What a strange time it is to be a UFC executive.
During these last couple of weeks your product aired on network television in front of a peak audience of 6 million viewers, you were besieged by Internet hackers and, this Saturday at UFC 143, the best case scenario for your immediate future involves Nick Diaz becoming interim welterweight champion.
Wild, but true. Somewhere between nearly firing him in September and setting up this weekend’s bout against Carlos Condit, the UFC has clearly decided to double-down on Diaz’s personal brand of unusualness, using some of the lead-up to UFC 143 to lay the groundwork for a possible big money meeting between Diaz and Georges St. Pierre later this year.
Somehow, some way, company brass has come to grips with the fact that, as unpredictable as the former Strikeforce titlist can be, he’s also their best chance to get the welterweight division back on track.
Long the picture of rock-solid consistency, the 170-pound class has been downright uncooperative during the last six months. The fight company’s best laid plans for the welterweight title have been foiled at every turn as of late; first by Diaz’s own obstinacy, then by the bum luck of back-to-back knee injuries to St. Pierre, who had typically been one of its most dependable pay-per-view draws.
The plan to get the ball rolling again begins at UFC 143, so long as both main event fighters can actually make it to the cage without injury or without quietly escaping out the back door of Cesar Gracie’s house. If they do make it that far -- and engage in a fight that results in one man being crowned interim champion -- Diaz will have the chance to do the unthinkable. Not just win the fight, mind you, but transform himself from the division’s biggest outcast into its champion and biggest promotional chip in one fell swoop.
Remember, it was Diaz’s utter lack of dependability that threw the weight class into chaos in the first place. His failure to show up at a pair of prefight news conferences in the fall got him yanked from his original title shot at UFC 137 and forced matchmakers into a juggling act they haven’t quite worked their way out of yet.
As strange as it must feel for the UFC brain trust to throw their promotional muscle behind a guy who so badly failed them just a few months ago, it’s clear that Diaz versus St. Pierre is the fight the paying public wants to see next. If Diaz wins and matchmakers can book it for later in the year, it will not only guarantee the company the kind of substantial payday it sorely needs right now, but it will also give the welterweight division a feeling of momentum it hasn’t had for months.
A Condit victory would be fine -- at least the company would have someone to prop up as champion until St. Pierre returned -- but it wouldn’t spark nearly the same kind of excitement as the lead-up to Diaz-GSP.
Perhaps the oddest part is that Diaz appears to have transformed himself into arguably the 170-pound division's second-biggest draw without even really trying. Unlike middleweight counterpart Chael Sonnen, whose sudden ascension to the upper echelon of his own weight class was obviously carefully scripted, Diaz appears to have forced the UFC's hand simply by being himself. There's just something so compelling about him that, love him or hate him, fans have to watch him. In the fight game, there is perhaps no more valuable commodity than that.
With apologies to Condit, the money, the sizzle and the clear way forward for the welterweight division are all with Diaz here, and right now that makes him the UFC’s best hope.
How weird is that?