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Defiant Diaz finds way to main event

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Nick Diaz isn't exactly acting like a fighter just days away from the most high-profile fight of his career.

Before headlining UFC 137 against B.J. Penn, with a likely shot at the UFC welterweight title coming with a win, Diaz has made it clear this is not a fight he is relishing or looking forward to.

"I don't feel good about it, I'd have been happy with a different fight, not to fight somebody I'm so acquainted with," he said.

On Wednesday, Diaz made noises that he's now second-guessing his decision not to go into professional boxing. He is contractually unable to do so because of an exclusive UFC deal he signed earlier this year, when he thought he was getting a title shot at champion Georges St. Pierre.

Diaz was initially supposed to headline Saturday night's event at the Mandalay Bay Events Center against St. Pierre, but then failed to show up for two press conferences, one in Toronto and another in Las Vegas. UFC president Dana White responded by pulling Diaz out of the main event and threatening to expel him from the company.

But White extended an olive branch, discussing the idea of putting Diaz up against Penn, removing him from the main event spotlight but keeping him in a high-profile fight on the card. Penn had been left without an opponent on the show when Carlos Condit was moved up to face St. Pierre. When the title fight fell through due to St. Pierre's knee and hamstring injuries last week, suddenly Diaz is back in the main event.

"I don't want to fight my friends and people I know," Diaz said. "It's kind of a rule I have. He signed to fight first. I'd have never signed to fight first. I don't care how much money, even millions of dollars, I wouldn't have signed first. But he signed first. He sent me a message saying, `Sorry about the position you're in. You got [expletive]."

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Diaz, the former Strikeforce welterweight champion, and Penn, a former UFC lightweight and welterweight champ, are on good terms. Diaz fondly talks about having watched Penn's first pro fight, and how he grew up with a poster of Penn on his wall. The two have trained together in the past, and Penn clearly respects Diaz. Many have lauded Penn has being among the best boxers in MMA, and he himself has said his boxing isn't at the level of Diaz.

"I've sparred with him before, and he's fought the best there is, so he would know," Diaz said. "This is not a fight for me, it's more of a sporting competition this time," he said. "I hope nobody's too disappointed if it doesn't go the same way it always does."

Diaz (25-7, 1 no contest) is one of the MMA business's biggest enigmas. Most fighters will do anything to be not just a championship-level fighter, but reach the elusive superstar level. They create personalities, come up with ideas for attention, and have handlers advise them on what to do.

But Diaz is not like most fighters. He doesn't say what fighters are programmed to say before fights. For instance, he noted this week that he felt he made the wrong business decision earlier this year in taking the exclusive UFC contract.

"If I had my chance to do it over again, I would have gone back to the boxing contract," he said, believing there is more money in that sport. But others note that a world champion in UFC, which Diaz is one win away from a second chance at, pays more than all but the Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather level.

Diaz took a huge financial hit in going from a main event title fight that may have been UFC's biggest pay-per-view fight of 2011, to a non-title fight on Saturday. While he's back in the main event, UFC 137 isn't going to do nearly the pay-per-view business as a title fight with St. Pierre would have drawn, and thus he won't cash in on the pay-per-view dollars.

"If you fight for the title, you make a lot of money," he noted. "If you win the title, you make a lot of money and people are throwing money at you. I can't stop fighting now even if I wanted to. I have to make money. I have to work hard and get paid, just like everybody wants to. It's a job."

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Diaz doesn't consider self-promotion as part of the job, but luckily for him, he's got that natural "it" factor, even if having "it" isn't one of his goals.

"It's some of the perks of living in Stockton," he said. "Even if people know who you are, they're not going to say anything. It keeps me training and I don't get into the people paying attention to you thing. Most of the time, I don't even get recognized in town.

"I'm not running around wanting to do extra credit work," Diaz joked. "I train really hard. Nobody wants to come to Stockton, California, to talk with me. It's not a bad place. Half is a harsh side. It's not too bad over there, not much going on here. I like it because it's where I grew up, an hour from Sacramento, I can get up in the mountains real conveniently, it's an hour to go to San Francisco and train with Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez. I don't mind the hour drive. It's time to relax and think. I'm an hour from everything. I see who wants to go, hop on the wagon and we go."

But in his quest to just train and fight, Diaz has created something that few fighters have. His fighting style, a combination of ridiculous punches that has overwhelmed most opponents, and his taunting of opponents, has given him a cult-like following. His hair-trigger temper, which has included being a focal point in two televised post-fight brawls, plays a part in it as well. His skills in the ring earned him the Strikeforce welterweight title, and his drawing power moved the needle from a business standpoint in a way only a handful of fighters do. His recent fights drew significantly higher than usual ratings. On a consistent basis, Diaz was probably Strikeforce's best television drawing card of the past two years besides Fedor Emelianenko and Herschel Walker, both of whom have umpteen times more worldwide notoriety.

Diaz, 28, comes into Saturday with a 10-fight winning streak, dating back to a blood-stoppage loss to K.J. Noons four years ago, one Diaz avenged in a rematch. His most recent fight, a TKO with three seconds left in the first round against Paul Daley on April 9 in San Diego, is a strong candidate for the 2011 fight of the year. But he an underdog against Penn because a lot of people remember his first UFC run, from 2003-06, where he compiled a 6-4 record.

Aside from the blood stoppage of Noons, he was only finished one other time in his career, and he was 19 at the time. But he's struggled with guys who were able to take him down and had experience at avoiding submissions.

In the last four years, Diaz has been booked with fighters who were not takedown specialists, so questions still linger. Some thought St. Pierre's style was tailor made to beat Diaz, but he said he thinks it's the opposite.

Against Penn (16-7-2), the question as to where Diaz truly stands against elite competition should be answered. And even with his winning streak, size edge, and admitted boxing advantage, it is the Hawaiian who is the favorite.

"This is the UFC, that has a lot to do with that," he said. "I think people maybe consider the fighters in the UFC to be a lot better, stronger fighters. Maybe that's the reason they put me as an underdog. I haven't really thought about it too much. I really don't pay much attention to whether I'm up or down."

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