COMMENTARY | Even though Nate Diaz had already compiled a 5-2 record coming into the fifth season of "The Ultimate Fighter," most MMA fans knew him only as Nick Diaz' brother, that is, if they even knew who he was.
Yet, five years later, the scrawny kid from Stockton, Calif. is set to challenge Benson Henderson for the UFC's lightweight title.
The two will meet on Dec. 8, at the KeyArena in Seattle Wash.
Right from his first fight on the show, Diaz (16-7-0, 11 submissions) made it clear that his submissions were on a different level, tapping out Rob Emerson, Corey Hill, and Gray Maynard on his way to the finale. Nate squared up against Manvel Gamburyan at the "Ultimate Fighter 5 Finale," and the MMA gods were on his side on that day. After getting dominated by Gamburyan for the majority of their encounter, Nate got a huge break during the second round when Manvel injured his shoulder, bringing an end to the contest.
Nate went on to win his next four fights in the UFC, but his luck finally ran out when he ran into Clay Guida at UFC 94 (he lost via decision). Guida dominated Nate with his takedowns and top control, exposing Diaz' biggest weakness: his takedown defense. Diaz lost two of his next three fights to Joe Stevenson and Maynard, prompting a move to the welterweight division.
Nate's stint at 170 pounds started off with impressive victories against Rory Markham (ended up being a 177-pound catchweight bout) and Marcus Davis, but he ran into problems against Kim Dong-Hyun and then Rory MacDonald -- who controlled him with their wrestling.
Tired of dealing with bigger, stronger opponents, Diaz decided to give the lightweight division another try.
It turned out to be the right move for his career.
Nate's striking has always been decent, but he showed how much his boxing has evolved over the years when he faced Takanori Gomi at UFC 135. Diaz beat the snot out of Gomi, punishing "The Fireball Kid" with beautiful combinations before putting him away with an armbar at the end of the first round.
Nate proved his performance against Gomi wasn't a fluke during his next outing against Donald Cerrone (a dangerous striker by any standard), giving "Cowboy" a boxing lesson at UFC 141. At that point, it was clear Diaz was no longer the lanky guy who relied primarily on his BJJ.
Still, some MMA fans had their doubts about the Stockton native, citing the fact he always seemed to fall short whenever he faced a solid wrestler.
Nate finally got a chance to showcase how much he's evolved since his earlier fights, when he faced Jim Miller -- who is one of the top wrestlers in the lightweight division -- at "UFC on Fox 3." Diaz' takedown defense was flawless against Miller, and he didn't have any problems keeping the fight standing. Nate didn't just stop Jim's takedown attempts; he made him pay for trying to get the fight to the ground, transitioning to a guillotine choke, while defending a takedown, forcing the tap in the second round.
Nate's road to the UFC's lightweight title certainly wasn't easy, but the Stockton native probably wouldn't have it any other way. The tough losses he had to endure forced him to address his weaknesses, turning him into a well-rounded MMA fighter.
Diaz is now less than a week away from the biggest fight of his professional MMA career, and he does have all the tools needed to emerge as the UFC's new lightweight champion. Like others have in the past, Henderson will try to keep Nate on his back, but it won't be an easy task.
Even if Henderson is able to get the fight to the ground, it's hard to see him laying of top of Diaz for 25 minutes and not getting submitted.
"Benson Henderson is tough," Diaz said on 'UFC on Fox 5: Road to the Octagon.' "He'll definitely be a hard guy to fight, but I don't think he's a better fighter than me. He might be a better round winner, but as a fighter overall, I don't think so. My goal is to be the number one fighter in the world."
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