Nate Diaz: Road to the title



Do you hear the pitter patter of little feet? No? Well then I must be thinking of the punches of Nate Diaz that landed on Donald Cerrone's face last night at UFC 141. A whole 258 of those little patty cakes according to Compustrike, landing a record 82 per cent striking accuracy in a bout that very much resembled the shellacking delivered to an overmatched BJ Penn before Halloween.

As I wrote in my previous fanpost, this was Nate's biggest test of his lightweight career (although some might argue in hindsight his fights against Maynard and Guida were bigger) and clearly puts him in title shot contention. It's pretty clear that most fans don't think the little Diaz is ready for a title shot, but most agree he's one away from taking on the champion, whoever it might be that emerges from the Ben Henderson versus Frankie Edgar fight at UFC 144.

But who should Diaz fight to set up that match? I'll look at the possible candidates, including how they match up stylistically, after the jump.

It seems pretty clear to most people that the winner of Anthony Pettis vs Joe Lauzon at UFC 144 should fight Nate Diaz. The reason is that despite an incomparable depth of talent in the lightweight division, there are few top ranked fighters other than those two who are both riding winning streaks and can lay claim to being in the elite of the division.

Gray Maynard is coming off a draw and a loss to the champion, and should likely fight another elite calibre fighter coming off a loss like Clay Guida. That eliminates two top fighters who have given Diaz problems in the past. Nate submitted Gray by guillotine during The Ultimate Fighter Season 5 in 2007, before losing the rubber match by split decision in 2010. Nate also lost a split decision to Guida at UFC 94 to the blanket wrestling style of the caveman.

That leaves about four potential contender matchups.

Joe Lauzon 21-6 and 3-2 in his past 5 fights. Next fight Feb. 26 against Pettis.

This fight seems to heavily favour fellow TUF 5 alumni and winner Nate Diaz. Lauzon is a competent striker with some power, finishing Melvin Guillard after clipping him early at UFC 136. But 17 of his 21 wins have come by way of submission. That means Joe's best chance to win is to get his opponent on the ground and work ground and pound, looking for openings and submissions. They usually come against jujitsu practitioners who aren't on his level, but as we learned in his fight against George Sotiropolous, he gets manhandled by better grapplers.

Lauzon's standup game was also exposed by another man who isn't too far from contention in Sam Stout. Yeah, it seems like a long time ago, but Stout decisioned Lauzon at UFC 108 in a fight of the night war. Not only does Nate Diaz outstrike Lauzon, it's unlikely it goes to the ground where he usually relies on his jujitsu to get the job done. But, let's face it, he's unlikely to get past Anthony Pettis anyway.

Notable wins against: Guillard (who Diaz also beat), Jeremy Stephens

Exposed by: Florian, Stout and Sotiropolous.

Predicted result: Diaz by submission

Anthony Pettis 14-2 and 4-1 in his past 5 fights.

This promises to be a standup war, the kind of fight that matchmakers salivate over and for which the scripts for fight of the night are written. The thing is, we just saw that kind of match-up last night. And Nate Diaz won it. Much like his brother, there doesn't appear to be very many fighters who can stand toe to toe with Nate and survive. Frankie Edgar or Gilbert Melendez might have the crisper standup, but that just goes to show you the elite level to which Nate has risen.

Having said that, Pettis is a dynamic, fluid and exciting fighter with the kind of surprises that only a Jon Bones Jones can pull out. His flying kick against Ben Henderson at WEC 53 is an unforgettable moment in his MMA career, only slightly overshadowed now by the success of the man whose belt he stole.

Despite the pretty, poetic striking of Pettis, Diaz is likely to win a Stockton slapfest against Pettis, which means this game could very well be played on the mat and the fence as well. Pettis has shown he can win anywhere, by knockout, like he did to Danny Castillo, or by deadly submission, like his triangle victories against Alex Karalexis and Shane Roller.

Unfortunately for Pettis he's facing a Gracie Jujitsu fighter whose only submission loss was to Hermes Franca in 2006. And the kind of strengths that Pettis possess are also possessed by Diaz in greater abundance.

Notable wins against: Ben Henderson, Jeremy Stephens

Exposed by: Clay Guida

Predicted result: Diaz by decision

Jim Miller 20-3 and 4-1 in his past 5 fights. Next fight Jan. 20 against Guillard.

Miller's next matchup is soon enough that, should he win, it's possible, although not probable, that he would be healthy enough to face Nate Diaz if either Pettis or Lauzon are not available. After all, injury in MMA is lady opportunity knocking at the door. Just ask Jon Jones or Rashad Evans about that. As well, Nate Diaz is used to fighting a lot. He put in four fights in 2011, averaging three months of rest time between matches, which means waiting until May or June for Lauzon or Pettis to heal up.

So, how does Jim Miller stack up against Nate Diaz? Unfortunately, very well. Miller provides a real challenge to Diaz, with a wrestling pedigree that will be difficult to contain. Although Diaz has held his own against lightweight wrestlers like Maynard and Guida, he's shown weakness against their smothering style, particularly at the heavier weightclass, when he was stifled against Dong Hyun-Kim at UFC 125 and suplexed by Rory MacDonald at UFC 129.

That's not to say the Diaz brothers haven't been working on their takedown defence. To the contrary, based on the BJ Penn and Donald Cerrone fights, it's clear they have both been working on their clinching games, using their strength to push their opponents into the fence, leaning on them to keep them from reaching for a leg. Nate Diaz is a long fighter, so going for a leg isn't an easy proposition. The question would be whether Jim Miller could get that leg and get Diaz to the floor without getting submitted in the process.

Miller is a high level black belt, as attested by his quick dispatching of Charles Oliveira and "Bang" Ludwig, but we're all aware of Nate's bona fides as well. The most likely scenario would be Miller taking Diaz and trying to work ground and pound while the two duel submission attempts.

Notable wins against: Oliveira, Mark Bocek, Gleison Tibau, Mac Danzig, Matt Wiman

Exposed by: Ben Henderson, Gray Maynard

Predicted result: Miller by decision

Sam Stout 17-6-1 and 4-1 in his past 5 fights. Next fight Jan. 14 against Thiago Tavares.

Does the Canadian deserve a mention as a possible matchup against Diaz? Probably not, but that only serves to highlight how few opponents there are for Nate, should a title fight not be available and one or both of Joe Lauzon and Anthony Pettis get injured. The truth is that Stout isn't likely to fight Nate, but he's quietly sneaking into the top 10, and holds a notable win over Lauzon already.

Sam "Hands of Stone" Stout waited five years to live up to his nickname before he finally, and brutally, converted Yves Edwards into a wooden plank at UFC 131. Although Stout has fought his way to the top through some lesser competition, beating Paul Taylor and Edwards, should he win against Tavares he'll be in the mix. And he's one tough kid, to boot. His only recent loss since 2008 was a split decision to Jeremy Stephens, and also holds an impressive win over Matt Wiman.

If Diaz did face off against Stout, it's unlikely Team Canada would have anything Stockton couldn't handle. Diaz is better everywhere, especially on the ground, but it would likely stay on the feet where Nate would batter him. Stout has polished and fluid Muay-Thai kickboxing, but then again so did Donald Cerrone.

It's more likely that Joe Silva gives Nate Diaz a shot against the winner of Bendo vs Edgar or Pettis vs Lauzon or even Miller vs Guillard. But, should the stars align against him, Stout probably represents the contingency plan. Close on his heels is Gleison Tibau, who has put together a nice winning streak as well (ironically, Nick Diaz put him away in 2006).

Notable wins against: Edwards, Lauzon, Wiman

Exposed by: Jeremy Stephens, Terry Etim

Predicted result: Diaz by technical knockout

There are a few more fighters who are pushing their way to the elite of the division, including Jacob Volkmann, who dominated Efrain Escudero last night, but other than the ones I've already mentioned, there's not much competition for Nate out there who doesn't either already have a title belt or is set to fight for one.

So, that's it. Do you see things any different? If so, what did I miss? Share below.

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