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21 MMA thoughts, including the return of Nate Diaz

Nate Diaz, whose last UFC fight was against Conor McGregor in 2016, is scheduled to face Anthony Pettis at UFC 241 in August. Steve Marcus/Getty Images

It's Monday, time for another edition of Ariel Helwani's MMA Show, which airs live starting at 1 p.m. ET on Twitter and YouTube. After it ends, you can listen to the entire show via the ESPN podcast center.


This show will enjoy its 10th birthday later this month. It's been quite the ride. From working out of a closet at AOL to ESPN, I'm proud to say pretty much every major name in MMA history has appeared on the show at least once.

During that stretch, Nate Diaz has been a guest twice. We did a one-hour special in 2016 and then followed that up with another in 2017. They remain two of the most memorable interviews in the show's history.

Since our last chat two years ago, I've been trying to get Diaz back on. It isn't easy, as you can imagine.

That drought ends today.

Few in MMA move the needle quite like he does, and there is just so much to talk to him about this time around. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn't done a proper interview since we spoke in May 2017. Needless to say, I am very excited for today's show.

It's another busy week coming up with UFC 238, PFL, Invicta 35, LFA and more. But first, some thoughts on the week that was and week to come in MMA:

1. I'm not sure whether it's a sign that I'm getting old, but I find that I've been having mixed emotions at the end of cards these days. I'm typically an emotional guy, as most of you know, but this has been different.

From Rory MacDonald's brutally honest postfight interview, to seeing Max Holloway's son cry after his dad's loss to Dustin Poirier, to Rose Namajunas hinting she was done for good, it's definitely been an emotional few months in our sport. And guess what? Same kind of deal on Saturday afternoon.

I couldn't help but feel really happy for Anthony Smith after seeing him submit Alexander Gustafsson in the fourth round of their main event fight. I was also immediately reminded why I should never dream of being a fighter, and why I admire these men and women so much. Remember last week, when I said I was still worried that Smith wasn't mentally ready to fight Gustafsson considering his comments days after losing to Jon Jones? I feared he was a broken man and was being forced into this fight for no good reason.

Well, that proves just how much I know. I don't doubt that those emotions were very real. I suppose I just failed to realize how different fighters like Smith are. I guess we can try to understand what they go through or how they get ready for these fights, but the truth is, we'll never understand. Saturday was another example of that. For Smith to do that in Sweden against one of the best light heavyweights ever, with a severely broken hand, no less, is truly remarkable.

Despite the fact that he's been in the sport for quite some time, I've been interviewing Smith for only the past two or so years. I regret meeting him so late in his career because he has become one of my favorite interviews in the game because of his sincerity and honesty.

Just look at this postfight quote from Smith, courtesy of the UFC: "Honestly, I'm really fortunate the UFC takes such good care of me. I get paid more than I'm worth. That's how I feel. I'm doing something that I would do for free and I'm able to put food on my family's table, so the least I can do is put on good performances. That's how I look at it. I just had to turn it around towards the end of the fight and really pour on."

Who says that? While it's admirable and refreshing, I'd strongly argue Smith (and his fellow fighters) don't get paid enough, but I get his point. We need more people like Anthony Smith in MMA, and I'm glad he finally got to wash away the embarrassment he felt in March. He earned that win.

2. I'm happy Luke Rockhold's name didn't come up much after Smith's win. I know they don't like each other, but I do hope, especially with the broken hand, Smith takes the rest of the year off. The Rockhold fight can wait.

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0:34

Gustafsson: 'It feels like I don't have it in me anymore'

Alexander Gustafsson explains why he's retiring after UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Smith. For more UFC on ESPN+, sign up at http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

3. And then there's Alexander Gustafsson's retirement announcement. That was hard to watch. Thirty-two-year-olds don't usually retire only six months after fighting for a title, but if you've been following his career for the past five years, you know this is something he has considered in the past. Gustafsson takes these losses very hard and he has been battling all kinds of injuries lately, so I'm not surprised he said he was done. But we know how retirements go in MMA. They hardly ever last, so while he did seem certain and I tend to believe him right now, I'm not ready to fully close the door on Gustafsson's career.

If this is it, though, I do hope Gustafsson walks away with his head held high. I know he never won the UFC title and I know that will forever bother him, but he's been a top contender for the past six or so years, and if you ask me, his UFC 165 battle against Jones remains the greatest UFC fight ever. He also doesn't get the credit he deserves for pushing Daniel Cormier to his limits at UFC 192. I don't think anyone expected Gustafsson to turn into the fighter he became when he joined the UFC 10 years ago (remember Phil Davis dominating him in his second UFC fight way back when?), but he has most certainly exceeded expectations. I also hope he realizes that losing to Smith should not be viewed as a sign that you're a journeyman, as he put it. But if his heart isn't in it anymore or if the losses feel like they've become too much to handle, then I guess now is the right time to go. If so, "The Mauler" will be missed. No doubt about that.

4. Gustafsson actually wasn't the only fighter who retired Saturday. Nick Hein also took to social media to say goodbye to the sport after suffering his third straight loss. Hein, of Germany, started his UFC run an impressive 4-1 but ran into trouble as of late. Kudos for knowing when to say when.

5. Nice to see Makwan Amirkhani get a finish again, his first since 2015. I hope he doesn't take a whole year off before returning again, and something tells me he won't.

6. Remember when the light heavyweight division was embarrassingly shallow with no good prospects coming up? I think those days are definitely over. Now we have (in no particular order): Thiago Santos, Dominick Reyes, Johnny Walker, Aleksandar Rakic and Corey Anderson, among others. Plus, Smith is still out there and Glover Teixeira has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts. Credit to UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard for finding these names, developing them and building them up the right way.

7. I know it's not MMA, but how about Andy Ruiz Jr. beating Anthony Joshua Saturday night? There's a lesson to be learned there about not playing around and just making the big fights happen, but no one will learn, and boxing will continue to be boxing. It's part of the charm, I guess. And you know what? I don't mind. At all. I look forward to the rematch and think Ruiz is a really great character. Look, if these promoters and fighters don't want to make even more money, that's cool with me. We'll survive. Congrats to Andy, boxing's first Mexican-American heavyweight champion. Way to ruin everyone's plans. I love stories like that.

8. Leandro Santos running out of the cage after knocking out Stevie Ray reminded me a of a young BJ Penn storming out of the Octagon after knocking out Caol Uno in 11 seconds back at UFC 34. Good memories.

9. UFC announced that it is going to Copenhagen, Denmark, for the first time on Sept. 28. I'd be shocked if Jack Hermansson wasn't headlining that card.

10. Very glad to hear Jessica Andrade and her wife weren't harmed when they were carjacked at gunpoint last week. Sadly, those stories seem to be far too common in Brazil these days.

11. John Gotti III and Nick Newell won on the local scene this past week. Even though I think a Bellator or PFL should sign Gotti, I like the fact that he is taking his time and doesn't mind racking up wins in smaller organizations. Newell, on the other hand, is in a tough spot. He clearly wants to be fighting for a major promotion, but I'm not sure there is any interest right now. The UFC gave him a shot on the Contender Series last year, and that didn't pan out. Bellator could have signed him last year and passed. The PFL would be a good fit, though.

12. Long-time UFC employee Ant Evans announced last week that he left the company recently. I doubt the majority of you reading this have ever heard of Ant, and that's OK. He was one of those behind-the-scenes guys only the media would know. However, he does deserve a ton of credit for helping the UFC grow in two particular departments: Along with former executive Marshall Zelaznik and Michael Bisping, Evans, a proud Brit, was instrumental in building the U.K. market over a decade ago. He also helped launch Fight Pass and worked tirelessly to get the platform off the ground.

More importantly for me, he was the first UFC public relations person to give me the time of day when I first started. I know that sounds self-serving, but it's true, and it meant a lot to me early on. For whatever reason, the UFC wouldn't credential me during the first two years of my career. Once I finally got in, thanks in part to Yahoo's Kevin Iole putting in a good word with Dana White, Evans began pitching me great stories and made sure I always got what I needed. Over time, he turned into a wonderful friend and mentor. I know I'm not supposed to admit these things, but it's true. I'll miss working with him at the UFC, but something tells me his time in MMA isn't over. Thanks for everything, Ant.

13. I don't think Yoel Romero will see the majority of the $27.45 million he won last week, but if you're focusing on that, you're kind of missing the point. For Romero, this is validation. He fought for his innocence and won. Good on him. Even if he collects a million, that's a huge victory. And credit to his manager Abraham Kawa, who I believe has turned into one of the best managers in MMA, for fighting until the end for his client. What I admire about Kawa, the younger brother of longtime MMA manager Malki, is that, unlike others, he isn't interested in being friends with promoters. It seems it's more important to him to get his fighters what they are worth, and he will fight tooth and nail for that. I know that sounds like an obvious role for a manager or agent, but trust me, that isn't always the case in this sport.

14. I'm still not sure how to feel about Cris Cyborg vs. Felicia Spencer, which was announced last week. In a perfect world, Spencer gets a couple of more fights before she fights Cyborg, but as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, nothing is perfect about the women's featherweight division. Cyborg hasn't signed a new deal, by the way, and by all accounts isn't close, so this could very well end up being her final UFC fight.

15. On the other hand, I think Aspen Ladd vs. Germaine de Randamie, which is going to headline the Sacramento show on July 13, is great matchmaking. Perfect fight for both.

16. I wish I could say the same about Urijah Faber vs. Ricky Simon, though. I don't like this matchmaking at all. Faber should be fighting the Cub Swansons of the world in his return, not an extremely talented, yet relatively unknown prospect. It's clear the UFC wants to build Simon off Faber, and I get that's how the circle of matchmaking works, but I don't understand why Faber agreed to it. I look forward to asking him about this later today.

17. There was some talk of booking Brian Ortega vs. Jeremy Stephens as the headliner for the July 20 card in San Antonio, but I'm told Ortega isn't healthy enough to agree to a fight at the moment. I do like that fight much better for Ortega than the rumored Zabit Magomedsharipov bout. Ease him back in.

18. Kudos to Bellator for making the right call by headlining the June 14 MSG show with Rory MacDonald vs. Neiman Gracie over Chael Sonnen vs. Lyoto Machida. In the past, they would have gone with the latter as the main event, and that always bugged me. The title fight should always go last. Nothing should be more important than the belt.

19. Robin van Roosmalen, the only two-division champion in Glory kickboxing history, is a nice signing for Bellator. Curious to see how he does in their upcoming tournament. These are the kinds of names the PFL should be signing, to be honest. Its format is fine, and the million dollars is a nice gimmick, but it has way too many unknowns. The PFL needs to fix that before Season 3.

20. Looking forward to UFC 238 this weekend. The card is solid from top to bottom. Henry Cejudo vs. Marlon Moraes and Tony Ferguson vs. Cowboy Cerrone are fight of the year contenders in the making. Love those fights. But I'm mostly looking forward to the trip because of our first-ever Helwani Road Show on Friday night. This is something I've wanted to do for years, and I'm thrilled the first one sold out so fast. Can't wait to meet everyone in a few days.

21. And thanks to everyone in Toronto who said hello while I was there covering Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday. What an experience covering my first Finals game that just so happened to be in my home country. Something I'll never forget. It was truly an honor being there among my fellow Canadians.


And with that, here's today's Helwani Show lineup:

1 p.m. ET: weekend recap

1:05: Anthony Smith

Smith will look back his win over Alexander Gustafsson on Saturday.

1:25: Gennady Golovkin

The boxing star will preview Saturday's fight against Steve Rolls and react to Anthony Joshua's stunning loss.

1:45: Tai Tuivasa

He will preview his UFC 238 fight against Blagoy Ivanov.

2:05: Urijah Faber

The UFC Hall of Famer will look ahead to his comeback fight against Ricky Simon.

2:30: Nate Diaz

He will discuss his three-year layoff, the Aug. 17 fight against Anthony Pettis and more.