Editor’s note: On Saturday, Ringer senior staff writer Jonathan Tjarks passed away. You can find information about how to support Jonathan’s family here.
The UFC didn’t exactly want a fairy-tale ending to Nate Diaz’s 15-year career on Saturday night at UFC 279. The plan was to send him off to the boxing ring on the wrong foot, ideally after being worked over by the Chechnyan-born welterweight berserker, Khamzat Chimaev. That’s who Diaz was supposed to face. The “freak of nature,” as Dana White calls him, was guaranteed to turn Diaz into human origami on his way out.
Instead, the series of events that led to a fairy-tale weekend for Stockton’s realest only made Diaz into an even bigger fight game darling than he was going in. If anything, his triumph over the guy who replaced Chimaev, Tony Ferguson, served as big-time promotion for Diaz’s next move outside the UFC. Diaz showed up to Las Vegas on time, on weight, on brand, and floating on cloud nine, which was the plume of smoke created by his 25-man entourage from the 209.
Suddenly, Diaz has emerged as not only the biggest free agent in MMA history, but the master of ceremonies for next month’s boxing match between Jake Paul and MMA GOAT Anderson Silva. What a lucrative weekend. What a wild turn of events. What the hell just happened?
Chimaev showed up to the scale at Friday’s weigh-in a full seven and a half pounds over the allotted limit for his fight, weighing 178.5 pounds. In other words, he was over by the weight of a newborn baby. To say that he dropped the ball in his first main event would be a massive understatement. In those pounds Chimaev couldn’t lose, the UFC lost millions of dollars. It was forced to scramble at the 11th hour to salvage a pay-per-view, and Diaz went from being a dead man walking to holding all the cards to keep the event alive. If Diaz’s cult status wasn’t already in the red, it got there within a couple of hours of madness the night before his UFC swan song.
With the way the card was constructed—with Diaz-Chimaev as the mismatched main event, and Ferguson-Li Jiangling, also at welterweight, serving as a life raft of a co-feature—the only play the UFC had was to reboot all the fights on the fly to keep all the players on board.
Ferguson, fighting for the first time at welterweight since winning The Ultimate Fighter 13 more than a decade ago, was bumped up to face Diaz in what now felt like a normal main event, while Chimaev was redirected to fight Kevin Holland—who was meant to face Daniel Rodriguez—at a 180-pound catchweight. Rodriguez was then rebooked against Jiangling, who quietly accepted a fight against a man 10 pounds heavier than him without protest.
Confusing? It was unprecedented. Apeshit. It was like nothing the MMA world has known. There were over 40,000 people listening in live on the Ringer MMA Show for six solid hours as the chaos played out. And in the end, when it was announced that Ferguson would fight Diaz in the new main event, there were two words being thrown around across the combat sphere: poetic justice.
Diaz had beat the house. Beat the odds. Beat Chimaev and Ferguson in one fell swoop.
All week long, Diaz was being celebrated as an OG in the fight world, the realest of the real who stood up for who he was and did things his own way. Heading into fight week, Diaz, who is 37, made it clear he didn’t care if he was a +750 underdog against Chimaev, or that the eulogies were pouring about his career. He merely wanted to get through the last fight on his UFC contract, and if that meant taking on the one guy nobody else wanted to face in the division, so be it. He knew it was a setup. He knew the score. Yet he showed up on weight and ready to roll, fully understanding that he might get smashed.
Yet instead of talking about Chimaev being a minus-1200 favorite and how that might hinder his status on the way out of the UFC, Diaz spent a good portion of the week talking about what it means to keep it real.
“Just don’t do no lame shit,” he told me from a house he was renting in Vegas a few days before the weigh-in fiasco. “Don’t say a bunch of dumb shit. No need to put on an act, either it’s real or it’s not. And we all keeping it real with each other [around here], so if you’re out there acting fake, saying some phony shit, you know we’re sitting right there going, ‘What the fuck you talking about?’ That’s what I always say about fighters, too, and people too; you ain’t got no friends to tell you you’re doing lame shit.
“I got real friends, real homeboys, and real people that I’m representing, and vice versa,” Diaz continued. “If I’m going to go out there and say some dumb shit, now I’m going to come back and get clowned on by my homeboys. You say some corny shit, they’ll say, ‘Why the fuck you say that?’”
The night before the weigh-ins, backstage at the UFC 279 press conference, Diaz was involved in an altercation with Chimaev, who was fully embracing his role as a hired gun to take Diaz out. That kicked off one of the most bizarre sequences of events in UFC history. A canceled press conference, a weigh-in debacle, a shuffling of main card fights, and finally, a massive underdog in Diaz becoming a near-even-money bet to win.
Then, the moment Diaz got to address the public after squaring off with Ferguson at the ceremonial weigh-ins, he did what he does best. He kept it real.
“Tony’s been around a long time, we should’ve fought a long time ago,” Diaz said “Khabib [Nurmagomedov]’s bitch ass was afraid of him, just like this bitch ass motherfucker [Chimaev] was afraid of me yesterday. We punked his bitch ass in the back here, and now he don’t know how to make weight. You guys already know what it is. Real Gs come from California, America, motherfucker.”
The crowd was his. The weekend was his. And suddenly, so was the immediate future. He did something that most fighters can’t; he got out gracefully. At least for the time being.
What comes next for Diaz is uncertain, but to use his own words, a “pocketful of the cash” is guaranteed. A boxing match with Jake Paul feels inevitable, especially if Paul beats the 47-year-old Silva next month in Phoenix. After that? Diaz has mentioned Logan Paul, Manny Pacquiao, Canelo Alvarez, and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the latter of whom welcomed Conor McGregor to the ring five years ago. Diaz wanted to “beat all their asses, and then come back to the UFC,” as he told me well before he got his hand raised against Ferguson.
It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. But, somehow, it did. Nate Diaz just had a weekend for the ages.
Chuck Mindenhall writes about combat sports without bias, and sometimes about his Denver teams with extreme bias. He cohosts The Ringer MMA Show on Spotify.