Five years. That's how long the Nevada State Athletic Commission decided UFC fighter/enigma Nick Diaz won't be allowed to fight. That's more than most steroid users. All this over goddamn marijuana.
If you have friends (or enemies) who are super into MMA, they probably haven't shut up about Nick Diaz in the past 24 hours. That is, in part, because he got popped for weed by way of a pre-fight drug test (while pot does not, by any stretch of imagination, enhance a fighter's in-cage performance, it is still against the rules) and, yesterday, was slapped with an unprecedented five year competition ban.
But people are especially upset because of who Nick Diaz is. These days, he might not be quite as big of a name as Ronda Rousey or Conor McGregor, but he's one of the most unique (and downright bizarre) individuals in the history of the sport. People want to see him in the cage or on the mic, not polishing a ball-and-chain on the sidelines.
OK, let's back up a bit. Despite his relatively young age of 32, Nick Diaz has been fighting in MMA's major leagues for more than a decade.
He made his UFC debut in 2003, but he didn't make his mark as a truly elite fighter until he fought for (now defunct) Japanese mega-organisation Pride back in 2007. In that fight, he managed to beat the man widely considered the best lightweight in the world, Takanori "The Fireball Kid" Gomi. Diaz didn't just defeat Gomi; he smacked the spirit out of him. Gomi was known for his ferociously powerful striking. Diaz outboxed Gomi with pure volume — unrelenting barrages of precision punches — and left him stumbling and sucking air at the end of the first round.
Then, in the second, Diaz added insult to injury by catching Gomi in a submission that practically nobody ever uses in MMA: the gogoplata. It's a choke that involves the shin bone and is considered, by most, to be pretty impractical compared to more meat 'n' potatoes stuff like the arm bar, triangle choke, or the rear-naked choke. Diaz pulled it off, and he made it look easy:
Previously, Diaz's skillsets had never quite clicked. His jiu-jitsu was excellent, his striking was decent, and his cardio was godly (he often competes in triathlons for the hell of it), but he'd suffered major setbacks against truly high-level competition. Against Gomi, Diaz looked like he'd finally found his rhythm, and what a unique, thrilling rhythm it was. Killer boxing and a willingness to eat one monster punch to flurry back with hundreds of stinging jabs? That is the good kind of crazy. That's the kind of crazy that turns fights into fucking gold.
Shortly after the Gomi fight, Diaz got popped for marijuana, and his victory was overturned to a no-contest. This would become a running theme throughout his career.
But Diaz's in-cage accomplishments (and his proclivity for, er, undoing them) are only half the story.
Nick Diaz is truly one of a kind. And by that, I mean he's a weird fucking dude. Hailing from Stockton, California, he's cultivated a sort of give-no-fucks "thug" persona. He mean mugs everybody. He trash talks his opponents while he's fighting them, whether he's winning or losing. He #420smokesweedeveryday, heedless of the rules. He's been part of multiple non-sanctioned brawls at major MMA events. He seems to despise The Establishment in all its forms, even when it's his employer. Once upon a time, the UFC took a title shot away from Diaz because he no-showed on so many mandatory press and promotional events.
If you ask Nick or his younger brother, Nate, they will tell you that's just who they are; that's who they had to be growing up in bad parts of Stockton, in order to avoid (or, worst case scenario, deal with) trouble. They fell into martial arts naturally, when they were young. When life gives you street fights on a near-daily basis, you make fight-ade. Or something.
Despite a general air of douchiness, there's something distinctly likable about Diaz. Whether you believe he's in the right for, frankly, acting kind of childish all the time, it's hard to doubt his sincerity. He's a no-bullshit dude. When coaxed out of his nigh-impenetrable shell, he speaks his mind, and he doesn't give a goddamn who hears. He's said stuff that would have probably gotten other fighters fired. And while he sometimes comes off as a total crazy person (or a rampant, do-nothing complainer when people beat him with wrestling), he has a habit of ending his drug-addled ramblings at something vaguely resembling profound truth... if you squint at it.
Most infamously, there was the "wolf ticket" incident back in 2013. As part of the build-up for a welterweight title fight between then-champ (and transcendentally popular goody two-shoes) Georges St. Pierre and Diaz, the UFC released a bunch of marketing materials that painted Diaz as a truly unforgivable villain. Countless clips featured St. Pierre talking about how he was gonna dig deep, bring out his "darker side" to punish Diaz for being a malcontent with no redeeming qualities, for pushing St. Pierre to the brink with his antics and trash talk. There were no grays here; St. Pierre was good, Diaz was evil.
During a press conference that he actually attended, Diaz called them on it. And a million other issues he had with MMA and the UFC.
"They like to make me look like the bad guy. Georges likes to say I remind of a bully that picked on him growing up. How many times have you had a gun to your head, Georges? How many of your best friends have been shot through the chest with a 45 or how many of your best friends have been stomped, put to sleep in a coma? How many people put gum in your hair growing up going back that far?"
"I hate everyone pulling the bully card. Everyone hates bullies. If it wasn't for what I went through, who knows if I would have made it in life. Who knows if I'd be here today. I don't go and point the finger and decide that people are the bully who tortured me as a child. I don't want to see anybody hurt. I don't believe anyone out here working towards greatness deserves to be beat down, smashed in. The fans out like violence. People like violence. It's the funniest thing but I like to think I'm not a violent person. I'm a martial artist."
Then came the notorious "wolf tickets" line, wherein Diaz insinuated that the UFC and St. Pierre were feeding audiences bullshit and not intending to even back it up with a decent fight.
"You [St. Pierre] told the fans that I deserve to get beat down, that I chased you around. I got the fight, right? I'm working towards something, everybody knows that. Sorry I had to [say you were scared] to get the fight. They're selling you [fans and media] all wolf tickets people, you're eating them right up. Georges here is selling wolf tickets. Dana White here is selling wolf tickets. The UFC is selling wolf tickets. You guys are eating them right up."
Rambling verging on incoherent, but spiced with a bit of truth. Diaz isn't as bad of a dude as he's sometimes portrayed, and the UFC did kinda sell people "wolf tickets." St. Pierre did not, in fact, go all dark side on Diaz. He largely played it safe, wrestled a bunch, and gave fans a fight that wasn't super exciting. But that's the fight game for you. For better or worse, Diaz has never meshed well with the "game" part of it.
Nick Diaz vs the world
Back in the present, Nick Diaz is in a rough spot. Unless his legal team bats a thousand while appealing the Nevada State Athletic Commission's decision in court, he's on the bench until 2020. By then, he will officially be Old by MMA standards. In the meantime, he'll no longer be able to make money as a pro fighter, the only career he's ever really known (aside from running a gym, which will hopefully keep him afloat, at least). His career is, in all likelihood, over. True to form, Diaz pulled no punches with his statement on the matter. He explained why he dropped out of school to fight, recounting the tale of his troubled youth and, eventually, a girlfriend who killed herself:
"She was gonna go to college. She was an avid student and and was doing everything I couldn't while living in a trailer park where everyone was doing dope. Meanwhile, I focused my whole high school years worried about what her and her friends would think if I lost a fight to her ex-boyfriend and football friends. I could never make attendance, hung out with the wrong people to hold my ground as a fighter and someone who I would fight for was important to me."
"There was no way I was gonna go to school. I had no money, no car. I would have driven there and stopped her. After that, I was grown up. It was all over. I wasn't a kid anymore. I won my first fight in the first round with a choke and all I could think about was her, just like when I was in school."
"I would run seven miles and back to her grave just to promise her I would make it as a fighter like she knew and had told me she knew and was proud of me."
"So this sport and this commission have done everything to stop me from being in the position that I belong. That's the only reason why I haven't stayed in that position and come off as the fighter and person that I know I am and can be."
Admittedly, Diaz is not entirely innocent here. He's been suspended for marijuana twice before. According to the official rules for a third infraction, he was looking at a three year suspension, at the very least. And more generally, Diaz is a guy who has a habit of getting himself in trouble and, at least some of the time, blaming other people for it. His record is far from spotless.
But the NSAC, a professional body, made it personal. Keeping with past trends, they reacted with anger and incredulity when Diaz's team tried to fight Diaz's impending punishment — ask legitimate questions of testing methods that suggested Diaz had more than the legal limit of marijuana metabolites in his system on fight night — instead of rolling over and apologizing. At first, one member of the NSAC suggested that Diaz should receive a lifetime ban from competing. Other members reined in that egregiously over-the-top suggestion, but it set the tone for the remainder of the proceedings.
It should be noted that middleweight legend Anderson Silva, Diaz's opponent in the fight in which he most recently got popped for marijuana, also tested positive for drugs — namely, steroids. He got suspended for one year, retroactive to the time of the fight. He'll be able to hop back in the octagon again in January. In short, the guy who did performance-enhancing drugs — potentially put his opponent in real danger — got a slap on the wrist compared to the guy who, at worst, impaired himself slightly. That sends a baaaaad message to fighters. That's not a good precedent to set. It's also pretty unfair, not to mention largely arbitrary. Diaz dug his own grave by doing marijuana close to fight time (again), but he didn't dig it that deep.
If Diaz is indeed out of the fight game for the next five years (possibly forever, if he decides he's gotten too old to be competitive), that's a damn shame. Nick Diaz is uniquely entertaining — sometimes a laugh, other times an almost literal riot. I've said it in the past, and I'll say it again: fight sports live and die on their characters, and the UFC needs more of them to stay healthy. Whether you love him or you hate him, you can't deny that Diaz is a character. He's truly one of a kind, and he will be missed.