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:
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
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,
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:
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 ...
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.