It’s rare that a feature bout overshadows a UFC main event, but the return of a mixed martial arts legend makes that inevitable.
While Alexander Volkanovski’s featherweight title defence against Brian Ortega headlines UFC 266, the build-up for Saturday’s event in Las Vegas has been focused on Nick Diaz.
After six years away from the octagon, Diaz is back for a rematch with fellow American Robbie Lawler, and even a man who has headlined his past four UFC events has been overwhelmed by the interest.
“At this age, I didn’t expect to catch so much heat and expectation,” said Diaz, 38.
He became a fans’ favourite not just for his no-nonsense fighting but his tendency to be brutally honest, to keep it real.
And just this week Diaz told ESPN: “I really don’t want to do this. I’ve never enjoyed fighting. I try to get away from it but it’s just what I do.”
So back he is, and he retains hope of becoming a UFC champion and “levelling up” with his brother Nate Diaz, 36.
Why is Nick Diaz back, and what took him so long?
Since Nick’s last fight, Nate has overtaken him for star status after huge fights with Conor McGregor and Jorge Masvidal. They have a similar build and the same rugged, durable fighting style, but older MMA fans know it was Nick who paved the way.
Growing up surrounded by a gang culture in Stockton, California, Nick dropped out of high school after a year and had his first professional fight just after his 18th birthday, in August 2001.
He went on to win titles across several promotions and returned to the UFC in 2011, challenging Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight belt in 2013 and facing Anderson Silva in 2015.
But Diaz was then suspended after testing positive for marijuana for a third time and, even after he was eligible to fight again, he was “kind of all over the place” and “really had to slow it down”.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, he began teaching and planned to set up his own gym until business partners let him down. Now he’s fighting again because he feels he doesn’t know what else to do.
“Win or lose, I’ve got to fight,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to drag so hard coming back; it’s been kind of a mission. But I’ve got some fights left, I’m in pretty good shape.”
Diaz knocked Lawler out in the second round of their first contest way back at UFC 47 in April 2004 then, like Diaz, Lawler spent several years in other promotions.
After returning to the UFC in 2013, he briefly held the welterweight title but the 39-year-old has lost his past four fights.
Saturday’s bout has been switched from welterweight to middleweight, but if Diaz makes a winning return, he expects to face current welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.
‘I don’t know why I’m doing this – whoever set this up is an idiot’
While rising to MMA stardom, Diaz was never comfortable in the spotlight, and over the years he has failed to show for several media events.
He’d rather let his fists do the talking so, as usual, this week there has been no hype from Diaz, no frills. He was a no-show for the media day but gave a refreshingly raw interview with ESPN in which he was clearly conflicted about MMA.
In stark contrast to the bravado usually shown by fighters, Diaz admitted to feeling stress and doubt, and questioned why the UFC picked Lawler as his comeback opponent.
“It doesn’t make sense – I don’t know why I’m doing this,” said Diaz. “Whoever set this up is an idiot.”
“I have a lot of resentment towards the sport for taking so much from me but not giving anything back,” he added.
“All the people around me, all the money and sponsors, they won’t let me get away from fighting. There’s things I could do but that’s not going to work out. I might as well just go and take my punches.”
Asked at Thursday’s pre-fight news conference to elaborate on those comments, Diaz replied: “I had three to five fights a year for 17 years and all I ever thought about was weight, what I’m going to eat.
“After a while you realise there’s more to life and then everybody digs their heels in you when you’re down. It’s kind of rough.
“It’s nice to see a lot of support like two weeks leading up to a fight, but what about the last five years? Of course I get a lot of ‘hi’s’ and ‘bye’s’, and I’ve done plenty of handshakes, but I’d take some of those back.”
Who else is fighting at UFC 266?
Alexander Volkanovski’s fight with Brian Ortega was put back from March after the Australian, of Macedonian and Greek heritage, tested positive for Covid-19.
They then agreed to be rival coaches for the latest series of the Ultimate Fighter, and antagonised each other during the UFC’s reality show.
And Volkanovski is out to silence those who still question whether he’s a worthy champion, despite a 19-fight win streak and back-to-back victories over Max Holloway to capture and then defend the featherweight title.
“I want to get that finish – winning is not enough,” said the 32-year-old. “And doing Ultimate Fighter and making it a bit more personal, going out there and getting the finish would mean so much more.”
Volkanovski also said that Ortega – 15-1 with one no contest – is “unprofessional and weak” and referred to his positive test for steroid use in 2014.
“You don’t deserve to be here,” he told the 30-year-old American. “You’re a drug cheat.”
The lightweight fight between Dan Hooker and Nasrat Haqparast is set to go ahead despite a dramatic week.
Hooker’s visa application was delayed because of New Zealand’s lockdown restrictions, while Haqparast flew back to his native Germany for his mother’s funeral.
Both pleaded with their respective consulates on social media to process their visas, which was done just in time for them to fly to the USA.
Peru’s Valentina Shevchenko makes the sixth defence of her featherweight title against American Lauren Murphy, while two top-six ranked heavyweights go head-to-head as American Curtis Blaydes takes on Brazil’s Jairzinho Rozenstruik.