Diaz’s future will be dictated by results of UFC return against Penn
If Diaz comes out of UFC 137 with a tick in the loss column, it won’t matter that it’s the first time since November 10, 2007 that such a mark has appeared on his resume. It won’t matter that he avenged that EliteXC loss to KJ Noons in dominant fashion, or that he rattled off ten consecutive victories since then either.
Saturday night is Diaz’s first and only opportunity to validate his place among the elite of the sport and the welterweight division to an audience that — fair or not — couldn’t care less about what he accomplished outside of the UFC Octagon.
While there are plenty of fans who recognize the challenge of amassing ten straight victories regardless of where you fought, and know that transforming your body from that of a lightweight to a middleweight and back to welterweight during that time is a feat in and of itself.
But those fans are in the minority.
For the majority of fans, MMA equals UFC, and no matter what you’ve done elsewhere, until you’ve done it in the UFC, you haven’t done anything.
That’s what makes Diaz’s first trip into the Octagon since UFC 65 so important. He won’t be given a second chance to make a first impression with the fans who have yet to see him compete.
This is his one and only shot to show that despite facing weaker competition than the UFC has to offer, it’s the results and the performances that matter more. That nine of the last ten men to stand across from him were finished, and the one that went the distance took 25 minutes of punishment is what should be considered, not that those fights came outside the UFC against opponents who would rank as average at best collectively.
Unfortunately for Diaz and his supporters, that isn’t the case.
Much like the Japanese or Brazilian stars that show up in the UFC with a lengthy winning streak and impressive records, no one is ready to back them completely until they prove they can match those performances inside the Octagon.
Some do just that, but many others have failed. For Diaz, his one and only opportunity comes on the biggest stage possible, and there is no room for error.
Beating the likes of Noons, Evangelista Santos, and Paul Daley isn’t the same as running the gauntlet at the top of the UFC welterweight division, but a win over Penn on Saturday night renders those arguments moot. “The Prodigy” is held as a legitimate contender, and therefore a valid measuring stick for where Diaz falls in the 170-pound weight class.
It’s a somewhat similar predicament to the one faced by Fedor Emelianenko when he made the move to Strikeforce, though Diaz has beaten consistently better opposition than “The Last Emperor” had faced in the years leading up to his joining the Strikeforce ranks.
Despite a dominant legacy from his days in Pride and never having suffered a legitimate loss, there were still fans who held serious reservations about placing Emelianenko at the top of the heavyweight rankings. Though he beat Brett Rogers, plenty of fans remained unconvinced of Emelianenko’s greatness, and each of his three subsequent since that bout have pushed him served as “I Told You So” moments.
As unfair as it will be, a loss for Diaz here will be the same as each of those three losses for Emelianenko; a starting point for the “he never deserved the title shot in the first place” onslaught that would surely follow.
While Diaz hasn’t faced anyone remotely as bad as Hong Man Choi or Wagner “Zuluzinho” Martins, his window of opportunity to convince people who aren’t sold on his success is smaller.
Diaz was handed an all-expenses paid trip to a shot at the welterweight title before he let that slip away by shirking his media obligations, and now he’s getting a former two-time world champion who remains near the top of the division in a coin-flip fight.
While Penn is a tougher test for Diaz than Rogers was for Emelianenko, Diaz has spent the last couple years saying he deserves these types of opportunities and recognition as one of the best in the division.
Saturday is his chance to prove it.
It’s a high risk, high reward scenario; the kind of fight Diaz has to win to turn the doubters into believers and validate his place in the pecking order.
A win moves Diaz to the head of the list of contenders in the welterweight ranks; a loss puts him at the back of the line.
Not a couple spots back where one or two wins gets him right back into the mix, either; we’re talking “go win three or four before you start asking for a title shot” territory. The Jon Fitch Zone without having challenged for the title once already.
With the performances delivered by Jake Ellenberger and Rory MacDonald in recent months, and the presence of established stars like Fitch and Josh Koscheck, Diaz will have to fight his way back to the top of the division if things go poorly on Saturday night.
This is his one opportunity to use the express lane to the top of the rankings and make believers out of the undecided masses.
The only way to accomplish both is to have his hand raised on Saturday night.