Opinion: The Power and Persistence of Nostalgia

By Lev Pisarsky Sep 28, 2021

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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UFC 266 was headlined by a showdown between two tremendously skilled, elite fighters in featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and the endlessly dangerous and tough challenger, Brian Ortega. It also featured an appearance by Valentina Shevchenko, either the greatest or second greatest female fighter we've seen yet. Despite this, the bout that excited and intrigued fans the most was the rematch between Robbie Lawler and Nick Diaz. There was a buzz that far outstripped talk about either of the two title bouts. My esteemed colleague Ben Duffy notes that his UFC 266 preview with Keith Shillan was one of their most viewed ever.

And yet, Diaz and Lawler were likely the second and third-worst fighters on the card, only surpassing Diaz's teammate Martin Sano! Lawler is 39 and was riding a four-fight losing streak stretching back to late 2017. In each loss, he was utterly dominated, whether in the striking or grappling. Watching his fights has been depressing for me for some time, as Lawler is so clearly washed up and should have retired years ago. He is painfully slow, both in terms of reacting to opponents’ strikes, which he defends with his face, and his own sluggish, telegraphed blows, which younger foes have no trouble evading. Even Lawler's once-intimidating power — the last quality that a decaying fighter loses — is tremendously diminished, as he doesn't throw punches and kicks as technically or accurately anymore.

Somehow, Diaz was even worse. At least Lawler, despite being a shadow of his former self, is still in good shape. Diaz, who is 38 and hadn't fought since 2015, looked like he had barely trained during the past six years, and couldn't be bothered in preparing properly for the rematch. The man who was lean and trim at 170 pounds in his prime was painfully bloated at 185, rocking a “dad bod” no better and likely worse than that of many weekend warriors in the stands. Diaz was legendary for his endless cardio once upon a time, but against Lawler at UFC 266, he was taking deep, labored breaths late in Round 1. He was then reduced to turning and running away late in Round 2 and by Round 3, he retired — as much from exhaustion as from any blows that Lawler landed. In other words, Lawler-Diaz 2 was an embarrassment and I was left sincerely hoping both men, of whom been a fan of over 15 years, had competed for the last time.

But here's the rub. Intellectually, it was obvious prior to UFC 266 that both guys were shot and the fight would be depressing. Certainly, I knew this. And yet, I was still excited for this match, ignoring all reason. And I'm sure this applies to many other fans.

Why was my reason defeated? It's because of the incredible power and persistence of nostalgia. People were reminded of the first Lawler-Diaz fight, an action-packed classic between two cutting-edge, dynamite young prospects that would go on to have great careers. They were reminded of the amazing, blood-and-guts wars that Lawler waged, and his extraordinary, unlikely career path as a failed UFC prospect who returned to the organization in his 30s and finally won gold as an older, wiser veteran. They remember Diaz's many outstanding, unique fights and finishes, his insane gogoplata submission of Takanori Gomi — later overturned because he smoked pot — or his timeless knockout of one of the best strikers in MMA history, Paul Daley, in what is perhaps the greatest one-round fight in the sport. They remember Diaz's cool, cocky personality and his constant stream of curses and middle fingers during a fight. They remember him repping Stockton and delivering the “Stockton slap” to world-class fighters. Both men are a reminder of the earlier, rawer era of MMA during which many fans first fell in love with the sport.

So despite all that cold-blooded rationality, we were all curious if Nick Diaz had something left coming back after six years at nearly 40 years old. Although we knew better, we wondered if a washed-up Lawler could get it together for one last highlight-reel knockout. And while I was left cringing and sad at how much worse Lawler and Diaz were, not only than the prime versions of themselves, but even the young, inexperienced fighters they were in their first encounter, I'm sure some fans were satisfied. Lawler and Diaz both offered little in the way of defense, and each landed and sustained a number of flush blows to the body and head.

But what are we to make of this nostalgia? Is it a good or bad phenomenon? As with much of MMA, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's nice that Diaz and Lawler can still draw big paychecks in the twilight of their careers, when their actual fighting ability is so lacking. Notice the slew of older MMA fighters that have gone into bare-knuckle or traditional boxing. Their appeal heavily relies upon nostalgia, too.

On the flipside, that earning potential convinces many fighters to continue competing long past the point of expiration, sustaining needless injury and brain damage. Gary Goodridge is an old-school, beloved pioneer who likely stayed a few additional years having MMA and kickboxing bouts because of the nostalgia factor, finally retiring just shy of his 45th birthday. That lead to many additional knockout losses, and nowadays, his is a very sad story, as “Big Daddy” wages a daily battle against the brain damage he suffered in combat sports.

For fans, it's also a mixed bag. Many still love to watch former champions put on a show and be transported back to an earlier era of MMA. I was in the crowd for Wanderlei Silva and Quinton Jackson's fourth fight at Bellator 206, which was admittedly contested at a higher skill level than Diaz-Lawler 2, and the fans, myself included, were plenty happy with it. On the flipside, there is a depressing quality about seeing once-great fighters being so thoroughly thrashed by the ravages of time. One wants to remember a Diaz at his zenith, not as a middle-aged, pudgy, slow guy with a dadbod who quit because he was too tired. A young Diaz would have kicked the ass of the current version and then flipped him off.

There is an argument that people who come for the nostalgia bouts will then watch the higher-caliber affairs and become fans of those fighters, too. However, everything I've seen and experienced indicates the exact opposite. Rather, it's the nostalgia fights, which are becoming more and more frequent in MMA and boxing, which are diverting attention and accolades away from more serious matches.

Ultimately, nostalgia can be as stifling and even dangerous as it is pleasant. Stifling for all younger, better fighters desperately trying to become stars themselves. Dangerous for Diaz, who took multiple unnecessary blows in a sport he doesn't like, or Lawler, who refuses to call it a career. They are slaves of fan nostalgia: a very powerful, persistent and cruel mistress.
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