When word first surfaced that a fighter had tested positive in drug screenings after UFC 143 in Las Vegas, the initial report Thursday was vague enough that there were 18 suspects, technically, since that's how many of last Saturday night's combatants had been invited to pee in a cup. But my mind reflexively zeroed in on just one guy.
Call it rebelliousness profiling. I had no inkling, knew it wasn't fair to assume, and made myself rearrange my thoughts to allow for other possibilities. But the name that first had come to mind was that of a man who rules all others as a rule-breaker: Nick Diaz.
And sure enough ...
Nick turned out to be the one who was nicked, and he faces a fine and suspension from the Nevada State Athletic Commission after testing positive for -- what else? -- marijuana. Yes, pot. Not 'roids, the usual substance of choice among those who flaunt the drug rules in sports. I make the distinction because Diaz is a different type of rule breaker from most. While marijuana is no less against the rules than stanozolol, one is taken by rule breakers, the other by cheaters.
Diaz has not been caught cheating. Except maybe himself.
That's what he does.
This is the second time Diaz has been popped for pot, a substance whose performance-enhancing qualities are, um, cloudy. The other time came at a Pride event in 2007, also in Vegas, where before submitting his urine sample he submitted Takanori Gomi. It's amazing this hasn't happened to Diaz more, actually, as he's been well known to many in mixed martial arts as a guy who enjoys a toke ever since he was a budding fighter (sorry). He even has a prescription for it under California's medical marijuana policy. But for as long as athletic commissions screen for the substance, it is Nick's responsibility to do what he has to do to test clean. He apparently couldn't be bothered.
It's not just with weed that Nick has acted like he doesn't care if his career goes up in smoke. He had a title fight taken away from him last fall after he neglected to show up for a couple of news conferences being held to promote his ill-fated challenge of UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. He caused a blustery commotion in the EliteXC cage back in 2008 by confronting KJ Noons, who'd a short timer earlier handed him his last loss prior to UFC 143.
To play amateur psychologist for a moment, the pattern seems to be that when Diaz's stress level spikes -- caused by a particularly threatening fight, maybe, or a blindingly hot spotlight -- he does something outlandish to disrupt the energy of whatever is bothering him. Is it an unintentional tic fueled by anxiety? Is it a purposeful gesture intended to access his opponents' head and tilt the playing field? Or maybe what he's reacting to is not so much the opponent as the playing field itself, lit up for prime time. It's probably a combination of all of these factors as well as others I haven't thought of, because my mind doesn't work like Nick's.
One thing I've picked up from observation: Nick being Nick tends to create chaos, and chaos is a state in which Diaz is capable of thriving. At least more than his opponents usually can. Evidence of that: He brought an 11-fight victory streak into UFC 143, a run built by forever pushing forward, like a predator moving in for a kill. Diaz gets in an opponent's face and waits for him to either wilt under the pressure or pridefully take a stand, which is to fight back with brawn rather than brains. The audacious game plan has worked, time after time. Until last weekend, when Carlos Condit resisted every trash-talking trap Diaz set for him, declined Nick's invitation to fight Nick's fight, and won by unanimous decision.
Diaz expressed outrage at the judges' scorecards, which is what fighters on the losing end often do. But what was different this time was that others in the sport also joined the chorus of complaints. (I thought the judges got it right, although giving Condit four of the five rounds, as two did, might have been a bit much.) After three days of whiny discord by the complainers, Dana White went on Twitter late Tuesday night to announce an agreement had been struck for Condit-Diaz II. The next day, though, Diaz' longtime trainer and mentor, Cesar Gracie, shot down the possibility of a rematch. The thought that came to mind at the time was that Gracie was just holding out for more money or to have the fight take place somewhere other than Las Vegas, where Diaz and his entourage feel he doesn't get a fair shake. I wasn't expecting the roadblock to be a pot-hole.
Now, I'm not here to judge Diaz for his relationship with cannabis. If anything, it makes him more of a kindred spirit for me than the hardcore-blaring, straight-and-narrow square pegs that fill the sport. It's not about the pot. (And this is not the time to hash out how marijuana might be a performance-enhancing substance; I have my theories.) Right now the story comes down to two things: rules and ramifications.
It's not enough to say simply that Diaz broke the rules and will pay the price. It's deeper than that. We all break rules. You don't drive at the speed limit every time you get behind the wheel. But if you're leaving my house and I warn you about a speed trap just down the road, you're going to dutifully watch your speed, aren't you, Casey Jones? Well, Diaz knew that drug testing is a part of what a professional fighter must deal with. He didn't take precaution. He knew the speed trap was up ahead and he just floored it anyway.
And now come the ramifications, which Diaz will not be alone in dealing with. The UFC must significantly adjust its welterweight plans, having lost not just a much-anticipated rematch but also, possibly, an even more appealing grudge match once GSP is healed from knee surgery.
"I am beyond disappointed that he tested positive for marijuana," White said in a statement released to the media by the UFC Thursday night. "It is now in the hands of the Nevada State Athletic Commission."
That's pretty subdued for Dana. You read that and wonder how many F-bombs some public relations assistant had to withstand along the way to eliciting those two sentences from the boss. Then again, the UFC president probably let out a lot more sighs than growls. He can't be surprised.
Nothing Diaz does is a shocker anymore. If it's not pot or a press conference, it's something else. It's always something, and Dana knows that. Long before he brought Diaz back into the UFC, where he fought several years ago, White was asked about the then-Strikeforce welterweight champion. "The problem with Nick Diaz is, Nick won't play the game," said Dana.
Diaz is a rebel. Always has been. Always will be. He might reassure you that he'll play the game, but as the game unfolds you eventually recognize that Diaz will play it only by his own rules. And his rules are that there are no rules.
So is it game over for Diaz? He said immediately after the Condit fight that he's quitting, but that was an announcement fueled by adrenaline and disappointment. Diaz is a fighter, and he has a lot of fight left in him. We aren't going to see any of it for a while, as he sits out whatever exile the NSAC dishes out to him. And maybe Dana White will say enough is enough. But the UFC poobah knows that if he kicks Diaz to the curb, there'll be an outcry from fans who love the guy and even from some who do not love him but nonetheless love to watch him fight.
Diaz is a wonderful fighter to watch, but he's more than that: Even with a dour, shadows-seeking personality, he is capable of playing both hero and antihero. And all he has to do is act naturally. The UFC recognizes that attractions like that are uncommon. They don't grow like weeds.