UFC 266: Return of Cult Hero Diaz Against Lawler Promises Excitement

Nick Diaz and Robbie Lawler, UFC 266 press conference
Nick Diaz and Robbie Lawler, UFC 266 press conference Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

17 years after their first meeting, Nick Diaz and Robbie Lawler once again promise fireworks as the cult favorite collides with one of the Octagon’s most legendary savages at UFC 266.

It is a rare and blessed position to be in combat sports when your number of wins and losses doesn’t affect your popularity and ability to draw a crowd.  Nick Diaz is one such individual.  Diaz has not fought in six years, lost his last three bouts, and fans could not care less.  While he was never regarded as the best welterweight in the world even during his prime, he always guaranteed excitement.  If you’re ever looking for electrifying battles from the pre-Rousey era in MMA, his fights with Robbie Lawler, Diego Sanchez, and Paul Daley are great ways to waste away an afternoon.

Expectations for his return to be another exciting classic are high, but now come the sobering x-factors going into his comeback.  At 38 years old, there is question of how durable he remains at this stage of his career.  He may be coming off a long layoff with time for his body to recover, but nearly 20 years in the fight game has a debilitating effect on anyone no matter how tough they are.  Secondly, only he and his team know just how sharp he has kept his skills during his time away.

Amazingly, Robbie Lawler remains Diaz’s perfect dance partner 17 years after their first encounter.  While he has become a more efficient engine of destruction, every scheduled appearance by “Ruthless” still continues to bring a level of excitement from the fans.  Since their first meeting years ago, Lawler has experienced a complete career renaissance.  After joining the UFC has a young prospect under the tutelage of a legend in Matt Hughes, he rose to prominence as a middleweight in promotions like Elite XC and Strikeforce.  In 2013, he returned to the Octagon and cemented himself as one of the most exciting fighters on the roster en route to becoming welterweight champion.

But just as Diaz has questions revolving his return, so does Lawler.  He is on a four fight skid, and injuries have seen him struggle to remain active in the five years since he lost the championship.  It has never been conducive to a long career to consistently get into the kind of wars he’s had.  Add the fact that he has also reached 20 years as a professional fighter himself, and it is fair to suspect that the miles he has put on his body might finally be catching up to him.  Considering that his fight with Diaz is scheduled for five rounds, whether or not Lawler’s explosiveness and durability holds up late in the fight could be the difference.

The biggest difference in the fight is that Lawler now takes a more measured approach.  He must be weary of becoming a stationary target as Diaz will be looking to come forward where he has historically used his boxing and forward pressure to overwhelm opponents.  The blueprint is there for Lawler if he can execute it: chop away with leg kicks and body attacks and circle away when Diaz looks to engage.  Diaz by comparison will need to take risks and push forward at a smothering pace against Lawler. If Lawler’s durability and gas tank are compromised, then Diaz will run away with the fight quickly if he is effective in this scenario.  By the same token, if Diaz is more susceptible to damage then he could quickly find himself stopped against the more explosive Lawler.

A win for Lawler would easily be one of the biggest victories of his career, easily going up with the ones he claimed as champion.  Any number of fights within the top ten would likely be available to him as the division plays out in the next few months.  A Diaz victory would create interesting scenarios as his popularity could propel him to any number of high profile bouts.  Considering the champion Kamaru Usman’s dominance, a title fight for Diaz if Usman defeats Colby Covington is not out of the question when surveying the current landscape.