I've thought about it a lot over the years, and I've come to the conclusion that UFC welterweight contender Nick Diaz might be one of the only people who sees this sport for what it really is: a brutal, terrible way to make a living that no one sane person would choose if they had any viable alternative. It's either that, or Diaz is completely out of his mind.
Consider a third option: Diaz is completely out of his mind, but he also happens to be right, at least about this sport.
For instance, take his explanation for his pre-fight demeanor at this week's UFC 143 media workouts, which has been roughly the same as his demeanor before all fights: "You see me. What you see is what you get. You get real martial arts. You get real fighting. You get a real warrior mentality. Some people aren't mature enough to handle it. This isn't soccer. I have no problem being sportsmanlike about this whole thing. I understand it's a sporting event. But to me this is a fight. I'm not going to let things change that to help this sport become what it is. I think this sport is what it is. I don't worry about looking good. I do what I've got to do to survive, to keep my teeth in my head, and my head on my shoulders. I apologize to whoever can't put that together and understand that."
In other words, he's not the jerk for no-showing the occasional press conference and refusing to toss out scripted sound bytes on cue. The jerks are the people who expect him to do all that in order to sell a cage fight in Las Vegas. Maybe it's only reasonable to treat every opponent like a foreign enemy, the way Diaz does, just to get yourself mentally prepared to punch him in the face for money on live TV. Maybe the real psychos are the people who can high-five and bro-hug with the same person upon whom they're about to try to place great bodily harm.
It makes a certain degree of sense when you put it like that. It also makes sense when you look at Diaz, a 28-year-old who's been a professional fighter for nearly eleven years with the scar tissue to prove it.
The former Strikeforce welterweight champion has said before that if he could make the same money doing triathlons as he makes fighting, he'd gladly spend more time on his bike than in the cage. Alas, this is the sport that pays, and Diaz doesn't exactly have the demeanor to go get a job in the service industry.
Then again, there's no shortage of evidence for the 'Diaz is out of his mind' theory. This is the same guy who, just last year, cost himself a UFC title shot when he skipped out on two press conferences because he simply didn't feel like going. It's also the same guy who then somehow managed to blame that mini-disaster on everyone from the UFC PR staff to welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre -- anybody but himself.
And that's just a footnote in Diaz's prolific career of crazy. That doesn't include the time he started a fight with Joe Riggs in the hospital or threw a shoe at Diego Sanchez backstage before an event. It doesn't include the time he and his friends jumped "Mayhem" Miller on live network TV, or the time he and his brother scuffled with former EliteXC champion K.J. Noons and his father in the cage after a fight. It doesn't include any of the bizarre interviews he's given over the years, which range from awkward to uncomfortable to downright alarming. In both word and deed, Diaz works in crazy the way an artist might work in oils.
Still, just because Diaz might be out there, that doesn't necessarily make him wrong about the insanity inherent in fighting for a living. How can you tell that fighting is different from other sports? For starters, it's the only sport that, for most people, is a consequence of anger. It's also the only sport that erupts organically within other sports. No one ever gets so upset during a basketball game that they start playing baseball against one another. Instead they fight, and usually very poorly.
To ask a man to spend weeks, sometimes months, preparing himself to fight another person is to ask him to occupy a strange psychological space. Then, when he shows up the week of the fight, we ask him to sit through press conferences, interviews and all manners of promotional pageantry, as if he weren't going to bed each night with the very real possibility that he might be knocked unconscious soon, leaving his face branded with all new scars to match the ones he started with. As if that isn't what all these people are here for. As if that isn't kind of the point.
When you consider all that, maybe Diaz is right to approach each fight with this signature mix of anger and dread and resentment. Who but a sociopath could smile and shake hands before something like that, knowing that the person who's smiling back intends to beat him up and take money out of his pocket in a couple days' time?
The fact that Diaz has embraced and simultaneously repelled the essential weirdness of it all goes a long way toward explaining why so many fans love him, while other fighters are just baffled by him. Take St-Pierre's response to Diaz's constant state of fight readiness, as told to UFC.com:
"I don't truly hate him as a person. I don't know that he is a bad guy, but I hate what he brings to the sport with the disrespect and the unprofessional things he says and does. It is sort of a professional hatred. He has been nothing but disrespectful and arrogant toward me. During UFC 137 (week) I felt like I had to walk around Las Vegas with my fists ready (to punch Diaz) because every time I came across him he wanted to fight there and then. Every time the elevator opened (in the hotel) I needed to be ready to fight in case he stepped in. I was on edge all week. This guy is crazy."
Again, that's GSP, the UFC fighter who most resembles a money-making cyborg built by a marketing firm. He says and does all the right things. He shows up on time, in tailored suits, and conducts himself like a gentleman. Even when he smashes an opponent's orbital bone, he does it with the indifferent determination of a billiards player rather than a blood-thirsty warrior. And yet even he becomes like a kid who's been bullied too much when confronted with Diaz. Even he can't maintain the ruse that this is just a sport like any other.
That's the great thing about Diaz, and also the problem. He can't ever step out of that zone and see an opponent as simply an athletic competitor. He also can't do the little things that would be easy for most people, perhaps because he's spent so much time and energy preparing himself to face the dangerous things that would be nearly impossible for most of us.
When he fights Condit this weekend, maybe he'll be the only one on the fight card who truly appreciates who absurd this all is, how savage. Maybe he'll be the only one who realizes what degree of his own humanity he's had to sacrifice just to excel at it. Maybe he'll hate us for loving that about him, and maybe he's right to. Then again, maybe he'll just be completely out of his mind. Or maybe all of those things will be true, somehow. Maybe that's what's so fascinating about it.