Nate Diaz returns to the UFC octagon after a three-year absence in his attempt to establish a credible argument for his welterweight title-ambitions by defeating Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis.
To be honest, I’m simply assuming that’s what Nate wants to do.
At this stage, it really is hard to know what’s driving him – whether it’s UFC gold or another crack at his old rival Conor McGregor but either way, facing an in-form fighter of Pettis’ calibre will quickly tell us exactly how wise it was to sit on the sidelines during three of his valuable peak years as an athlete.
It is important to note that the younger Diaz brother, like his sibling, has been no stranger to taking long spells away from action where it suits him.
He quite stubbornly left a gap of a year between his rubber-match against Gray Maynard and his one-sided loss to Rafael dos Anjos while also then leaving the same space of time between that defeat and his resurgence against Michael Johnson.
Even still, three years is quite a lot longer, but from what we can tell through his social media and hearsay from his teammates, Nate has rarely left his usual high-intensity regime in the gym.
Like Nick (who admittedly seems to be enjoying himself a bit too much these days), the Diaz lifestyle is one built around healthy eating, gruelling cardio, and an unshakable focus on improving both themselves and those coming up alongside them.
I have no doubt that Nate has been using these years well. Actual competition has always been secondary to this man and I would be willing to bet that the version of Nate Diaz that shows up on Saturday will be as fresh and sharp as a fighter who fought just a few months ago.
As a consequence of his immense popularity and his role in the dynamic that exists between him and the ever-divisive McGregor, a lot of people have high aspirations for Diaz.
On top of this, his status as a rebellious thorn in the side of the UFC has established him as one of the sport’s ‘heroes’ but with all of this being the case, I think it’s fair to say that many people’s estimations of him as a fighter have been skewed either one way or another.
Beating Conor McGregor in the manner that he did has been enough to immortalize him, no doubt, but to those who cite that victory as one that validates him as a world-beater, I would point to a few undeniable facts.
We’ve always known that Nate has had ridiculous cardio, a tough chin, and incredibly slick BJJ.
The finish, whether it came on the feet or on the ground, was inevitable as soon as the noticeably plump and overexerted Irishman began to show the signs of exhaustion that became very apparent once he failed to put his man down after his relentless left-handed attempts early on.
It was a slick finish, for sure, but I do think that Nate was given a bit too much credit by those who should now be more focused on the rather glaring shortcomings of the then-featherweight champion.
He survived that fight because of his ability to take damage and roll with the shots, which is commendable indeed, but let’s call a spade a spade here.
In the UFC 202 rematch, we did certainly see a slicker version of Diaz than the one that pulled off the win at UFC 196 but even still, his weakness to leg-kicks and reliance on his chin were the story of the fight and the flaws that led to his defeat.
So am I saying that Nate is overrated?
Not really. But I do think that people need to focus their attention elsewhere.
I am very much of the opinion that the version of Nate Diaz who returned to the octagon to take on Michael Johnson was a different animal to the one who had found middling success in the UFC up until that point.
Fresh off of a year-long lay-off and bringing a completely new layer of fluidity and confidence to the table, he was quite a sizeable underdog against the rising contender Johnson in the eyes of the bookies.
When the octagon doors closed, Nate managed to turn in a masterclass.
It was textbook Diaz, delivered with confidence, attitude, and colour. A performance-driven by a desire to draw eyes to his now-infamous moment on the mic, a call-out of the sport’s biggest star.
Luck, of course, played a huge part in Nate getting the short-notice crack at Conor but even still, beating Johnson like that, in my estimation, was enough to prove that this new Nate Diaz was on another level.
I realise that I’m just a few paragraphs removed from saying that Nate received far too much credit for beating Conor McGregor the first time around, but across their pair of outings, Diaz proved that he is able to hang in there with one of the best strikers the sport has ever seen.
It has become quite cool to detract from the achievements of the former dual-weight world champion but before the now-obvious holes in his game were exposed, he was putting fighters away like it was nothing – turning in flawless win after flawless win.
I have no doubt that the 2014 version of Nate Diaz would have been KO’d by Conor McGregor at UFC 196.
But in his last trio of fights, we’ve seen drastic improvements in the skillset of Nate that, in my opinion, do not get enough credit.
He’s a far more refined version of himself than he ever was in the past – a consequence of constant mat-work with high-level black-belts and relentless sparring with world champion-level boxers (namely the former P4P #1 Andre Ward).
Three years off may seem like a lot, but Nate works like few others in the sport.
All in all, I honestly believe that Nate is underrated in a lot of ways that should be highlighted more and overrated in many ways that aren’t as significant as most tend to think.
Gun to my head, I think Nate Diaz goes out there and makes an incredible statement as soon as those octagon doors close on Saturday night and before we all know it, one of the most popular figures in the history of the sport will once again be sitting on top of the world.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena