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Enigmatic Strikeforce champ Diaz embodies MMA as it actually is

Two years ago, after Nick Diaz dropped Frank Shamrock with a hook to the ribs and laid in nearly two dozen unanswered shots to win a technical knockout in San Jose, Calif., he did something that no one had done in any of Shamrock's previous 34 bouts. He picked him up and said, "You need to get up, because you're a legend." Later that night, Diaz introduced his family to Shamrock and his wife. He bowed to them, and thanked them for the opportunity.

Not long before that, Diaz explained on a conference call with reporters that those out of shape -- "a cancer patient, a fat person, if you will" -- ought to smoke more marijuana, given the benefits of smoke-induced coughing for core muscles. "I'm not a doctor or a f---ing scientist," he said, "but I've smoked plenty of weed. And, you know, I think in my opinion it's pretty damn good for you."

Diaz, 27, might at a given moment be an old-school martial artist, a sneering reprobate, a burnout, a good kid from a rough town, or all or none of those things. As Strikeforce's 170-pound champion, scheduled for a Jan. 29 defense against Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, he's better at fighting than nearly anyone in the world, but doesn't seem to much enjoy it. In a sport where the rewards go to those willing to play a role, his inability to settle on just one is a liability. It also makes him the one fighter who may most embody MMA as it actually is right now.

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Stockton, Calif., where Diaz was born, is a town of close to 300,000, nearly a quarter of whom live below the poverty line, an hour east of San Francisco. The city traditionally rates among the most violent and least educated in the United States, and in recent years has served as the nation's foreclosure capital. Diaz and his brother Nate, the 155-pound contender in the UFC, are probably the most noteworthy happening since Pavement recorded its early material there.

Growing up, Diaz foundered, the way young men who grow up in such places will. He dropped out of school; he smoked. Where others might have found their escape in football or music, Diaz found Brazilian jiu jitsu as taught by Cesar Gracie, who learned it at one remove from Carlos Gracie, founder of the art.

"He needed to find something that would help him and would guide him to be something," Cesar Gracie said. "Once he met up with me and started doing jiu jitsu, he found something he wanted to do." Simple.

Diaz was a prodigy, with a calculating mind, quick reflexes, an exceptional reach and natural stamina. He could both think through a fight and react without thinking. Diaz won his first bout less than a month after turning 18. He won his UFC debut two years after that. In his second fight in the majors, he became the only man to knock out Robbie Lawler. Three losses over five months in 2005 got him exiled from the show, but in 14 fights since he's lost once, on a blood stoppage. In those bouts he's tapped the top-rated lightweight in the world with a freaky gogoplata, won in three different weight classes and left a fight to the judges just three times.

At 27, Diaz is just coming into his athletic prime. He's skilled enough -- a black belt under Gracie, a strong striker who's boxed professionally -- that UFC color man Joe Rogan, arguing against interest, has called him one of the 10 best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. None of it seems to matter.

* * * * *

Take it as a sign of the maturation of mixed martial arts that Diaz sounds like an outfielder or wid receiver blaming management and the press for his public relations problems when grousing about how everyone wants to sell him as nothing more than the bad boy of the sport.

"I'm a much better athlete, and a much better fighter, and a much better martial artist than 99 percent of the fighters out there," Diaz said. "They should be trying to market me and sell me for being the superior athlete and the superior fighter in general.

"I have superior mental abilities, and I'm not afraid to go in there and give 100 percent in a fight, give 100 percent of everything and not care about what happens later or what I look like out there. I go out there fully and express myself, truly. I don't have to fake anything."

All true enough. Still, Diaz is sold as a bad boy because he has, in no particular order, gotten into a fight with an opponent in the hospital the same night he lost to him in the cage; had his most important win declared a no contest after testing positive for marijuana; come in nine-and-a-half pounds over his weight limit; thrown a shoe at another opponent in the locker room before a fight; preached the gospel of intoxication on seemingly any pretext offered; and thrown a water bottle at an enemy while milling around backstage at a fight card.

There were also, of course, the two grand, highly entertaining debacles in which he's participated for the benefit of television cameras. One took place in 2008, when he stepped into the cage to demand a match with rival K.J. Noons ("Don't be scared, homey!"), a scene that involved a bum's rush from Noons' father and Nick's flipping off the crowd while Nate threw what looked awfully like gang signs. The other was last year's infamous Strikeforce brawl on CBS, where the Diaz brothers, among other Gracie students, stomped Jason "Mayhem" Miller while buffoonish announcer Gus Johnson plaintively begged them to stop over the house microphone. ("Gentlemen! We're on national television!")

Diaz will never live any of this down. The problem may be less what he's done, little of it truly bothersome by major league sports standards, than that MMA fans are a skitchy lot. Always convinced that the grudging acceptance the broad world has granted their beloved sport is a taunting joke perpetually a moment away from being withdrawn, they're quick to cry "Disgrace!" Anytime anyone does anything that might suggest that people who fight in cages for money tend to be slightly unwound, or shows off MMA as being less decorous than polo, some vocal percentage will act as if this person is putting the sport itself at risk.

In this line, Diaz is an embarrassment, an atavism, a reminder of the days when a claim that MMA was human cockfighting had some purchase. What makes it so sad is the way Diaz, many incidents and all, embodies everything right with MMA, not just in what it did for him and in his quiet regard for the old ways of martial arts, but in the way that he fights.

"He's a student of the game," Gracie said. "Whether it's on the ground or standing up, he wants to be the technician."

This is the sort of thing that all trainers tend say of their better students; in this case it's actually true. Diaz is a flatly strange fighter, long and with joints cracking around like unoiled hinges, who works from unusual directions and throws off any sort of timing with a rhythm that starts off-kilter and stays that way. On the ground, he's patient, a control artist. Standing, he's a volume puncher who slips two for every one he catches, with light fists that work because they come from the right angles. He's the antithesis of every sloppy kickboxer with a heavy right hand who ever promised to stand and bang in a cage.

"Every time Phil Baroni hit me," Shamrock said, "I felt his knuckles on my head. I felt the knuckle on bone. Oh! Terrible! When Nick hit me, I didn't feel anything. But the lights kept popping and flashing. And then after awhile I couldn't see the punches. My head was just flopping around. But they didn't hurt me, to where I was falling down, or saying, 'Aaahh, my brain!' In that way, I think he's even more effective."

Diaz is unusual in another way. One of the great fake ideas promoters try to sell the public is the idea that fighters love fighting, all of it, down to cracked orbital bones and concussions and days spent fasting ahead of a fight. For some, this is true. For many, it isn't. "It becomes a business at some point," Gracie said, and Diaz, who's mused about how he would prefer triathlon to fighting if only it paid as well, seems to agree.

"My best option right now is to fight, so that's what I do," Diaz said. "There's a lot I have to sacrifice, a lot I have sacrificed in order to train, to fight, train the way that I do train and fight the way that I fight. Especially to fight the way that I fight."

Whether the fights on offer right now are worth that sacrifice is a bit of a question. Diaz doesn't muster much enthusiasm for his Jan. 29 defense against Santos, a natural middleweight who doesn't have the wind to go long with Diaz and probably isn't going to knock out a man who was last finished more than eight years ago. ("He's underrated," Diaz said.) Past him there's Miller, a good hype man who hasn't won against a quality opponent in years, and Paul Daley, a heavy hitter who probably can't handle a sophisticated game such as Diaz's. ("They don't want to fight me," the champion said.) Strikeforce, which recently signed Diaz to a multi-year extension, does have some promising welterweights such as Tyron Woodley, but none are ready for a title shot. If the thrill for Diaz comes in success, in proving himself over the very best opponents, he'll be in a fix over his next run.

For now, though, there's Santos -- "Hopefully I win in the first round, but if not, then probably after the match both of us are going to the hospital" -- and the possibility that people other than his hardcore fans will notice that past the human car wreck that can be Diaz and a live television camera, there is a fighter who on the right day might tap more or less anyone in the world, and a man who, whatever else might be said of him, isn't much for playing a funhouse version of himself for money. These are significant virtues.

"A fine example of what our youth is up to," Shamrock said. "And how frustrated and unable to communicate they are. I think he's a perfect example of what our society's creating! He just happens to be a super athlete who's unbeatable."

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