Issue 108

December 2013

Gareth A Davies, MMA and Boxing Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, London, on the UFC and the threat posed by big businesses.

Michael Bisping said an interesting thing to me in conversation the other day: he believes the UFC now has a ‘corporate’ feel in the United States. It made me stop and wonder whether we are on the cusp of losing some of the great characters from the sport; Nick Diaz springs to mind. 

We were discussing, with MMA being expanded by the UFC, whether European, African and Asian fight leagues would dilute the sport. They surely would, but it may actually be necessary for a genuine growth spurt in mixed martial arts.

The seeding needs to be done. Bruce Buffer can’t be everywhere, and every global commentary can’t be a combination of two from Anik, Rogan, Florian or Goldberg.

To diversify, the product must have a regional identity. There’s no other way, otherwise the UFC will simply remain a spectacle – and not a sport.

Then Bisping came out with the line that’s stuck with me. “You know what,” he said. “The UFC in America now actually feels quite corporate.”

My immediate thought was of the great characters and individuals we could lose; the men and women we identify with and who draw us to MMA.

With its elevation to a mainstream sport on the Fox TV platform, Bisping has a point. It may not have been adopted yet by corporate America outside sport, but the fighters are now being viewed and, perhaps more importantly, presented as uber-athletes.

That’s why it’s time for the UFC to lure back Nicholas Robert Diaz – a man constantly at odds with himself – with an offer he can’t refuse; the man who resents fighting, feels imprisoned within his sport and insists there is nothing to love about it. 

The 30-year-old has been unusually silent since fighting GSP in March – despite starting his own MMA organization and then getting an offer to fight Lyoto Machida late in the summer.

The UFC misses Diaz, but not in a pining way. He’s like a breeze that moves the grass. He has writers scrabbling for their pens, and cameramen their equipment, whenever he speaks because we expect the unexpected. 

It’s hard not to miss the contradictions, the false hope and the hype he offers. But you can never say never with Diaz; he’s honest to the bone, and frank to the point of pain.

I spent a day at Cesar Gracie’s jiu-jitsu center in Pleasant Hill, 40 miles outside San Francisco, for Fighters Only a couple of years ago, and I’ll never forget the enlightening occasion spent with Diaz; it was an afternoon, as I recalled while re-reading my notes recently, that brought Franz Kafka’s famous novel, The Castle springing strongly to mind.  

Beguilingly honest at times, he makes for painful listening. Then, suddenly, he’s like a Shakespearean fool, a character seemingly on the edge of madness, whose ramblings border the truth we often don’t want to confront.

Diaz doesn’t want to ‘play the game.’ To him, it’s not sport, it’s an extension of real life. Yet it is easy to comprehend why most MMA fans both admire and feel an empathy with the mixed martial artist from Stockton, CA, who’s had a rough, tough existence, and shows it in his fighting style.

In over 20 years of writing about fight sports, and meeting its protagonists in moments of calm, covering them close to fights and just afterwards, never have I felt so disarmed by a man whose motives for fighting apparently eat away at him.

He reminds me of a young Mike Tyson, the late Johnny Tapia, or many of the other troubled souls who have been drawn to fight sports, and whose honesty endears them to us in a way that should urge us to examine ourselves.

In the novel by Kafka, its protagonist, known only as ‘K’ (think Nick Diaz), struggles to gain access to the mysterious inhabitants of a castle who for some reason govern the village he lives in.

It is a dark and, at times, surreal work. But The Castle expounds theories on human alienation, our subjugation through bureaucracy, and the endless frustrations of man’s attempts to stand against the system, which is ultimately futile. 

It mirrors the outlook portrayed by Diaz the warrior. He has the authorship of his fights but ultimately feels he is unable to control his destiny. The system for him is the UFC; it strips him of the control he has garnered over his own existence. 

But it’s time for the compelling world-view espoused by Nick Diaz to return. We need it as an antidote to the growing ‘corporate’ values in the fight organization. The petition to Dana White, UFC president, starts here…