LAS VEGAS — This was peak Nate Diaz on Saturday, both inside and outside the Octagon. Inside of it, Diaz did what he’s done so often: He used his boxing, his incredible cardio, a massive will to win and outstanding Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to submit Tony Ferguson in the reconstituted main event of UFC 279 at T-Mobile Arena.
Diaz took plenty of punishment from Ferguson, who was faced with the unenviable task of fighting Diaz, a left-hander, after having trained his entire camp for Li Jingliang, a right-hander.
The changes were necessary because Khamzat Chimaev so badly missed weight Friday that even if the UFC wanted to try to keep the original main event together, it may not have been possible. UFC president Dana White said that with such a wide weight discrepancy, the Nevada Athletic Commission likely wouldn’t have let Diaz fight Chimaev. Diaz hit the mark at 171 pounds, but Chimaev came in at 178.5.
“Lame, scared, boring rookie,” Diaz said Saturday of Chimaev.
So after about four hours of meetings on Friday, the UFC shook up the card and Diaz faced Ferguson in the main and Chimaev met Kevin Holland in the co-main.
Chimaev took Holland down almost instantly, controlled him on the ground and submitted him with a D’Arce choke at 2:13 of the first. Notably, Holland didn’t land a single strike. Though Chimaev and Holland got into an altercation backstage at Thursday’s news conference, Chimaev offered an olive branch to him.
“He’s a good guy,” Chimaev said. “Maybe he can come train with me.”
But there was no such good will coming from Chimaev toward Diaz. Chimaev had been a -1200 favorite at BetMGM over Diaz, but Chimaev was only a -600 favorite against Holland.
“That guy, Kevin Holland, tough guy, stronger guy [and he is] better than Diaz,” Chimaev said. “If Diaz and Holland were fighting, Holland would kill him. I finished that guy [Holland] so easy, in the second minute. Diaz should thank God he didn’t fight me.”
There has never been anyone Diaz has ever been afraid to fight, one of the reasons for his popularity. He’s one of the few fighters who said he’d fight anyone anywhere at any time and means it.
He was always brash and defiant, but as he gained experience and wisdom, he began to understand how the system worked and how to manipulate it to his advantage. He got into two of the best-selling pay-per-view fights in UFC history by knowing when to call Conor McGregor out and having the fortitude to accept a fight on 10 days' notice.
He agreed to face Ferguson on Saturday on about 30 hours' notice because that’s about 29 hours and 55 minutes more than he really wants.
He took plenty of hard kicks from Ferguson, and had an ice pack on his leg at the post-fight news conference as proof. But when Ferguson shot on Diaz, the fight was quickly over.
“Anyone shoots on me, they get choked,” Diaz said as he puffed on a joint.
Ferguson was doing well before the takedown but Diaz had begun to take over with his boxing. His combinations were slowing Ferguson and began taking an obvious toll as the fight wore on. Ferguson opted to shoot to change things and it was the wrong move.
“I should have kept it standing,” Ferguson said. “I’m going to have to talk to my corner. Nothing bad, nobody’s going to get fired, but … ”
Diaz had no such complaints. He did what he wanted to do and won impressively. He said at the post-fight news conference he’d be back.
“I have no plans of not being back in the UFC,” he said, even though he also said the best thing about his fight is that his contract is over.
As he talked and joked, saying that a reporter who spent several days in camp “smoked so much weed” with him, it was clear this was a guy who’d finally made it.
He was answering a question when he was distracted by melting ice running down his leg. He yanked off his Travis Scott sneakers, which start at $500 and can be so expensive their cost would be equivalent to several months rent in Stockton, California, when he grew up.
He stuck the shoe on the dais in front of him. A few minutes earlier, he asked reporters as he arrived at the news conference if anyone had a beer he could drink. When he stuck the shoe on the table, he was asked if he’d do a shoey. UFC heavyweight Tai Tuivasa made that a thing, guzzling beer from a sneaker to celebrate a win. Diaz, though, wasn’t having it.
“That’s gross,” he said to laughs.
Perhaps his place will be taken by Chimaev in terms of star power. Chimaev is no doubt one of the greatest talents in the sport, and he did a serious heel turn this week. But Diaz did it across 15 years and multiple weight classes, always entertaining, always raising the stakes and always finding a way to build interest.
He’s going to start a promotional company, Real Fights Inc, because, he said, he’s always been a promoter.
And while that’s true, what he is at his essence is a fighter — one of the most real, honest and entertaining fighters who ever stepped into the Octagon.