Diaz fighting for more than family name

From Jake Shields to Gilbert Melendez to Nick Diaz, Cesar Gracie has groomed popular mixed martial arts champions, though never a UFC king.

That will change Saturday if Nate Diaz topples lightweight champion Benson Henderson at UFC on Fox 5 in Seattle to win his first professional belt.

"My whole team has been champions somewhere down the line," Diaz said during a conference call last week. "Maybe it's my turn to represent for my team."

If so, it would mark the culmination of something few people thought possible until recently.

"Here's Nate without those titles," Gracie said. "It would be huge for him to get the most prestigious belt of all."

Huge … well, of course. A win for Diaz, who at 27 remains the "kid" of the group, represents the crowning achievement for a contingent of fighters who literally became men together at Gracie's academy in Concord, Calif.

Gracie met Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz 13 years ago, when elder brother Nick forced his baby brother to go to the gym and train. At Gracie's they were treated the same as everyone else, which is to say they weren't treated any way at all.

"You've got to remember, there's always a lot of kids going into an academy," Gracie said. "You don't really differentiate anybody and don't think anything of it. They have to differentiate themselves.

"They have to stand up by staying the course. We'll get a lot of guys and I'll fully expect not to see them five years later. We didn't give Nate any special attention or anything like that. It was sink or swim, and he swam."

Minnows swim, too, they just won't scare other fish. In time -- despite his tall and skinny build, despite his brother's looming shadow and despite a dearth of wrestling in his game -- Nate, like the guys around him, grew dangerous in predatorily deep waters. That's how it was, because that was their world.

Shields and the elder Diaz scrapped all the time -- iron sharpening iron and such. They shared designs on becoming MMA champions and propelling the team forward, which in the early days included putting Nate, who wasn't yet old enough to drive, heads-up with Melendez, a college wrestler.

Nate was mostly pushed around in the beginning, "but he was as squirmy and tenacious as always," Melendez said. "Just a lot of fight in him. No one can last three five-minute rounds with Nate or three five-minute rounds with me in the training room, but we can do it with each other. And we'd battle each other a lot like that."

Ahead of Diaz's contest with Henderson, Melendez described his close friend as "tough to handle," keenly aware of what's happening in a fight, prone to filling opponents full of anxiety while maintaining his sanity, and "10 times more tactical now" than he was a couple years ago.

"I think Nate totally looks up to Nick's style and learned from him the way I learned from Jake," said the Strikeforce lightweight champion. "We're pretty much students of big bros."

From white belts to black belts, from aspiring fighters to top-ranked champions, Melendez described the camp as "more than a team."

"I've been to other gyms and saw people throw hissy fits, throwing headgear and going on rants," he said. "That's never it for us. Nothing like that. Believe it or not, we beat the crap out of each other sometimes, and afterwards we just brainstorm how to make each other better and we go out and have some food. It's been really good."

Riding a three-bout winning streak at 155 after a stint at welterweight, the younger Diaz has never looked better -- or bigger, a benefit of moving up in weight and all that eating. Forged out of gym fights, street fights and brotherly fights, Henderson's challenger mimics a thrilling style by combining accurate volume punching with an active guard and potent submission game.

"He doesn't only copy Nick," Shields said, though the brotherly effect on Nate's game is unmistakable. "Nate does train with different people and has that influence. When I spar Nick and spar Nate, I definitely see a lot of the same stuff, but different techniques as well."

Diaz is especially useful with range and reach, and he can catch anyone on a hip toss. He'll need the full scope of his skills to upend Henderson, who comes into Saturday's contest the bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic man.

On the surface, that's trouble. Diaz has a reputation for struggling against larger grapplers, especially those intent on going to the judges.

However, since winning Season 5 of "The Ultimate Fighter," eclipsing his 25th birthday, and returning to 155 from 170, the kid doesn't come off like one anymore.

"A hilarious journey," Melendez called it. More importantly, he hasn't self-destructed like his 29-year-old brother, whose costly run-ins with promoters, fellow fighters, state athletic commissions and media are well-documented.

As an example: Nate, the current No. 1 lightweight contender, despises interviews, probably more than anyone alive, Shields said. Yet at last week’s media call, he proved capable of showing up.

"I'm sure he's learned a few things here and there,” Melendez said. "He'll play the game and I think he's serious about winning the title.

"He makes his own choices. His big brother helps him a lot, but he's still his own man."