Most fight announcements, even the big ones, have the feel of carefully scripted routine. They're words on paper or a listless television announcement, a token of gratitude dealt from the bottom of the deck to major media players who trade in favors and secrets.
Like all big-time combat-sports promoters, the UFC has done more than their fair share, even on premium outlets like ESPN's SportsCenter. A guy is fighting another guy. On pay-per-view. Buy it— with your money.
In fact, the UFC, in hardcore circles, has developed a bit of a reputation for promising a big announcement and delivering something about as exciting as paint drying. Come for a super fight that will make history, leave with a toy line that will sit on store pegs for an eternity. You can imagine my skepticism, then, as UFC Director of Publicity Dave Sholler spread the word that major news was coming.
Tuesday's announcement, however, was different. There was a delightfully madcap energy cascading through the MMA universe that doesn't flow on a daily basis. It was the kind of energy that surrounds an extravaganza, the crackle you feel in the air as the lights dim and a superstar prepares to make their long trek to the cage.
This was something special indeed—Nick Diaz is back.
You could stop right there and have a major moment. Diaz is the sport's id, quite an impressive feat when the sport in question is essentially built on bludgeoning and trash talk in equal measure. He does what he wants, says what he wants, comes to press conferences if he wants—but always shows up at the arena on fight night looking to put on a show.
There is no artifice to Nick Diaz. Talking with him you get exactly what he's thinking in the moment. He lacks a filter, to the point you almost wish you could rent him one, just to save his future kids the embarrassment of watching pops on YouTube in 10 years. His interviews are part performance art and part word collage, a collection of both mad gibberish and the sage advice of the truly wise. He's the kind of guy who announces his retirement and asks for a rematch—in the same post-fight interview.
If not quite loveable, Diaz is certainly quotable. Whether he's discussing taxes ("I've never paid taxes in my life. I'm probably going to go to jail"), his inability to figure out how to buy a house ("I didn’t go to school for that, you know?") or his sad Honda ("GSP’s making a couple million dollars. I’m over here f**king driving a Honda and my s**t's breaking down?") Diaz is never short on honesty.
In a sport that sees supposedly bitter foes hug it out after a tough fight, admitting to a bemused fanbase that their animus was phonier than the pro wrestling they are emulating, Diaz is an island. When he's mean mugging, throwing shoes or jumping fools who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, he means it. Sure, it's unhealthy and anti-social. At least its real.
But Nick Diaz's return is only half the story, the smaller half at that, the one in 10-point type underneath the blaring headline. That's because, across the cage from Stockton's own will be the greatest mixed martial arts fighter of all time. Anderson Silva, too, is making his return to the cage.
When we last saw Silva he was being carried from the Octagon, his leg in pieces after Chris Weidman did nothing more than raise his own leg off the ground, parrying Silva's hard kick with devastating results. It was the second loss in a row for a man who had done nothing but win inside the UFC cage, having his hand raised 16 times before finally falling short.
Reports surfaced almost immediately after surgery that Silva was ready. That Silva was training. That Silva was coming.
"He's 100 percent healthy, he's kicking again and he feels great," UFC President Dana White said on SportsCenter, announcing that the two men will square off on January 31, 2015 at UFC 183. "He's chomping at the bit to get back into the Octagon."
For the UFC, this announcement was the perfect cure for the summer doldrums. Once a quarterly and then a monthly extravaganza, in recent years the UFC has become a television staple. On some weekends there will be multiple shows on the same day. And while, perhaps, that's a sign of increased worldwide demand, for many diehards it was a deluge that left very little to get excited about. Fights came and fights went, with very little making any kind of permanent imprint.
This fight is different.
It's a bona fide superfight, a battle between fighters who may not be champions anymore, but who have the larger-than-life personas that make fans sit up and take note. Silva may no longer be the fighter who made opponents quake in fear. Diaz may only justify his ludicrous swagger in his own mind. But both believe they are something special. When that belief is real, the audience can't help but be swept along for the ride.
And, inside the cage, this has the chance to be quite a thrilling ride indeed. In Diaz, Silva has found the perfect opponent. A boxer who never takes a step backwards, Diaz will chase Silva around the cage, looking to close the distance and overwhelm the former champion with volume punching. He will be implacable. Unstoppable. And he will be playing directly into Silva's hands.
Can Nick Diaz beat Anderson Silva?
If fighting has a yin and a yang, they are represented by Silva and Diaz. Nick is all about pressing the action; Silva is all about catching a hard-charging opponent coming in with a perfectly timed counter. Together they should make beautiful music. One's style feeds perfectly into the other's. It's the kind of collision that creates legends.
On paper this is also an easy way for Silva to get reacclimated to the fight game after some time on the shelf. As good as Diaz is, resume wise the two aren't even comparable. Diaz, retired for more than a year, hasn't won a fight since 2011 and, for all his bluster, has never beaten a truly great fighter in his prime. Worse still, he was tailor made for Silva, the kind of predictable fighter born to eat a right cross he never sees coming.
And yet, despite the left side of my brain telling me there's nothing to see here, there is something intriguing about this fight. At 39, and coming off a major injury, Silva may have slowed enough that he can be caught by a fighter he would have run circles around in his best days. Diaz, a triathlete, will certainly stalk for five full rounds, never slowing down, never stopping. If he's not prepared, Diaz will be right there, talking smack and throwing punches in burst mode. For however long this lasts, it's going to be a fight.
It's a fight Diaz feels confident he can win. He's been calling for it for years, even back in when he was the Strikeforce champion. He had Silva on the mind even then, much to the amusement of the MMA press. But nobody's laughing now.