Nate Diaz is back. Finally.
Diaz, one of the UFC’s most popular fighters, will be back in the Octagon for the first time in three years when he faces Anthony Pettis at UFC 241 on Saturday in Anaheim, California.
But is taking a fight with the talented “Showtime” Pettis, who is coming off a knockout win over former 170-pound title challenger Stephen Thompson, too much to ask of the returning Diaz?
This was one topic discussed in this week’s Ariel & The Bad Guy episode, streamed exclusively on ESPN+.
Chael Sonnen: Ariel, I didn’t even listen to the question. Just watching Nate right there talking to Brett [Okamoto], I need to tell you a story real fast. Did you ever see the Dave Chappelle show, and do you remember when Charlie Murphy came on and he would tell stories and he told a story about playing basketball with Prince, and Prince came out, and he was all dressed all silly, and then it turned out Prince could really ball, and Prince just ran circles around him? Do you remember that story? They did this at Prince’s house that had a basketball court, then Prince takes them inside and makes them all pancakes. Do you remember this story?
Ariel Helwani: Yes, I do.
Sonnen: OK, I must tell you, I went out to Lodi, California, one time. I went out there, and I trained with Nate Diaz. Now, I went out there with Matt Lindland. We were actually out there to help Jake Shields. Jake had brought us in. He was getting ready to fight Georges St.-Pierre. We end up in Lodi. Jake’s not even there, and now we’re in the ring sparring with Nate. OK, fine, but Matt and I sparred a certain way, which was a lot more controlled. Out there in Lodi at Nate’s gym, all of a sudden we are fighting Nate Diaz. We get done with all of that, we go right next door, he buys us fish tacos. That’s my story.
Helwani: A real mensch. That is the true definition of a mensch, right there.
I will answer the question. I appreciate the story, though, because I love story time with Chael. Quite frankly, I don’t think we get it enough, but that’s a different topic for a different day.
Now, the question is, is he biting off more than he can chew? And the answer is absolutely not. In fact, the bigger the bite, the more excited, if you will, Nate Diaz is about the fight. He has been waiting three years to come back because nothing was really getting him excited, nothing was enticing him to return. I never really felt like he was all that interested in the [Dustin] Poirier fight, and you saw how that fizzled out. But he waited for an opportunity where Anthony Pettis was red-hot, in a new weight class, undefeated, just knocked out a guy who had never been knocked out before — “Wonderboy” Thompson — and then he said to his team, let’s go after that guy. And if you’re listening to what he’s saying there, who else does he bring up in that clip? He brings up Jorge Masvidal, who is hotter than anyone right now in this sport.
He wants to go after the big fish. That’s what gets him going. Even if you’re the champion, if you’re a guy like Kamaru Usman, who obviously is very good, who’s on a roll, who’s champion but doesn’t have a lot of hype behind him, doesn’t have a lot of momentum, that doesn’t do it for him. The belt doesn’t do it for him. There are other people who say, literally, ‘I want the champion. I don’t care. I just want the belt.’ Nate Diaz, Nick Diaz have never been those kinds of guys. They want the fights that get them amped up. This is a fight that gets them amped up, and as a result, I’m amped up, Chael.
Sonnen: By the way, a lot has been made of the three-year layoff, and that’s very fair, particularly in this sport. I’ve seen Nate. I’ve seen him backstage a number of times. I’ve gone up to him, I give him a hug, I say hello. Every time I hug him, Ariel, I can’t believe how strong he’s gotten. I think the guy’s lifting weights. He never talks about it. I’m telling you, you are going to see a physically stronger Nate Diaz. I’ll come up to him, I’ll say, ‘Nate, you look great. You’re not fighting, why are you in such good shape?’ ‘Chael, I’m training all the time, I got some kids classes, my coaches still make me. I’m doing all the same stuff.’ He said, ‘I’m actually looking for a fight. I was supposed to fight Poirier a minute ago. I was in training camp for that fight. This is no problem.’ And I tend to believe him, that when you look at the X’s and O’s of this fight, real fast for you, Ariel, Nate doesn’t love to defend leg kicks. For whatever reason, he doesn’t respect leg kicks. Anthony Pettis is a leg kicker. I think Nate is going to have to deal with that. The other side of the coin is when you are in there and a guy is throwing kicks at you, it does open up that one-two, that cross hook that Nate does so well.
I just think we’re going to have a fun fight here, and can I add this for you as a fan? You want to know where I hope this fight goes at some point, Ariel? I hope it goes on the ground because Anthony Pettis is the single most underrated ground fighter in the sport. I’ll remind you he won the championship over Benson Henderson with a submission, and I want to see those guys in that spot.
Helwani: Oh, yeah, that would be incredible. I wonder how many takedown attempts there will be, but that will be a fun little wrinkle to the fight.
If you haven’t seen it — this is a cheap plug, but I’ll do it anyway — Duke Roufus, one of the great guys in this sport, he’s a head coach for Anthony Pettis, Ben Askren, Tyron Woodley etc. He was on my show on Monday, Chael, and he delivered one of the all-time great promos for this fight, and quite frankly, I didn’t expect it out of Duke because he’s a pretty mild-mannered guy. But he looked at the camera, and he said, ‘I just want to thank Nate Diaz for bringing out the old Showtime.’ That guy may have been gone here and there. He may have won the belt, dipped down a little bit, had some ups and downs. But he said, and we’ve heard this before, we’ve heard the cliché — ‘best training camp.’ He told me it was the best training camp, but I believed it when he said it because there is a legit rivalry here. These guys, you can find the footage. Go back to UFC 188 backstage in Mexico City, they had a bit of a run-in. There’s footage there of these two guys talking about each other, hating each other, not liking each other, wanting to fight each other, and now we’re getting to see it. And we’re getting to see it at 170 pounds, which I think is very significant because for Nate, he hates cutting weight. I wouldn’t be surprised if we never see him fight again at 155, and look, you’ve got this whole new chapter for Anthony Pettis, who looked really good at 170 against a former contender in Wonderboy. That just makes it fun. I can’t wait. I am sold, Chael. I just want to get to Anaheim.
Sonnen: I got four seconds, but I will tell you, I think that Pettis is on a bit of a roll, even if you look at the [Tony] Ferguson fight. I don’t want to hear about the outcome. I want to focus on the performance. I thought he looked great.
Helwani: You mentioned the four seconds. Did you want to say anything else? Did you feel like I shortchanged you? Is that why you mentioned it?
Sonnen: Nah, I don’t think you did. You didn’t shortchange me. You have the right to say your piece, but you didn’t leave me much time, and I had to run the clock out.