UFC 137: Why Dana White took novel approach with Nick Diaz: a troubled soul or rebel with a cause?
The biggest gunslinger in the Ultimate Fighting Championship is not heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, nor middleweight supremo Anderson Silva, of Brazil, or even Georges St Pierre, MMA’s slick corporate Canadian.
Not by a long shot. The man with the heavy guns is actually Dana White, the president of the UFC. Over 1.6 million Twitter followers – some of whom he has 140 character wars with – sway to his every move. The American, who has hauled the UFC up by its lapels to create a forward-thinking sporting juggernaut, is as major a star as any of the fighters.
It is White who marches to the dais at news conferences, with the fighters already in their seats. Straight-talking, no-nonsense. He has also seen, as a huge boxing fan, where mistakes have been made with proliferating divisions, world champions, and governing bodies.
There are close to 80 world champions out there in boxing. In MMA, the UFC ambition is to have all the UFC champions in 7 weight divisions known by name by the casual sports fan. Ambitious, but with vim and vigour, White and his team reckon it is achievable.
Like some the great American and British boxing promoters – Don King, Bob Arum, Frank Warren, Oscar De La Hoya, Tex Rickard – White is a larger than life character, whose blend of forcefulness, charisma, and at times bloodymindedness, carries the face of the fighting organisation.
There are times when it boils over, but the last thing the fighters want to do is to bring ruination to their burgeoning opportunities in a sport experiencing a rich boom. Ten years ago, there was no ten-year career in MMA.
Californian rude boy Nick Diaz appeared to have brought destruction upon his career when he failed to show at press conferences after relinquishing the Strikeforce welterweight title to face UFC 170lb champion Georges St Pierre, arguably the most co-operative company man in the business.
Sleek, slick, always ready with a smile, yet a brilliant athlete and fighter, White and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva had opted to pitch ‘GSP’ against the mongrel-attitude, do-or-die Diaz.
“Here’s the thing about me. I want to work with Nick. I always want to give the fans the fights they want. But I’m not going to take any s***. We run this company, and we are going to do it the way we do it. You get some of the guys who come from the smaller organisations as champions, and the inmates run the asylum over there. That’s not the way we do it in our organisation.”
The two protagonists are polar opposites. Chalk and cheese. A vegetarian with a glutene-free diet versus the French-speaking Canadian who espouses the wisdom of Eastern philosophy.
That was three months ago. The match was set. Yet Diaz, who had a history of not turning up to media days, yet knows very well how to turn up on the night with a brilliant, exhilarating BJJ and boxing blend, ripped up the script. He failed to show. But he couldn’t get away with such things with the UFC.
Hype and promotion, plus two great protagonists = pay per view success. The formula is age-old. By not showing at two conferences at either ends of North America, White pulled out his pistols – and fired Diaz from the title shot spot. Mistake by Diaz. But by my reckoning, it is not something Diaz gives a great deal of thought to it. I’m no medical man, but Diaz has unusual fears, I’d reckon.
Since then, GSP has sustained a knee injury and so the re-shuffled UFC welterweight title contest – which was to have been between the Canadian and replacement Carlos Condit – has been postponed.
White revealed an interesting side to his brash exterior when I spoke to him about the situation with Diaz. He told Telegraph Sport: “Diaz is different to any other fighter I have ever dealt with, and we have worked together on this and we are moving forward. I do think he’s different. I just want him to realise that we are not trying to control him, but just that things are done a different way in the UFC. If you are going to work with us, you do it our way.”
White added: “My aim is to work with Nick Diaz, because we respect him as a fighter, the fans want to see him fight, and we want to deliver the best fights. It’s my job to figure this kid out, how we can work together, I’m not asking Nick Diaz not to be Nick Diaz, and I’ve asked him to do a few things, and he’s working on them now.”
I related to White how I’d had an intriguing experience interviewing Diaz in July. Diaz had known that I was coming, and it had been planned over several weeks. I was writing a cover story on the fighter for Fighters Only Magazine. On the day I travelled there from Las Vegas to San Francisco, having been there in the US for boxing and MMA business, it was a shock when Diaz turned up at Cesar Gracie’s gym and intimated in a two-minute interview which I recorded that he didn’t really have anything to say either about himself, or GSP and that it was not his style to talk up fights.
I waited patiently, and thought I would eventually probably get to spend some time with Nick. A few hours passed. I interviewed his team-mates. I watched him spar closely, I watched him grapple with Jake Shields. I also watched the clock slowly ticking away. It was eventually at the behest of Cesar Gracie that I got to sit down with Diaz two hours later.
A torrent of words poured forth from him, he was forthcoming yet seemingly angry about issues in the sport, but not ones I had asked about. I tried to keep eye contact but he would just look at me and look away. He was compelling, however, and highly intelligent. He clearly wanted to get his message out.
When Diaz did sit down with me he did also apologise for the way he was. He said he had “just been training and I am in this state”. He was polite the entire time; I tried to get across to him that he is genuinely fascinating to people. But I do think he is troubled in his soul. I do think he is a fascinating character and I do think he is good for the sport. I think being involved in MMA allows him to keep control over himself; he has an air of self destruction.
There is a weird feeling with Diaz, you feel a strange mix of admiration and pity at the same time. I found that I wanted tobefriend him. I felt with all the guys he works with at the Skrap Pack at Cesar Gracies, from what they said, feel a great love for him and they all look up to him in many ways. They admire his work ethic and the way he is true to himself.
He has no concept at all of being media savvy, no understanding of what we need, mistrusts us and what we do, and his natural tendency is mistrust the media and there are possibly mistrust issues in his life. I think he potentially thinks we are out there to destroy him.
On the way to the airport afterwards I was put in mind of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Tower’. In the work, the leading protagonist is trapped in this life where he lives in this village but the people in the castle control the village but you cant get access to he castle or the people in it. Diaz feels like that, trapped in his own destiny. Born to fight but trapped in the fight game. I didn’t feel at all slighted because I had to wait. I’m conscious of the fact I am privileged to gain exclusive access to a fighter in his camp.
I’ve had a lot of dealings with sportsmen over the years and some are uncomfortable. But I felt he did want to be listened to. It wasn’t an uncomfortable experience for me at all. My objective in going to see Diaz was to try and get under his skin but not in a corrosive, proactive way, rather to try and understand his mind and where he is coming from. I think it’s a great shame that as a result of not attending two press conferences he lost the chance to fight Georges St Pierre. I think it’s a fight a lot of people wanted to see.
If he had that kind of anxiety about one journo coming to see him, if it’s a genuine phobia in his mind, can you imagine the trepidation hefeels when he has to go and face a whole phalanx of them at press conferences? If he is almost phobic about one journalist interviewinghim in his own gym, maybe the stress of a major full-scale conference is too much for him to contemplate.
White agreed with me on so many of the issues I explained to him. White also told The Telegraph. “Here’s the thing about me. I want to work with Nick. I always want to give the fans the fights they want. But I’m not going to take any s***. We run this company, and we are going to do it the way we do it. You get some of the guys who come from the smaller organisations as champions, and the inmates run the asylum over there. That’s not the way we do it in our organisation.”
In between times, Diaz has been re-matched with BJ Penn. With the GSP-Condit fight shelved, Diaz-Penn is the headliner at the Mandalay Bay this weekend, just off the Las Vegas Strip. If Diaz plays the game – and, of course, overcomes Penn this weekend – it’s likely we’ll see GroundHog day with Diaz in another welterweight title contest against the winner of GSP and Condit. I certainly hope so.