On Thursday afternoon, you could find Nate Diaz in the warehouse district of Lodi, a few blocks south of downtown. He was just another guy from Stockton, one who recently and unexpectedly became the biggest name in the big-money world of mixed martial arts. Twelve days earlier, he stunned it with an enormous upset on pay-per-view TV. Now he was back in the gym, putting in work, with fighters on the outskirts of fame that he treated as equals in the discipline of their passion.
The scene was the Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu gym on Ackerman Drive, where a sidewall had been drawn open to bring the beautiful spring day indoors. A half-dozen or so MMA fighters trained with the man who these days gives interviews to Rolling Stone. A toddler roamed the gym kicking a ball. A couple other kids played around while their parents worked out with the master.
No one can doubt Diaz holds that status when it comes to his destiny in Ultimate Fighting Championship. He earned it March 5, when he choked out a brash and colorful champion in a fight that attracted an estimated 1.5 million pay-per-view buys, not to mention the 14,898 who contributed to a gate of $8.1 million at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas.
Diaz’s stunning victory over Ireland’s Conor McGregor was not in UFC’s plans. UFC had slapped the franchise tag on McGregor, the champion of its 145-pound division, and he had become the most exciting and popular male fighter, having won all of his UFC bouts. Diaz was a last-minute substitute for 155-pound champ Rafael Dos, who suffered a training injury 11 days before the bout.
UFC matchmakers knew Diaz would give they didn’t want me to win the fight,” Diaz said Thursday.
It didn’t appear UFC had much to worry about in the first round. McGregor turned Diaz’s face into a bloody and purple pulp. A natural 170-pounder, Diaz absorbed it. Early in the second round, he gave it back when he let go with a left that caught McGregor coming in. Then he took McGregor down with a submission choke. The UFC universe hasn’t been the same since.
Entering the fight, Diaz had won 18 of 28 fights. He fought twice for titles and lost. He won one “The Ultimate Fighter” reality TV series, and he fought plenty on pay-per-view, usually on the undercard. He was the Stockton Scrapper, always a worthy challenger, but something of a crash-test dummy, to be deployed by the promoters to assist the ascension of the golden boys.
Against McGregor, Diaz survived the collision. Now he’s the guy the UFC has to work into the picture to lend credibility to its next big show.
“That was the No. 1-paid guy,” Diaz said of McGregor, “the biggest name in the sport, the pound-for-pound best fighter, they were claiming. And I just beat him. So what does that make me?”
Word broke Friday that UFC wants to put together a Diaz-McGregor rematch July 9 in Las Vegas.
Maybe Diaz, who made a reported $500,000 against McGregor, will go for the rematch. It sounded Thursday as if he wouldn’t mind giving McGregor a little bit more. He thought McGregor moved into the big money too soon while he and other fighters like him slogged for way fewer bucks on the road to building the sport’s huge popularity. He didn’t like it when McGregor went hunting for bigger guys to fight, and it steamed him even more when the whispering campaign began within the UFC after he beat McGregor that the weight differential accounted for the result.
They can whisper whatever they want, but Diaz has leverage now. In the meantime, he trains in Lodi, with a group of fighters to whom he is an instructor as well as a partner. He just had his time. Now he’s trying to help them arrive at theirs.
“I got to where I’m at because I’ve got a team – training partners,” Diaz said. “They’re my friends; everybody in here, they’ve got fights, too. Just because the big show went down, this show goes on, too. For the moment, that was the most important thing that was happening, my fight. Now that I’m done, the most important thing happening is these guys’ fights. We’re a team. We represent for each other. We’re not like other teams that just work out at the same place. They are my team. They are my friends. I want them to do well.”
Diaz says he represents Stockton every time out. He calls his hometown “the realest place there is.”
When it comes to athletes, the guys who train with Diaz say they don’t get any more real than him, either.
“He won that fight for all of us,” said Patrick Eley a 32-year-old former chiropractor and now a branding consultant who comes down from the foothills in Arnold three or four times a week to train in Lodi. “He won that fight for people who never had flashy stuff, and never had all like these fancy coaches, and like ice rooms, or whatever they’re doing. He won it for people that train for real life, as a way of life.”