Viewpoint: Forging an Identity

By Tristen Critchfield May 6, 2012

Watch Nate Diaz compete in the Octagon, and it is nearly impossible not to think of his brother: same lanky build, same fighting style, same volatile demeanor. Until recently, that is where the similarities ended. While Nick Diaz was busy establishing himself as one of the top welterweights outside of the UFC over the last few years, his younger sibling was struggling to find an identity.

After a successful beginning to his UFC career that saw him emerge from “The Ultimate Fighter 5” with five consecutive wins, Nate hit a rough patch. He would lose five of his next eight bouts, often struggling when matched against suffocating wrestlers. A brief run as a welterweight did little to alter his fortunes. It was not until past September that he began to step out from behind the considerable shadow of his brother.

A one-sided thrashing of Takanori Gomi at UFC 135 marked Nate’s return to 155 pounds and set the stage for his arrival as a serious championship contender. By itself, it was little more than a nice win against an opponent who had peaked during the heyday of the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships. However, Nate was not done proving himself. In December, he overwhelmed Top 10 lightweight Donald Cerrone, shattering the promotional record -- previously held by his brother -- for significant strikes landed in a single bout.

His transformation from talented kid brother to viable title contender was completed in the UFC on Fox 3 main event on Saturday. In front of national television audience, as well as plenty of Jim Miller supporters at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., Diaz became the first person to finish the AMA Fight Club representative. By eliciting a tapout from Miller with a guillotine choke at 4:09 of round two, Nate accomplished what Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard and Benson Henderson could not.

That Diaz was able to get the tough-as-nails New Jersey native to submit is a testament to his rapid improvement. As recently as April 2011 -- when he was getting suplexed into oblivion by Rory MacDonald -- the Stockton, Calif., native looked nothing like a man who was on the verge of a breakthrough. One moment illustrates how far he has come since then: at the UFC on Fox 3 post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White was asked if Nate was a fighting genius.

Nick Diaz paved the way for
his younger brother Nate.
“I think that the Diaz brothers both have a very unique style,” White responded. “I’ll be sitting out there with other fighters, and they’ll be, like, ‘God, he looks slow’ or ‘They don’t look like they hit hard.’ As soon as he said it, he dropped Miller. The Diaz brothers have a very unique fighting style that is very effective and unlike anybody else in the sport.”

White’s comment demonstrates how difficult it can be to separate the two brothers. Nick did not fight on Saturday, but when asked specifically about the fighting prowess of the UFC on Fox 3 main event winner, White could not help but mention the former Strikeforce champion.

Perhaps it is because Nick’s path to stardom is quite similar to Nate’s. He joined the UFC in 2003 and won four of his first five fights. However, consecutive losses to Diego Sanchez, Joe Riggs and Sean Sherk had him firmly entrenched in the middle of the promotion’s welterweight pack. Back then, Nick struggled with same type of top control and pressure that would eventually plague Nate.

Nick left the UFC in late 2006 and evolved to a point where no particular style could hinder his multi-faceted attack. Strikers could not solve by his death-by-a-thousand-cuts punching style, while wrestlers were wary of his dangerous guard. Nick returned to the Las Vegas-based promotion in 2011 as the owner of a 10-fight unbeaten streak and as one of the most feared welterweights in the world. In less than six months, he was fighting for the interim 170-pound title.

Now it is Nate’s time to shine. His entertaining offense and polarizing personality made him a perfect fit to market to the casual UFC on Fox crowd. Miller was just the right type of opponent -- an aggressive fighter capable of turning their bout into a grinding affair that would neutralize Nate’s strengths. Instead, the Cesar Gracie pupil beat Miller everywhere: from distance, in the clinch and on the mat. At the end of the night, Miller had a bloody nose, a swollen ankle and a new level of respect for the first man to put him away.

“Nate controlled the fight from bell to bell. He took the momentum and never let me get any significant shots in there,” Miller said. “He rearranged my nose a little bit and that always sucks. He fought a beautiful fight and had my number.”

Others are taking notice, as well. Former Bellator Fighting Championships lightweight king Eddie Alvarez sat next to White at the event and marveled at Nate’s finishing ability: of his 11 UFC victories, nine have ended by submission or technical knockout. Meanwhile, UFC champion Ben Henderson reflected on his potential adversary’s formula for success from the UFC on Fuel TV studio.

“He mixes it up great. He takes his opponent’s will away from them. At the end of the fight, they don't want to be there in anymore,” Henderson said. “He does a lot of things great, but more than anything else is his attitude. He is a fighter. He wanted to fight. He makes it emotional.”

Nobody would ever accuse a Diaz of not wanting to fight, but it appears that Nate will now wait for his shot at the belt.

“I’m down for whatever. Whatever they say, but [waiting] sounds great for me,” said Diaz, typically a man of few words when it comes to interviews.

Henderson and Frankie Edgar are expected to rematch sometime in August or September. Whoever comes out on top will have a formidable obstacle in front of them. While Nate Diaz is still very much the brother of Nick Diaz, he is now finally coming into his own. Yet, in forging his own identity inside the cage, Nate is still following his brother’s lead. Based on the results they have both achieved, it is not a bad route to take.


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