Nathan Donald Diaz is proving as elusive as the fight we are hearing and want to believe he will be having this summer, with Conor McGregor or Khabib Nurmagomedov. Or better put, Diaz remains as invisible as he has been in a UFC Octagon for nigh on three years. Indeed, it was in Las Vegas on August 2016 amidst a sea of green and a wall of partisan noise that Diaz, then 30, lost to McGregor on a majority decision in that brilliant rematch at UFC 202 which became an instant classic. Surely the trilogy fight is just around the corner ?
But in a Hunter S Thomson-like whirlwind tour and chase around the early spring sun-dappled land of Northern California, I find myself driving from San Francisco to Stockton on the vague promise of an interview with said Diaz. He’s now a cult figure of course, his hip take on cannabinoids making him as totemic a figure as his stance on staying true to himself within the streetwise counter-culture mob in the USA. Little has changed. Apart from the fact that he had become, like his brother Nick, more elusive. Of all his fighting associates, including his brother, Nate has the major victory on the biggest stage. The victory over McGregor, and his participation in the second and the fourth biggest UFC pay-per-views of all time at 1.5 and 1.65 million.
As with anything involving the Diaz brothers, though, getting to them can be hit or miss. Unless they are turning up for a fight, of course. Nate’s elder brother Nick has been ‘retired’ over four years. But once here in the mix, I’m soon to be told he is back in training. Training for triathlons, or training for lifestyle, or training to fight, is not immediately clear.
At every turn in the narrative of this pursuit of an interview, Nate has always moved on, yet everyone left in his wake seems to be telling me that he really is in training for a fight, there is ‘something in the air’, and that he will be back. I speak with Gilbert Melendez, Jake Shields, Cesar Gracie – all the old Skrap Pack faces – AJ Agazarm, who is living and training with the Diaz brothers, Rudi Hernandez at the Nick Diaz Academy, and to a man, they believe Nate is on his way to returning. But you should ask him, they also say. Easier said than done.
In spite of texting each other on a Friday to meet at the Nick Diaz Academy in Pacific Avenue in north Stockton the next morning, Nate proves hard to pin down.
But as Fighters Only Magazine went to press, the signs were there from so many people around him that a storm is gathering. An itch in the ‘Skrap Pack’ that needs scratching. Forty-eight hours before I turn up at the Nick Diaz Academy, in an area that I am told is ‘middle- class Stockton’, there is a picture posted on social media of Nate, Gilbert and Jake, fresh after training at the academy. A day earlier, Shields, who is snowboarding in Lake Tahoe when he takes my call, confirms that Nick is “back training in Stockton”.
Having told Nate by text that I am on the way to the gym the next day, he responds by a simple ‘yeah come by, what time u comin thru’, and I pin a time. No answer comes back. It occurs to me that perhaps it is Nate’s way of knowing when you are coming, and avoiding you. Paranoia, perhaps, but I will say at this point that I have met Nate on numerous occasions and it has always been cordial. Sometimes an interview. Sometimes not. The last time I had seen Nate, in fact, was with Gil and Keri Melendez, his wife, and Jake, in an outdoors bar in Hawaii in December at a Bellator event. They were in great form.
But when I drive the 60 miles to get to the Nick Diaz Academy the next day, the gym is near to closing up, the Saturday morning children’s classes done. There is no Nate. I call and text him, but eventually the doors are locked by coach Rudi Hernandez, who tells me that Nate is in there, training, most days of the week. “You see these mats,” he says. “Forget about the money earned in fighting, these mats are what will make them rich forever. These mats are the future.”
Now deadlines are an annoying, yet inescapable part of the narrative of journalism. Like making weight for the fighter. Not getting to the face of the protagonist is less than perfect, but the fingerprints of Nate Diaz and his attention to training are here everywhere, at every call and turn. Waiting on Nate’s response, I spend the next few hours in the area, heading up a block to the ‘L’ Mall, where the Diaz brothers are clearly well-known and well-loved. Teenagers, parents even some senior citizens nod when the names are presented to them.
‘Mike’, serving at a known brand coffee shop, tells me they are regulars there, along with fighters AJ Agazarm and Kron Gracie, son of the legendary Rickson. Agazarm has just made his Bellator debut, Gracie just won in a high profile performance in the UFC against Alex Caceres. Both have been rolling regularly with Nate.
“The Diaz brothers are really popular and have really grown as counter-culture figures around here,” Mike tells me, “People love them. They come in here and they are always cool. Of course people want to see them back. Nate should be back. That would be awesome, man. But I’m not sure Nick will. But could you imagine if he did, on the same card?”
That then becomes a running theme. A few hours are spent calling around contacts, seeing where Nate might be. I try to comb for him, but he appears evasive, invisible. I head out of Stockton, heading west towards San Fran taking the route – criss-crossing waterways and narrow bridges – which follows the 50-minute drive the Diaz brothers took for years on their way to Cesar Gracie’s gym in Concord, where the Skrap Pack originally trained together. It is a pleasant, country drive. Earlier, I had called Agazarm, a close friend of theirs, with no luck. But just a few miles out of Stockton, Agazarm called. We chat. He was not sure where Nate was, but insisted that “there was something in the air”, confirming that Nate was training, and Nick was back competing in triathlons. In fact, the week before, Agazarm had entered his first triathlon, alongside Nick. “It’s a rainier, wetter Spring than normal, something unusual is brewing and people are getting ready for something”, Agazarm had said enigmatically. I had a feeling that Agazarm, who has been staying at Nick’s house, was in his house when we were speaking. But Nate was nowhere to be found.
That journey to Gracie’s gym left me thinking about what Cesar had told me about Nick and Nate, who had begun training jiu-jitsu with him when they were 16 and 14 years old respectively. “These guys came to me very young. They were kids when they started coming in here at my gym. We didn’t know how big they would become. But now they can hold out for their fights. When you become a millionaire you don’t have to go to a gym 45 minutes, or an hour away. You build the gym right by your house. Gilbert has his own gym in the city (El Nino Training Center, in San Fran). The Diazs have their gym out in the Lodi, Stockton area. All these guys ended up having their own gym because they’ve got so much money.”
Does he hope Nate – and indeed Nick – come back to fight ? “Who knows ? Everybody has their road they have to take in life. I had these kids who were kind of poor and showed them how to be great at something and off they went with it. I’m glad it has worked out for them. Hopefully for them learning the jiu jitsu just showed them a way of life they can keep to.”
A few hours later, now back in San Francisco, sure enough, my phone buzzes. It is Nate. Text message. “Wadddup gareth my bad I forgot I had to go to party wit my girl out n the bay”. I ask about an interview the next day. Nothing back. The next day, I send a few questions. No response. This feels a little like the documentaries made by Nick Broomfield as he heads down a cul-de-sac of conspiracies with his camera. But the message from others is clear: Nate looks more and more ready for a return. Or better still, he is ‘ready’.
Gilbert Melendez, like Nate, is still under contract with the UFC, but without a fight since 2016. The morning I’m supposed to meet Nate, I speak with Gilbert, who dreams of the Skrap Pack coming back for one big night. Possibly against McGregor and crew, we muse. “That would great. To do it on a card together. Get those really interesting matchups everyone has wanted to see. It’s something we’ve always dreamed of.”
As for Nate, Melendez believes the third fight with McGregor could be there this summer, next summer, or any time in the next few years. “I believe that trilogy is there. Just like my fight with Diego Sanchez is always there regardless. Just like Nick’s fight with Georges St-Pierre is always there. They could do it ten years down the road but I think it’s there. I’d really like to see Nate fight whoever he wants.”
“Yes, Conor, but I want to see him fight Khabib. I think he’s a grappler, he welcomes the ground. The only one who welcomes the ground like him is Tony Ferguson. He’s a guy you don’t want to stand with, but then you take him down and you want to get out of that guard. Nate is dangerous. I want to see Nate and Khabib right now. I’ll watch Conor and Nate up to ten years down the road.”
What about Nick, I ask Gibert ? “Nick against Conor would be great. Jake against Gunnar Nelson, I’d fight Artem (Lobov). Or Nate could fight Conor. Let’s do it. Sign us up! Easy. We should do best two out of three! We’ll go to Cali one month and four months later we’ll go to Ireland and then the last one can be neutral. I’d love it.”
We begin to fantasise about how big it could be. Then Gilbert explains the special relationship between himself, Shields and the Diaz brothers. It gives him an almost familial understanding of where they are headed next. “Nate has always been a little bit younger. Even though Nick is younger than me, I’ve been the younger brother in our fighting careers. Jake and Nick had this personality that was so strong and determined. A will to be the best and Nick figured it out. I was a disciple of Jake. He was my coach and still is today. We had those two guys drag us out of bed and manipulate us. Saying ‘Nate’s going to be there Gilbert, you better get your ass over there’. Nick saying the same thing to Nate. Those two really carried us, who were more lax and interested in a good time. They’re more serious business guys. Jake is punctual and Nick is a ‘lets do it’ guy. They are like the bigger brothers based on experience and determination. They put that in our heads. Jake for me and Nick for Nate.”
But Melendez also hits the nail square on its head in his praise for Nate’s resume. For the Big One. The Defeat Of McGregor. “Nate’s been the latest one to blossom. As in, Jake fought for the UFC title, Nick fought for the UFC title then it was myself. Then it comes full circle and here’s Nate. We all fell short until Nate fought Conor McGregor. That felt bigger than any title fight. That was the biggest fight for our team ever and he went out there and did it.”
Spot on. “That was the biggest win not only for him, but for our team. We’ve all been on that big ass stage and we’ve all just fell short – all of us. We’ve always tried to been the best and bring the UFC title for the team. That day, when Nate did that, it did something huge for our team and he’s been on fire since.”
The quartet have never stopped being friends. Indeed, Gilbert confirms that the picture I had seen was them training 48 hours earlier. “I was in there on Thursday. Nick wasn’t there for that photo, so it was Nate, myself and Jake. But Nick is back in Lodi. He’s a ninja. I have a feeling he’s getting ready. I don’t know what for. It could just be for himself personally, but I think he might be getting into shape and getting back into a routine of training.”
The unity is like family. “I really love the impact we’ve had on young fighters and young people who stand for family, team and most importantly, loyalty. We’re deeper than just a fight team. I feel like that’s a lost thing in this world. I’m so proud we promote that. It’s not just about being tough fighters, but having your team and your family. There’s nothing better than Nate Diaz, Jake Shields and Nick Diaz have your back unconditionally.”
“I know Nate’s sick of talking about all the same stuff,” admits Gilbert. There is certainly a pull from the fight world for his signature, though, and they all know it. Yet the Diaz brothers, made rich by those enormous fights in the UFC, are playing possum. And why shouldn’t they ? “It felt really good being in Lodi with the boys,” adds Gilbert. “Jake is moving back from New York. I think we’re going to make a point to meet up a lot more and relight that fire. I think we know we vibe off each other. We feel better and perform better when we’re around each other. It would probably pump Nate up too.”
The day before, Jake had been up in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, snowboarding, when I had caught up with him. He took up the theme of unity immediately. “It’s definitely unusual. We were all just young kids training together. All broke and all with a dream. We all stayed together. It’s pretty rare in the sport. You always see guys switching camps and going to super camps, but we started a small gym together through the Gracies and managed to stay close throughout the years. It’s nice having guys who have your back through anything. I’ve been out in New York for last year and a half but they’re like brothers to me. It’s no different when we see each other again. If I didn’t see them for years, it would still be the same.”
Shields sees a fight there for ‘younger brother Nate’ with McGregor. “I think there definitely should be a third fight with Conor. The first fight was great with Nate winning and the second fight was also great with Nate losing a close fight. It could have gone either way. Conor owes him the rematch and I know Nate wants it. It’s just a case of the UFC putting it together. Nate wants it, the fans want it, Conor wants it. It’s a matter of Dana White letting them do the third fight.”
“Nate trains everyday. He’s ready to go whenever. I think Dana just doesn’t like him that much and doesn’t want to put the fight together. Dana has a huge ego and wants guys to kiss his ass and tell him they love him. That’s just not who Nate is. That was the problem with Nick as well.”
“I would like to see him fight. He’s kind of on and off on whether he wants to fight again,” explained Shields. “I would love to see it. But I can’t blame him. He’s sacrificed a lot for the fight and is one of the most popular fighters out there. Dana’s always trying to make out they’re not stars. Making out that Nate asking for more money is crazy. He was literally fighting over ten thousand dollars as Dana’s there playing $20,000 poker hands, bitching about how Nate’s not a star. Nate’s one of the biggest stars of the sport.”
“I would like to see to Nate versus Conor happen and I think it will. I’m not a huge fan of Conor but he’s ballsy and knows he owes him a fight. I think he’s a man of his word.”
Shields also like the Team McGregor versus Skrap Pack idea.“For sure it would do big numbers. They could put us against Conor’s team or some other team. It would be a huge card. It’s a great idea, but Dana wouldn’t do something like that, guaranteed. And fans love stories, and talk about a story. I’m living in New York at the moment, it’s a fun city but it gets old. The thing is, we still train together quite a lot. In San Francisco I stop by Gil’s gym, then I’m often going out to Nate, and Nick is finally back in Stockton. It’s more than likely we’ll see him (Nick) fight before too long. He needs the right motivation and right push to fight again.”
Agazarm’s words, and those of Gracie, are resonating once more. The toughness of Stockton left me with a feeling. People are proud, resilient and have a code. Agazarm’s words come back. He’s been over in the UK. He sees Stockton as provincial. We liken it to Cardiff. A drink and a fight is normal. People don’t mind conflict.
“You’re not going to go to Beverly Hills and find your next fighting superstar. The people are more interested in golf or tennis. Whereas you go into a place like Oakland or Stockton, where Nate is from, and you’re more likely to find a kid who is ready to fight his way out. It’s that hunger you get when you grow up and you want to provide something for your momma who looked after you. You want to live a better life and you see an opportunity, you grasp it. You’ve got that mental toughness. The places where Nick and Nate are from breed fighters.”
But does either brother really need to fight ? It is wise old Cesar who puts his finger on the pulse once more. “Even when you retire you never really retire being a warrior. You might retire from fighting on TV, earning a paycheque but you continue the martial arts lifestyle. The problem is the hunger is replaced by the hunger for money. Then you find yourself fighting more for money and less for a cause, an academy or representing yourself.” Let’s hope though, that Nate Diaz does show up for a mega-fight this summer. With the right opponents, it would surely become another best-seller.
This Article First Appeared In Fighters Only Magazine.