February 17, 2012

The biggest story in sports these days is the new Knick. In the world of mixed martial arts, the hot topic is the same old Nick.

Nick Diaz is no Jeremy Lin, either as an instant sports superstar or as an Ivy Leaguer, but among MMA fans he's become a lightning rod for passionate debate mixed with incredulity. There was a time when the brooding welterweight was viewed by a lot of people in the sport as merely a hotheaded head case with skills impossible to assess with him competing in the B-league Strikeforce. But now that he's jumped into the deep water of the UFC and has swam like the triathlete he is, all while being true to himself, Diaz has become as much hero as antihero.

So as his interim title bout with Carlos Condit two weeks ago was unfolding, disjointed by one fighter fighting one fight and the other fighting a wholly different one, it was clear that we were witnessing an event that would challenge our various tangled notions of what it means to fight. And when the judges' scorecards were read and Diaz, the unrelenting aggressor for five rounds, did not have his hand raised, you just knew fans were going to have their say. And yes, the e-mails started pouring in, some in fervent support of Diaz, some keenly behind Condit, no one sitting on the fence.

Condit was characterized as either (a) a smart, sting-and-don't-get-stung strategist or (b) "The Natural Born Killjoy" for running away for 25 minutes and depriving fans of the fight they'd come to see. Diaz was either (a) the hungry predator stalking his fitful prey or (b) a stiff one-direction fighter unprepared, incapable or unwilling to adjust a game plan gone awry. Who were these guys, really? According to readers who took the time to write, they were all of the above.

The correspondence was still pouring in from all angles a few days later when the Nevada State Athletic Commission revealed that Diaz had tested positive for marijuana following the fight and faced a hearing that might yield a fine and suspension. That scuttled a rematch with Condit that squeaky-wheel fans had lobbied for online and the UFC was in the process of putting together. More food for discussion.

So let's go right to the letters, starting with the SI.com readership's singular agreement on how the fight was scored -- or not:

This isn't amateur boxing. Condit may have hit Diaz more, if you count the meaningless leg kicks, but Diaz did much more damage. To give Condit points for throwing repeated leg kicks, which had no apparent effect on Diaz, makes me angry and incredulous.--Luke, St. Paul, Minn.

I try to explain to all of these fans who are complaining: Go to an MMA gym and go through a day of getting punched in the face and kicked in the legs. For me, getting punched in the face hurts less. But if you could avoid both, wouldn't you? OK, now you understand the "get in and get out" game plan Condit utilized.--Ashy, Whippany, N.J.

Condit won only in the number of strikes landed, and that's just one quarter of the scoring criteria. Diaz dominated in aggression and octagon control, which are half of the scoring criteria. The math is not hard.--Brandon, Sacramento, Calif.

Condit stuck to his game plan and won that fight with technically superior striking. But since it wasn't a flashy knockout or submission, some are complaining because they weren't entertained. If the people who run the UFC fall into the delusional idea that they have to entertain the masses, they're going to fail.--Brian, Marysville, Calif.

The way Condit fought was what destroyed boxing as a legitimate combat sport. It's not a chess game, it's a fight.--Donald, Vistaq, Calif.

I watched the fight and thought to myself, "Brains are winning over brawn." If the fight had been fought on Diaz's terms, he would have won, no doubt. But Condit used both strategy and speed to win. No one ran away. Just look at Diaz's bruised face at the end of the fight.--Tony, Perth, Australia

If Diaz didn't stalk Condit, would there even have been a fight? Or would it have been a staring contest? I will only pay for fights that guys try to finish, not ones where they're trying to score points. For this reason, I won't pay to watch Georges St-Pierre, either.--Paul, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Aren't fighters supposed to avoid getting hit? I suppose the Diaz camp would have preferred that Condit had just stood there and acted as a human heavy bag.--Aaron, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Is the UFC trying to turn the sport we love for its toughness, action and aggressiveness into a run-and-pitter-patter-for-points league rather than a fight league? Is there any hope that, in championship bouts at least, the fighters keep going until one quits or is knocked out? These judges are killing the credibility of this sport.--Darrell, Cumming, Ga.

These people who are whining do not appreciate the finer aspects of the sport. If they want slugfests, they should go watch Kimbo Slice fighting in his backyard on YouTube. I am not much of a connoisseur of fine food, and I do not walk into a French restaurant and start screaming, "This food is crap. Where are my burger and fries?"--Ian, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

OK, I'm detecting a theme here, sung in 10-part disharmony. Count me as part of the chorus lauding Condit for his Bobby Fischer gambits rather than ridiculing him as the second coming of Usain Bolt. But I understand why a paying customer might prefer Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Other thoughts:

Luke: I think you should go to a gym with Ashy and allow him to kick you in the legs repeatedly. And if you walk away thinking that form of attack is meaningless -- or if you're able to walk away at all -- come find me and we'll reassess fight scoring.

Brandon: Valid point, although I think you must factor in effective aggression, not just aggression. Considering that Diaz never really cornered Condit and landed no telling blows, was his aggression effective enough?

Brian: Like it or not, the UFC is in the business of creating excitement. And I think we're way beyond the point of questioning whether the MMA behemoth is going to succeed or fail.

Donald, Tony, Paul and Aaron: You fellows are hitting on the existential questions of what it means to win a fight. Although I must add this for Paul: If your philosophy precludes you from watching GSP fight, you need a new philosophy.

Darrell: You're yearning for the early daze of the UFC, and that Tank has left the base, never to return. We're stuck with having cageside observers determining a winner in fights not decided by 25 minutes of "toughness, action and aggressiveness." And that's OK. Just like 350-pound man mountains have to be OK with scrawny 175-pounders sometimes deciding their football games with field goals.

Ian: Have it your way, si vous plait.

Now a few words about the strategies of the fighters and their trainers -- Greg Jackson in Condit's corner, Cesar Gracie in Diaz's -- and the adjustments made ... or not made:

The backlash against Condit and Jackson is, in large part, due to the hard sell put on by their camp about their intent for the fight. Repeatedly, Jackson and Co. talked about their intent to finish Diaz, indicating that their stick-and-move strategy would have finished anyone other than Diaz. This is positively ridiculous. Condit beat Dan Hardy by being the aggressor. The stick-and-move game plan was a strategy to score points. That's fine, but you can't claim one thing and do another. To do so is to insult MMA fans.--Eric, Washington, D.C.

If Diaz had been able to change his strategy instead of being his normal stubborn self, he would have won this fight easily. All he had to do, as he finally showed in Round 5, was commit to getting a takedown and beating Condit on the ground, where he is far superior. But Diaz never seems to do what he does best; he has to try to prove he can do whatever he wants. That works against Stirkeforce-level talent, but not against the top UFC guys.--Mike, Vancouver, British Columbia

Here's what Cesar Gracie should have been telling Diaz in his corner: Condit is springing to your power hand when he feels the cage at his back. Be ready, and when he moves right, unleash a power left.--Joe, Mission Viejo, Calif.

Diaz should have realized that plodding forward like Frankenstein's monster wasn't going to be a successful strategy, and figured out another way to win.--Chad, Virginia

Diaz said in his postfight interview that if he had thought he was down on points in the fifth round, he would have abandoned position and more vigorously pursued the arm lock he nearly had secured. However, feeling sure that he was up on points, he rode out the round in dominant position. I see no logical reason why scores aren't tallied between rounds, so fighters know where they stand. If Diaz knew he was down, 2-0, after the first two rounds, he might have changed his strategy.--Allan, Tampa, Fla.

Greg Jackson's fighters have been involved in seemingly every boring, letdown fight I can recall. So if you're a fighter, do you choose him as a trainer, knowing his record of getting W's? Or do you stay away, because his teaching style is scoffed at?--Al, Wayne, N.J.

Eric: I disagree. Condit did utilize leg kicks to slow Diaz and front kicks to maintain distance, but he also went to the head with kicks, elbows and punches -- both straight and spinning. Those are the kinds of strikes you throw when you're trying to finish an opponent, not simply outpoint him.

Mike, Joe and Chad: I'm with you. Nick is far from a one-trick pony, but for much of the fight he looked like one. And Gracie should have helped him draw on his versatile skill set to counteract what Condit was doing.

Allan: You occasionally see a boxing match scored the way you suggest, and while it does give the fighters and their corners a clear picture of where they stand, it also drains some of the drama. And, really, the mysteriousness of scoring can keep fighters from playing it safe. If, for example, Condit knew he had the fight won on the scorecards going into the fifth round, would he have engaged at all with Diaz? And if he didn't, we would have been deprived of the scrambling finish.

Al: I don't think too many people who are serious about MMA scoff at Jackson. He is a brilliant trainer. Just listen to him talking to his fighter between rounds of a bout: He's a calming influence, not overwhelming the guy with complex instructions, yet pinpointing a manageable goal for the next five minutes. And his guys win more often than not, many at the sport's highest level. If I were a fighter, I'd want Jackson in my corner. (Although it probably wouldn't help someone with my utter lack of combat skills.)

OK, moving on ...

I'm not sure what's dumber: Nick for smoking pot before a fight knowing he'd be tested, or the rules making this illegal. Unless bloodshot eyes and the munchies somehow increase a fighter's prowess, I agree with you: This can't be considered cheating.--Dan, Roseville, Minn.

Your point about Diaz not cheating anyone but himself is bunk. Marijuana is an illegal substance and also a clinically proven pain reliever, which is why it is used medicinally. So, yes, he's a cheater. If he wasn't numb the whole fight, it could have gone a different way.--Dom, Seneca Falls, N.Y.

I take offense when you accuse of Nick Diaz of cheating himself. Nick has medical issues, and his choice to use a legally prescribed medication should be respected by everyone, including the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Marijuana is not HGH or a steroid, and Nick doesn't abuse it or use it as a recreational drug. Have you sat in the same room with him and heard him state otherwise?--Peter, San Diego, Calif.

Plain and simple, 30 days off THC is way too hard when you're a cannabis person. So if Diaz didn't smoke a joint the day of the fight, he is clean in my eyes.--Raymond, Oakland, Calif.

Sad to see Nick throwing it all away for a few puffs. Funny how a guy could have an opportunity to better himself and provide a good living for his family and the children he might have down the road, but chooses to live on the edge. These situations never end well.--Al, York, Pa.

Dan: I do think marijuana brings more to the table than Visine and Doritos (see my comments to Dom right below), but I'm with you on your larger points. Whether pot should be in an athlete's drug screening is debatable, but the fact is that right now it is. So Nick should have taken precaution.

Dom: Pain relief is not the only quality that marijuana might bring to a fighter. It's also a been shown to be a calming substance. But I believe those effects are short-lived, so unless Diaz was under the influence on fight night, he wasn't numb to Condit's strikes.

Peter: No, I've never been in a room with Nick and his stash, so maybe I have no right to jump to conclusions about whether he's a recreational user. But c'mon, man.

Raymond: The only eyes of judgment that matter to Diaz are the Nevada commissioners', which we must assume are not bloodshot. Being not high and being clean are two different things.

Al: I hate to end on your ominous note. But it does seem that Diaz is perpetually one misstep from falling off a cliff -- whether it's by skipping promotional obligations and being bounced from a title bout, or being on the verge of getting a rematch with Condit but getting popped for pot. However, the guy always survives, just like in his fights. He talks about quitting. He might now face a suspension. But I have little doubt that we'll be seeing much more of him. And I'll be receiving many more impassioned missives about Nick Diaz from readers.

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