I asked Nick about the fight, and he responds quickly and emphatically, “That guy was a munchkin. He thinks he’s a pro boxer, fuck it, I’ll fight him in straight boxing, I don’t care. He’s nothing special.” To prevent this type of stoppage from occurring again, Nick will be going under the knife to remove scar tissue and shave down the bones over his eyes in an effort to reduce his chances of getting cut.
It wasn’t the first time Nick was on the wrong end of a frustrating loss. His current professional record stands at 15-7, but those numbers are deceiving. With the exception of an early knockout loss to Jeremy Jackson (a loss that he avenged twice, once by TKO and once by submission) none of Diaz’s defeats have been decisive. And most have come in the UFC, against heavily promoted stars like Sean Sherk (April ’06), Karo Parisyan (August ’04), Diego Sanchez (November ’05), and Joe Riggs (February ’06).
After spending a few hours watching these fights with Nick, I soon come to understand why he spends much of his free time researching conspiracy theories on the internet. With the exception of Sanchez, who scored multiple takedowns throughout their 2005 bout, I find it difficult to comprehend how any of the judges gave Riggs, Sherk, or Parisyan more than one round.
Had Diaz won any of those fights, he would have been firmly in contention for a shot at the welterweight title. Cesar Gracie, who has been training Nick and Nate since they were teenagers, is certain that his prized student isn’t simply the victim of bad luck at the judges’ table. “I know for a fact that there are judges in the UFC who have it out for Nick,” Gracie tells me. “One of the judges told a friend of mine that he’d never vote for Nick Diaz in a close fight because he doesn’t like his attitude.”
I ask Nick about how he’s dealt with the losses. “Bottom line is, if it was a fight to the death, in every one of those [close decisions], I’m the one who would have walked out of that cage,” Nick tells me. “[In each fight] that son of a bitch wouldn’t have made it out, but I would have. I could see it in his eyes, I could hear it in the way that he was breathing, I could tell.”
The Riggs fight provided MMA junkies with yet another classic Nick Diaz anecdote. After the fight, both fighters were sent to the hospital for evaluation, and Diaz began taunting Riggs from his hospital bed. While accounts vary on the outcome of the impromptu fourth round, all agree that hospital security had to be called in to break the two men apart.
When Diaz wins, he tends to do so in spectacular fashion, especially when he’s the underdog. On April 2, 2004, Diaz faced off against Robbie Lawler, a young Pat Miletich stud with knockout power in both hands. In the days leading up to the fight, the general consensus was that Nick’s only option was to take the fight to the ground and work for a submission.
Instead, he decided to outstrike the striker. From the opening bell, Diaz simply outclassed the wild slugger with his superior boxing technique. When Lawler began to back off, Diaz openly taunted him. Midway through the second, Lawler attacked, and Diaz countered with a textbook right hook to the jaw. Lawler fell face first onto the canvas, and the fight was over.
The most impressive performance of Diaz’s career has, not surprisingly, been overshadowed by controversy. On February 4, 2007, Diaz faced off against Japanese phenom Takanori Gomi on the PRIDE 33 card in Las Vegas. Just as he did with Lawler, Diaz chose to stand and trade blows. By the end of the second round, Diaz was picking Gomi apart, and when the bell sounded, the PRIDE superstar was nearly out on his feet. In the third round, a visibly exhausted Gomi took the fight to the ground. Within seconds, Diaz locked a gogoplata, a rarely used submission that had only been pulled off once before in a PRIDE ring. Diaz’s victory celebration didn’t last long. After the fight, his urine sample came back positive for marijuana – lots of it. The usual cutoff for a positive sample is 50, and Diaz weighed in at a whopping 175. The victory was offi cially changed to a no-contest, and Nick was suspended from fighting for six months.
Diaz makes no attempt to conceal his fondness for marijuana and its medicinal benefits. “I think smoking weed is good for you,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve always smoked it, especially in the days leading up to fighting. I’ve given them dirty piss for every fucking test, and I never tested positive for anything. I don’t know why, but someone just decided to test for marijuana before the Gomi fight.”
It should be noted that despite his fondness for the kind bud, Nick follows a training routine that would leave most of the sport’s elite gasping for air on the side of the road. When I ask him what he does for fun besides look up weird shit on the internet, he gives me a one-word answer: triathlons.
Later, I asked Nate what makes his brother tick. “He’s serious about everything,” said Nate. “I guess he’s crazy. With Nick, it ain’t no act. That’s who he is. And he don’t take shit from anybody. Growing up, Nick had friends, but he rolled solo a lot. And he had a lot more fights than I had. People would just fuck with him, and then he’d flip out. He didn’t get along with bullies or football players.”
Nate initially started training in MMA to help Nick prepare for his early fights as a pro, and big brother remains the unquestioned alpha dog of the house. Yet while Nate may not share Nick’s maniacal devotion to training and his aversion to anything resembling small talk, Nate is a dedicated professional who puts long hours in the gym (including triathlon work) and takes care of business in the ring. “Nate’s a friendly guy, and just as loyal to the people who care about him as Nick is, but he’s a little more open of a person,” Gracie tells me. “I really love Nate’s fighting style. He’s no-nonsense, come in, get your business done, and go home kind of guy.” In his last bout, Nate, who currently holds a purple belt in Gracie BJJ, tapped out black belt Junior Assuncao in the first round of a SpikeTV Ultimate Fight Night card.
Later that night, I accompany the Diaz boys to Phillip Torres’ Pacific Coast Martial Arts gym in downtown Stockton for their regular nighttime workout. While Nate rolls with a much bigger man inside the gym’s octagon, Nick, who’s sporting a badly swollen right knee and a face that’s still healing from the Noons fight, spends most of his time on the mat, showing a group of training partners how to set up a submission attempt from the guard. It immediately becomes clear to me that while Diaz may be something of a social misfit outside the gym, he’s a very effective and engaging instructor who genuinely loves showing people what he knows. I couldn’t imagine what Nick and his short fuse would have become had he not discovered Jiu-Jitsu around the same time he was getting kicked out of high school. Thankfully, Nick never got a chance to find out.
The next morning, I stop by the Diaz house on my way out of town. Nick, in a rare moment of self-reflection, tells me about his love for the sport that has occupied nearly every second of his waking life for the past eight years. “I’m not asking to get paid millions of dollars,” Nick tells me. “What’s so wrong about me being able to just fight and not have to hear anybody’s bullshit and not have to deal with a boss? When I was in school, I had teachers telling me, ‘You’re not going to amount to much; you’re not going to get a job.’ And now people want to hear what I have to say. They want to learn Jiu-Jitsu from me.”
At this point, Nick’s standing in the MMA universe is tenuous. He currently has one fight remaining on his EliteXC contract, and it may very well be a rematch with Gomi. If that doesn’t happen, Nick may take another shot at UFC glory, or just continue to float between various promotions in search of big game. Whatever the case, Nick’s confidence – and his fight game – will remain right where it has been for a long time: sky high. I asked Nick if he was put on this earth to be a fi ghter, and his response was unequivocal,
“I was born to make an attempt to be the greatest fighter in the world.” It remains to be seen if Nick ( or Nate for that matter) will ever get a chance to make good on these ambitious goals, but as I leave the blue collar grimness of Stockton I come away with one overriding impression; don’t fuck with the Diaz Brothers.