Nick Diaz is a finisher. | File Photo
The vaunted chin of Nick Diaz survived its most onerous test of Diaz’s reign as Strikeforce welterweight champion Saturday night, while another of the Californian’s hallmarks ensured that he left San Diego with gold intact.
Diaz and challenger Paul Daley put forth the type of vicious firefight most expected inside the Valley View Casino Center, but the confrontation truly began on Friday, when the notorious trash-talkers exchanged epithets at the official weigh-ins. The tension was evident immediately before the bout, when Daley grinned at Diaz as referee John McCarthy gave final instructions, evoking further verbiage from the titlist.
Five seconds into the bout, Diaz was into his usual routine, inching gingerly forward and chatting with Daley while offering up his jaw to the British slugger. Backing Daley into the fence, Diaz popped his challenger with a right jab, then hurled a left to the body. Early in the round, the sequence took little effect; in the end, it proved Diaz’s best friend.
The pair clinched and Diaz’s back wound up against the cage; Daley stepped out to assess the situation and then pounced. Lunging with his dynamite left hooks, Daley touched Diaz hard enough to prompt the Cesar Gracie pupil to hit the deck. Whether legitimately floored or merely caught up in the flurry, Diaz dove at Daley’s left leg. The challenger pivoted his hips and sprawled, unloading further punches on the turtling Diaz, along with a grazing soccer kick to the body.
Diaz appeared to be in danger, and it wouldn’t be the last time in the fight. Afterward, however, the champion dismissed the notion.
“I was OK. You know, he just knocked me off balance and I was just watching for him to follow up. I’m probably better off down there on my knees, anyways,” Diaz said at the postfight press conference. “If I go down, I go down. What are you gonna do down there? He couldn’t hit me once I was down.”
Indeed, whatever dire straits Daley had put Diaz in quickly subsided as Diaz scrambled to his feet. Daley continued to swing bombs, but Diaz had regained his composure. The champion began flicking out his jab again and used head movement to dodge a left hook, then a right cross, before catching one pawing Daley punch as though wearing a focus mitt.
Ninety seconds in, Diaz ate a counter left in the center of the cage and then rushed Daley with a half-dozen blows to the head and body. Daley grabbed the Thai plum and looked for opportunities to shoot knees up the middle, while Diaz simultaneously struck to the ribs with uppercuts.
As he abandoned the clinch, Daley was assaulted with more punches to the head, which he blocked, and to the gut. The latter caused the Englishman to wilt slightly, and follow-up punches to the head prompted Daley to do something which few could have foreseen: shoot for a takedown. Diaz tied up the head and pulled guard, peppering Daley with frustrating punches before driving forward with eyes on an ankle pick. Daley extracted his leg, however, and the fight resumed on the feet.
Diaz stepped forward, swiping a left hook across Daley’ face before lobbing a wrecking ball to his body. Daley went to the champion’s gut with knees, but Diaz literally shrugged them off, walking his man down and slinging leather with increased confidence as Daley swung desperately in return.
His hands at his waist, Diaz bounced a head kick off Daley’s right arm and then sauntered into the pocket. Back to the fence, Daley launched a left hook straight into Diaz’s temple. This time there was no mistaking it: Diaz’s legs went out from under him and he dropped to the canvas on his stomach. Finish line in sight, Daley threw his left arm around Diaz’s waist and hurled right hands at his head. When Diaz spun to guard, Daley dove down with sledgehammer strikes.
In a way, the turning point came here, as Diaz grabbed the wrists of Daley and controlled the challenger in his half-guard for long enough to get his wits about him. By the time Diaz was butt-scooting across the cage toward the standing Daley, “Semtex” had no choice but to let him back up.
With 30 seconds remaining, the men stood a few feet apart in the center of the cage once again. Daley danced as Diaz lurched forward, then stumbled awkwardly backward when a combination failed to find Diaz’s chin. Daley backed into a corner and Diaz, in his wide-open southpaw stance, unloaded the true difference-maker of the bout: a ripping left uppercut placed squarely on Daley’s liver.
Daley doubled over and Diaz went to work. Hooks, uppercuts and more rib-roasters flew, but one overhand right appeared to truly damage Daley. The challenger grabbed Diaz around the waist and shoved him away, but the momentum generated, coupled with his already wobbly legs, sent Daley flopping to the mat face-first.
With just 10 ticks left on the clock, Diaz pounded from above as Daley vainly attempted to push him off. Three seconds before the end of the round, after witnessing a few direct hits from inches away, referee McCarthy stepped in to intervene.
Nick Diaz has often been described as both a slow starter and a fighter who exposes himself to unnecessary risks. On Saturday night, both were true to a degree, but the 27-year-old from Stockton, Calif., also backed up his other reputation: that of a finisher.