VENICE, Calif. -- It's 2 a.m. on a weekday, which means even this vibrant, hip area west of Los Angeles is nearly silent. Nate Diaz, however, is wide awake.
Sitting on a couch in the living room of his Airbnb, two blocks away from Venice Beach, Diaz is engaging in one of his favorite pastimes: scrolling through his Instagram feed. A member of his team jokes that if Diaz doesn't respond to a text, and you want to know if he's intentionally ignoring you, check his Instagram activity. Because if he has his phone, he's almost always liking something.
Tonight, it's a video of his old pal Snoop Dogg. In it, Snoop is sitting in a bathtub, his signature braids covered in suds.
"I told you, man," Snoop says. "Ain't nothing like taking a m-----f---ing bubble bath."
Diaz, who at the time is five weeks away from a welterweight contest against Anthony Pettis at UFC 241 -- his first fight in three years -- tilts his head back and laughs. "That s---'s funny as hell."
In this setting -- surrounded by people he trusts, fresh off a sparring session, a glass bong within reach -- Diaz is the center of attention. Animated, outgoing, funny. He acknowledges most people don't get to see him like this. Most people haven't seen much of Diaz, period, since his blockbuster rematch against Conor McGregor in 2016.
"Oh, I talk," says Diaz, when it's brought up how quiet he has been in recent years. "I talk all day around [my older brother] Nick. He'll be like, 'Stop talking.'"
Diaz's entire vibe changes, however, the moment it's clear a conversation has turned into an interview. An interview, by the way, that Diaz originally agreed would take place 12 hours earlier on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. But at the scheduled 2 p.m. start time, Diaz had to "go for a run." Plans changed to start the interview at 3:30 p.m. Then 4:45. Maybe 11. Eventually, 2 a.m.
And when the cameras are finally rolling, and Diaz is asked the million-dollar question -- Why, after one of the biggest fights in UFC history, did you disappear for three years? -- it takes him a minute to warm up. To get comfortable. Even though, just five minutes ago, he was the chattiest person in the room.
What's strange about this sudden change is that Diaz has an answer. He's just hesitant to share it. It's well-known he almost never grants interviews, and that's no coincidence. If there's one thing Diaz is acutely protective of, it's the message he shares and with whom he shares it.
"These guys [the Diaz brothers], they're gonna feel you out and get to know you before they tell you anything," says Gilbert Melendez, Diaz's friend and training partner for over a decade. "Most people in this sport tend to just offer up their story. But Nate, he almost interviews you before you get to interview him."
But tonight, in this nondescript room that now smells faintly of marijuana, Diaz has agreed to be interviewed. And the world wants to know, Nate: Where have you been?
It sounds like a simple question, but it bears a complex explanation. Diaz's train of thought is rarely a straight line. At one point, in the middle of a question, he abruptly stands up to use the restroom.
And more than once, he feels the need to lean forward and make sure the message he believes in so strongly isn't getting lost in translation.
"Is this all making sense?"
THERE WAS A time in Diaz's 15-year career when he believed he had the full attention and support of the UFC. He just didn't know what to do with it.
In 2007, at 22, Diaz won "The Ultimate Fighter" reality TV series. Competing as a lightweight, he finished all four of his opponents on the show, and was easily the season's most memorable personality. He went on to win his next four fights in the UFC, which prompted UFC president Dana White to extend him a personal invitation to Las Vegas.
"Dana White's flying me out like, 'Hey, let's play poker and do this and that,'" says Diaz, who was born and raised in Stockton, California. "I'm just a kid. He takes me to play poker -- well, I don't f---ing know how to play no poker. I'm in Vegas with Dana White in a Ben Davis jacket, like, 'What's up? What are we about to do?'
"Now, I realize, 'Oh. That was my time.' I was too f---ing young. I didn't know nothing about none of that."
At that time, Diaz was doing what most young fighters do -- whatever they're told. He lost two close decisions in 2009. Moved up to welterweight for a fresh start, but struggled with the size difference. After moving back down to 155 pounds, Diaz went on a roll and earned a title shot against Benson Henderson in 2012, only to be unhappy with the paycheck attached to it. He lost that fight, and grew openly disgruntled with his contract. At the height of his discontent, Diaz accepted just one fight in a two-year span, a decision loss against Rafael dos Anjos.
In 2016, Diaz came to collect on everything he felt the sport owed him. He created heat with the sport's biggest star, Conor McGregor, during a postfight interview after defeating Michael Johnson. He accused McGregor of taking everything he'd worked for.
The callout worked. Diaz booked the McGregor fight at UFC 196 that March, and submitted him in the second round. Five months later, Diaz agreed to an immediate rematch -- even though he never felt McGregor deserved one.
According to reports, the rematch at UFC 202 set the company record for highest-selling pay-per-view at the time with an estimated 1.6 million buys. It was the biggest fight in UFC history. And Diaz had made up half of it.
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But once McGregor edged out a majority decision in the second meeting, Diaz felt like the UFC turned its back on him. In his words, the promotion "ostracized" him. Rather than grant him an immediate shot at payback, as it had for McGregor, the UFC booked McGregor in a lightweight championship bout against Eddie Alvarez in New York. And the following summer, the UFC helped promote one of the biggest fights of all time, a boxing match between McGregor and Floyd Mayweather.
Diaz, 34, says he has nothing against McGregor's success. That's the UFC machine working for McGregor, the way it might have worked for Diaz back in 2008 had he realized what White was really offering in that Vegas invitation. Had Diaz stopped fighting just anybody in 2008 and taken full advantage of the UFC machine behind him, how much different would his career have been?
There's no way to know. But what Diaz did know was that after reaching the pinnacle of the sport's popularity in 2016, he was never going backward. If the UFC didn't want to make a McGregor trilogy bout right away, fine. But where was his version of McGregor's title fight against Alvarez? Where was his Mayweather?
"Now, I realize, 'Oh. That was my time.' I was too f---ing young. I didn't know nothing about none of that." Nate Diaz on his Vegas meeting with Dana White in 2008
What Diaz wanted was for the company he'd been working for since he was 22 to come up with a plan for him, the same way it had for McGregor -- the guy he felt he bested in their two-fight rivalry.
"He was just put in all the right places, you know what I'm saying?" Diaz asks. "And I'm not even f---ing hating on that. That's great. That's cool as hell. It's cool what he's doing and what he did, but, like, you're a spoiled little b---- because they handed you all of that. You didn't do s---.
"You came back and won a [decision in the rematch] ... It's not the same [as the submission win]. If this were war, you're dead, dog. I got all your s---. It's all mine. There is no second fight."
ON AUG. 3, 2018, the UFC held a news conference in Los Angeles, bringing in the top fighters scheduled to compete in the second half of the year. Sixteen athletes were scheduled to appear onstage before the public that day, and every one of them was present when the news conference began. Every one except Nate Diaz.
Between 2016 and 2018, Diaz and the UFC had discussed several options for a comeback fight. Diaz claims the UFC offered him then-welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, but on short notice. White would later say that offer was never on the table. There was talk, briefly, of matching Diaz with Georges St-Pierre, but it fizzled before getting anywhere.
"They called with some petty s---," Diaz says. "Just lame. I can't even remember [some of the names]. I wouldn't even talk to them, man. I was like, 'They're f---ing with me.'"
The week of that Aug. 3 news conference, however, Diaz had come to terms on a fight against lightweight contender Dustin Poirier in November. The bout was agreed to by both sides, but the UFC was still finalizing the card's main event, and Diaz hadn't signed his contract. According to White, the UFC asked Diaz to do that backstage before walking out to the news conference.
"When we're going out and spending the kind of money it takes to put on these press conferences, we want guys signed," White tells ESPN. "I wouldn't say he's the only one we would do that with, that's not true, but there are certain guys where I want a deal signed before we start promoting it. We need assurances that we know it's going to happen."
Diaz signed the contract and went onstage, noticeably late. The crowd went nuts. A full-throated "Diaz" chant broke out. He was back. It was the biggest news of the day.
For about 10 minutes.
At the end of the news conference, the UFC dimmed the lights and played a video announcing the year's megafight: McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov. By the time the lights came back on, Diaz was gone.
A TMZ camera caught up with him on the street, as he walked away from the news conference. "F--- the UFC. F--- all this s---," Diaz said. "We'll see if I'm even fighting [Poirier]. They better start acting right and start over-promoting, instead of under-promoting. They brought me to this press conference late."
Ultimately, the Poirier fight never happened. Diaz says he never actually pulled out, that he has never pulled out of a fight in his career. Poirier, who ended talk of the matchup when he publicly revealed a hip injury, said Diaz negotiated himself out of the bout.
"Dustin Poirier [chickened] out is what happened," Diaz says. "There was whatever going on with the UFC -- they were f---ing with me, I was f---ing with them -- but he jumped out of the fight because he couldn't deal with it. He couldn't sleep at night."
Underlying Diaz's entire situation with the UFC, and whatever reasons he had for stepping away, is a basic question fans have asked, repeatedly, these last three years: Does he want to fight or not?
According to White, that's the only reason behind Diaz's absence. "He hasn't wanted to fight."
That's insane to Diaz, because fighting is all he knows. His entire life is a fight camp, so much so that he never stopped training these last three years, even though it struck him as odd to do so with no fight booked. He believes he's the best fighter in the world, not to mention the most marketable.
So when Pettis, a former UFC champion who once graced the cover of a Wheaties box, finished Stephen Thompson with a highlight-reel knockout in March, Diaz saw an opportunity. Had it not been Pettis, perhaps it would have been 2019 breakout Jorge Masvidal, whom Diaz noticed "did his thing" last month with his five-second KO of Ben Askren.
Diaz says he is always willing to fight, he's just not willing to fight anybody. For the rest of his career, he's only fighting somebody.
"I'm institutionalized to the fight game," Diaz says. "I'm telling myself to take it easy and not train because I'm not fighting, but then I'm like, 'F--- all that.' I think the fight wasn't with the fighters no more. The fight was with the whole organization. And I'm like, 'Well, I'm losing this fight if I'm just going to sit here and die off.' I had to get back to what I do.
"This fight is taking me away from all the lame-ass fighters that aren't doing s---."