Nate Diaz - Can’t knock me down Ray!

I was an early supporter of the UFC. Back at its inception, the UFC was put together by Rorian Gracie, Royce’s older brother, and a businessman called Art Davey. I wrote a bunch of articles praising the MMA concept for Iron Man magazine and Muscle & Fitness, this at a time when men like John McCain were trying to ban it. “Human cockfighting – disgusting!” was how Senator McCain labeled ‘cage fighting.’

I talked with Rorian quite a bit and interviewed Royce and Dan Severn for M&F. I met Helio, the elder Gracie and attended four UFC fights as part of the press corps. There was so much hyperbole and bullshit connected with the martial arts in the pre-UFC days. When fighters don’t actually fight, all methods are equal. Only by actually fighting are you able to determine which martial methods work and which are fraudulent.

I have watched the UFC evolve over the decades. Real fighting is not just about technique and physicality. In fighting there is pain, and some shrink from pain while others have an innate or learned ability to shrug it off. Still, heart and pain tolerance are not enough. On the other hand, heart and pain tolerance are the combat fighters most precious attributes. That other stuff, fight skills, stamina, strength and speed, can all be learned and improved upon.

The man with the biggest heart and highest pain tolerance in MMA is a skinny fighting grand maestro named Nate Diaz. Diaz puts me in mind of many of my dead-end friends from years gone by. These were the guys you could count on: you could count on them to have your back and you could count on them to start shit. These uber-alphas would fight like wildcats at the drop of a hat. They got a lot of practice because they fought all the time.

Most got beat at home and had uncontrollable tempers. They would act out disproportionally when they felt slighted, embarrassed or threatened. When boys with uncontrollable tempers and big mouths piss off older, stronger boys, they get their asses beat. For most boys, the threat of a beating acts as a behavioral governor. For the uber-alpha, future pain is no deterrent for acting out in the present.

True uber-alphas have an ability to take a beating, to get knocked down and get back up, to lose and then comeback, to never quit. These men either feel pain to a lesser degree or, psychologically, they have an ability to shrug off physical pain quicker than the rest of us. If you are this type of fighter, the more you get beat up, the more impervious and indifferent you become to the pain. Practice makes perfect I suppose.

Heart, and a high pain tolerance makes any man a formidable fighter. Few fighters have this. Nate Diaz certainly has it. Has any modern MMA fighter shed more blood (literally) in the Octagon than Diaz during his twelve-year UFC career? He blows off pain. He is the modern personification of a certain type of classical fighter. Here is a man that probably can’t bench press 200-pounds, yet he routinely beats up muscled-up physical giants.

Nate Diaz and BJ Penn rival each other for “worst physique ever” for a UFC title holder. I will never forget seeing the pathetically built BJ knock out the muscled-up strongman/wrestling monster Matt Hughes with a flurry of punches. It seemed impossible. BJ was another that made up for lack of physique with an abundance of heart. Muscles and strength do not a fighter make. I witnessed an example of this firsthand when at age 18 I saw a muscle-less Hillbilly destroy a giant muscleman in a parking lot street fight.

When the fight commenced (in the parking lot of the Little Tavern) the muscleman immediately tore off his shirt and flexed up like a blowfish attempting to scare off a predator. He then told his friends, “Hold me back!! I don’t want to go to jail for killing this HICK!!” They finally squared off.  The skinny hillbilly sidestepped the big man’s cliched bull-rush like an expert matador. You could tell this redneck had a lot of street fight practice.

He hit the onrushing giant with a powerhouse uppercut to the throat and a lightning-fast short overhand right to the jaw-button: lights out. As the giant lay unconscious on the asphalt, the redneck spat and said, “Why you ain’t nothing but a goddamned bodybuilder!” The bodybuilder’s 400-pound bench press didn’t help him much that night.

When Nate Diaz first came on the scene, he looked like a guy I used to know that would hang out at the Cue Club pool hall all day before relocating to the Shepard Park strip club from 4 pm onward. Diaz reminds me of certain type of friend or relative, combative types that always got into fights because they wouldn’t control their mouths and they took offense easily. Oh, and they don’t back down. They all seem to have this samurai code of conduct – take maximum affront at the slightest offense, shoot off your mouth – and never back down. This credo is apparently imprinted in their DNA.

Young boys with short fuses often have a compulsion to backtalk. My younger brother was this type. Tall, naturally athletic, he looked like young Clint Eastwood and had a hair trigger. There was a certain look that would flash across his face right before he launched. His face would freeze, his eyes would visibly widen then narrow into slits, he would turn slightly sideways, his body tensing as he imperceptibly balled up his fists. When he launched, he went from immobility into total frenzy, punching, kicking, biting. It was instantaneous and complete.

I first saw Nate Diaz on the reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter. It was season 5 and Nate, tall and scrawny, easily had the worst physique, the most unathletic physique of anyone in the house. The feeling was that the only reason this muscle-less punk with a bad haircut made the show was because his older brother, Nick, was a rising UFC star. But Nate looked like a surefire candidate to be the cannon fodder for the first muscled-up athletes he fought.

In the second episode, there was a brief instant, a 30-second clip that most missed. In it, a famous UFC champion had come with Dana White to visit the fighters at the Vegas mansion that served as the fighter’s home. As Nate Diaz and the UFC champ passed in a hallway, the champ bumped into Nate. The camera picked up Diaz’s face. The tall, skinny 20-year old’s face went from blank to that look that I knew so well from my brother. Enraged, a look of pure anger flashed across the man-boys face. He bowed up, fists balled, wild-eyed.

Someone stepped in between the two. It left a great impression on me. “Damn! This kid’s got heart!” The scrawny boy was a half-second from unleashing all the hell at his disposal on a UFC champion, a man some 60-pounds heavier. It didn’t matter to him. He wasn’t going to ignore a diss or back down calling another man out. No matter who that man was.

Heart is an incredible fighter attribute. The ability to take a punch, to get beat down and get up, over and over was cinematically exemplified in Martin Scorsese’s movie, Raging Bull. Robert De Niro played Jake LaMotta, the Nate Diaz of his era. In a title fight against the greatest fighter of the era, Sugar Ray Robinson, LaMotta was being pummeled, cut to ribbons, destroyed, decimated. His face a total bloody mess. Yet LaMotta taunts Sugar Ray, “Can’t knock me down Ray! Can’t knock me down!”

The pathetically skinny Diaz kid, with the 13-inch biceps won season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter beating four opponents, all by submission. He won $100,00 and a UFC contract. He quickly became a fan favorite: Nate Diaz was everyman fighting a never-ending array of athletic supermen. In 32 UFC fights, Nate has won 20 and lost 12. Of his 12 loses, only three have been outright defeats - he has been knocked out twice and submitted once – the other nice losses were by decision.

When you look at his professional won/loss record you are struck by how he suffered defeats yet kept coming back. His recent UFC fight record reads as follows: loss, win, loss, win, win, loss, win, loss, loss, win, win, win, loss, loss….The highpoint of his great career came when in 2016 Rafael dos Anjos was scheduled to fight UFC superstar Conor McGregor. He was injured in training and Nate Diaz was asked to take the fight with an eleven-day notice.

Despite being a 20-1 underdog, Nate Diaz submitted McGregor in the second round. It was the upset heard round the MMA world. This was Ali beating Liston, this was Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson, it was incredible, almost inconceivable. Nate has more submission wins than any fighter in history, more even than UFC legend Royce Gracie.

In recent years Nate Diaz, now in his 30s, rose to the top of his trade. He beat Anthony Pettis in a unanimous decision to set up a super fight with Jorge Masvidal. In an epic slugfest, Diaz was giving as good as he was getting when the fight was stopped by the ringside doctor due to a terrible cut over Nate’s right eye. Naturally, Nate was ready to go into round four. As he stood there, bloodied and unbowed, he glared and stared through swollen bloody eyes across the Octagon at Mavidal.

All I could think was, “Can’t knock me down Ray! Can’t knock me down!”

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About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.