The Bottom Line: Fighting Against Form

By Todd Martin Sep 21, 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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It’s understandable that MMA promoters will sometimes want to rematch fighters long after their original bouts. There’s usually a well-remembered history there and some curiosity about how things would go if they were ever to fight again. The fighters themselves are also usually enthusiastic about the prospect. One fighter will long have wanted revenge and this will pretty much always get to the other fighter, who grows sick of the talk and wants to show his continued supremacy.

The problem with these bouts is that they almost always end up sad and disappointing. When fighters are past their primes, it’s not hard to notice. It becomes particularly clear with a rematch because fans have a direct memory of the same fighters when they were at their best to compare their rematch to. The stakes are also low. If the fighter who originally lost wins, fans dismiss it as the result of the other fighter’s decline. If the same fighter wins again, it’s just an affirmation of what we already know to be true.

The most obvious examples of this trend generally involve fighters long past their peaks. Tito Ortiz’s knockout of a seemingly underwater Chuck Liddell in their third bout was one of MMA’s most depressing sights. The event also ended up being such a financial catastrophe that it ended Golden Boy’s foray into MMA after one show. Ken Shamrock-Royce Gracie 3 was at least able to draw curiosity viewers for Bellator MMA, but it was a similarly sad atmosphere; and Bellator has been on a downward trajectory ever since it turned to spectacle fights for attention.

The problem with long delayed rematches may be most noticeable with much older fighters, but the same issues present themselves even when the fighters are closer to their physical peaks. That’s the case with the Robbie Lawler-Nick Diaz rematch at UFC 266 this Saturday in Las Vegas, an almost surreal 17 years after they first competed. Diaz-Lawler 2 is about as easy to justify as any MMA rematch that takes place so long after the first fight, yet it’s still likely to leave us with an unsatisfying aftertaste.

For MMA fans who weren’t around for the first Diaz-Lawler fight when it happened—statistically there are a lot more of them than current fans who were—it’s hard to understate just how surprising it was that the fight went the way it did. Lawler was one of the most feared knockout strikers in the sport, even if his defeat to Pete Spratt had taken a little luster off the hype train. Diaz, meanwhile, was known as a jiu-jitsu player from the Cesar Gracie camp. This was a period when fighters with jiu-jitsu backgrounds were expected to rely much more on their jiu-jitsu than they are now.

That Diaz knocked out Lawler was surprising enough on its own. However, it was the way he did it that made the result so shocking. He seemed completely unconcerned with Lawler’s striking. He taunted, postured and picked apart Lawler for the entirety of the fight and did so with a bravado and machismo that made everyone take notice. It was the beginning of the mystique surrounding the Diaz brothers, which has carried through and been bolstered by their many noteworthy bouts since.

The funny thing about Diaz-Lawler 2 taking place now is that it was a topic of seemingly unending speculation a decade back. When Diaz and Lawler were both in EliteXC and Strikeforce, they were asked over and over and over again about a rematch. It started initially as a logical question. Then it became asked so often that you could hear the frustration in Lawler’s voice when he was asked about it yet again. Eventually, it became comical that we were all trapped having to go through this inescapable discussion. Of course, the discussion eventually died off with Diaz leaving the sport. Years after that, the fight finally arrives.

There is still a definite appeal to the fight. However, the appeal relates almost entirely to Diaz’s return for his first bout in over six years and second in over eight. Fans love Diaz, and his presence in the sport makes it more fun. It’s just that Diaz-Lawler being a rematch doesn’t add a lot to the equation. If anything, Lawler as an opponent is less compelling than Diaz against someone else.

For his first appearance in such a long time, Diaz stands to gain remarkably little from this fight. If he wins, he will have defeated an opponent he already bested so long ago. There was a time when it was easy to argue Lawler was an advanced and more dangerous version of the man Diaz once competed against and that the Stockton, California, native could gain a lot from winning again. Unfortunately, that time has passed, with Lawler losing four straight and quickly approaching his 40th birthday.

The fight clearly offers more to gain for Lawler than Diaz. He can stop his skid and avenge a famous defeat. Even Lawler, however, suffers from the delayed rematch conundrum: If he wins, it becomes more of a referendum on Diaz than a statement about “Ruthless Robbie.” Lawler does at least have the benefit of his power, as a big knockout can play an outsized role in making a fight more memorable and a win more impressive.

Diaz-Lawler could be the exception to the rule about long delayed rematches. In particular, an exciting win by Diaz would thrill fans and set up some big fights if he is inclined to continue. Unfortunately, the expectations surrounding the fight could work against it when the bout begins. The memory of past moments lingers against the reality of now. The comparison is often unflattering, and there’s not much left to prove when it comes to six and a half minutes so many years ago.
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