When longtime star and current Strikeforce Welterweight Champion Nick Diaz meets Paul Daley tonight (April 9, 2011) in San Diego, it will be his first fight under the Zuffa banner in more than four years.
Diaz left the UFC in 2006, amassing a 10-1 record (with the infamous no contest against Takanori Gomi) outside the confines of the MMA behemoth. Throughout the interceding years, Diaz has sustained a level of popularity typically reserved for those deemed worthy of a push by Dana White. Now, he finds himself back in the fold with Zuffa and their massive marketing capabilities.
It's a comfortable situation for a fighter of Nick Diaz's ability and demeanor. Although his shortcomings against wrestlers will likely exclude him from the very top of the 170-pound division, he's established a reputation as a fighter who always "brings it," so to speak.
Despite a jiu jitsu game honed by Cesar Gracie, he's never hesitant to engage in a firefight. And when he does choose to strike, his reach and ability to throw snapping combos typically finds him winning most exchanges.
On top of all that, he wears a mean mug straight out of an early-2000s hip-hop video and speaks with the harshness a childhood in Stockton can so deeply ingrain. Diaz is a polarizing figure, the most desirable kind of a fighter from a promotional standpoint.
In short, he's a star.
If Diaz can avoid failing drug tests, Zuffa would not hesitate to give him the hard sell, and they've already begun sticking their toe in the water. Tonight is the first great test of having the Zuffa machine behind Strikeforce's top star, following the surreal advertisements for the card during UFC 128.
If there are any significant gains, it will mean the casual UFC fan is becoming more aware of a fighter like Diaz who is already immensely popular among the more dedicated followers of the sport.
There are some tricky conundrums that arise, however.
The man standing across from Diaz is the heavy-handed Brit, Paul Daley. After sucker punching Josh Koscheck following a UFC 113 bout, Dana White emphatically declared Daley would "never come back" into the UFC fold.
That was well before Zuffa's acquisition of Strikeforce, however, and Daley had already been slotted into this title fight and had also been featured in promotional materials. It will be interesting to see if Dana White maintains the hard-line stance on Daley should he pull the upset. As has been evidenced before, money talks above all, and with Daley, you have a successful British fighter (of which there are very few) with lightning in his fists and the ability to sell a fight.
Throw Zuffa behind him and he, too, can be a star.
Running down the rest of the card, it's easy to see fighters that can wind up on billboards in Times Square with just a little selling from the Zuffa machine: Gegard Mousasi, with his stoic, Fedor-like visage; Gilbert Melendez, with his penchant for marvelous dramatic fights; even Shinya Aoki, whose charisma and emotion transcends language barriers.
Simply put, this is only the beginning for these exceptional fighters who've been held back by limited exposure to the North American masses and constrained by tight marketing budgets. Tonight will tell if having the "Zuffa push" equates to an as-yet unattained popularity, or if these men who've built themselves up will continue to have to do so until they get pulled into the UFC proper.