The behind-the-scenes stories of Nate Diaz, as told by those who know him best

The behind-the-scenes stories of Nate Diaz, as told by those who know him best

7:15 AM ET

  • Marc RaimondiESPN Staff Writer

The private jet taxied into its hangar in Phoenix on Sunday, shortly after 5 p.m. local time. It carried passengers who had boarded a couple of hours earlier in Stockton, California. But they’ve been on a long, strange trip for years.

Nate Diaz arrived for UFC 263 with friends who remember when he would show up in a bullet-riddled Honda or riding in a friend’s ’95 Chrysler Sebring. The mode of transportation is different these days, but Diaz is essentially the same — the rare superstar who’s been able to maintain an authenticity that keeps the bond of this team tight.

— UFC_Asia (@UFC_Asia) June 8, 2021

Diaz, 36, started in Brazilian jiu-jitsu when he was about 14, partly because he knew the gym would provide hot meals after sessions. Under the tutelage of the renowned Cesar Gracie, and following in the footsteps of his brother Nick Diaz, Nate evolved into a BJJ black belt, and he would become known for creative submissions and a trademark strike symbolic of his combative upbringing: the Stockton Slap. His success in the Octagon, including winning The Ultimate Fighter 5 in 2007, and his lack of pretense endeared him to a large and loyal fan base. Now he’s one of the most popular fighters in the world, rubbing elbows with celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Post Malone.

On Saturday, he fights Leon Edwards in a pivotal five-round welterweight bout at UFC 263 in Glendale, Arizona. It isn’t the main event or even the co-main, but Diaz-Edwards is arguably the most anticipated contest on a stacked pay-per-view card that features two championship bouts. The winner could get a shot at welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.

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As Diaz stepped off the plane, he was surrounded by teammates and friends who know the UFC superstar on a different level than his public-facing persona as the mean-mugging, weed-smoking little brother of Nick. They know the guy with the great sense of humor, who was a good sport when a “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” skit backfired on him. They know the loyal friend who once filled the fridge of a buddy who was down on his luck. And they remember the guy who knew when it was time to take over. These are their stories.

[Editor’s note: Some content was edited for brevity and clarity.]

The early days

‘My first time seeing Nate fight’

Nick McDermott is one of Diaz’s oldest and closest friends, and he is currently his photographer.

He was getting into fights a lot as a kid. If anybody had anything to say, he’d be like, “Well, let’s fight.”

There was one time at the baseball field in Morada. Some older kid and Nate were talking s— to each other. Nate was probably like 11 or 12 years old. The guy was with a bunch of people.

Nate got all his friends together and was like, “This guy is talking s—.” They all went over there, and this kid and Nate fought for like a half-hour. This kid was like three or four years older than Nate, but it was a pretty crazy fight. That was my first time seeing Nate fight. I’d say Nate won, but it was a long, crazy fight.

‘These guys were really poor’

Cesar Gracie is a legendary Brazilian jiu-jitsu trainer and was Diaz’s first martial arts coach.

He started with me when he was about 14. I think Nick was 16. These guys were really poor. Nate didn’t have money to go grab food or anything. He started training in jiu-jitsu really because after we would train, we’d all go get something to eat. We’d go buy food — tacos or something. It was pretty cheap. The taco trucks were pretty common in Stockton.

It was a way to go, “Well, I’m hungry, and if all I have to do is go do jiu-jitsu and box, everybody is going to eat? Great.”

‘There was blood all over the car’

Rudy Hernandez is a childhood friend of Diaz’s and a longtime training partner.

We were hanging out in Charter Way, which wasn’t too nice of a neighborhood in Stockton. We got into an altercation, and one of our friends got shot in the arm.

Everyone took off. We threw our friend in the car and we’re driving to the hospital. It was me, Nathan and our friend. It was just crazy. There was blood all over the car, but he made it.

Nathan was calm. I think he’s seen a lot growing up. He doesn’t talk about it.

‘We were kind of the comic relief’

Gilbert Melendez is a former Strikeforce lightweight champion, a UFC veteran and longtime Diaz training partner. He recalls grappling sessions under the watchful eyes of former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields, who coached Melendez, and Nick Diaz.

My first encounters with Nate were grappling on the mat with him. They were very silent and quiet sessions, and we just followed the direction of our coaches.

As it went on, we really connected because we had a lot of fun and would laugh, and we were just similar. We enjoyed the ride.

I don’t think our goals were to be the toughest in the world at the time. We were kind of the comic relief with Jake and Nick being so damn serious. That’s how Nate is. He’s a big leader, he’s a big captain. But he also just keeps everyone really connected. He lights up a room when he comes in. Not just because of who he is or what he’s done, but even before that. He just had that with his boys and his team. Until this day, he keeps true to that.

The evolution

‘The Stockton Slap is real, bro’

Andre Ward is a retired boxing champion and current ESPN boxing analyst who started training with Diaz around 2010.

I worked with him for years during my professional boxing career, especially when I fought a lefty. He provided some of the most difficult work I’ve had as a professional. He’s left-handed, and I don’t normally have issues with left-handers, but Nate is awkward. He throws a lot of punches from awkward angles.

And the Stockton Slap is real, bro. It’s not like it hurts. It’s just disrespectful. Like, you really hit me with that? And then boom, boom. He hits you with more shots. It’s more volume than it is power.

And he doesn’t get tired. He can take it, he can dish it out. I had to bring my A-game every time.

‘They didn’t realize he was gone’

Joe Lauzon is a UFC veteran and former castmate with Diaz on The Ultimate Fighter 5.

He obviously doesn’t love doing media, but he has gotten better. I remember when we had to do the UFC photo shoots for The Ultimate Fighter. The UFC used to be horrible about photos. Now they take like 15 minutes from when you show up to when you leave. But it used to take like two hours, if you were lucky.

Nate was right before me and was sick of waiting. So he left and ran like 6 miles back to the hotel in Las Vegas. They didn’t realize he was gone for a while and had to track him down, and he made them send another car to go and pick him up. I was dying laughing and knew exactly how he felt.

‘He tossed me around like a rag doll’

Maynard James Keenan is a multiple-Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and musician. He is best known as the lead singer of Tool. He’s also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt.

I’ve rolled Brazilian jiu-jitsu with Nate a little bit. Well, he rolled on me. He tossed me around like a rag doll. We did what resembled rolling.

When you’re rolling with somebody like Nate Diaz — and I would imagine someone like Demian Maia — it’s a whole different level of understanding of the art. I could get into geeky specific stuff, but really just watching the transitions. You have to learn them and feel them.

It was quite the “Holy s—, I have so much to learn.” Nate didn’t have to submit me. You can see, whatever adjustment he just made there’s five submissions from right there and he didn’t even bother taking them. It was just staring us all in the face and it was like, “Oh god.”

‘Turn off the clock’

Daniel Roberts is a UFC veteran and former Diaz training partner.

I was staying in his guesthouse for a few weeks, there to help him before his fight with Benson Henderson in 2012. I’m a pretty good grappler as well. So we were kind of going, and it was a stalemate. He was like, “Who is this guy?” Then he was like, “Turn off the clock.” And eventually he passed my guard. He has crazy endurance. That was funny. No clock. I was like, “Oh man.”

And he eats really healthy. It was after the fight; I went to McDonald’s. Nick came over and was like, “Whose McDonald’s is that?” It was such a shock. Like I just committed a crime or something. “Who’s eating this crap?” I think I got a Gatorade, like Gatorade is healthy. They were like, “Who got a Gatorade?” I thought I was doing good. Nate eats a lot of gluten-free stuff. Very clean. Organic. I could taste the difference too, and I felt the difference when I was out there.

‘Everyone needs a friend like Nathan Diaz’

Hernandez recalls a time Diaz displayed the depth of his friendship.

I got run over by a car in Las Vegas in 2012. I’ve got a titanium bar in my leg, and I’m over here thinking I wasn’t going to walk again. I had to go to surgery because it was a compound fracture of my right femur. I was in the hospital for a few days.

Nathan pops up. I didn’t tell him; he found out. He took the next flight out, and he brought me a whole bunch of vitamins from Whole Foods. He was like, “Don’t take that s—. Don’t take the pain pills. Take this, because this does this. If you’re feeling some type of way, hit some weed or something.” He brought me a whole bunch of all-natural herbs, like healing stuff.

It was good to see him. Everyone needs a friend like Nathan Diaz — everybody. I was struggling, working part time and paying rent in a Vegas apartment around that same year. He could have got his own hotel room, but he stayed with me. He wanted to see what’s up, see how I was doing.

“He’s a big leader, he’s a big captain. But he also just keeps everyone really connected. He lights up a room when he comes in. Not just because of who he is or what he’s done, but even before that. He just had that with his boys and his team. Until this day, he keeps true to that.”

Gilbert Melendez

He saw my fridge was empty. He went to Smith’s and bought groceries. I thought, “Oh, he’s just going to chill all week.” And then he left the next day. I was like, “You can take them.” He was like, “Dog, don’t trip. It’s all good.” Just taking care of me. He ain’t gotta tell you, he’s just gonna show you.

‘Nate will set you up like that’

Gracie recalls the day Diaz introduced one of his coaches, Steve Heath, to Kron Gracie, Cesar’s cousin and a UFC fighter and BJJ standout.

Nate knew what was going to happen, which was the funny part.

Kron had never met Steve in his life, and Steve is like, “You Gracies, you guys are overrated.” Kron is like, “Who the hell is this guy?” Steve is like, “You’ve got that choke from the back, the rear-naked choke. You think it works. I bet you I can get out of it.”

Kron is an accomplished grappler. He grabs Steve and he puts him in the choke and goes, “OK, on three. One, two …”

Steve had a Taser on him, and he tased Kron’s leg. Nate is on the side, laughing. Kron lets go of the choke and starts chasing Steve around the gym. They’re going back and forth like a sketch comedy show. Nate will set you up like that.

‘You guys have to buy some new belts’

Mikey Singh Hothi is a member of the Lodi, California, city council, a student of Nate Diaz’s and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt.

Our Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym at Nick Diaz Academy is notorious for belts and how challenging it is to get one. A lot of people from other gyms were transferring over to ours because obviously they wanted to train with Nate and Nick. So we’d have a bunch of these blue belts from lesser gyms coming through, and we were kind of notorious for demoting them.

There were three of us white belts on the mat, and there were three blue belts from different gyms that were there. He had a white belt roll with each of the blue belts from the other gyms. And every single blue belt got tapped out by a white belt.

Afterwards, he had everybody line up and he said, “OK, everybody take off your belts.” We all put our belts on the ground. I was like, “Oh my god, this is the moment I’m going to get my blue belt.” I was really excited. He came over and picked up the three white belts that were on the ground and he gave them to the blue belts, like, “OK, you guys have gotta wear these now.”

And he picked up the three blue belts on the ground, looked at us and was like, “You guys have to buy some new [white] belts” and just walked off the mat.

The turning point

‘He figured it out’

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After arguably one of the greatest callouts in UFC history, Nate Diaz explains to reporters why he decided to call out then-featherweight Conor McGregor back in 2015.

Randy Spence is Diaz’s coach, longtime training partner and friend.

Nathan was a soldier. He just did what he was told. I think in the long run it helped him out because he got to see all the intricacies to see how everything worked.

Then when it was time for him to come out of his shell and make his move, he was a little ahead of the game. When the time was right for him, he was like: I can’t be a soldier, it’s time for me to be the boss.

He made that move right around the Rafael dos Anjos fight in Arizona on Dec. 13, 2014. He’s down to fight dos Anjos, but the circumstances weren’t great [Diaz lost by unanimous decision]. He was kind of hurt, and he was like, “I’m going to fight one of the best guys in the world and I’m not really getting paid.” I think that was a blessing in disguise. I would say that’s when he really took his own reins and kind of ran with it. And he figured it out.

When we went to fight Michael Johnson a year later, I know it sounds cliché, but he scripted everything that was going to happen. He knew what he was going to do. He knew he was going to win. He knew when he won, he was going to call out Conor McGregor in a way that couldn’t be denied. That was cool to see him make a mission and make it happen. If something could personify Nathan outside the Octagon, it was that week.

Nick wasn’t fighting as much anymore, and Jake wasn’t fighting as much anymore. It was kind of like a turning of the guard. It was like: I sat back and waited and let them run their course. He kind of internalized it like: It’s my turn to go out and do what I can do. Nobody ever held him back. He just knew it was wide open for him.

The McGregor fights

‘Nate has them eating out of his hand’

Dave Sholler is the former UFC vice president of public relations, athlete marketing and development, and he’s the current executive vice president of communications for the Philadelphia 76ers. He remembers the first news conference for the Diaz-McGregor fight in March 2016. It happened in UFC Gym in Torrance, California, and it came together on short notice after Diaz accepted the fight to replace an injured dos Anjos.

What always struck me about Nate Diaz was, some guys in the fight game are really good at hamming it up and knowing when the red light on the camera is on. You get 100 percent authentic Nate Diaz all the time.

I remember there was one particular question somebody asked about the payday he was going to get from the pay-per-view, like, “What are you going to do with this career-high payday?” Nate was like, “I don’t know, probably just going to buy a lot of s—.” I don’t think people realize Nate is actually really funny. And some of his natural delivery is organically funny, but when he wants to turn on the comedic factor, he knows how to do it as well.

When you’re in the business of sports and entertainment, you can feel in the moment when something is gold. I looked out into UFC Gym and I saw all these fans who showed up on short notice, and Nate had them eating out of his hand. Conor was doing the same thing.

Then comes the stare-down. It’s one of the coolest stare-downs I’ve ever been a part of. You have these two guys who are chock-full of emotion, there’s clearly animosity. It’s a packed house, two crews coming together — Ireland versus Stockton, California. I remember thinking, “If something goes down here, this is going to be not only one of the craziest things to happen in UFC history, but I’m not sure we’re going to be able to regain control.”

‘I’m getting death threats from fans’

Jon Anik is the head UFC play-by-play announcer and was the No. 2 broadcaster in that role before Diaz’s UFC 196 fight with McGregor in March 2016. Anik recalls the commotion created when he talked on his podcast before that fight about getting a 209 tattoo as an homage to the Diaz brothers, whose hometown of Stockton has a 209 area code.

I said on the podcast that if Nate Diaz can beat Conor McGregor with next to no real preparation, I’m going to get this 209 tattoo. Then I said on the show, I might get it anyway just out of respect for what these guys meant to martial arts.

I did not expect that this would spread like wildfire. I certainly did not expect that this would register on Nate Diaz’s radar during the pay-per-view week. What began as a fun podcast bit got interpreted as a hard prediction by the backup play-by-play guy against Nate Diaz.

I’m sitting at home and he says at the postfight press conference, “Jon Anik better get a motherf—ing 209 tattoo or I’m going to whoop his little ass.” I’m getting death threats from fans. Like, “If you don’t get that f—ing tattoo, I’m going to come there and give it to you myself.”

Candidly, once it drew Nate’s ire to whatever degree, I was getting the tattoo, win or lose. So it obviously made for a better story that he won the fight. The tattoo on my left arm was inked five days later.

I remember a few months later seeing him for the first time since I got the tattoo, and he asked to see it. I think it was a quick burying of the hatchet. He understood that ultimately this was not me taking a shot at him. He couldn’t have been more warm and cordial about the whole thing when he easily could have taken it personally.

‘Maybe Hollywood Boulevard Superman is going to get slugged’

Sal Iacono is a writer and personality on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” who’s known best as Cousin Sal.

We have a bit where we interview people on the street and get them to say bad things about somebody, and then that somebody is right there to tap them on the shoulder. Normally they turn around and they’re like, “Uh-oh, sorry, I didn’t mean it” or, “I didn’t say anything.” But we have it on tape and we run it back.

When we did it with Nate before his second fight with Conor McGregor in 2016, it was crazy. We kind of cold-called and got people from gyms and local MMA academies. We had people come down to Hollywood Boulevard. So we had a lot of gym rats out there with a lot of bravado. A lot of talking trash against Nate. Then Nate, perfect to the bit, comes up from behind and taps the guy on the shoulder. And they kept going — like idiots. Like, “Yeah, I said that, and I mean it. Yeah, I said you were gonna get your ass kicked. You won’t get out of the first round.” I’m like, “What the hell is going on here?” If Nate tapped me on the shoulder, I’d run straight into traffic and hope I got hit by a double-decker tour bus right there on Hollywood Boulevard. These people are standing up to him even more.

He was a good sport on the first one, and then the second one, he’s like, “Hey, what’s going on here?” And then by the third one, it’s like, “I’m not going to keep doing this all day unless I get to hit them.” Then it turned on me. I’m the prankster of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” I remember for a good 30 minutes explaining, “Dude, no. I’m sorry. I have no idea why this is going the way it is.” I didn’t know who he was going to take it out on. I was like, maybe Hollywood Boulevard Superman is going to get slugged in the jaw.

I felt bad for Nate because he didn’t know what to do. His natural instinct with someone calling him out is to just elbow the guy in the jaw and then be done with it. He was smart enough to realize that wasn’t the way to go in this situation. For a minute, he thought we put them up to it. “Kimmel Live!” doing a prank show and he maybe thought he was double-crossed. So now I’m the guy in danger, trying to explain to him, “No, no, no, these are a bunch of a–holes. I don’t know why they seem to be so brave in this situation.” I never, ever thought that would be the outcome for the bit.

‘Let’s start the show’

Chris Avila is a former UFC fighter and a Diaz protégé.

I remember going to the UFC 202 press conference, and Nate was on time. They were saying Conor is late. Nate was like, “I don’t care, let’s start the show.” Dana White was like, “We’ve gotta start; it doesn’t matter who’s late.” The press conference started, and Nate is fine with it. Conor is trying to pull one of Nick or Nate’s moves [by being late], obviously. Nate is doing the conference, and Conor walks in.

Then I see Nate start getting up. Conor sat down like, “Oh, I’m here.” Right when Conor sits down, he starts trying to act all cool and funny, like he was the show. I saw Nate get up and start walking out, like, “F— this s—.” He started walking out and made Conor feel stupid.

Nate had a water bottle at one point, and I think he threw it at McGregor teammate Dillon Danis and hit Danis. They threw a bottle back at us. Then someone else threw a bottle, then they threw another bottle. There were just water bottles all around for some reason.

Moving the needle

‘The nicest guy ever’

Travis Barker is the drummer for the punk rock band Blink-182 and a longtime MMA fan.

I filmed a video with TrippyThaKid and Lil Wayne, and Nate just happened to be in L.A. He just hung out and was in the video. Didn’t need any special care, didn’t ask for anything.

Those are my favorite people. You’re not the loudest people in the room. Just a great hang.

It would be so different if I didn’t know Nate, because I’d just be like, “I bet that guy has a chip on his shoulder.” He’s just so misunderstood. I think the baddest motherf—ers are like that, though. They’re not gonna talk a lot or be out of control or be aggressive. Not until you push their buttons or you do something out of pocket do you witness that. He’s the classic example of that. Seriously, the nicest guy ever. The sweetest guy.

‘I got the president coming down here’

Spence recalls the time President Donald Trump attended UFC 244: Jorge Masvidal vs. Nate Diaz at Madison Square Garden.

It was the first time the president of the United States ever came to a UFC fight. Nathan was like, “I got the president coming down here; this is a big deal.” Nathan was stoked on it.

We had to take the long way to the arena because they had to block off some blocks for the president. To not make us wait, they wanted him there at 3 o’clock. Nathan doesn’t operate that way. He was like, “Nah.” He wouldn’t have fought until midnight. It wasn’t worth it, so we just hoofed it. We got a big police escort. We walked about three blocks to the arena. He stopped and talked to everybody on his way in.

When we got there, we were about to go to our dressing room, but that’s when the president was arriving. So we had to wait in the hallway for almost 40 minutes to wait for the president to walk through. I don’t know what his political beliefs are and all that, but the president basically came to watch Nathan fight. That’s pretty cool.