It's a fight. That's what sets apart mixed martial arts (and, in a limited way, boxing) from all other athletic competition. Even as the sport has evolved beyond its narrow beginnings, when caged brawlers brawled and decorated martial artists vied to prove the worth of their particular discipline against all others, the essence has remained the same. A fight is a fight.
And before a fight gets physical, we tend to have words. That's how it was when we were in school, when something whispered in a morning class might simmer all day until two kids were tussling behind the town library, encircled by a cheering crowd of classmates. That's how it is today even at the highest echelon of MMA, where elite fighters use more than their fistic and grappling skills to push their careers forward. Words matter.
Sixteen months ago, Nick Diaz picked a fight with Georges St-Pierre not by sticking a bony finger in the chest of the UFC welterweight champion but by using his sharp tongue. "Where you at, Georges?" Diaz yelled as his hand was being raised following a beatdown of B.J. Penn at UFC 137. "Where you at, mother--?"
Georges was right at cageside. He'd actually been scheduled to be inside the octagon that night, taking on Diaz, but the fight never got off the ground because Nick had neglected to use his words. That is, he hadn't shown up for a couple of promotional press conferences and had been yanked from the title fight. It didn't matter in the end, though, as GSP was injured in training and had to pull out of his replacement bout. So Diaz was thrust back under the main event spotlight. With a theory he wished to share. "I don't think Georges is hurt," he yelled during his interview in the cage. "I think he's scared."
With that, the impassive facial expression that GSP had been wearing -- a look not unfamiliar to MMA fans who've followed the career of the even-keeled Canadian -- turned to one of embarrassment. As the Las Vegas crowd roared, the champ looked like he wanted to crawl under a rock. We later would find out that what he really wanted to do with that rock was throw it at Diaz. St-Pierre so badly wanted to get back at Nick -- and still does -- that he's spent the last several months trying to convince us that despite Johny Hendricks having knocked out two of his last three opponents in under a minute, he's not the most deserving challenger for the belt. The title bout that has to happen, St-Pierre has insisted, is between him and a man who lost his most recent fight, then sat out a year-long suspension for a failed drug test. That would be Nick Diaz. GSP needs that fight. In a remarkably un-GSP-like way, he's desperate for that fight.
We got a dose of the champion's uncharacteristic enmity on Thursday afternoon during a conference call with the media to hype the long-awaited showdown, which takes place a week from Saturday at UFC 158 in Montreal. The call got off to a headshakingly unsurprising start, with Dana White noting that St-Pierre and other UFC 158 fighters were on the call but "I don't think there's any shocker: We're looking for Nick Diaz. We can't find him." Before the UFC poobah could finish his thought, however, he was interrupted by a quiet "Hello?" Then an expletive. Diaz was with us.
Was he ever. Within minutes, Diaz was launching into one of his meandering tirades about his miserable lot in life -- about how other fighters "get red carpet events, awards and magazines" while he's denied "the credit I deserve." Same old, same old from Nick, right? Except there was a difference this time: His opponent was not content to just sit back and allow the often incomprehensible Diaz to spout off. When Nick suggested that the champion is pampered, St-Pierre had heard enough and jumped in.
St-Pierre: "Let me tell you something, you uneducated fool. Listen to me."
Diaz: "Uneducated? Right, OK. I do a great job explaining and making things real for what they are, mother--. I'm not stupid. I can tell what's what."
St-Pierre: "Yeah, you look pretty smart right now."
The fight was on. Over the next several minutes, there would be no questions from the media,
You could almost picture the UFC bean counters sitting back, resting their feet on their desks and listening, with grins widening on their faces as each verbal grenade was tossed. Never mind that Georges St-Pierre is riding a run of eight straight title defenses, hasn't lost a fight in six years, and has barely lost a round in that time while landing more takedowns and significant strikes than anyone else in UFC history. Never mind that Nick Diaz retired the Strikeforce welterweight belt and, before the loss to Condit, had an 11-fight winning streak, with finishes in all but two of those victories on the strength of his jiu-jitsu black belt and high-volume striking. What will sell this title bout, more than any of that prowess, is the white-hatted belt holder and his antihero challenger sparring. With words. Charged-up, angry, in-your-face fighting words.
GSP surely will compose himself between now and fight night. And when the introductions of Bruce Buffer are echoing in the rafters of the Bell Centre and the referee implores the fighters to fight, St-Pierre no doubt will depart his corner with a Greg Jackson strategy firmly entrenched in his mind. He might stick to that plan from start to finish and, as he has proven himself capable of doing again and again, seize control of the fight and score another dominant decision. But maybe this time the usual robotic rule won't be satisfying enough for Georges.
We've seen -- or at least heard -- another side of St-Pierre now. After listening to him lash out at Diaz on Thursday afternoon, we have reason to believe that the champ will perhaps approach the fight the way he said he would after being targeted by that Diaz tirade from the cage back in the fall of 2011. "Nick is the most disrespectful human being I've ever met," GSP told Dana White that night, as gleefully relayed by the UFC president at the post-fight press conference. "And I'm going to put the worst beating you've ever seen on him in the UFC."
Those are just words. But words like those and the ones we heard on Thursday are promises. Or at least they give us promise that during a mixed martial arts competition next weekend a fight might break out.