Nate Diaz was a boy among men…literally. In a gym that housed not only Cesar Gracie, but UFC standouts David Terrell and Gil Castillo, Nate’s brother Nick, and up and comers Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez, every day was a fight for survival for the Stockton teenager.
“It was really intimidating going down there,” Diaz said in 2011 of his early days. “I went down to Cesar’s and it was Dave Terrell, Gil Castillo, Cesar, Nick and Jake, and Nick and Jake were just the young guys there too. Nick would be like, ‘Don’t get tapped out today.’ So I’d go in there with this competitive attitude and it was really hard to not get tapped out in that gym. Most likely it wasn’t gonna happen.”
Yet Diaz kept showing up, which in his neighborhood was more than half the battle. His mother Melissa did her part, working long hours as a waitress while putting her two sons and their sister in various sports to keep them from straying to the streets. But there was always an imminent sense of danger.
Marcus Davis during their UFC welterweight bout at the TD Garden. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)" align="right" />“Growing up here, there’s a lot of tension, a lot of gang activity, a lot of tough guys,” he said. “There’s just a lot going on. Like any city, it’s got good parts and bad parts, so you gotta watch out where you’re at. I wasn’t trying to be in no trouble, but it was definitely hard to stay out of trouble. But you just keep on the right path and stay going the way you need to go.”
For Nate, that path was paved by his older brother, who had already started on his road into professional fighting, and one day Nick decided it was time for Nate to do the same.
“As soon as I finished school, I’d be sitting around the house and I wasn’t doing much,” Nate remembered. “Nick said ‘What are you doing? Why don’t you come train with me?’ And he threw a pair of gi pants at me.”
Right then and there, the die was cast, though as Nate recalls, “Back then, fighting and training in jiu-jitsu wasn’t a trendy thing.”
So the early days weren’t filled with interviews, photo shoots, and quick graduations to the UFC. Instead, it was a situation where a bunch of friends put that friendship aside for hours at a time in order to beat each other up and learn how to become fighters. Nate especially found a kindred spirit in future Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez.
“I remember having wars with him,” said Diaz, who would shake off any idea of skipping practice when he knew “El Nino” was showing up that day.
“That was a rush just going down there. I’d tell Nick I’m gonna hang out a bit, and he’d say, ‘Gilbert’s coming.’ All right, let’s go. (Laughs) It was really good because it was a competitive thing, and at the same time they were our friends.”
Eventually, Nate would join his brother, Melendez, and Shields on the pro fighting circuit, mixing in MMA bouts with boxing smokers and Toughman contests. By 2006, he was a respected prospect, but after a WEC loss to Hermes Franca, he was at a crossroads at only 21 years old.
Enter The Ultimate Fighter, an avenue into the UFC that neither Diaz brother wanted any part of.
“We were sitting at home when they started The Ultimate Fighter, and we’re like, ‘This s**t is ridiculous,’” said Nate. “We were just criticizing it horribly and we’re laughing at it, saying, ‘Hell no, I would never do that.’ And then they called him for The Ultimate Fighter, but Nick was like, ‘I’m not doing that show.’”
Nick refused a spot on season four of TUF, but when the call came in for season five, it was for Nate. The younger Diaz refused, even though Cesar Gracie believed he should do it. Then Nick entered the picture.
“I think you should do it,” Nick told his brother.
So he did, but as soon as taping began, he wanted out.
“I said, ‘I’m getting out of here,’” recalled Nate. “‘I don’t even know why I’m here.’”
But then, his first fight against Rob Emerson was set.
“At that point I couldn’t leave, because if I left, it would be like I didn’t want to fight somebody.”
Melvin Guillard (white shorts) - Submission (guillotine choke) - 2:13 round 2 during UFC Fight Night 19 at Cox Convention Center. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)" align="left" />Diaz beat Emerson, and again, he would lie awake at night plotting for a way to leave. He didn’t do it though, and after beating Corey Hill, Gray Maynard, and Manny Gamburyan, he won the season title and a UFC contract.
“It was a good thing I stayed because it was like a shortcut and it got me right into the UFC,” he said. “It was the best thing that could have happened. I had no money, I was broke, I was a kid, and I had no direction, and at that point it kinda gave me a direction.”
He’s kept moving since then, racking up a 13-8 record in his post-Gamburyan UFC career, but the numbers don’t tell the entire story. A former world title challenger who has competed in the Octagon at 155 and 170 pounds, Diaz is tied for the most post-fight bonuses in UFC history, and is one of the most popular fighters competing in the sport today. That popularity only skyrocketed when he upset Conor McGregor in March, a bout that will be run back on August 20 in Las Vegas.
Diaz-McGregor II is seen as the biggest fight of 2016, and one that will further increase the 31-year-old Diaz’ popularity and bank account. But at his core, Diaz isn’t about the awards or the acclaim; he’s all about the fight, an attitude some competitors lose along the way. And no matter how you feel about Diaz, you have to respect that he is always consistent and always looking to put on a show for the fans. More than a decade after he stepped into Cesar Gracie’s gym for the first time, that much will never change.
“When I fight, I’m mad,” he said. “I’m starving, I had to make weight, I trained my ass off, and I’m there to entertain. I’m just trying to do what I gotta do. Some people are out there trying to be the nicest guy, but I feel like a lot of that is frontin’. I think the difference between me and other people is that they’re playing the nice guy role and they’re just really well-behaved on camera. I meet a lot of people and they’re like, ‘You’re not such a bad guy.’ What does that mean? When you see me on camera I’ve got to fight another person, and I’m not gonna put on a front.”
It’s a fight. Nate Diaz won’t let you forget it.