September 09, 2011

When the news unfolded right in front of me, as I watched a UFC news conference streaming live online Wednesday afternoon, that for the second straight day Nick Diaz had failed to show up for a promotional appearance and now was been unceremoniously removed from next month's welterweight title bout against Georges St-Pierre, my first instinct was to not follow my first instinct.

You know me. I make fun of everything, turning the dead-serious world of mixed martial arts into my own quirky forum for quips, wisecracks and snide comments. I immediately recalled the "Don't be scared, homie" remark that Diaz infamously had thrown out at KJ Noons a few years ago while angling for a rematch, and I instantly concocted a dozen ways to twist it around into a joke in which Nick is the punch line.

But gnawing at me was the thought that maybe the Diaz fiasco is no laughing matter. Maybe the guy has deeply rooted inner problems that he uses his outer petulant punk to mask.

Before I could devote too much thought or concern to that, though, Dana White made an announcement Thursday evening that nudged the UFC 137 situation toward perplexing and perturbing. With Carlos Condit, who was scheduled to fight B.J. Penn on the same Oct. 29 card as St-Pierre vs. Diaz, having been moved into the title bout against GSP, B.J. was in need of an opponent. Until the UFC president took to his Twitter feed with this: "This is crazy but here we go again! You wanted it so you got it. Penn vs Diaz Oct 27th in Vegas." Dana was two days off with the date, and really, the whole thing feels "off."

Diaz in the co-main event? The guy who had just thumbed his nose at the UFC's marketing plans and then was characterized by White as everything from irresponsible to insane? Asked about Diaz's UFC future at Wednesday's press conference, this is what Dana had to say: "I would have to assume that, yes, we're probably going to let him go, but we'll see what happens." Well, something sure happened. But why?

Why would White book a co-main event that's a dead-end fight? There's certainly no groundswell for a St-Pierre-Penn III, with GSP having taken both meetings and B.J. having won just once in his last four bouts. OK, I suppose Penn-Condit could have appeal if Carlos wins the belt and B.J. impresses next month. But what's in this Penn fight for Diaz, other than some greenbacks (no doubt quite a lot fewer of them than he would have pocketed for the GSP fight) and some glory (as if he cares)? The UFC surely wouldn't ever again put Nick in a title bout, let alone any main event, right? Dana said it himself on Wednesday: "Nick Diaz obviously can't handle the pressure of a main event."

And therein lies the concern that was raised, for me, as details of Diaz's no-shows were revealed during the press conference. The whole promotional event was bizarre, but especially so when White interrupted the assembled reporters' questioning to take a phone call at the podium. The call was from Cesar Gracie, Diaz's longtime trainer and manager, whom White reported was apologizing for his fighter's no-shows, backing the UFC's decision to change main events and revealing that he'd tried to get Diaz to the airport himself for a flight to Vegas for the promotional appearance but Nick had snuck out his back door and gone into hiding. Not simply from the UFC but from his trainer and teammates as well.

Really, Cesar? That's troublesome. It's one thing for Diaz to give the finger to Dana -- I'm sure he's not the only fighter to have felt that urge -- but it's a whole other matter to disrespect the man who's mentored you since you were a teen. The image portrayed by the Gracie fighters -- Nick and his brother Nate, Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez most notably -- has always been that Bay Area team is a family, an unbreakable brotherhood, the "us" in a perpetual scenario of us vs. them. What Diaz did this week is simply not the way to treat family. Unless you've got something serious plaguing you.

Beside White at the dais Wednesday was St-Pierre, looking a bit out of sorts as he sat to one side of the podium, an empty chair on the other side. Asked what he thought of the messy situation, the champion searched for some words before saying he had been concerned the day before when Diaz failed to show for a news conference in Toronto. Did something happen to Nick? Was there a death in the family? GSP was laying out his thought process, trying to fathom what horrific life event might prompt Diaz to blow off his responsibilities in the promotional lead-up to what would be the biggest fight of his life. Finally, St-Pierre simply said, "It's insane."

Not five minutes had passed before White, in the midst of his own impromptu deconstruction of Diaz's two days' worth of irresponsibility, proclaimed, "It's absolutely insane."

Yet when a reporter sought to probe that avenue by asking whether the UFC looks into the mental state of its fighters, Dana laughed off the question, saying his fight company has a lot of employees with a lot of different mindsets, just as is the case in every other profession. "You could be psycho," he told the reporter, "for all I know."

Next it was GSP being put in the unfair position of being asked to look into Diaz's head and speculate on what might have happened. "I don't know," St-Pierre said with a sheepish half-grin. "Maybe he was taken away by aliens."

Psychology clearly was not a subject to be taken seriously on this strange, stressful day.

No airy-fairy psychobabble for Dana, who likes to keep it real. When pressed again for his feelings about Diaz's mental state, White looked out at the assembled media and said, "I want you guys to tell me when Nick hasn't been bizarre. This isn't out of left field. Who in this room is really shocked and horrified that this is happening right now?" He paused to look around. "Nobody. That's what I thought."

But if White wasn't surprised by Diaz' irresponsibility, why was he taking such extreme action in response to it? Instead of yanking Nick from a fight a lot of fans want to see, couldn't Dana simply ask his marketing people to build up this bout as Good Guy vs. Bad Guy? They wouldn't have to do any building at all to portray Diaz as a punk who doesn't have time for any of this pre-fight nonsense, who just comes to fight. And when he does show up, watch out. Couldn't the UFC sell the fight that way?

Well, Dana and Co. probably could -- they could sell "The Iceman" to Eskimos -- but there was no way they were going to. Imagine the headaches that would create for the next time they booked a main event. No fighter this side of stand-up comic Chael Sonnen enjoys doing press. Here's what GSP, looking like the consummate professional as he sat there in a dark suit fielding question after question from reporters for the second straight day, had to say: "I don't like doing this. I would rather stay home and train for my fight. It's not just that I don't like it, I despise doing this -- the face-to-face staredown and stuff, and click click, they take the picture. And I have to do it every time because it's part of the promotion."

It's what Dana White likes to call "playing the game." And Diaz promised that he'd do it this time, White said, "but he lied to my face."

I think that personal disrespect, more than the actual no-shows, is what got Diaz bounced from the title shot. Fighters have done irresponsible things before -- remember Brock Lesnar giving the finger to fans and mocking UFC sponsor Bud Light at UFC 100? -- and have even run afoul of more serious authorities than Zuffa -- Sonnen's a felon, remember? -- but no one has given Dana the shaft and gotten away with it. Early in Wednesday's news conference, White was asked what led him to take the drastic step of replacing Diaz, and he explained that he'd rather change plans now instead of risking that Nick would not show up on fight night. That doesn't sound like plausible reasoning to me. Nick always has been difficult to rope into fight promo, but he's never failed to show up for a fight.

The real reason White did what he did came to light a good 33 minutes into the press conference, when he was asked the same question -- why? -- for 10,000th time during the session. And finally, Dana said what he should have said right from the start: "This kid doesn't deserve this opportunity."

But he deserves a co-main event bout against B.J. Penn? The UFC is trusting Nick Diaz to show up for that one? On Thursday evening White reported, also via Twitter, that he had had an hour-long phone conversation with Diaz, which presumably persuaded the UFC president to give Nick another shot. But hasn't Dana been down that road before, trusting that Diaz's words will translate into responsible actions?

It may well be that Nick Diaz isn't so much a liar but a person incapable of controlling inner demons that dictate the course he takes. Being a no-show at press conferences is the least of it. He incites heated confrontations with fighters -- Josh Koscheck in a locker room, Joe Riggs in a hospital, KJ Noons and "Mayhem" Miller in a cage after someone else's fights. He flaunts his marijuana use, then has a huge win nullified by a failed drug test. He's a rebel. Or is he? Once the cage door closes for one of his fights, Diaz is perfectly capable of following the rules. He'll taunt an opponent, but I've never seen him grab the cage, kick a downed opponent or commit any sort of foul. He's the kind of guy you'd expect to be constantly having points deducted. But no, I've never once seen it happen.

So who's the real Nick Diaz?

I don't mean to relieve Diaz of responsibility, but Cesar Gracie may have given us a glimpse inside Nick when, in an interview with Wednesday, he said there's "some kind of social anxiety happening here" with his fighter. Problem is, Diaz doesn't seem like the type to seek help. He'd rather just distort the situation in an attempt to make himself the victim. When he came out of hiding on Wednesday evening, it was in a YouTube video titled: "Looks like someone don't want me to win!" In a rambling monologue of a little over two minutes, filmed maddeningly while he was driving (and swearing at drivers who wouldn't allow him to cut into line on a highway ramp), Diaz was full of excuses and bravado, offering an insincere apology for skipping "the beauty pageant" and trying to twist the fiasco around on GSP, suggesting the champ is happy to not have to face him.

It's an infuriating video, on face value. But when you consider that the young man talking to the camera might be deeply troubled, you step back a little rather than pile on. At least I do.

And it appears that Dana White and the UFC are stepping back, too. Rather than cutting Nick Diaz loose, they're putting him in with B.J. Penn, the kind of fighter who'll not shy away from engaging in a fight that'll show off both man's skill, from standing and striking to grappling for a submission. Even after having described it as a dead-end bout, I won't deny that I'm intrigued by the matchup -- more so than I was by GSP vs. Diaz, which I believed the champ would have won without a lot of trouble, and more than I am by GSP vs. Condit. The uber-professional St-Pierre, keeping the promotional fires burning, said Wednesday that he considers Condit "a way more dangerous opponent," and that might be true, since Carlos hits harder. But St-Pierre always seems to be in control.

The same cannot be said for Nick Diaz. Which is why I wonder if what the guy truly needs, more than a new opponent and a new payday, is some help.

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