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Ariel Helwani's MMA thoughts - Nate Diaz's power play, Conor McGregor watch

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Diaz: Masvidal fight was the biggest to do (4:04)

Nate Diaz speaks to Ariel Helwani about fighting Jorge Masvidal for the BMF title, his rivalry with Conor McGregor and more. Order UFC 244 on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv. (4:04)

The Lede

Remember that "Seinfeld" episode in which George tries to break up with his girlfriend, Maura, but she denies him?

For you non-Seinfeld fans out there, the exchange went like this:

George: Maura, I want you to know, I've given this a lot of thought. I'm sorry. We have to break up.

Maura: No.

George: What's that?

Maura: We're not breaking up.

George: We're not?

Maura: No.

George: All right.

I feel like that's how the whole Nate Diaz/USADA/UFC situation went last week. Here's how I imagine it playing out.

USADA/UFC: Nate, I want you to know, a banned substance was found in your system.

Nate: No, it wasn't.

USADA/UFC: Actually, yes it was.

Nate: No, it wasn't. And as a matter of fact, I want you to tell the world that I am clean, too.

USADA/UFC: All right.

I really can't get over the kind of power play Diaz pulled off late last week. Rarely, if ever, have we seen someone flex like this.

The greatest strength Diaz possesses is his willingness to walk away from it all. A lot of fighters threaten to leave money on the table and hold out, but most of them don't actually mean it. Diaz does.

Lest we forget, he sat out for three years in the midst of the biggest run of his career and had no problem doing so, despite multiple offers to come back.

And that's exactly what he threatened to do last week.

He was so bothered by the idea that USADA was claiming he ingested a banned substance -- knowingly or not -- that he turned the tables and made the anti-doping organization scramble to release the most unequivocal exoneration of a fighter possible in a situation like this.

More impressive was the fact that Diaz broke the news himself. He was adamant about preserving his legacy and refused to live with a secret to the point that he was willing to out himself, consequences be damned.

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Diaz isn't interested in other titles

Nate Diaz says he currently isn't interested in other belts besides the BMF one because this is the one with the most money behind it. Order UFC 244 on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.

Look, we've seen fighters announce their own drug test failures before. TJ Dillashaw did it earlier this year, but that was because he knew it was going to get out and he was trying to get ahead of it.

In this case, there was a very good chance it was never going to get out. But Diaz didn't want this hanging over his head anymore, and apparently he didn't trust the parties involved to keep it quiet forever.

In other words, as he said on Monday's UFC 244 conference call, he knew the UFC would keep quiet before the fight because everyone stands to gain a lot of money. But what happens in six months when the relationship isn't as strong? Or when they're at an impasse in negotiations for his next fight? Diaz didn't trust that this would remain a secret, as was allegedly suggested to him, so he decided to let the world know what's up.

And I find that rather endearing.

Now, let me be clear: I don't believe anyone is out to get Diaz. At least not right now. I don't think anyone framed him or was hoping he'd pop. That's a ridiculous notion. He's too important to the UFC.

But if you know anything about Diaz, it's that he doesn't trust many people. Certainly not "the man." So, this was basically a self-fulfilling prophecy for him. He told us for years that "the man" was trying to bring him down, and now "the man" was apparently doing just that and smearing his name in the process. So he just beat the UFC to the punch -- and not only did he beat them to the punch, he had them on the ropes.

Would he have had the same leverage if he wasn't fighting in eight days? Obviously not. But them's the breaks.

What followed was arguably the most amazing 24 hours in UFC drug-testing history. All parties involved scrambled to publicly clear Diaz's name. And when they did, they waited to see if it all sufficed. Why? Because that's what Diaz told them to do, or else this weekend's highly anticipated fight against Jorge Masvidal was off.

In the end, it sufficed. He's in New York, and the fight is on.

In many ways, Diaz already defended the BMF title last week. He just did it outside the cage.

An unexpected trailblazer

Diaz doesn't get enough credit for subtly pushing for fighters' rights. He doesn't go out and puff his chest about this sort of thing, but he has done several little things to empower his fellow fighters.

Remember when he showed up to that pre-UFC 200 press conference in April 2016 -- the one Conor McGregor didn't show up to -- and they had him sit next to that empty chair, thinking he'd put pressure on McGregor, only to see him side with McGregor after all?

Remember when he used a vape pen at the UFC 202 press conference?

Remember when he repeatedly told the fighters they need to speak up when they wanted something?

Remember when he created a belt out of thin air?

Remember when he made the UFC clear his name in an unprecedented amount of time?

These moments, while perhaps self-serving at their respective times, created precedents. Fighters notice these moments. It helps them in the long run.

One narrative that has developed since last week's news is that the UFC scurried to clear his name only because he's Nate Diaz. In other words, if someone on the prelims was facing the same situation, the promotion wouldn't have done the same.

And you know what? That is very likely accurate.

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Askren considering retirement after loss to Maia

Ben Askren admits retirement has crossed his mind after losing two straight fights in the UFC.

That's a flaw in this system. No doubt about it. Diaz unintentionally exposed that, too. And every fighter who has had to wait months for his or her test results or, worse, for their name to be cleared should be annoyed.

I asked a manager how he felt about this. His response summed it all up very well, I thought:

"It's incredible what has happened. And the people before this were done dirty. And the ones after now have a chance."

Spot on.

Let's not pretend the UFC didn't move an entire event so Jon Jones could fight last December. If an extra breaks his or her leg on a movie set, the show would go on. But if, say, Antonio Banderas broke his leg, everything would be shut down right away.

That's just life.

And to suggest Diaz was just gifted this power and leverage is revisionist history.

Diaz has worked 15 years to get to this point. This didn't happen overnight. Nick Diaz's shy, awkward younger brother has blossomed into a bright businessman who understands who he is in this landscape and what he possesses. His supreme confidence is a powerful thing, and he showed it off last week.

Up the ante

Prior to last week, I wondered if there was a little too much respect between Diaz and Masvidal. We already spoke about how the presser in New York last month was a dud. But now I'm wondering if two things have lit a fire under Diaz, in particular:

1. Last week's USADA drama
2. Conor McGregor's return announcement

It's no secret Diaz wants that third fight. Does it annoy him that McGregor stole a little shine last week? And what if the UFC officially announces McGregor's fight this week? I'd imagine that would give Diaz a little more motivation. Remember, he wasn't happy last summer when the promotion announced the McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov fight at the same press conference as the one he attended for his fight against Dustin Poirier. So much so that he walked off the stage. Remember that?

I don't think we should be worried about not seeing the best Diaz in the Octagon on Saturday night. Just listening to him speak on the conference call Monday let me know that he is motivated. He likes when it feels like everyone is out to get him. And even though that isn't really the case, that won't stop him from convincing himself it is.

Summing it all up

There's just so much to like about this fight.

The fact that these two veteran fighters who have seen and done it all in MMA -- with double-digit losses, to boot -- were able to manifest a situation where their meeting was the only fight big enough to headline Madison Square Garden is magical.

The fact that these two veteran fighters, who have never been UFC champions, decided they would fight for a fictitious title that is now being talked about more than the actual title in the division they compete in, so much so that the UFC is making a physical belt, is incredible.

And the fact that it was almost taken away from us last week, only to return with this new storyline attached to it, is a gift from the pay-per-view gods.

Be honest: Now you're even more excited about the fight. That's human nature. We thought we lost it, so now we appreciate it more.

There's also one more part of the equation that makes this fight even better: the stakes. Forget the BMF belt, the winner of this fight is probably next for McGregor, if he wins his return bout. And that's big.

Conor watch

Speaking of McGregor, his return fight isn't signed yet. His team is scheduled to meet with the UFC this week in New York to try and finalize it. They have agreed on the date and city (Jan. 18 in Las Vegas) but not the opponent just yet. Donald Cerrone is still the front-runner, and that's just fine for McGregor.

This is a winnable fight for Conor. This is the kind of fight he needs to return to: against a big name whom he can beat. And if he gets by Cerrone and stays out of trouble -- I know that is easier said than done these days -- the winner of Saturday's main event should be next.

I know fans are tired of talking about what's next for McGregor, and rightfully so. We've been teased for over a year now. But now it's starting to get real, and the fact that this main event is happening this week only makes it seem more real, because he has been attached to both guys recently.

Card of the year?

Remember, prior to 2018's most-anticipated fight card of the year -- UFC 229 -- the knock was that the UFC didn't stack the card enough. The UFC model has always been to use a big main event to give other big fights and fighters shine, and that one felt a bit top-heavy.

Well, that's not the case with UFC 244. I love this card from top to bottom. Allow me to rank 'em:

1. Nate Diaz vs. Jorge Masvidal (Duh. It's the People's Main Event, too, by the way.)
2. Kelvin Gastelum vs. Darren Till
3. Corey Anderson vs. Johnny Walker
4. Gregor Gillespie vs. Kevin Lee
5. Stephen Thompson vs. Vicente Luque
6. Makwan Amirkhani vs. Shane Burgos
7. Derrick Lewis vs. Blagoy Ivanov
8. Edmen Shahbazyan vs. Brad Tavares
9. Hakeem Dawodu vs. Julio Arce
10. Katlyn Chookagian vs. Jennifer Maia
11. Andrei Arlovski vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik
12. Lyman Good vs. Chance Rencountre

There's really something for everyone here. The card features a great mix of comeback stories, rising stars, veterans and fun-to-watch fighters. Bring on Saturday night.

Everyone wins

Let's squash something right here and now: Just because Ben Askren lost his second fight in a row doesn't mean ONE Championship got the better of the Demetrious Johnson-for-Askren deal. That is ludicrous.

Since the trade was finalized a year ago this week, Askren has turned into one of the biggest draws in the sport. His three fights in the UFC were all big deals. He generated a lot of money and buzz for the company. And while it obviously hasn't panned out for him, he did help propel Masvidal to superstar heights. If that Masvidal-Askren fight doesn't happen, Masvidal vs. Diaz likely doesn't happen.

Stop trying to convince yourself the UFC is mad it traded Johnson for Askren. Truth is, the UFC felt like it did everything it could with DJ. The promotion was on the verge of shutting down the flyweight division altogether. This was gravy and then some for the UFC.

The real answer to the question of who won that deal: both organizations. This is one of those classic transactions in which both entities got exactly what they wanted and needed out of both men. A total wash. Just because Askren lost a couple of times doesn't change that.

Should he retire, as Askren said he was contemplating on Monday's show? That's up to him. I found his revelation that he never loved fighting to begin with to be eye-opening, to say the least. My gut says he gives it one more try, and if he loses that fight, he walks away. But I also wouldn't be surprised if this is it, too.

As he mentioned multiple times Monday, he came back only to prove he's the best in the world. The path to proving that has now become long and tough. I just don't know if he has it in him to go through it all. We shall see.

Other weekend thoughts

I know Askren losing was the big story Saturday, but can we just acknowledge what Demian Maia continues to do into his 40s? The guy is a consummate pro who continues to impress, long after we thought he was done being a factor at 170 pounds. We're lucky to have him in our sport. ... Ciryl Gane is the real deal. I'm very curious to see how good he can be. ... Who wins in a fight between Douglas Lima and Kamaru Usman? I'm not so sure. ... Rory MacDonald isn't going to retire. Take time off? Sure. But he's not done. ... Ilara Joanne's list was fun. ... Whenever the real MMA hall of fame opens up, Paul Daley's left hook needs to be inducted. ... Patrick Mix is an impressive prospect to keep an eye on, as is Lance Gibson Jr.

Hear and there

Leon Edwards told our friends over at SevereMMA.com that he was offered a co-main event fight against Tyron Woodley on Jan. 18, but I'm told that's not entirely true. He has been offered that fight repeatedly, but not on that particular card. Thus far, Woodley doesn't seem too keen on it. ... The UFC had interest in booking Frankie Edgar vs. Cory Sandhagen in December, but it appears as though the timing won't work out. ... There was hope Holly Holm would return before the end of the year, but now it looks like she's shooting for early 2020. She wants to make sure her injured knee is 100% healthy before committing to a fight. ... The UFC wanted to book Mike Perry vs. Li Jingliang on Dec. 14, and Perry was into it, but now it's not happening because Jingliang couldn't commit. ... Anthony Pettis is hoping to return in January at either lightweight or welterweight.

Memory lane

March 11, 1995. That's a date I'll never forget. It was on that day that I went to Madison Square Garden for the first time.

As you may know, I grew up in Montreal as a massive New York Knicks fan. That was my favorite team as a kid. Well, my fandom turned into obsession after their 1994 Finals run, so as a birthday gift, my dear parents got me and my brothers tickets to a Knicks game versus the late, great Seattle SuperSonics.

I counted down the days to the game, and that's why the date is one that will stick with me forever. At the time, Madison Square Garden felt like a mythical place I would never visit. I used to dream about going to see my beloved Knicks play there.

You know that scene in "Rudy" in which the dad enters Notre Dame Stadium for the first time and says, "This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen"? Well, that's how 12-year-old me felt that night.

Truth be told, we were in the rafters, but it was a magical evening and one that I'll never forget. I felt like I was walking on hallowed ground.

And despite the fact the Knicks haven't been good for a couple of decades, which I think has helped take a bit of the luster off the arena, it's still a very special place to me. I am honored to be covering a fight of this magnitude there on Saturday night. Those feelings about MSG haven't gone away all these years later, and I hope they never do.