One of the things that's always fascinated me about Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight contender Nate Diaz is how closely his style mimics that of his brother, Nick Diaz, as well as parallel improvements both have made over the same timeline. The latter has lifted both from being merely talented fighters, with one glaring deficit, to potent contenders who are an incredibly difficult package to contend with.
Lack of takedown defense and core wrestling ability was the Achilles heel for both in the early part of their careers. Both Diaz's, during the first half of their UFC campaigns, could pretty much be reliably beaten in one way and one way only: by strong wrestlers taking them down, working them within the confines of the top position (quite often to little effect) and winning a judges' decision. The Diaz brothers possess incredible durability along with stifling jiu-jitsu, and better foes seemed to pursue a very narrow but clear-cut strategy to ride these out to a decision.
But with Nick's quantum leap in striking, which fully kicked in during his Strikeforce days, he became another kind of fighter altogether. It created an added level of pressure to opponents, fatiguing them as much mentally as physically; Nate has now reached that same level.
Two years younger than Nick, the lightweight battler put on a career-defining performance Saturday night in the UFC on Fox 3 main event from the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, N.J., dispatching Jim Miller with a second round submission and landing an eventual 155-pound title shot in the process.
That same Diaz pressure that is now Nick's signature style is obviously something Nate has mastered, and in breaking Miller's will, Nate did something that Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard and Ben Henderson came nowhere close to doing: he finished Miller, one of the most tenacious and reliable fighters in the sport. You can also see the great jiu-jitsu game in Nate in terms of how he outs of a potentially troublesome bottom position; when Miller did get Diaz on the mat, Nate immediately secured a butterfly hook/counter move to deny Miller the chance to solidify his spot, then creating a scramble to get free.
It's going to be fun to watch the lightweight title work its way to Diaz, with Henderson rematching Edgar, presently scheduled for UFC 150 on Aug. 11, 2012. Whomever wins -- and I like Henderson on account of the first fight, and his inevitable improvement -- facing Diaz is a whole different kind of assignment.
It's the small things Diaz does to wear out opponents, underwritten by incredible grappling smarts and toughness. Whether it's banging foes in close, or bouncing shots off their heads in the endless stand up confrontations he seems to relish in forcing, Diaz wears down opponents because he's always, always, always fighting. His improved takedown defense was what changed the tone of the Miller bout, as he stuffed Jim's early attempts with solid countering and positioning, something you didn't see earlier in his career.
Over a five-round fight, improved takedowns and a surging ability to strike make Diaz an incredibly tough assignment. He and Ben Henderson might be one of the best match ups the game has to offer, with Henderson's punishing blend of size, wrestling and Houdini-like ability to wrest himself out of bad positions and excruciating submissions.
Until then, whoever is preparing to fight Nate Diaz knows there are no easy spots, no places to rest, and you're in for one hell of a long night and fight. That's good news for Diaz fans, and waited since he arrived after winning The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 5 in June 2007.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or at twitter.com/jasonprobst.