It certainly wasn’t the worst thing that Nate Diaz has ever been called. But during a wild press conference last week, Conor McGregor dismissively insulted his UFC 196 opponent as a “little cholo gangster from the hood.”
And it’s true that Diaz, who wears a perpetual scowl on his face, is one of mixed-martial arts’ baddest bad boys. It can be hard sometimes for him to get through a complete sentence without dropping an F-bomb. He has given the middle finger to opponents inside the Octagon and talked outrageous trash about them outside of the cage.
McGregor has no idea what that means, Diaz said. He needs to come to my hometown and hit the streets of Stockton, Calif. Then maybe McGregor will get that he’s nothing like that.
“He doesn’t know anything about me and the place I come from,” Diaz added. “He comes from a whole ‘nother world. But if anybody walked in my shoes and saw what’s really going on in Stockton, they would understand just how hard it is to make it out of there. It’s hardcore there.”
When Diaz (19-10) steps into the Octagon Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for the main event, he will face long odds. He’s just 2-3 in his last five fights. He is a last-minute replacement for the injured Rafael dos Anjos. And Diaz will be fighting the reigning star of UFC. McGregor (19-2) is the current featherweight champion and the hottest thing going in combat sports.
But then the deck has been stacked against Diaz his entire life. Nate and older brother Nick – two of the sport's pre-eminent brawlers – are just two tough guys from one hardscrabble town.
“It’s just understood that you have a lot of obstacles in front of you when you’re growing up in Stockton,” said city native Dallas Braden, who pitched a perfect game for the Oakland A’s in 2010 and now is an ESPN baseball analyst. “There’s always people trying to tear you down. It’s why we all put chips on our shoulder and then dare you to knock it off.”
Braden added: “You learn early that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and the dogs in Stockton want to eat.”
A city of 300,000, Stockton is the largest inland seaport in California. Always known for being working-class, it became ground zero for the housing bust. No place in the United States was hit harder by The Great Recession. Stockton was awash in skyrocketing violent crime, unemployment and foreclosures. The police force was cut as the city filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Forbes magazine twice ranked it at the top of the country’s most miserable cities.
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“It has been a rough couple of decades for Stockton,” said Jeffrey Michael, executive director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific. “The story of Stockton has always been one of a blue-collar town that has seen up-and-down swings. But this was the place of the biggest housing bubble in the country and it resulted in the biggest crash.”
And it is home for the fighting Diaz brothers. Neither one has ever pretended to be a role model. Nor have they claimed to be misunderstood. They are, simply, who they are.
Nick, 32, has made headlines for not paying his taxes, not showing up for press conferences and talking world-class smack when he does appear. He’s still serving a suspension for a positive marijuana test at his last fight against Anderson Silva at UFC 183 in January 2015 – a controversial penalty that later was reduced from five years to 18 months.
“Stockton is where I’m from, and there’s no shame in it. But there’s not a lot of people pulling for Stockton except for people who are from here.” -- Nick Diaz on he and his brother's hometown
In an interview with UFC.com just before that fight, Nick talked about he “didn’t have much good” in his life growing up and that MMA was a way to stay out of trouble and then to pull himself out of poverty.
“Stockton is where I’m from, and there’s no shame in it,” he said. “But there’s not a lot of people pulling for Stockton except for people who are from here.”
Nate, 30, said that following in his brother’s footsteps into MMA – and adopting his fearless attitude – helped keep him away from the always-present gangs.
“It would have been really easy to be in something like that,” he added. “It’s hard to be good. But I had Nick to pave the way for me to help stay away from that. I kind of followed the leader. I could have been all (expletive) up and gotten myself messed up with that. But I went a different path, it turned out how it is, and here we are.”
Where he’s at now is preparing for the biggest fight of his career.
Nobody loves Stockton more than Braden. He has 209 – the local area code – tattooed on his midsection. His Twitter feed photo features the words “Straight Outta Stockton” stamped over it. And while he lives in Southern California now, he also owns a house one street away from where he was raised.
But Braden also doesn’t sugarcoat his hometown’s problems. That’s why he has so much respect for how far the Diaz brothers have come and how they never left Stockton.
“Nate and Nick let everybody know exactly who they are and exactly where they come from,” Braden said. “None of it is fake. There’s a reason why they've never wanted to get involved with the glitz and glamour that comes along with being UFC icons. That’s not their bag. They just want to fight. You don’t see them touch gloves. You don’t see them hug. They’re there to fight. That’s what we do in Stockton. We fight – literally and figuratively – for everything we have.”
At that profanity-filled press conference, McGregor also sarcastically talked about Diaz being “a credit to the community” because he “coaches kids’ jiu-jitsu on a Sunday morning and goes on bike rides with the elderly.” Diaz, in fact, does instruct martial arts to kids.
“So Conor wants to spout off about Nate teaching kids on Sunday?” Braden added, his voice rising. “Well you’re damn right. You know why? He used to be one of those kids, and he never forgot that somebody helped him out. Now we’re squaring off against Conor. And I say ‘we’ because it’s our city and we’re all behind him.”
Diaz was a shrewd choice as a replacement to face McGregor. He’s always in shape because he also competes in endurance competitions. A rangy fighter with excellent striking skills, his bouts usually are all-out wars. And he’s coming off what arguably was one of his best performances ever. He won by unanimous decision over Michael Johnson in a UFC on Fox event December 19 that earned Fight of the Night honors.
After the victory, he called out McGregor. Now he has his wish. This fight will be at the 170-pound welterweight division – two weight classes higher than where “Notorious” holds his UFC championship belt. But Diaz had just 11 days to prepare.
“It is what it is,” he said. “You can’t complain. I just have to take what I can get. It’s like this for us. Maybe it’s because of where we come from. But when you’re from Stockton and an opportunity comes, you have to jump on it.”
The city no longer is in a downward spiral, said Michael, the economics expert.
Stockton has emerged from bankruptcy. Unemployment and crime are down. People are moving into the community. An epic drought, which has wrung California dry over the last four years, hasn’t been an economic blow to the agriculture-oriented region – as some had feared it would.
“This is a place that all Americans ought to care about because this is the future of our country,” Michael said. “Stockton is a young city with an incredibly ethnically diverse population. We should all have an interest in seeing communities like this improve.”
Michael conceded that he’s not a fight fan and doesn’t know much about the Diaz boys. But it sure sounds to him like that an analogy can be made between the fighters and their city.
“Stockton has taken a heck of a shot, but it’s climbing back on its feet,” he said. “It’s fighting its way back just like I’m sure these brothers have done in their careers. It’s not a place where people quit. There’s some enthusiasm again and doing its best to turn things around. I’m optimistic that Stockton has got some better days ahead of it.”
For his part, Diaz promises that he will put on a show Saturday and “represent” his hometown.
Braden has no doubt.
“Only having a few days to get ready for a fight of this caliber is not fun,” he said. “But Nate’s got one thing going for him that from my friend Conor does not. Nate is from the 209. And that’s all he’s going to need.”
Mark Emmons is a freelance writer based in San Jose, Calif. Follow him on Twitter at @markedwinemmons.