Nick Diaz outdueled Paul Daley in a five-minute shootout in San Diego this past April. | Photo: Sherdog.com
While 2010’s “Round of the Year” came from an altogether unexpected source -- a frenetic three minutes between two Canadian featherweights on a little-watched WEC card in Edmonton -- the finest frame of 2011 could have been spotted coming a mile down the road.
With a matchup like Nick Diaz versus Paul Daley, jaw-dropping and brain-rattling exchanges were not only predicted or expected, they were all but guaranteed. Two of the sport’s preeminent punchers, the welterweights possessed dissimilar but equally vicious standup styles, with pre-fight bluster and in-cage mean streaks to match. It was a mixture destined to ignite at the opening bell, if not before.
Even with so much known, there was plenty to be discovered on April 9 in San Diego. Could Diaz, known for his mid-fight monologues and derisive gestures, get Daley to lose his cool? Would Diaz’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu come into play if “Semtex” detonated during another of the cranky Californian’s slow starts? And, as the stars of the first major Strikeforce event under Zuffa reign, could either man make a strong enough impression on cageside UFC brass to pave his path back to the Octagon?
A duel for Diaz’s Strikeforce 170-pound title, the bout was scheduled for 25 minutes. The participants beat out the answers -- incidentally: not really, somewhat and yes -- in a brutish one-fifth of that time.
Just as they’d attempted to while facing off at the previous day’s official weigh-in, Diaz and Daley went head-to-head as they met in the middle of the cage for final instructions, their scalps drawn together like magnets. Pushed apart by referee John McCarthy, the champion continued to crease his brow and mutter unkind words while the challenger grinned a wide, shiny mouthguard grin.
Three seconds after the bell, Diaz’s arms were already outstretched in his trademark exaggerated shrug before dropping to his sides as an invitation for Daley to throw. The Englishman took the offer and swung a well-placed leg kick into Diaz’s right knee, but Diaz was soon moving forward again, walking Daley into the cage, all the while chattering and gesticulating.
When Diaz moved too far inside, Daley used the Thai clinch to put his taller opponent on the fence and then backed up to swing the first tide-changer of the fight: a wide left hook which scrambled Diaz, and another behind it which dropped the champ to his knees. Looking more off-kilter than injured, Diaz kept his wits as he bobbed his head to avoid further punches, but the knockdown had nonetheless set Daley ablaze.
Diaz worked back to his feet, where he was greeted instantly by more knees and ill-intentioned haymakers from Daley. Unfazed, the titleholder waited out a burst and turned from orthodox to southpaw stance to slow Daley with a stiff jab. The pair tangled as they threw and Daley spun for a rear waistlock, releasing as soon as Diaz turned to grab at his arm.
Ninety seconds in, Diaz scored with his first solid combination of the bout, a left-straight and a pair of hooks to the body. Daley sought knees in the clinch again, but this time Diaz leaned him on the fence, creating enough space to punish Daley’s ribs. Once Diaz broke the challenger’s grip, he wasted no time in stepping back and unloading heat-seeking uppercuts to the gut and hooks to the face. As the punches piled on, Daley stumbled along the fence. Then, the muay Thai stylist did something to indicate just what kind of trouble he was in: Daley shot for a single-leg.
Daley got his takedown, aided by Diaz, who went to the ground on the possibility of a guillotine soon abandoned for closed guard. The grappling session was short lived, as Diaz wrapped up Daley and peppered with punches before driving for an ankle pick of his own. They reset on the feet once again.
The most enthralling thing about a matchup like Diaz-Daley is the constant, electric feeling that one punch from either man can drastically alter the course of the bout. With 2:20 left on the clock, there were still two such punches to come.
By this point, any effects of Daley’s early offense were long gone. Diaz had taken the reins and moved Daley toward the fence again with combinations, then stepped back to more carefully select his shots to the body. Though retreating, Daley would not stop throwing, tagging his longer foe with a pair of clean counter-punches before being shoved against the cage. Exiting with a series of elbows and hooks, Diaz backed away to meet his man in the middle, then shrugged off a high knee to stick more jabs in Daley’s face.
Daley swung his way out of a corner with wild punches and put some distance between himself and Diaz, who walked straight forward with his hands at his waist. Only now, when Diaz stuck out a pair of straight shots, Daley found an answer: a left hook over the top which pinged off Diaz’s temple and took the titlist’s legs out from beneath him.
Smelling blood, Daley shot to the ground and tried to pound out the kneeling Diaz. Unfortunately for the Briton, he was on Diaz’s right side -- the wrong side, in this instance -- and Diaz covered up well as he snuck his left arm around the back to grab Daley’s free wrist. By the time Daley stood and crashed through Diaz’s guard with hammerfists, the champ had recovered and was using wrist control to stymie further offense.
Daley stood to allow Diaz back up, and Diaz wisely butt-scooted away from the cage before going vertical again. There was a moment of hesitation before Diaz began lurching forward; was he still dazed? With 30 seconds to go, Daley looked to have the back-and-forth frame in the bag -- until Diaz made his final push.
As soon as Daley’s back was once again flush to the fence, Diaz ripped into the challenger’s body with a left hook that changed everything. Daley doubled over and covered his head as three, four, five hard hooks came in. As Daley tried to sling desperate counter-punches, Diaz used his long arms to force the smaller man’s head downward. Daley succeeded in shoving Diaz away, but the momentum of the shove sent an already off-balance Semtex belly-flopping to the floor.
With only 10 seconds remaining, Diaz rushed in and dropped shots on his prone opponent. With only three ticks left on the clock, referee McCarthy made the call. This one was over, and the final stats from FightMetric bore out the result: Though Daley stung the champ by landing 20 of 62 significant strikes -- a connection rate of 32 percent -- the varied, high-volume attack of Diaz yielded 44 of 81 (54 percent) and helped set up the big finish.
Bouts such as this carry with them such high expectations of excitement and violence that, even when very good, they can be viewed as disappointments. Because Nick Diaz and Paul Daley delivered on every promise and then some, and because they did it all inside five minutes, they are the stars of Sherdog’s 2011 “Round of the Year.”