Issue 081

November 2011

They are the closest-knit fight team in all of mixed martial arts, but what exactly makes Nick and Nate Diaz, Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez tick? Fighters Only sent Gareth A Davies to San Francisco to find out…

So, the four disciples of Cesar Gracie. How did you all meet?

Jake Shields: “Pretty much here [at Cesar’s gym in Pleasant Hill, CA]. I knew Gilbert Melendez from college, San Francisco State. I moved up there and I didn’t have any friends. He was a young guy in the [wrestling] team and we started getting along. We started going out drinking, picking up girls together and I told him about fighting and he was a little skeptical. Finally, I talked him into coming over here. First day we just worked on all these kids, tapping them out, and I think he was shocked. I met Nick [Diaz] here before that. Nick was a young, really tough kid, and I was a young guy. We weren’t the best kids in the gym. David Terrell was the best guy –hands down (Terrell fought Evan Tanner for the vacant UFC middleweight title in February 2005). We also had Gil Castillo and all these guys here who aren’t necessarily huge names now, but they beat me up back then. We were young and hungry so me and Nick became competitive with each other.”

Nick Diaz: “I wasn’t a wrestler like all those other guys and so I came over here and loved the jiu-jitsu. My brother’s in this ‘cos of me – I brought him over here.”

So it was 10 years ago when you all started together?

Jake: “Yeah. You know, Nick and I wanted to climb the ranks and be top dogs in the gym so we pushed each other really hard. Nick brought Nate, his little brother, in and I brought Gil in, so naturally there became a kind of friendly rivalry between Nate and Gil too. They’re like our little brothers. Me and Nick would duke it out and they’d duke it out and we’d beat up on them. Nowadays, with them being a lot better, they give us work as well.”

Gil Melendez: “From my side, the fight gods introduced me to Jake. We wrestled together at San Francisco State. I was in my freshman year and Jake transferred there as a junior. We started hanging out, and going partying after training. Then he told me he did some underground fights and I said it was ‘bullshit.’ Next thing, we’d scrap and he’d throw me in a kimura real quick and I’d be like, ‘F**k this guy’s tough.’ Then he dragged me into the gym here at Cesar’s to work with Nick and Nate, who were here too, like the young studs. I was originally just Jake’s workout buddy – and I got my ass kicked pretty bad too. Eventually I stopped wrestling. Then I’d see Nate doing like the same thing as me and eventually Jake and Nick would be like, ‘Hey, go against each other.’ So we’d end up fighting each other too.”

What about you, Nate?

Nate Diaz: “Nick was training with Steve Heath, one of Cesar’s guys, and Nick started bringing me in to train. That’s where I met Cesar, and I started to train full-time.”

So Cesar’s gym is middle ground for you all to meet?

Gil: “Yeah, a couple of times a week, we’re here with the Cesar Gracie fight team in Pleasant Hill, Concord. It’s a middle ground for the boys in Stockton and for us in San Francisco so, yeah, we come out here and hang out and throw down.”

You’re called ‘The Skrap Pack’ – did you come up with that name yourselves?

Gil: “Actually, it’s something that I came up with. We’re the ‘Cesar Gracie Fight Team’ for sure, but you have your affiliates. The boys in Stockton are ‘Team 209’ and there’s ‘NorCal Fight Alliance,’ which is David Terrell, and I made the ‘Skrap Pack’ in San Francisco. The name kind of grew on us. We’re just a group of guys that love to scrap. That’s all there is to it. We come together and we scrap and we scrap hard. As we get a little older and more mature, we’ve started analyzing a little bit more and becoming more intelligent with the game. But we will always want to throw down and scrap.”

Okay, so in a tournament with the four of you, who wins and why?

Jake: “Ahh… who knows?”

It was meant to be a funny question.

Jake: “In that case, of course, I win.”

Nate: “We all win.”

Gil: “Ah bro, I can’t even answer that. Who do I have first round? If I have Jake first round I’ve f**king definitely lost… If I’ve got Jake any rounds I’ve lost, in fact… Nate’s probably my best chance. I need Jake and Nick in one side of the draw to get one of them out of there, then me and Nate have a chance… I’d be shooting for a silver, let’s put it that way.”

Jake: “It’d be a hell of a fight (with Gil) but we fight enough in here so, unfortunately, you’ll never see it.

So are you guys in the ‘office’ together all the time or do you get a chance to go out together?

Jake: “We mostly train together but we do stuff together too. We go out for dinners, go to clubs and we’re often out on trips and fights together, although that’s business, of course. We go to signings together… In fact, we’ve traveled the world together.”

Nate: “As a team we work hard, and do hang out together, but we have different ways of relaxing.”

Gil: “It does happen though. We have our waves with each other. In training camp we see each other every day, and training camp is right now, so we probably won’t hang out as much at night. But after the fights we get to hang out together and wind down together and do some stuff. Nick took me to do a triathlon – ‘Tri for Fun’ – which is a half triathlon. Nick coached me and it was great. And then Nate and I, with his girlfriend and my girl, hang out… Oh, and Jake and I went to Hawaii together. But after that [the break] we need to get back to the real world. We’re also adults now, and have responsibilities. I’ve got a gym I’m running, I’ve got guys I’m training and I’ve got a kid, so we can’t hang out all the time. But yeah, we do hang out together and we have a really tight bond just because of what we go through together.”

What inspires you as a group and how do you motivate each other in different ways?

Nate: “We’ve grown up in the sport together and we’ve become very good friends over that time, because of that we are able to push each other to the next level. There is a great unity with the group and that’s because we are always pushing the other guy to be better.”

Jake: “We’re all self-motivated but I think that’s why we’re all successful. We all live far apart, Gil has a family and I have a daughter, but we do motivate each other well, we’re all good friends but we’re highly competitive also. If we come in here one day and Nick beats me up, I’m not gonna be happy. I’m gonna go home and I’m gonna be thinking about it and figure out what he did so I can get him back. Nick does the same. All of a sudden I can see he went home and figured out what wasn’t working, and thought of a remedy for it.”

How hard do you go at it?

Jake: “Due to the fact we’re all really competitive, we train really hard. Look, we’re all friends, but when we train it’s train time. I think that’s what drives us, we don’t want to lose to each other and we’re all pushing each other to get better and move up.”

You couldn’t fight in a paid fight though could you?

Jake: “No we’ve helped each other out so much over the years and without each other we wouldn’t be here so what’s the point in fighting each other? We teach each other everything we know and if we fought each other why would I want to teach him anything and why would he want to teach me anything? It just doesn’t make any sense. It would break the whole team up. We do it because we love it, remember, there was no money in it when we started.”

Nate: “(Nodding in agreement) It’s very important being part of a team. You need your team for support and you can’t be a great fighter by yourself.”

Who’s the leader in the group, who’s the joker? Have you all got roles?

Nate: “For me, Gilbert is the leader of Skrap Pack, Nick is the leader of Lodi Jiu-Jitsu and Jake is the leader of American Jiu-Jitsu.”

Jake: “We don’t really analyze it that much. We all have a joke together and then we’re all kind of serious. I think me and Nick are a little more serious, more the leaders. We’re used to playing the big brother role. Maybe we’re a little hard but they understand that’s just how it goes and they are the roles we got stuck with.”

Gil: “I would say Nick and Jake are both equal as leaders. Nick’s definitely the bravest warrior of all. We all respect him. Jake, I have so much respect for him. Nick paved the way for Nate and then Jake the same for me. I just did what Jake did. Jake said, ‘Let’s go train,’ and I trained. That was it.”

Is there a joker in the group? I suspect it’s you, Gil, from what you’re saying… 

Gil: “Well, rather than the joker, let me explain. I’d say we’ve got the Godfather, Cesar Gracie, maybe he’s even a father figure, the man that we all respect and possibly fear a little bit. And then I’ve got the two big brothers, Nick and Jake, even though Nick is a year younger than me. He’s still the big bro’ because of what he’s done here.

“But if anyone, Nate and I are the ones who like to joke a little bit and not take things serious... No practical jokes though. We don’t do too much of that. 

“Like I said, these guys are serious and they might find things disrespectful, so we won’t be, like, snatching towels and throwing each other in the hallway naked or butt whipping… nothing like that. We tease each other sometimes…” 

Nate, do you ever feel you are in the shadow of Nick?

Nate: “I don’t ever think about being in anyone’s shadow, but if I am under a shadow, then who better to be under than Nick’s?”

Nick: “I’m not saying that Nate’s made it as far as he has ‘cos of me but what I’m saying is he wouldn’t be an MMA fighter if I wasn’t doing the training and putting it right in front of him to do. Not that I pushed him into it, I’d have hated it to be that.”

No, but he looks up to you doesn’t he?

Nick: “Yeah, there’s a certain time when I have to help him and a certain time when I gotta back off too. It’s f**ked up, you know, a weird thing having a brother in this sport.”

Why do you think there’s this public perception of you guys being the underdogs and it’s you four and Cesar against the world?

Jake: “I don’t know why. Maybe people misperceive us ‘cos we’re tough guys. But Cesar’s one of the nicest guys ever. The thing is that when we fight we take it seriously and people misunderstand that.”

Nate: “People like to over-think everything. I’m not worried about what other people think, all that concerns me is that we are just busy training to get better.”

Nick: “I’m like 100% kamikaze if someone f**ks with my team. It’s as simple as that. We’re in it deep together.”

Gil: “It helps when people are saying, ‘You guys aren’t going to do it.’ People want to see you lose or go after you. It feeds you with that desire. A little motivation doesn’t hurt at all. I’m talking about proving people wrong. I’d like to see people get behind the team a bit more because, once you get to know these guys, they’re really great people. But I think it’s moving that way too.”

Would you guys feel comfortable moving into the mainstream?

Jake: “Who knows? But I think Nick is one of the fan favorites because he is ‘real.’ He doesn’t put on a front. I think sometimes it’s hard for people to tell the difference between the public persona and who the fighter really is. People are sometimes so different from what you see on TV. It’s like Michael Bisping. He’s the nicest guy but people see him on TV and say he’s an a**hole. I hung out with him in Vegas and he really is the nicest guy.”

Television tends to have that effect, though, exaggerating all aspects of people. Like confidence seen as arrogance.

Jake: “People only see little bits and filter bits out. Nick says what’s on his mind and doesn’t filter things out which I think is why he’s a fan favorite, and every time he fights he goes out there and puts it on the line. No one has ever seen Nick in a boring fight, he’s probably my personal favorite.”

Is Cesar the glue in this? Would there have been no group without Cesar and the Gracie philosophy?

Nate: “For me, what Cesar has done is given us the opportunity for a career in this.”

Jake: “Cesar’s kind of the head and like the father figure; he keeps it all together and it’s easier having training together at his gym. He brought us together. If Cesar wasn’t around we’d still stick together but there’s no way without him we would have pulled together like we have.”

As a group of fighters, without him do you think you’d have ended up robbing banks or something? No, no, I’m kidding…

Jake: “Quite possibly [laughing]… Look, we weren’t bad kids but we were all kind of troublemakers, maybe just a bit wild. That’s probably why we all clicked. We were from rough backgrounds, we were fighting on the streets. Growing up in some areas, people challenge you and if you back down you get picked on. Or you fight. That’s obviously how Stockton is…”

Tell me about Stockton…

Jake: “Well things have gotten a little better over the last few years. It’s mixed – white, black, Latino, Asian. I grew up not too far from there and if I walked down the street some guy would come up to me and want to fight me. I guess the smart thing would have been to back down and say, ‘Sorry.’ I never would have fought if I hadn’t have grown up there. Yeah, but it’s just fighting, scrapping.”

So, Gil, having Cesar Gracie has helped with the philosophy of it all?

Gil: “For me, Cesar is a pioneer in the sport. The UFC used to be one dimension versus dimension – boxing versus jiu-jitsu, wrestling versus jiu-jitsu, wrestling versus Muay Thai. Cesar was the first guy to bring it all together. He brought me the idea of transitions into my mind. He paved the way for us. He started it all and now he gets to watch it shine.”