Earlier during Hispanic Heritage Month, we spotlighted some of the top performances by Nick Diaz, the elder half of the most popular brother tandem in UFC history.
Today, we shift our attention to the younger member of the duo and cast the spotlight on Nate Diaz.
Like his big brother, it was clear that Diaz was going to be a long-time pro and a formidable talent early on, as he won five of his first six fights and challenged Hermes Franca for the WEC lightweight title in his seventh professional appearance. He was then part of the incredible cast on Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter, starring alongside divisional staples like Gray Maynard, Joe Lauzon, Cole Miller, and Rob Emerson, working his way to the finals, where he would defeat Manny Gamburyan to win the lightweight competition.
From that point forward, the younger Diaz was a “can’t miss” attraction in the UFC — a fighter with fluid boxing, slick submissions, a bottomless gas tank, and swagger for days who would go on to craft countless memorable performances and some of the most iconic moments in UFC history.
Here’s a closer look at five efforts that stand out the most from the 14-year UFC career of Nathan Diaz.
UFC FIGHT NIGHT 13 VS. KURT PELLEGRINO
If we’re talking about iconic performances and memorable moments in the career of Nate Diaz, this one has to be included.
The upstart from Stockton had earned consecutive first-round submission wins to begin working his way up the ladder in the lightweight division, while the gritty Pellegrino was 12-3 overall and coming off a second-round knockout win over Alberto Crane following a loss to Joe Stevenson, who went on to challenge for the lightweight belt in his very next appearance.
Both men believed they were the better jiu-jitsu player and had the superior submission skills, and they squared off to determine who was right.
Pellegrino took Diaz down and took his back almost immediately, controlling the 22-year-old on the canvas and crashing home heavy ground-and-pound for the vast majority of the first round. Diaz got back to his feet and started leading the action in the final minute of the frame and came out looking to strike to start the second.
Pellegrino dumped him onto his back less than a minute into the round and got back to roughing Diaz up from top position, climbing into his guard. Diaz started working off his back, hunting for a kimura that Pellegrino sniffed out from a mile away. Pellegrino stayed sticky on Diaz even as they returned to their feet and Diaz hit a solid throw.
But as they worked back to their feet, Diaz emerged as the aggressor, prompting Pellegrino to scoop up a single leg and dump the recent Ultimate Fighter winner to the canvas. As soon as Diaz’s back hit the mat, he threw up a triangle choke and began celebrating immediately, raising his arms in victory before offering the now infamous “Diaz Double Bird Salute” that every MMA fan has seen a thousand times over.
After a slight readjustment, Pellegrino tapped and Diaz secured the biggest victory of his young career.
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UFC 141 VS. DONALD CERRONE
The 2011 campaign was a strange one for Diaz, as he began the year as a welterweight on a two-fight winning streak after posting impressive victories over Rory Markham and Marcus Davis at UFC 111 and UFC 118, respectively. But consecutive losses to Dong Hyun Kim and Rory MacDonald sent him back to lightweight, where he rebounded with a terrific first-round finish of Takanori Gomi, instantly re-establishing himself as a contender in the 155-pound ranks and setting up this showdown with Cerrone.
“Cowboy” was cruising at the time, having won each of his first four UFC appearances and six straight overall, including back-to-back first-round finishes of Charles Oliveira and Dennis Siver.
The brash Diaz and the ornery Cerrone got under each other’s skin in the build to the fight, with Diaz knocking Cerrone’s trademark cowboy hat off his head during one of their face-offs during fight week, but when it was time to get down to business, it was one-way traffic headed in Cerrone’s direction.
A notorious slow starter, “Cowboy” raced across the cage, swinging wildly and missing, which made it clear that Diaz’s pre-fight antics had rankled him. Diaz slipped the punch, secured the clinch and took the fight to Cerrone from then on, drowning him with his patented volume and pressure.
Cerrone looked bewildered and has admitted that he was completely overwhelmed and thrown off his game by Diaz, who saved the best performance of his career for his most high profile fight to date as he continued a towards the top of the lightweight division that resulted in a title shot two fights later.
UFC ON FOX 17 VS. MICHAEL JOHNSON
Everyone knows what happened after this fight and what it eventually led to, but the part that often gets forgotten or overlooked or left out when talking about it is that very few people expected things to play out the way they did.
Diaz hadn’t fought in a little over a year and look disinterested in his previous appearance, where he missed weight in a lopsided loss to Rafael Dos Anjos. Meanwhile, Johnson had never looked better, having rattled off wins over Joe Lauzon, Gleison Tibau, Melvin Guillard and Edson Barboza before landing on the wrong side of a highly questionable split decision verdict in a fight with Beneil Dariush.
Johnson was the favorite and won the opening round on all three scorecards, using swift movement and slick striking to race out to an early lead. But Diaz started to find his range and get loose midway through the round, hitting Johnson with a couple long jabs and clean shots that brought a smile to his face and made him start yapping at “The Menace” in typical Diaz fashion.
Early in the second, Diaz started utilizing his reach advantage to pick at Johnson and avoid return fire, getting into a rhythm where he clearly began to frustrate his opponent. As the significant strikes piled up, so too did the in-fight talking and gesticulating, with Diaz growing more confident as the fight wore on and the momentum shifted into his favor.
It’s not that Johnson wasn’t having any success either — he was tagging Diaz with quality shots here and there, but the popular pugilist from Stockton, California simply played them off as having no impact, drawing a roar from the crowd every time.
By the time the third round began, Diaz’s pace and volume had become too much for Johnson, who ate some big shots down the stretch in the second and had no answers in the final round. Diaz put it on him, making Johnson miss far more often than he landed and drawing him into an unwinnable boxing match against a high-volume fighter with significantly more left in the tank.
It was the best Diaz had looked in years, maybe ever, and made it clear that despite his lack of activity over the previous year, he was still a contender. When Joe Rogan stepped into the cage to speak with Diaz about his performance following the reading of the decision, Diaz cut one of the most memorable promos in UFC history, taking aim at Conor McGregor, the Irish superstar who claimed the featherweight title the previous weekend and was poised to challenge for the lightweight title in early 2016.
It was a great call-out, but one that felt far-fetched in the moment, as McGregor had big things brewing and Diaz had lost three of four before besting Johnson.
But then the MMA Gods intervened.
UFC 196 VS. CONOR MCGREGOR
If someone told you how this whole thing came together, you would think it was too perfect to have happened organically, but that’s exactly what happened.
McGregor, who won the featherweight title with a 13-second knockout win over Jose Aldo the weekend before Diaz called him out, was scheduled to challenge Rafael Dos Anjos for the lightweight title, but the champion broke his foot and was forced out of the UFC 196 bout just 10 days before the fight.
Diaz stepped in, and after a wild press conference where the two men traded insults and curse words, they stepped into the Octagon opposite one another on March 5, 2016.
McGregor was 7-0 in the UFC and the biggest star in the sport, fresh off an incredible performance in December and with the benefit of a full training camp, even if it was for a very different opponent. As great as Diaz had looked against Johnson in Orlando, he hadn’t been preparing for a fight, and now he was going to step in against one of the most talented strikers in the game on less than two weeks’ notice?
It was a brassy move that earned Diaz a ton of sway with fans, but once the fight began, McGregor was the aggressor, finding a home with several left hands early as he walked Diaz down, looking to finish things with a single blow. While Diaz was finding his range, McGregor was crashing home solid shots that opened up Diaz, causing crimson to run down the side of his face from the same region that would be his undoing against Jorge Masvidal several years later.
I was in attendance at the MGM Grand for this fight and I vividly remember writing early in the second round that it felt like McGregor was beginning to out-Diaz Nathan Diaz, as he swarmed him with volume and talked to him after every shot that landed.
But despite being busted up and bloodied, Diaz didn’t waver, returning fire, both verbally and with his fists, as McGregor clearly began to slow down. Just before the two-minute mark of the second frame, Diaz hit McGregor with a left hand that made him teeter and you immediately got the sense that something had changed.
Diaz marched forward, stinging McGregor again, backing him towards the fence while “The Notorious” one answered with tired arm punches that never came close to landing. McGregor offered a solid flurry of offense, but as soon as Diaz landed another two stiff blows, the Irishman shot for a panicked takedown, desperate to avoid taking any more damage on the feet.
Diaz immediately looked for a guillotine choke, but couldn’t secure it, opting instead to rain down ground-and-pound from top position, climbing into mount without any resistance. When McGregor gave up his back, Diaz sunk in the rear-naked choke, drawing a tap from the exhausted and defeated featherweight champion.
The MGM Grand Garden Arena erupted as Diaz mugged for the cameras, and when Rogan entered the Octagon for the post-fight interview, magic happened for the second time in four months.
“Nate Diaz, you just shook up the world. How’s that feel?” Rogan asked, setting the stage for Diaz to answer with a four-word phrase that has become a staple in the MMA community and only three of which can be printed here.
“I’m not surprised, $#^@&*$#*@&%#!”
Well Nate, the rest of us were.
UFC 241 VS. ANTHONY PETTIS
Following his majority decision loss to McGregor in their rematch at UFC 202 in the summer of 2016, Diaz went on hiatus. Initially, it felt like he was just holding out for the right opportunity, but as a couple months turned into a couple years, it started to feel like maybe the younger Diaz Brother was actually planning to permanently join his older brother on the sidelines.
Then, in May 2019, it was reported that Diaz was returning to the Octagon in the summer in a welterweight bout against former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis, who was coming off his thrilling come-from-behind, walk-off knockout win over Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
The bout took place on August 17, 2019, three days shy of the three-year anniversary of Diaz’s last fight, but you wouldn’t know it by the way the returning fan favorite performed.
Diaz started quicker than he did in either of his bouts against McGregor and dragged Pettis into a high-volume boxing match that he simply wasn’t equipped to win. While Pettis had some success early, trading willingly with Diaz in the first round, the pace and accumulated punishment as the minutes piled up became too much and he continued to distance himself from “Showtime” throughout the contest.
After three years away, Diaz returned looking every bit as good as he did when he left, immediately re-establishing himself as one of the biggest draws and most talented fighters on the UFC roster.