UFC 266’s co-main event will feature two of the most iconic welterweights in MMA history. Nick Diaz, the former Strikeforce champion and UFC challenger will take on former UFC champion “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler in a five-round fight prior to the featherweight title fight later that night. The event will take place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 25, sixteen and a half years since the two first met in the octagon.
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In order to prepare for what promises to be a card to remember it is fitting to jump back all those years ago and take an in-depth look at what happened the first time these two fought. In 2004, Lawler was just 22-years-old, and Diaz 20. It was billed as a fight between two relatively new prospects, inexperienced but chomping at the bit and as exciting as fighters get.
At that point in Nick Diaz’s career, he was viewed as a much different fighter. As a representative of Cesar Gracie Jiu Jitsu, he was largely considered to be a grappler, especially in a time where well-rounded talent was much rarer than today. It was easy to pigeonhole fighters into the grappler or striker archetypes rather than look at the entire skillset, and it was common knowledge that Diaz may have the ability to submit Lawler but shouldn’t look to test his hands.
Moments before the fight, Diaz was approached by a reporter in his locker room who began his line of questioning:
“Let’s just talk about the art of the KO, I know you’re not a KO guy-” to which Diaz cut him off and responded bluntly “how do you know that?”
Robbie Lawler had amassed an 8-1 record before contracting the fight with Diaz, and of those eight wins he had finished all but two before the final bell by knockout. Diaz had also a resume of three knockouts on his record at this time but the way in which he got them was what contrasted him with Lawler even more. Diaz was the kind of fighter that used his Jiu Jitsu, got to mount, and peppered his opponents with shots from the top until they just stopped defending, wilting from the pressure and losing themself, waiting for the ref to save them. Lawler put people to sleep.
So although retrospect is 20-20, it was understandable to believe that Lawler was the vastly superior KO artist coming into his fight with Diaz, yet we now know that was not the correct line of thought.
The mind games synonymous with Diaz were on full display the night of UFC 47. He came out with a hopping sidekick before taunting right off the bat, dropping his hands, and gesturing for Lawler to meet him in a brawl. He even stuck out his chin, inviting Lawler to look for his signature finish.
Forty seconds in, Diaz would block a right hook from Lawler and counter with his own, momentarily putting Lawler off balance and looking to regain his footing. Once he did, a grin spread across Lawler’s face making it obvious he wanted to get that one back, and the two clashed again in the center of the octagon. It took only a couple of jabs for Lawler to show why his power was so heralded, not rocking Diaz but stunning him enough with the jab to show how impressive he was.
Two minutes in, Diaz would make famous the “Stockton slap,” by slapping Lawler raising his hands as if to say “do something about it” and charging in with a slick 1-2 combination which hurt Ruthless. Lawler’s reaction was telling. Dropping his own hands, he essentially roared back, biting on the challenge and jumping forward ready to swing, just barely missing Nick’s chin.
As Lawler burst forward, Diaz looked for the fade-back right hook, which as a southpaw with a reach advantage was a smart move to look for against Lawler. He would swing wide and miss, fade back further and cock the arm for the counter again but stop short because Lawler read it.
Ending up in the clinch, Diaz would utilize good pressure and short shoulder strikes, funnily enough an attack rarely seen since until on full display by Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier in 2020 and 2021. As it looked like Diaz was pulling away on the scorecards, Joe Rogan on commentary reminded the audience:
“The problem is if Robbie connects he can put you to sleep. You know, you think you’ve got him, you don’t think he’s dangerous, you think you’re kickin his ass, but if he rocks you like here-!”
And his timing was impeccable as Lawler landed two right hooks and a jumping knee, forcing Diaz to retreat and reset. Lawler’s combination would draw blood from the nose of Diaz but as he moved and recovered, Diaz began getting his rhythm back. As the fight progressed, and the two exchanged it seems that Diaz’s reach advantage became more and more accentuated. Lawler found himself just barely out of reach while getting tagged by Diaz’s long boxing.
Round two would mostly resemble round one, minus even more forward Pressure by Diaz and a slight groin kick to Lawler, ignored by the ref and Diaz alike. The big difference, however, was where Diaz had missed his right hook early in the fight, he would land it now. As they exchanged again, Lawler over-committed, allowing Diaz to fade back, plant the backfoot and dig the hook through with his shoulder, dropping Lawler a minute and a half into the round. Ruthless would protest but it was a fair stoppage, and stumbling back to the cage for balance did him no favors.
Diaz vs. Lawler was just the third fight of the night on UFC 47. While exciting, UFC history is full of talented prospects who bring big moments but fade just as quickly. At just 20 and 22 years old, Robbie Lawler and Nick Diaz could very well have been a couple of them, but instead ended up having some of the most historic careers in mixed martial arts. Lawler would go on to win the ELITE XC middleweight belt, a full class up from where he fought Diaz. He would challenge Jacare Souza in Strikeforce for the belt as well before returning and winning the UFC welterweight strap in a pair of fights with Johnny Hendricks. He would defend his belt in two of the most memorable title fights of all time against Rory Macdonald and Carlos Condit, the former often discussed as one of the greatest fights ever, over any promotion or weight. While he has fallen in his last few outings, Lawler remains one of the most rooted for and celebrated fighters among both fans and his peers in the UFC.
Nick Diaz coming off his win in 2004 would rack up the future names in the sport of mixed martial arts on his resume. He would meet Karo Parisyan, Diego Sanchez, Joe Riggs, Sean Sherk, Takenori Gomi, Frank Shamrock, BJ Penn, Carlos Condit, Georges St. Pierre, and Anderson Silva to just name a few legendary fighters before taking a leave of absence in 2015. Within that time, Diaz would defeat the current PRIDE champion in a non-title fight, win the Strikeforce welterweight championship, and challenge for UFC gold twice. Even after hanging up the gloves, the starpower of Diaz rose, becoming a martyr of sorts at the hands of the NSAC only raised his stock and had fans clamoring for his return.
It will have been 6385 days since Nick Diaz and Robbie Lawler first fought. The rematch so many years in the making promises both everything and nothing at the same time. After essentially running through more of a career than most MMA fighters in their lifetime, it is difficult to use their first fight as an indicator as to what to expect from the current Diaz or Lawler. At the same time, the first fight set forth each fighter’s legacy as exciting, and both men are as true fighters and one can expect. The rematch will be one to watch and definitely one to remember.