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MMA

Nate Diaz Leaves The UFC On His Own Terms

Nate Diaz flexes during his fight against Tony Ferguson at UFC 279.
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa/Getty Images

A face can only sustain so much punching. As such, there is perhaps no sport less conducive to happy endings than MMA. The damage inherent to fighting for long enough to gain a fanbase compounds on itself until you get an outcome like Jared Cannonier pulverizing Anderson Silva’s leg with a stray kick. This past weekend’s UFC 279 card was centered around the presumptive execution of Nate Diaz. The 37-year-old from Central Valley was supposed to be fed to one of the most dominant up-and-comers in the sport, as a show of force by UFC management against labor, to show what happens if you refuse to play ball. Instead, through luck and skill, Diaz wound up finishing his contract on a high, leaving the organization (for now) with whatever dignity can be afforded to an aging MMA fighter.

After he lost to current welterweight champion Leon Edwards last summer, Diaz had one fight remaining on his UFC contract. We’re currently in something of a golden age of fighters making money to fight YouTube freaks, so Diaz understandably wanted to finish out his deal and go fight one of those YouTube freaks for a big pile of money. But the UFC wanted him to stick around for a trilogy fight against Conor McGregor, so every fair fight they offered to him also came with a contract extension attached. The standoff ended when Diaz agreed to be in the main event of UFC 279 against Khamzat Chimaev, a huge man younger than Diaz by a decade.

The pairing was absurd: Chimaev’s fighting style is a scaled-up version of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s, all pressure and physicality and grim relentlessness; Diaz’s lanky volume boxing game, meanwhile, is increasingly anachronistic in an era where everyone has good cardio now and the widespread adoption of the calf kick in MMA means most potential opponents would be comfortable implementing the tactic McGregor used to neutralize him in their rematch six years ago. Before UFC 279, Chimaev had finished 10 of his 11 wins by the second round, only needing the judges once. Diaz knew exactly how bad of a matchup this was for him. “They’re acting like I called for this fight, which I didn’t call for and don’t want and didn’t want and still don’t want,” he said in an ESPN interview. He openly acknowledged that the point of the fight was to engineer a simple win for Chimaev against a famous opponent (who couldn’t duck him) before his inevitable title shot, and he came into fight week prepared for his baptism.

Chimaev, on the other hand, came into fight week heavy. He tipped the scales at 7.5 pounds over the welterweight limit. This forced the UFC to shuffle the card around 36 hours before it began. Fortunately for Chimaev, a 180-pound catchweight bout between Kevin Holland and Daniel Rodriguez was already on the books; fortunately for Diaz, Li Jingliang and Tony Ferguson were scheduled for a 170-pound fight. The dance partners shuffled around, Chimaev submitted Holland in the first round, Rodriguez earned a razor-thin decision win over Li, and Diaz got to fight the fellow aging Californian he’d requested. Though Ferguson entered the octagon on a four-fight losing streak, all of those losses came against the best of the best, and he was still the favorite over Diaz.

It wouldn’t be correct to say Diaz turned back the clock against Ferguson. While Diaz plodded and came into the pocket behind a high guard, Ferguson bounced and jolted and took aim at Diaz’s fairly hittable legs. All Ferguson got for his efforts was a shin so gnarled that Twitter’s algorithm put a content warning over a photo of it. Diaz took hits, duh, but he only ever slowed down when he wanted to break the fourth wall and stand around for a while, daring Ferguson to push him.

Diaz has made a long, successful career out of his 1-2, using the jab purely to gauge distance and set up his power punch. Ferguson couldn’t pinpoint its timing, and once his smart tactical focus on chopping down Diaz’s legs backfired, he didn’t have a strong defense against Diaz’s accuracy. After three-and-a-half rounds of taking damage from Diaz, Ferguson took Nate down. Within seconds, Diaz was flexing in the cage as he secured a guillotine choke.

Because of his propensity to just say whatever comes to his mind, cast-iron toughness, and anti-hero antagonism of UFC management, Diaz became a fan favorite. When he beat McGregor in 2016, he turned into something bigger than that. The last generation of elite weirdo UFC fighters was eclipsed by a more professionalized yet less interesting class, which made his stoner-meathead bravado stand out. The UFC did not plan for him to cap off a career’s worth of shit-talking with a big-time win over a former champion, but Diaz’s reward for being willing to fight Chimaev was the best ending he could have hoped for. Ferguson almost seemed to enjoy having his ass kicked.

What’s next for Diaz? Now that he’s no longer under the control of the UFC, maybe he’ll tussle with one of the Paul brothers or an unofficially retired NFL player. After a long two decades of fighting for the UFC and its predecessors, a period which Diaz ended by outflanking the promotion’s attempts to control the tail end of his career, he should cash out. There’s still demand for a third fight against McGregor. Diaz hinted he’d still be up for that at some point, as long as he doesn’t have to use his email.