Can Nick Diaz rekindle past magic vs. Robbie Lawler at UFC 266?

Nick Diaz fought Anderson Silva at UFC 183 on Jan. 31, 2015. (Eric Jamison/AP)

Mixed martial arts nostalgia metres will be flickering furiously this weekend at UFC 266 when Nick Diaz makes his first walk to the Octagon in more than six years.

It’s not merely that the enigmatic star is returning. It’s that he’s doing so by running back his classic fight with fellow fan favourite Robbie Lawler in a five-round featured bout – the unofficial people’s main event.

Lawler was a rising star and expected to beat Diaz in their first encounter in April of 2004 back when both burgeoning fighters were in their early twenties at UFC 47.

The bout was an instant classic, a back-and-forth brawl Diaz won via thrilling second-round knockout.

It also happened to be the initial showcase of Diaz’s in-cage trash talking and the patented Stockton Slap he and his younger brother, Nate Diaz, have made famous over the years.

WHAT HAPPENED FOLLOWING THE FIRST DIAZ-LAWLER FIGHT?

Lawler had been on a meteoric rise before his loss to Diaz halted that momentum. He moved up a weight class and lost to Evan Tanner six months later then left the promotion. Nine years would pass before he’d return to the UFC.

Lawler instead went 11-6 fighting for seven different organizations from 2005-2012 and limped back into the UFC after a 3-5 run in Strikeforce. By the time the UFC enveloped Lawler’s Strikeforce contract in 2013 he was considered well past his prime.

Ironically, that’s when his career resurgence occurred.

Lawler dropped back down to 170 pounds for the first time since his loss to Diaz and he began tearing through the UFC welterweight division, eventually winning the title.

Meanwhile, Diaz competed in the UFC with mixed results for almost another three years after beating Lawler before also venturing outside the UFC from 2007 to mid-2011.

Unlike Lawler, though, Diaz had incredible success following his first UFC stint. He became a dominant welterweight champion in Strikeforce and capped off his time there with his classic one-round win over Paul Daley.

When Diaz returned to the UFC he impressively defeated former two-weight champion B.J. Penn at UFC 237. That was in 2011. Nobody at the time would’ve guessed it would end up being the last time we’d see Nick Diaz get his hand raised but that’s exactly how his story unfolded.

Diaz lost an interim title fight to Carlos Condit in 2012 and a title fight to undisputed champion Georges St-Pierre a year later, two results that sandwiched a one-year suspension Diaz served for a marijuana violation.

Diaz’s most recent fight was a bizarre middleweight tilt with Anderson Silva at UFC 183 in January of 2015. Silva won a decision that was later changed to a no-contest when both men failed drug tests – Diaz for marijuana again, Silva for steroids.

WHAT HAS LAWLER DONE SINCE DIAZ LAST FOUGHT?

Ronda Rousey, Demetrious Johnson, Cain Velasquez, Chris Weidman and Anthony Pettis were among the reigning UFC champions the last time Diaz fought.

So was Lawler, who sat atop the 170-pound division after winning the belt from Johnny Hendricks in the second welterweight title bout of the post-GSP era.

Lawler defended the title against Rory MacDonald and Condit before Tyron Woodley knocked him out in July 2016. Lawler returned with a win over Donald Cerrone in 2017 but the 38-year-old has since lost four in a row.

A 39-year-old on the worst losing streak of his career taking on a 38-year-old that hasn’t won in nearly a decade doesn’t scream excitement, yet this matchup somehow feels right for both men at this stage of their respective careers.

WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM DIAZ? SHOULD FANS BE CONCERNED?

On one hand, we really don’t know how Diaz will look in the cage post-layoff. Between serving a lengthy suspension for repeated marijuana violations (penalties based on archaic drug-testing rules and sanctions that have since been changed) and his decision to not return to MMA as soon as he was eligible to fight, is it utterly unrealistic to think Diaz can be competitive at a high level again? Even against a fighter in the midst of a drought like Lawler?

On the other hand, it would appear Diaz hasn’t changed one iota when it comes to how he communicates and conducts himself outside of the cage in the lead-up to a fight as evidenced by some interesting fight-week requests and comments.

Saturday’s bout was originally agreed to for the 170-pound welterweight division, however Diaz and his team requested earlier this week the fight be moved up a division and contested in the 185-pound middleweight division. Was it gamesmanship, or perhaps an indication Diaz isn’t in fight shape? It was bizarre and unexpected whatever it was, and a perfect example of Diaz being Diaz.

Thankfully, Lawler is always game and in shape, so he agreed to the new conditions, the UFC didn’t make a fuss and both men made weight Friday.

The Stockton, Calif., native also made some comments to ESPN that have some onlookers concerned he may not be prepared for a return to fighting.

“Do I feel confident? I never do. I never have,” Diaz told Brett Okamodo. “I always feel like I'm going to get trashed out there. Every fight I've ever done. 'How do you feel against Robbie Lawler?' I feel like I'm going to get the [expletive] beat out of me. And even when I win, I get beat up worse.”

In that same interview Diaz actually claimed he’d have a better chance at beating dominant reigning champion Kamaru Usman than he does at beating Lawler a second time.

“I think I'll beat the [expletive] out of Usman,” Diaz said. “I'll have a better shot against Usman than I do Lawler just because I already beat Lawler. This doesn't make sense for me to go in and fight Robbie Lawler again. I don't know why I'm doing this. ... This should not happen. Whoever set this up is an idiot. I don't know why I'm doing this. I don't know why this happened. I should be fighting Kamaru Usman and that's it.”

Are these the ramblings of a washed fighter with delusions of grandeur? A scared, unprepared fighter who feels forced to do something he dislikes? Or, are they comments completely on par with the many outlandish things fight-week Diaz has said all throughout his career? Maybe it's a little from Column A, a little from Column B.

Come to think of it, if Diaz is behaving like his usual self, perhaps he’ll fight that way too. For UFC fans this weekend, that would be the best-case scenario.

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