Nate Diaz had performed under brighter spotlights. Less than a year ago, he fought for the UFC lightweight championship. Even before that, he'd competed in four main events for the promotion, as well as on seven pay-per-view cards. Back in 2007, he was the winner of Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Diaz had spent his time as a hot commodity. But never had he felt the heat turned up on him so intensely.
His main event against Gray Maynard on Saturday night in Las Vegas was a fight for something other than having a hand raised at the end. It was a fight for survival. Not necessarily survival as a UFC fighter -- neither Diaz nor Maynard was on the chopping block -- but certainly survival as a UFC contender. Diaz was coming off two straight losses, Maynard off a quick knockout defeat. It doesn't take much more than that to push you down and maybe out of the Top 10.
Diaz is on the move, all right, but it's all up, up, up for the 26-year-old. He needed barely half of the first round to take out Maynard with a blistering boxing attack, getting the TKO against an out-on-his-feet opponent at 2:38.
Diaz took charge around two minutes in, when a short left hand sent Maynard to his knees. He got to his feet quickly, but stumbled backward, and Diaz pounced. A right-left combination sent Maynard against the cage, and from there both of Diaz's hands seemingly couldn't miss. A couple of combos had Maynard looking dazed, but just as referee Yves Lavigne was moving in Maynard managed to create some separation.
Diaz, though, was relentless. He swarmed again, landed another one-two, then three hard punches to the head. What was keeping Maynard on his feet? He wasn't returning fire, but he was moving just enough that the ref allowed the bout to continue. That is, until Diaz plastered Maynard with another three punches, at which point Lavigne pulled Diaz away. The assault over, Maynard tried to walk away but stumbled four steps before falling on his face.
It was a thorough beatdown, a strong statement in the third meeting between the fighters. They first tangled in the TUF semifinals, and Diaz won by guillotine submission. Being that it was just a scheduled two-rounder, like all bouts on the reality show, it was an exhibition. Their rematch in 2010 was their first official fight, then, and Maynard won that one by split decision. So Saturday night's win by Diaz technically evened the score. But we know better.
Diaz is fascinating as both a fighter and a personality. He's had some extraordinary performances inside the octagon, with this one being among the best. He was also a killer in the three bouts that earned him his title shot, dominating Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller in succession. But he was thoroughly outclassed by Benson Henderson in the title fight, and followed that with a TKO loss to Josh Thomson in April. When he's down, he's way down. But when he's up, the sky seems to be the limit.
For one thing, the euphoria of an electrifying fight performance tends to produce a memorable post-fight display as well. On Saturday, during an interview in the octagon, Diaz launched into a diatribe about how he and his Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu teammate, former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez, are poised to take over the lightweight division. "Just so everybody knows: The No. 1 and 2 lightweights in the world are right here, me and my man right here," Diaz said, gesturing to Melendez. "My man beat Ben Henderson for the title, and for some reason they let Anthony Pettis fight him. So you and Thomson need to man up and get with me and my boy right here, 'cause this is our division. We gonna beat your asses. That's what's up."
OK, Melendez did push Henderson to a split decision, so it's understandable that his teammate would sing the guy's praises. And it even makes sense for Diaz to call out Pettis, although he's going to need a few more wins in order to earn a date with the champ. But for Diaz to talk tough at Thomson was bizarre. Or maybe he doesn't remember Thomson's head-kick TKO back in April. It happens.
Regardless, the bottom line is that Diaz (17-9) is back, maybe not as the top contender he fancies himself but certainly as a relevant 155-pounder. And Maynard (11-3-1, 1 NC), after a second straight first-round KO loss, has some hard thinking to do. What happened to him Saturday night is going to be hard to come back from.
Notes from the undercard
The Ultimate Fighter's Chris Holdsworth impressively continued his season-long grappling clinic by choking out Davey Grant at 2:10 of the second round, but those two were the only two men from Season 18 to get a fight at this showcase event. They'd earned their way in. And, in a different way, so had the four women who squared off in the two bouts right before the men vied for the trophy, motorcycle, and UFC contract. Neither Jessamyn Duke's unanimous-decision win over Peggy Morgan nor Raquel Pennington's victory over Roxanne Modafferi by the same means was a breathtaking work of art, but these fighters' mere presence on the main card was an indication of how much the women's bantamweights stole the show from the 135-pound men on the Fox series.
But really, the show was stolen by just one woman. This wasn't ladies' night as much as it was one lady's night. Julianna Peña absolutely mauled Jessica Rakoczy on her way to earning the women's TUF title with a TKO at 4:49 of the first round. If referee Mario Yamasaki had allowed the bout to continue for one more second, the horn would have sounded to end the round ... and we would have gotten to see more Peña pounding.
Peña is a strong, unyieldingly aggressive fighter, and she will make her mark in the UFC women's division. At age 24 with only seven official fights on her resume, Peña is raw. But her drive makes up for her awkwardness, and can also can make her an in-your-face presence outside the octagon. On the Fox Sports 1 post-fight show, she went right at women's champ Ronda Rousey, who coached the other team of fighters in the TV show. "Her arrogance," Peña said of the champ. "The way that she holds herself, like her [expletive] doesn't stink."
Another rivalry for Ronda? Well, she's going to need one eventually. Rousey has Miesha Tate to contend with next month, and challenger-in-waiting Cat Zingano will be healed up for the next shot at the belt. And then? If all goes well for Rousey, she'll be looking to the Top 10 to put another woman in front of her. Will Peña be polished enough by then to be the one? Stay tuned.