Stand or wrestle: Diaz’s crucial choice
It's no small irony that the first Strikeforce under new owner Zuffa is headlined by a fight between two infamous bad boys of mixed martial arts who both ran into problems with the UFC’s management due to post-fight misbehavior.
In his first run with the organization, Nick Diaz got into a post-fight brawl in a hospital against Joe Riggs after UFC 57, while Paul Daley infamously sucker-punched Josh Koscheck at UFC 113. One wonders what Dana White makes of this fight back in Las Vegas.
It is, however, a brilliant main event to kick off the new era, and the intrigue really centers on how welterweight champion Diaz will approach this match. Whereas most fighters seek to take the fight to where their opponent is weakest, Diaz seemingly takes a perverse joy out of beating his challengers at their own game. It is an approach that has turned his past two title matches from seemingly easy defenses into tight contests with both KJ Noons and Evangelista Santos finding unexpected joy against the champion in matches largely fought on the feet.
The Santos fight best showed the insanity of this approach with Diaz struggling against the challenger for almost two rounds until Cyborg took him down. As soon as that fight hit the ground the superior grappling of the Cesar Gracie Black Belt was clear as Diaz submitted the Brazilian in literally seconds.
This lack of focus on his own strengths bleeds into his training and overall skill set. Diaz is clearly strongest with his grappling. But for any fighter to be consistently able to use jiu-jitsu in modern MMA they need to have elite-level wrestling, otherwise opponents can simply keep the fight on the feet. Despite this, Diaz’s takedowns have showed no real sign of improvement over the past few years, even though they have been highlighted as his major weakness.
If Diaz has not focused on improving his wrestling then no one should assume that this fight will go to the ground. Daley might have struggled against Koscheck, but he’s shown good takedown defense in previous fights against non-wrestlers and an ability to scramble back to his feet if the person in top control is overly aggressive.
However, Diaz might be able to still control the fight even if it does stay upright thanks to his much-improved striking game. With superior height and reach, Diaz has the natural gifts to keep Daley at bay and work him over with the quick jab and his varied selection of kicks. That would be consistent with his recent fights, where his volume-punching style allows him to outwork his opponents and simply outpoint them on number of punches thrown.
The danger with such a strategy is that unless he can wear down Daley, it's unlikely Diaz has the power to knock out the Brit. That means to win a standing battle against Daley he might have to go the distance like he did against Karl-James Noons. In that fight, Diaz showed impressive punch resistance as he was able to walk through repeated solid shots that landed cleanly on his chin.
But while Noons is a former pro boxer, he’s a natural lightweight who lacked the power to hurt a Diaz. But since their first meeting, Diaz has grown into a genuine welterweight. Therefore, Noon's knockout power didn't translate in their rematch. Daley, on the other hand, is a large, powerful challenger to his throne who comes in with a KO rate of almost 75 percent.
Despite being the runaway favorite according to the oddsmakers, Diaz has a hard choice to make. He can either take the safe, but boring, route by taking the fight to the ground, where his grappling would surely secure him a submission victory. Or he can roll the dice and stand with MMA’s foremost KO artist.
Neither is the easy option. To achieve the former he will have to embrace the grind of reptitious drills to improve his takedowns, something he clearly has not been willing to do previously. As for the latter route, bear this in mind that on Oct. 9, 2010, Noons landed more than 300 strikes on Diaz. On April 9, 2011, Paul Daley only needs to land one.