Posted 07/31/2014 by Mike Fagan in Untethered MMA

What UFC Fighters Can Learn From Nick Diaz’s Return

Nick Diaz returned to the UFC last week, signing a three-fight extension with the promotion. UFC President Dana White then tweeted that he had no update on matching up Diaz with Anderson Silva, though Diaz had said he would only return to the UFC for a big money fight and even the UFC would have a hard time giving Diaz a title shot considering his 0-2 record, his layoff, and crowded divisions at welterweight and middleweight (and I guess we should throw lightweight in there, too). Lo and behold, the UFC announced a few days later that Diaz and Silva would fight at UFC 183 in Las Vegas.

It’s a huge fight with Silva returning and Diaz returning and Super Bowl weekend, and it’s the rare non-title fight that can legitimately carry a pay-per-view in 2014 (or 2015, rather). But Diaz’s return speaks to two bigger concepts for UFC fighters.

1. Use leverage when you have it.

Typically, the only way to gain leverage against the UFC is to hold a title. Guys like Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture overtly used that leverage, holding out or flat out resigning/retiring from the UFC. There was that time in 2008 when Anderson Silva said he would retire “next year,” and we just went through the Jon Jones will-he-won’t-he stuff with Alexander Gustafsson.

Other fighters had it easier when Pride and Affliction and EliteXC and Strikeforce were throwing money around. Dan Henderson left the UFC (on a win) for Strikeforce and a six-figure contract. Andrei Arlovski made millions, plural, for two fights in Affliction. (His last reported UFC payout: $145,000.)

While those opportunities are few and far between these days, Gilbert Melendez used his free agency to sign a sweetheart deal with Bellator that the UFC wound up matching. His deal includes a guarantee that 75% of his fights will take place on pay-per-view, PPV points no matter his placement on a PPV, and a lower threshhold for those points to kick in. He also found himself coaching on the Ultimate Fighter opposite Anthony Pettis.

Diaz couldn’t leverage free agency, so he “retired” and sat home. During that time off, Georges St-Pierre nearly lost his welterweight titled and then “retired” himself; Anderson Silva lost two fights and snapped his shin in half; and Demetrious Johnson headlined a show that did 2004 pay-per-view numbers. Buy rates dropped; Diaz’s stock rose.

Sitting out was a risk for Diaz. Maybe St-Pierre beats Hendricks like he beats everyone else and maybe feels pressured into another fight. Maybe Silva’s leg stays intact and maybe he follows it with a soul-taking knee to the face. Maybe Ronda Rousey sells 750,000 PPV buys against nobodies instead of 350,000. Maybe the UFC helps cultivate Jon Jones into a bona fide sports star. Instead of a transition year, the UFC does big business, and Nick Diaz finds himself Jermaine Dye’d from the UFC.

But the risk paid off. Silva needed a comeback fight. Preferably, that comeback fight would come against someone with a name and someone who would play into Anderson’s hands. I thought that guy would be Michael Bisping. Instead, it’s Diaz, who gets the big fight and big payday he wanted all along.

2. Draw interest to yourself.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Nick Diaz doesn’t have a whole lot of high-profile wins. Sure, he knocked out Robbie Lawler and he upset Takanori Gomi and kickstarted B.J. Penn’s run to retirement. But Lawler was young (and, to be fair, so was Diaz), Gomi was “the Fatball Kid,” and Penn was a shell of himself fighting at a weight he had no business at anymore. And those are the best wins on Diaz’s ledger.

But Diaz, like Chael Sonnen, makes himself interesting. It may not be as cold and calculating as Sonnen, but it’s effective nonetheless. How else do you explain Diaz’s title shot against St-Pierre? How else do you explain this extension and bout agreement with Anderson Silva?

Diaz without the personality and the shitheading is just a better version of Matt Brown. And maybe a better version of Matt Brown winds up with a legitimate shot at the title, but he certainly doesn’t warrant the UFC knocking on his door sixteen months into a retirement with a contract to fight one of the biggest stars in the promotion’s history

We’re seeing this right now with Conor McGregor. McGregor’s talent likely would have carried him up the ranks in the UFC, but he’s accelerated his journey with his mouth. Should he beat Dustin Poirier at UFC 178, he’s likely a single fight away from a title shot. And, hell, the UFC may want to cash in on his momentum and fast-track him past a Frankie Edgar or a Ricardo Lamas.

Mike Fagan is a weekly contributor to MMA Owl. He also hosts Untethered MMA every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. Follow him on Twitter

Mike Fagan