Editor’s note: This was originally published on August 17, 2016.
STOCKTON, Calif. — If there is a way to summarize the lasting effect Nate Diaz‘s hometown has had on him, it’s that it taught him this: Always be all the way in when it comes to a fight.
That might sound like an obvious lesson, one that doesn’t necessarily require growing up in Stockton to figure out. But at this point in his life, Diaz is fairly convinced few truly live with this mentality.
His older brother, UFC welterweight Nick Diaz, calls it a curse. Nate refers to it as a “kill or be killed” state of mind. The Diaz brothers are fighting. Add bells and whistles around it for financial gain, that’s great. But this is still a fight.
“I’ve been a lot more real than other fighters,” Nate Diaz said. “I’m putting my middle finger up, saying, ‘F— you,’ and they’re sitting there like we’re not even fighting. No, we are fighting. And this will remind you of that real quick. These other guys are trying to make this a sport, but I’m just keeping it real with what the hell is going on.
“I don’t ask my mom to watch fights — or my girlfriend, my friends, nobody. If anybody wants to watch, they can watch, but don’t get offended when I get ugly. This is not an attractive sport. It’s not like, ‘Oh, my grandson does MMA.’ Don’t tell people that. You might disappoint a lot of people you’re trying to impress.
“I’m all the way in this fight game. I’m not one foot in, one foot out. I’m not here to impress people. I’m here to get mine, get ahead and do what I’ve got to do.”
“I don’t ask my mom to watch fights — or my girlfriend, my friends, nobody. If anybody wants to watch, they can watch but don’t get offended when I get ugly. This is not an attractive sport. It’s not like, ‘Oh, my grandson does MMA.’ Don’t tell people that. You might disappoint a lot of people you’re trying to impress.”
On Saturday, Diaz (19-10) will fight Conor McGregor at UFC 202 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. It’s a rematch of a last-minute welterweight bout at UFC 196 in March. McGregor (19-3), the sport’s biggest star, lost his original opponent, Rafael dos Anjos, to injury weeks before the pay-per-view event. Diaz stepped in on 11 days’ notice and submitted McGregor in the second round.
If you want to make Diaz quiet, ask him about fighting McGregor for a second time. Over the course of a three-hour conversation, Diaz essentially said the same thing every time about his upcoming opponent.
“Conor is a guy who is training to take me out,” Diaz said.
Drop the McGregor topic, however, and Diaz will talk. He’ll get so lost in telling stories he’ll ask more than once if he’s rambling. Even if he is, you tell him to keep going. The stories are fascinating.
Because no matter what happens at UFC 202, Diaz is worth listening to at the moment. He conquered the fight game in 2016. Anyone can argue that he couldn’t have done so without McGregor, but that’s missing the point.
In a span of eight months, Diaz went from foot soldier to paid mercenary, and in the fight game, that’s a win. Getting paid is the win.
Diaz didn’t always know that, but he certainly does now. And he was able to do something about it.
“If anybody sees what I’ve done and doesn’t think it’s brilliant … then they just don’t like the way I look or the way I fight or talk,” Diaz said. “But that’s what f—ing sells.”
Every fighter has a hometown. Not many of them represent theirs as much as the Diaz brothers have pushed Stockton.
When Nate Diaz whacked McGregor with an open palm during their first fight, the internet knew to refer to it as the infamous “Stockton Slap.” Stockton’s 209 area code is as well-known as the Diaz name. UFC commentator Jon Anik has the numbers tattooed on his arm, the result of an ill-advised bet against Diaz in his last fight.
Historically, the city of Stockton has dealt with a relatively high violent crime rate. It is one of the largest U.S. cities to ever declare bankruptcy.
Diaz grew up in a small, one-story house in Lodi, just north of Stockton. He lived with his mother, older brother and sister. His father was not around much during his childhood.
He hesitates making any references to a “rough neighborhood,” because he feels like it’s very cliché — a cage fighter, coming from a rough area. But he can’t deny the indirect effect that Stockton’s violence had on his life.
“It’s not necessarily we were sitting in the middle of [violence], we were just very aware of everything,” Diaz said. “If someone was getting into it, there was a fight. You would see fights all the time. I’ll go other places, and nobody fights.
“When Nick was first fighting in the UFC and going, ‘What, m—–f—–?!’ and people were like, ‘Wow, this guy is crazy,’ that was just a natural thing to us. All that was normal. You say that in places outside of Stockton, and guys are like, ‘Woah, what’s the problem here?’ We’re like, ‘Aren’t we fighting right now?'”
When Nate was about 13, Nick began training how to fight. He started lifting weights at Animal House Gym and met Steve Heath, a professional fighter who fought Chuck Liddell in 2000. While Nick trained at Animal House, Nate worked as a cook at a restaurant next door. Eventually, he joined his brother in training.
Nate was naturally good at boxing, but he really fell in love with jiu-jitsu. After he stopped going to high school, Diaz says he was a little anti-social. He was selling marijuana, and his social circle was basically reduced to his smoking buddies.
But at jiu-jitsu, Diaz would tap some chiropractor, and suddenly the two had something in common. A successful businessman wanted to know how Diaz choked him out. It built confidence.
“When I found jiu-jitsu, I knew at that time that a blue belt could take out anybody in the world,” Diaz said. “I was saying, ‘Dude, I’ll choke out anybody.
“Nick had mats, a weight bench and a TV he would watch old fights on in his bedroom. People would come over to challenge Nick to a fight, and he would say, ‘If you tap out my brother, I’ll roll with you.’ Nick would come in my room and wake me up. I’m this skinny 15-year-old kid, and he’d say, ‘Roll with this guy, quick.’
“I would go in his room and choke these guys out. And if anybody could choke me out, the first thing I’d say was, ‘All right, now let’s box.'”
Diaz started a professional fight career without even really noticing. Jiu-jitsu tournaments and triathlons transitioned into cage fights. His former coach, Cesar Gracie, told him what to do and when to do it. Whatever money Diaz got as a result was what it was. He simply accepted it and didn’t ask questions.
During one contract negotiation, Diaz remembers “sitting in the lobby, sipping water” while something as significant as a multiyear deal was being discussed.
“It took me a second to come out of soldier mode,” Diaz said. “What’s smart, what’s better for me, what’s really going on here? I kind of woke up and was like, ‘Hold up. What have I been doing?’ It just continued from wherever it had first started: me being down to fight anybody, being told to fight whoever, no questions asked.
“I had never asked a question before. It was, ‘Fight that guy? OK. That guy? OK.’ It was a psycho-militant lifestyle.”
It eventually led to an ugly realization for Diaz. In 2014, just one year after signing a long-term deal with the UFC, Diaz asked for a complete release from the promotion. UFC president Dana White responded by telling him to “get back to work.” The UFC even dropped Diaz from its official fighter rankings, citing a refusal to accept bouts.
Diaz eventually did accept a bout against Rafael dos Anjos in December of that year. In an uninspired performance, Diaz missed weight and then lost badly to dos Anjos in a three-round fight. The UFC does not disclose information on fighter pay — so, the exact earning for athletes are largely unknown — but Diaz’s reported fight purse to the athletic commission for that fight was $16,000.
At the post-fight press conference, White said Diaz needed to “get his head together or retire.”
It would be one full year until Diaz fought again.
“At first I just flipped out,” Diaz said. “I started looking at numbers and I was like, ‘Woah, you guys are making this much? That guy’s making this money? The company is bringing in this much? It’s time to get paid!’ I spoke right up.
“Over time, I realized, ‘Wow, I need to get some leverage.'”
On Dec. 19, 2015, Nate Diaz stood in the Octagon next to commentator Joe Rogan with network television cameras rolling live. Diaz had just defeated Michael Johnson in a highly entertaining lightweight fight.
Rogan asked Diaz a question, something about how the fight went. Whatever, the question didn’t matter. Diaz wasn’t even listening. He looked up at his own image playing on the arena monitors, scowled and unleashed an expletive-laced speech that Rogan would eventually be forced to cut off.
“Conor McGregor, you’re taking everything I worked for, m—–f—–,” Diaz said. “I’m gonna fight your f—ing ass. You know what’s the real fight. What’s the real money fight? It’s me.”
McGregor initially opted for a fight against dos Anjos instead, but fate intervened, and McGregor and Diaz were paired up 11 days before UFC 196. Diaz was happy to accept the fight and the biggest payday of his career.
Fast forward to March 5. Diaz and Rogan stood side-by-side in the Octagon again, moments after Diaz submitted McGregor via rear-naked choke in the second round. Again, it felt like Rogan’s question to him could have been anything. It didn’t matter. Diaz was going to say what he had to say.
“I’m not surprised, m—–f—–s,” Diaz said.
The words “I’m not surprised,” accompanying a towering depiction of Diaz flexing, now live in the form of a mural on the side of a building in downtown Stockton. He doesn’t really say it, but it’s a spot he clearly takes pride in.
In May, White and former UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta flew to Stockton to negotiate terms for a massive rematch against McGregor. The meeting did not go particularly well.
The UFC felt a deal should have already been in place, because the sides had previously agreed to have the rematch headline UFC 200 in July. But after the UFC pulled the fight in the midst of a public spat with McGregor, Diaz circled back to the negotiating table with a higher number in mind.
An agreement wasn’t reached during that Stockton meeting, but they all still drove to Diaz’s mural for a photo-op before parting ways. So, you had Fertitta and White standing there, smiling, directly under an image of a moment that gave Diaz an enormous amount of leverage in his contract negotiations with them. For the record, it was Diaz’s idea to visit the mural.
Two weeks later, Diaz signed a new contract for the rematch. Terms were not disclosed, however it’s safe to assume the deal is worth seven figures.
“This is long overdue, you know what I’m saying?” said Diaz, referring to his improved financial situation. “And it goes by the moment. Who knows what’s going to happen after this fight? What happens if I get murked? What happens if I lose this fight? They better give me a m—–f—ing rematch like they gave him. But I doubt if they will.
“This is the blueprint. Fighters need to start imagining themselves as the product, because we’re the product of this business. I ain’t free. I don’t know why everybody is acting like they are.”
A less publicized aspect of this weekend’s rematch is that Diaz and McGregor share a healthy respect for one another. Mutual respect headlines don’t really sell a fight, but it does exist between these two.
As much as Diaz is known for talking trash, he claims he does very little of it. It’s just that as a fight gets closer, part of his mental preparation is to see it for what it is.
“These other guys say, ‘I love to fight. I’m excited to fight,'” Diaz said. “That’s some bulls—. No one is excited or loves to fight.
“Of course, the feeling of winning a fight, succeeding at your objective and your goals, it’s exciting when it’s done and over with. But who the hell wants to jump up, hop inside a cage in front of the whole world and maybe get knocked out? That’s not exciting. That’s not fun, and I don’t love that s—.”
Diaz enjoys training in martial arts. He’ll do it his entire life — in Stockton. He says he’ll never move away from his roots. The Diaz brothers’ front doors are within running distance (for them at least) of each other. Mother, father and sister also share a home close by.
In a way, Diaz has all but left the “fight” part of Stockton. He doesn’t enjoy being in a fight anymore. He’s drawn to the alpha male part of it and it has provided him a better life. Training for it motivates him, gives him something to pursue on a daily basis.
At the same time, it genuinely seems like another part of him would be quite comfortable if he never got into a fight again. Until then, if Diaz is going to be in a fight, he’s going to be all the way in.