Opinion: Nate Diaz and the rise of the antihero

Nate Diaz

Nate Diaz is helping to usher in the dawn of a UFC era where the antihero reigns supreme.

The Stockton native returned to the Octagon at UFC 241, following a three-year hiatus. Diaz silenced his naysayers by leading the fight and defeating Anthony Pettis via unanimous decision. .

The fight garnered almost universal praise — which is unusual for a fighter that typically divides opinion. After the performance, UFC president Dana White described Diaz as the ‘antihero’ the company needs.

Just as the TV show Breaking Bad engaged millions of viewers who were disillusioned with traditional hero archetypes and wanted flawed characters they could relate to, Nate Diaz has matured into the UFC’s own Walter White. His disruptive demeanour is something that fans both relate to and admire. Diaz’ weed-smoking antics and unfiltered language brings a level of realness that is somewhat neglected in the growing MMA media machine.

His care-free approach is almost a direct contradiction to the stereotypical modern athlete. And in many ways, Diaz is a paradox: a seasoned triathlete who’s athletic discipline contradicts his demeanour. His audacious mannerisms, fearlessness and disregard for consequence contrast his strong self-awareness and fighting intelligence.  The apparent complexities of his character have become a landscape for the antihero archetype to flourish in.

“UFC needs an antihero and here he is…Nate Diaz — it’s true…Every time I see him Nate is always cool. He just has this thing that people like,” said White (via MMA Fighting).

Throughout his career, Diaz has often been overlooked. He’s previously been called a gatekeeper and deemed the less successful version of his older brother Nick. From his controversial loss to Conor McGregor at UFC 202 and cancelled bouts against Dustin Poirier, he has frequently faced adversity. As a result, Diaz’ journey denotes an antihero whose trials and tribulations are what makes him relatable.

Diaz’s return to the Octagon after three years showed how his presence is needed more than ever. 2019 has brought a new trend where fans want to see authenticity instead of preemptive trash-talking. Fans have become disillusioned with forced controversy. The tactics that some fighters use to garner promotion simultaneously make fans dubious, the same way people become fed up with the Kardashian’s never-ending stream of drama or the repetitive news cycle of politics.

Whether you like him or not, Diaz keeps it real and will stand for what he believes in, regardless of the UFC and Dana White’s opinion. Despite his comprehensive knowledge of the UFC organization, he sees his career less as a business transaction and more of a way of life. He defies convention. Diaz’ anarchistic approach sets a new precedent regarding contract negotiations, influencing match ups and making an impact in the organization. He proves that a fighter’s sincerity (irrespective of ability) can heavily influence the longevity of a fighter’s career.

“With Nate, there’s a different level of love and there’s a different level of fandom. I was trying to think what that is and I think it’s because Nate Diaz is the guy who’s been screwed over, and we all can related to that in some facet,” said Brendan Schaub on his Below The Belt podcast.

Fans are increasingly drawn to authenticity over showmanship. Fighters like Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal prove genuine characters receive respect over intentional bad-mouthing. The foundation of MMA is underpinned by psychology and the mental strength of a fighter. As a result, a fighters ability to demonstrate genuine mental strength is essential to gaining fan loyalty. This is because fans want to feel they know fighter’s on a personal level instead of being mediated and censored. That is what keeps fans engaged.

Polarizing fighters such as Nate Diaz and Colby Covington have soared in popularity because they are completely uncensored. Their bullish disposition thrives in conflict and is the MMA equivalent of current political discourse in America. Donald Trump managed to capture the curiosity of a country that is tired of political correctness. Likewise, fans are drawn towards unfiltered narratives from fighters that bulldoze social flip-flopping.

The reason the UFC supports the growth of the antihero is that the organization itself is the antithesis of conventional sport. Many sports are governed by strict tournament structures and conventions that have been refined throughout history. In contrast, the UFC is a relatively new company. It is a bloodied, rough-around-the-edges, convention-defying promotion that is evolving every day. Fighters like Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal represent the qualities attract viewers to the sport. They contradict the clean-cut persona that traditional sports try so hard to cultivate.

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 8/27/2019.