Nate Diaz has emerged from rough Stockton, Calif. to contend for a UFC title

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Nate Diaz is a professional athlete in that he earns money to compete in sports, but really he's not so much an athlete as he is a fighter.

From the time of his youth in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Stockton, Calif., to Saturday's UFC lightweight title fight against Benson Henderson at Key Arena in Seattle, Diaz, 27, has had to fight for everything he's gotten in life.

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Nate Diaz, right, hits Donald Cerrone their UFC lightweight match in Dec., 2011. (AP)

Stockton is one of the toughest towns in the country, and Diaz is one of the toughest guys in Stockton. That toughness came, in part, out of necessity. He grew up in the roughest area of town in a home with curtains instead of doors to keep the world out, with a father who was rarely around and with a mother who had to work multiple jobs to provide.

"There wasn't a lot going on for me [other than fighting]," Diaz said.

His older brother, Nick, turned pro as a mixed martial arts fighter in 2001, when Nate was 16. He used Nate as his sparring partner, a move that toughened the younger Diaz for the career that was to come.

He's literally fought his way to the top, beating the likes of Melvin Guillard, Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller en route to the title shot against Henderson on Saturday in the main event of UFC on Fox 5.

And though he's had nothing but flattering things to say about Henderson – Diaz called Henderson a "great fighter" no less than eight times in 12 minutes during an interview with Yahoo! Sports – he also noted that there is a substantial difference between them.

"I have a lot of respect for Benson Henderson and what he has done in his career," Diaz said. "But he's what I call a round-winner. That's not me. I am a fighter."

Few are as well-conditioned as Diaz, who runs triathlons as a hobby. Saturday's bout will be his first 25-minute match, and usually the length of a title match is one of the champion's edges against a first-time challenger.

No one who knows the fighters, though, thinks the 25-minute length is going to be a factor at all. Diaz is the type of guy who will be going as hard in the 25th minute as he is in the first.

It's that fighting spirit which drives him and it is that tenacity that thrust him into the spot as the No. 1 contender in the UFC's deepest division. He made himself into a title contender through sheer force of will, rebounding in a remarkable manner to a surprisingly lopsided defeat.

Competing at welterweight, Diaz met hot prospect Rory MacDonald in one of the key bouts at UFC 129 in April 2011. MacDonald won the fight after, as Henderson notes, "kind of rag-dolling" Diaz in the second half of the fight.

It was a stunningly one-sided defeat.

Even more stunning, perhaps, is how quickly Diaz turned his career around. He dropped back to lightweight after losing to MacDonald and met Gomi, a noted striker, at UFC 135. Gomi was on the back side of his career, and it wasn't outlandish to believe that Diaz should have won easily.

The manner of the win, though, is what raised eyebrows. Diaz out-struck Gomi, using his boxing to set up a submission victory. Diaz essentially beat Gomi at his own game.

"This kid has really gotten so much better and become an amazing fighter," UFC president Dana White said. "His boxing is now one of his strengths."

Part of that improvement comes from training sessions with boxing superstar Andre Ward, the unified super middleweight champion. Ward is arguably the best technical boxer in the world and, as Diaz notes, training with that kind of talent forces one to improve.

But the relentlessly loyal Diaz gives most of the credit for his striking improvement to coach Richard Perez.

Judging by the development of the boxing skills of both Diaz brothers, Perez obviously is an elite coach. But Nate's improvement is also a tribute to his own perseverance and commitment.

Since he was 17 and an amateur who was very green, Diaz trained boxing year round with the finest fighters in the Bay Area.

"We don't play around and just box anybody who walks into the gym," Diaz said. "We work with legitimate professional boxers who can help us improve. I've been doing that since I was 17 and it makes a difference."

Whether it makes a difference in Saturday's bout remains to be seen. Diaz has his plan, but he isn't particularly concerned about one aspect of the game more than others.

The goal isn't to submit Henderson or outbox him or anything other than win.

"It's a fight, man, and that's what I'm going to do: fight," Diaz said. "I don't worry about all that stuff. I just go and fight."

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