September 14, 2011

Coming this fall to a mind-numbing TV near you: Real Homies of the 209.

Isn't that the logical next step for Nick Diaz? We've already seen so much melodrama starring the fighter who flaunts his Northern California area code like it's a code of honor. He blows a lot of smoke about how he's rebellious enough to openly toke his weed and savvy enough to get away with it, then dopily fails a drug test to nullify one of his biggest career victories. He picks fights in the cage on at least two occasions when he's not even on the evening's card of bouts. And just last week, after being scheduled for a long-awaited shot at the UFC welterweight championship, he rises to the occasion by skipping two promotional press conferences, lying to company president Dana White, disappearing and hiding from his trainer/manager/mentor as well as his brotherhood of teammates, then maddeningly taking to YouTube to explain himself in a rambling, self-shot (while driving!) video that's just coherent enough for viewers to detect the delusional smugness.

The guy clearly needs help. So a reality television series would seem to be a no-brainer (in more ways than one) for some circling shark of a network. Maybe Fox can add it into its UFC deal in time for the fall ratings sweeps.

That's what we do in this cold-hearted feeding frenzy of a media culture we live in, isn't it? Reality TV, once merely the foolish forum for insufferable wannabes seeking their 15 minutes, has become the wretched repository for celebrities with issues -- issues that are personal but in no way private. From Britney Spears to Anna Nicole Smith to Charlie Sheen, we can't take our eyes off a train wreck. Even one -- especially one -- that explodes off of the sports pages. Dennis Rodman. Mike Tyson. Ron Artest. Tonya Harding.

And Nick Diaz?

Let's just shove the belligerent man-child out onto the brightly lit, lonesome stage and make him dance for us. That's what the people filling the seats want to see, right?

Not necessarily. After my story about the Diaz melodrama was published on last week, I was flooded with e-mails. That did not surprise me, since I suspected that my stance -- that Nick was not one to be vilified or ridiculed or even admired, but one to be concerned for -- would be greeted by a chorus of derision. After all, here in America we don't have time for psychobabble bullcrap. We prefer to eat our wounded, right?

Well, that pile of e-mails in my inbox had a different flavor from what I expected. Almost without exception, the MMA fans who contacted me put Diaz the human ahead of Diaz the fighter, expressing unease regarding the person behind the screw-you irresponsibility, behind the what're-you-going-to-do-about-it bravado.

Among those I heard from was a friend of a friend of the fighter, who wrote, "You nailed it in your analysis of Nick." I wrote back and engaged the guy in further discussion, promising to keep his name out of my story so he wouldn't be fracturing any friendships while helping me flesh out a deeper look inside Diaz. Thankfully, this fellow on the periphery of the fighter's inner circle agreed to do so, telling me, "He suffered a lot of trauma as a young man, dropped out in ninth grade, hates the prying of cameras and questions, and has very few social skills outside of fight discussions. Problem is, he is stuck with no other legitimate way to provide for himself except through combat sports. So he's mad at the crowd for 'just wanting to see me bleed,' mad at the system [the UFC, in this case] for forcing him into so many uncomfortable situations, and also mad at himself because he knows he's basically trapped due to his own lack of other skills."

As for my speculation in last week's story that Diaz doesn't seem to be the type to seek out therapy or other professional help, the friend of a friend agreed wholeheartedly that that's the case, "due to the stigma, mostly the one in his own mind." Even though he's not personally close to Nick, said my source, "I worry about him as a person. He's apparently a great friend and loyal like a hound dog. He just needs to come to grips with his demons and let them rest in peace before he does."

Among my other e-mails about Nick, there was only one that I'd characterize as derisive. "Diaz's problem is not one of 'social anxiety,' " wrote a person who signed his missive "Da Hooded Rat." "He simply does these things because he's like a spoiled child, desperate for attention." The e-mailer went on to say the UFC should "wash their hands clean of him entirely before he gets into trouble that's far worse." But then, after saying he'll be rooting for Nick to be "humbled" by B.J. Penn next month, Mr. Rat concluded with this: "Maybe then he can seek help in the hospital." So even the lone hater I heard from had some compassion for Diaz.

Here's what other e-mailers had to say ...

Regarding your article: Bravo! I really do think you could not be more right about the underlying message here: that Nick needs professional help.--Mike, Chino Hills, Calif.

Really great and insightful article about Nick Diaz. I felt exactly the same when I heard the news, and it is nice for a good MMA writer to be able to articulate it.--Matthew, Dallas

Wonderful article, beautifully written. Thanks for posting. I hope Diaz isn't the car wreck we can't not look at.--Philip, Los Angeles

10-to-1 he has a behavioral condition called counter-dependency, caused by abuse from childhood. Tough exterior but extremely insecure and needy on the inside. It's probably why he smokes pot and sabotages his opportunities. He's got a phobia of commitment. He can't help himself, and his condition triggers back to childhood automatically. I have the same thing.--Brian, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

The UFC can give a rat's ass what Diaz's mental state is, as long as he shows up and fights. The UFC got the publicity it wanted. Diaz is obviously struggling with the world around him and really only feels comfortable in the ring. There the rules are clear. In social interaction, things are not so clear. He doesn't recognize the social cues, thus feels like an outsider or a cornered animal willing to vent on anyone who gets too close. Glad there is at lease one writer who sees things for what they are. Keep caring, Jeff. Fighters like Nick Diaz need your voice.--Gary, San Francisco

There's nothing for me to say here except: Hooray for human civilization!

Actually, I will toss in one other comment: I don't think the UFC is as callous as e-mailer Gary suggests. Dana White & Co. keep their eye on the bottom line, to be sure, but the long building process that has brought mixed martial arts to the threshold the sports mainstream also has been a labor of love for those guys. And while there always will be fighters disgruntled by the cards they're dealt, the people who run the world's biggest fight promotion do seem to care about the human beings inside the fighter armor. Diaz, for example, could have been tossed onto the scrap heap, but instead he was rebooked into a co-main event. Yes, his continued employment will be a money maker for the UFC, but I do believe there's some degree of human compassion involved. Maybe that's just the way I choose to view things.

Speaking of my perspective on matters of the cage, the monthly fighter rankings also drew some charged-up responses, as they always do:

Why do you put fighters who are not champions in front of fighters who are? For example, Jon Fitch before Nick Diaz. Diaz is a champ, and Fitch hasn't touched gold. Just saying.--Alex, Anaheim, Calif.

Your light heavyweight rankings are in need of a serious adjustment. Dan Henderson beat an old Fedor Emelianenko, and he does not deserve consideration over Shogun Rua or Lyoto Machida.--Nick, Austin, Texas

I don't think you were wrong in thinking Jim Miller was a top-three lightweight. But the new blood from the WEC makes Miller more like Top 6 or 7. With guys like Ben Henderson, Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone coming in, it changes the whole division. I'd really like to see Cerrone vs. Clay Guida. That's a fight that would bring some excitement.--Herb, Sunapee, N.H.

Go with your first instinct on Jim Miller. He is a top talent. Ben Henderson, on the other hand, is the kind of guy who is going to destroy MMA -- namely, a great athlete who uses his superior physical skills to wear down opponents and either get a decision or a guillotine. He is an example of the de-evolution of the sport and makes for incredibly boring fights. But Miller truly practices mixed martial arts and is a pleasure to watch. I would be willing to bet that Miller wins a rematch.--John, Jacksonville, Fla.

Alex: I stack up fighters based on who I think would win a fight, not on who has something shiny around his waist. I think the beltless Fitch would beat Diaz -- even with his pants falling down.

Nick: See above. I believe Dan would beat either Mauricio or Lyoto or any other Brazilian not named Anderson. One man's opinion.

Herb: Yes, I'm still bullish on Miller. And yes, I'd love to see Cerrone vs. Guida if Clay has any energy left after fighting Ben Henderson.

John: I could see Miller winning a rematch -- I do still believe in his skills -- but I'm not with you on Ben being regressive or boring. Boring? Are we talking about the same Ben Henderson?

I have a feeling "Rampage" Jackson is going to beat Jon Jones. A typical MMA fan would call me nuts, but hear me out. Who has "Bones" beaten? Every one of his opponents hasn't been nearly a top competitor. Matt Hamill hasn't looked good since his fight with Mark Munoz. Ryan Bader got exposed by Tito Ortiz. Even "Shogun" Rua is hit or miss and had just come off knee surgery. We will see what happens when Jones actually faces top competition.--Brandin, Fort Wayne, Ind.

You can play that resume deconstruction game with any fighter, Brandin, and convince yourself that every UFC champion from Dominick Cruz to Cain Velasquez is beatable. And the truth is, they all are beatable, Jon Jones included. I just don't see "Rampage" being the man to get the job done. Maybe the old Pride version of Jackson could have, but the current one-foot-in-Hollywood model is slower and not aggressive enough. He still talks a good game, though.

Watching UFC 134, I was amazed at how many Brazilian fighters won. Did the UFC set them up with inferior matchups for the Rio event?--Harry, Central Point, Ore.

The UFC is not the WWE, Harry, scripting a crowd-pleasing story line. However, for the fight promotion's first visit to Brazil in over a decade, let's just say the matchmaking put nearly a dozen Brazilians in winnable bouts that they nonetheless had to go out and win. Just ask Luiz Cane about that last part.

OK, let me close with a few choice words from a reader from Dallas named Dave, who did something I hate seeing: He took my own words -- the ones I used to close my story about last Saturday's Strikeforce event -- and turned them around on me.

After an evening of stirring bouts, including the two semifinals in the admittedly watered-down Heavyweight Grand Prix, I wrote: "Fedor? Werdum? Overeem? Who misses them?"

And my astute reader, taking note of Showtime's occasional shots of the Cincinnati crowd, e-mailed me with an answer to what I thought was a rhetorical question: "Apparently the fans, since that place was not even half full."

Touché, Dave.

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