UFC Needs Nick Diaz

Nick Diaz had eyes rolling as the NSAC announced that he failed the UFC 143 drug screening for marijuana. Losing a close decision to welterweight Carlos Condit, the brash Stockton fighter was enjoying a groundswell of support suggesting that the decision should have gone Nick’s way. Now, he faces disciplinary action, up to a year’s suspension, that could keep him out of the octagon in the foreseeable future.

The unprofessionalism of Nick Diaz is easy to document—In 2006, he (allegedly) attacked Joe Riggs in the hospital bathroom following a loss to Riggs at UFC 57; in 2007, Diaz tested positive for marijuana after a submission win at PRIDE 33 over then highly-touted lightweight Takanori Gomi; the fall of 2011 saw Diaz scrubbed from a title shot against Georges St-Pierre when he missed two key press conferences to promote the fight.

The aftermath of Diaz’ failed test has brought scrutiny on MMA journalists, who some say were well-aware of the result and failed to report it until NSCAC commissioner Keith Kizer confirmed the news openly. Questions of journalistic integrity constantly hound MMA reporters, who must balance breaking news with concerns for accuracy and the politics of fight organizations.

Neither Zuffa nor the fans can shower Diaz with too much ire. He’s just too valuable as a marketable challenge for Georges St-Pierre’s welterweight crown. Great fighters don’t simply appear because of exposure on reality shows alone; they have to have a pedigree honed through high-level competition like Josh Koscheck the NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion; Jake Shields holding titles in EliteXC, Shooto and Strikeforce; Carlos Condit making three defences of the WEC strap or BJ Penn being World Jiu-Jitsu champion—all achievements that each man had earned before ever stepping foot in the UFC.

Far from the tremendous growth shown in previous years, the retirement of Brock Lesnar, and subsequent decline in PPV revenue, has showcased just how fragile the MMA market can be. In 2009, Dana White famously savaged Sherdog journalist Jake Rossen when Rossen had the gall to question White’s belief that MMA “will be the biggest sport in the world by 2020.” In an ironic footnote to Rossen’s story, the UFC has made inroads in foreign markets touted by Rossen as worthy of expansion.

“In nearly 10 years of promotion, Zuffa has failed to reach either Japan or Brazil with a live broadcast — two seemingly obvious choices to pitch stakes,” wrote Rossen in December of 2009 (www.sherdog.com/blog/Foreign-Intrigue-Whites-10Year-Plan-21740).

August 2011 saw the Zuffa-owned version of the UFC promote UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro; January 2012 had a quick return to Brazil with UFC 142; and now UFC 144 unfolded on February 25th  at Saitama Super arena in Japan.

The other question now is whether the UFC can regain lost momentum and find new PPV kingpins to fight on a regular schedule and replace the contributions that now-retired Randy Couture and BJ Penn made for the organization. Other fighters like Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz—both of whom competed from the time of the SEG-owned UFC—should have retired by now, but will be probably be forced to quit in the near future.

Jon Jones, Junior dos Santos, Frankie Edgar and Jose Aldo are among the great hopes for the future of MMA. For the health of the sport, these champions need a slew of viable challengers in order to build them into high-level PPV draws.

Just as Sugar Ray Leonard had Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler, Georges St-Pierre built his fan base while facing great fighters like Matt Hughes and BJ Penn. Without Nick Diaz, there are still excellent opponents like Carlos Condit or Jake Ellenberger—but only Diaz is capable of elevating the broadcast from a regular title defence into a must-see event.

No one really expects Nick Diaz to be a role model. He’s a fighter, one who has always been held accountable for his actions and made to pay a price—one way or another. Right now, the industry needs Diaz to return to action as soon as possible, and make the mega-fight the UFC sorely needs now that Brock Lesnar’s departure and GSP’s layoff due to a knee injury have left Zuffa’s pockets that much emptier.

Brian J. D’Souza is a Canadian writer who has covered Mixed Martial Arts for ESPN.com, FoxSports.com, Sportsnet magazine and FIGHT! magazine.

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