Saturday night at KeyArena in Seattle, Nate Diaz will step into the cage to battle Benson Henderson in the headliner of an event that is arguably the best show the UFC has assembled this year.
Watch Saturday’s UFC on Sportsnet: Henderson vs. Diaz, starting with the televised undercard at 5 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. PT, followed by the four-fight main card at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT. A bonus early preliminary fight is expected to appear on Sportsnet.ca at about 4:30 p.m. ET / 1:30 p.m. PT.
Fighting in the main event is nothing new for Diaz — he headlined FOX show back in May, and has earned top billing on three previous occasions. The majority of his UFC career has been spent competing on the main card and under the bright lights, a product of his victory over Manny Gamburyan on Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter and his last name.
What Diaz hasn’t done before, however, is fight for UFC gold. Despite having made 16 trips into the Octagon, the younger half of Stockton, Calif.,’s Fighting Diaz Brothers has yet to challenge for a championship under the UFC banner.
He’s been “in the mix” as Dana White likes to say, but every time he’s gotten close, he’s suffered a setback. Five consecutive wins beginning with his TUF 5 finale win over Gamburyan led to a showdown with Clay Guida, and the start of a stretch that saw Diaz lose three out of four fights. A promising two-fight winning streak to start his welterweight run ended with an uneven performance against Dong Hyun Kim and a UFC 129 loss to Rory MacDonald where he was thrown around the cage like a grappling dummy.
Since then, Diaz has returned to lightweight and looked phenomenal in racking up three straight wins to establish himself as the number one contender in the deep and talented 155-pound ranks.
My first inclination is to say, “It’s about time!” since it’s been five years since Diaz became one to watch after winning Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter, but the reality is that Diaz is just now entering his athletic prime, and his progression to this point has been a slow and steady climb not unlike that of his brother.
Much like Nick, Nate has figured out how to make his considerable talents work best for him inside the cage.
Where he used to play with fire by getting too close to wrestlers and put too much faith in his ability to beat people off his back, now Diaz keeps opponents at the end of his reach, making it easier to avoid takedowns and see them coming. He’s also moved away from waiting to capitalize on mistakes when they happen. Instead, now he creates opportunities with his hands, getting up his submission game behind the best boxing in the lightweight division.
He’s also fighting in the right weight class again. As much as he had success against Rory Markham and Marcus Davis in his first two appearances at welterweight, his losses to Kim and MacDonald highlighted how over-matched Diaz was physically fighting in the 170-pound ranks. His length makes him dangerous at lightweight, and though he still may be susceptible to getting worn out in the clinch or on the ground against bigger, stronger wrestlers, Diaz has figured out that being the aggressor and maintaining proper spacing can do wonders for your takedown defence.
In addition to developing his approach in the cage, Diaz has also benefitted from training alongside multiple champions, and seeing the amount of effort and commitment that goes into reaching that level.
Watching his brother, Jake Shields, and Gilbert Melendez all reach the top of their respective divisions during their time in Strikeforce had to have had an impact on the younger Diaz. While he’s been close to contention in the past, maybe what the 27-year-old Gracie Jiu-Jitsu fighter needed to elevate his game to the next level was time to refine his skills and a chance to see first-hand what it takes to be a champion.
Some of it comes down to timing as well.
We forget how difficult it can be to string together enough wins to get into contention, a task made infinitely more challenging with the depth of talent that exists in the UFC lightweight division. One wrong move can lead to a loss, and one loss can knock you back two or three rungs on the ladder. Sometimes it takes three wins to claim top spot on the list of contenders, and other times, rattling off seven consecutive victories still isn’t enough to get you a shot at the belt.
Diaz has really put everything together at the perfect time.
He returned to the 155-pound weight class just as the logjam at the top of the division was being cleared, and came out of his first bout back at lightweight healthy enough to make a quick turnaround. By the time he was ready to share the cage with Donald Cerrone at UFC 141, “Cowboy” and his former WEC colleague Henderson had combined to eliminate most of the contenders, with the latter having already established himself as the next man in line to fight for the title.
Two wins later and Diaz now finds himself sharing the cage with Henderson in a battle for the belt. It feels like his getting to this point was a long time coming, but at the same time, the timing of it feels perfect as well.
Diaz echoed a lot of these sentiments last week on the UFC on FOX 5 media conference call, saying, “My teammates have all been champions,” he said. “And I don’t know … maybe it’s my turn with something like that.”
Maybe it is. We don’t have to wait much longer to find out.
E. Spencer Kyte will be in Seattle all week covering the UFC on FOX show for Sportsnet.ca. Follow him on Twitter @spencerkyte.