Nate Diaz stealing UFC 241 Fight Week spotlight ahead of co-main event vs. Pettis

Nate Diaz’s return to the Octagon on Saturday to face Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis in the UFC 241 co-main event has been met with enormous approval from MMA fans and the horde of media that’s gathered for Fight Week in Anaheim.

Diaz and Pettis will square off in a three-round welterweight contest at Honda Center. As of Thursday afternoon, the Westgate SuperBook had Pettis installed as a -130 favorite, with Diaz as a +110 underdog.

Daniel Cormier will defend his UFC heavyweight strap against former heavyweight kingpin, Stipe Miocic, in Saturday’s headliner. Most spots had Cormier listed as a -145 ‘chalk’ on Thursday afternoon, leaving Miocic at +125 on the comeback.

Diaz (19-11 MMA, 14-9 UFC) hasn’t fought in nearly three years since losing a majority decision — one that I scored 48-47 in favor of Diaz — in his rematch against Conor McGregor at UFC 202. Diaz had submitted McGregor in the second round of their UFC 196 showdown that the Stockton, Calif., product took on less than two weeks of notice.

Diaz’s last three scraps have won Fight of the Night honors to bring his career total to eight FOTN bonuses, which is the most in the promotion’s history. Diaz, The Ultimate Fighter Season 5 winner, is in a second-place tie with Joe Lauzon for most career post-fight bonus awards (15) in UFC history.

Pettis (22-8 MMA, 9-7 UFC) is fighting at 170 pounds for only the second time in his storied career. The 32-year-old former lightweight champion made his welterweight debut in the UFC Nashville headliner on March 23, scoring a second-round knockout win over Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson.

Starting with his UFC 185 loss to Rafael dos Anjos that left RDA as the new 155-pound king, Pettis limped to a 1-4 record in 2015 and ’16. Since then, however, he’s 3-2 with wins over Thompson, Michael Chiesa and Jim Miller.

The two defeats during that span came against current interim lightweight champ Dustin Poirier and former interim lightweight champ Tony Ferguson, who currently owns the longest winning streak in UFC history (12).

Both losses to Poirier and Ferguson were awarded FOTN honors. Pettis’s coach stopped the Ferguson fight — which was a beauty of a bloodbath from start to finish! — at the end of Round 2 because Pettis had broken one of his hands and the other was also banged up.

But it’s Diaz that has the MMA world buzzing about his return. It’s so important that it prompted Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel, considered by many to be the premier sports writer these days, to pen a column on the 209 native.

MMA handicappers pay close attention to how fighters behave during Fight Week. Do they seem composed and relaxed in media scrums? Does it look like their weight cut could be an issue?

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Diaz so comfortable and relaxed as he was at yesterday’s media scrum that you can check out here.

Then again, perhaps he was relaxed on account of how his open workout started with him lighting up a joint?

Whatever the case, Diaz appears to be in remarkable shape and more muscular than in years past. That could be attributed to not having to cut weight down to 155, but I just think he’s added more strength.

Even ESPN analyst Chael Sonnen remarked earlier this week about how the last time he gave him a hug (sometime in the past year when they ran into each other at a UFC event), Sonnen said he’d never felt Diaz that big and strong.

And that’s one reason why I’m picking Diaz over Pettis in this scrap. I think he has size (two-inch height edge), strength and reach (3.5 inches) advantages that’ll be crucial, particularly in the third and final round (if we get that far).

Many feel that since Diaz stands so heavy on his front left leg in his boxing stance, Pettis is going to pepper that front leg with his biggest asset — his powerful kicks. I don’t doubt that Pettis will cause damage in this way.

However, Diaz has fought through that many times before. I believe over the course of three rounds, Diaz will use his underrated wrestling and superior clinch game to get inside and wear Pettis out.

Cage rust? I’m not concerned about it at all, especially because Diaz has been training throughout his time off. He looks to be in the best shape of his career. Cardio is the last thing a gambler should be worried about with Diaz.

There are all sorts of great highlight clips of both fighters making the rounds on Twitter. Here’s one more that you can check out real quick.

Even if you’re just a casual UFC fan, you’ll enjoy this 40-minute interview Diaz did with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto a few weeks ago. And if you’re a fan of the Diaz Brothers, it’s a must watch for sure! Check it out here. For those merely looking for what he says about McGregor, most of that content is found starting at about the 30-minute mark.

I’ll offer one more pick for the main event. As we all know, Father Time is unbeaten. I point this out because Cormier is now 40 years old. Although he appears to be in great condition, I’ve sensed in interviews that he’s going to retire after this fight (win or lose).

Now I’ll concede that some bettors might think that’s all the more reason to be bullish on his chances Saturday, and I’m not implying it plays much into my thought process of backing Miocic.

Let’s not forget that Miocic was having his way in the first fight during the first several minutes last year. To his credit, Cormier switched up the momentum in the last minute of the bout and scored the first-round KO with 27 seconds remaining.

It was a short right that landed perfectly that dropped Miocic, and then ‘DC’ got the finish with a barrage of ground-and-pound punches. We’ll also note that Cormier has never lost at heavyweight.

Nevertheless, I’m rolling with Miocic here as a +125 underdog. Remember, Miocic was 9-1 in his 10 previous bouts before falling to Cormier.

The Ohio product had his six-fight winning streak snapped by ‘DC.’ Miocic won the belt by beating Fabricio Werdum via first-round KO down in Brazil.

Then he set a UFC record with three consecutive title defenses, dusting Alistair Overeem and Junior dos Santos with first-round KOs. Miocic routed Francis Ngannou by unanimous decision at UFC 220.

**B.E.’s Octagon Nuggets**

–If you go to the UFC’s YouTube page, you can see the views of both Countdown to UFC 241 shows. The Diaz-Pettis portion of the Countdown show has had 1.7 million views as of Thursday afternoon. The Cormier-Miocic part? That’s only been viewed 596,000 times.

–Dana White once said Nate Diaz “doesn’t move the needle.” Judging from those stats I just noted, I’d say he’s moving the needle quite well these days, and he’s undoubtedly moving it much more compared to the current and former heavyweight champions’ rematch.

–There are dozens of options in terms of Nate’s best quotes of the week, but I’ll go with this one: “I’m The Don of all this shit.”

–Ian ‘The Hurricane’ Heinisch will take on eighth-ranked middleweight Derek Brunson in a fight on the main card. Heinisch (13-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) has roared into contention and taken the No. 10 spot in the 185-pound loop’s rankings with three victories in as many Octagon appearances. Heinisch’s odds were North of -200 two weeks ago and were -180 earlier this week. That price has been reduced all the way down to -145, as of Thursday afternoon, at both Caesars and SBG Global. If you aren’t familiar with Heinisch’s story, it is absolutely fascinating. His road to the Octagon was like nobody else’s, as he explains in this post for The Players Tribune that’s titled, “You Ever Been to Rikers?”

–You know a great card is on the horizon when you’ve barely heard anything about this can’t-miss showdown on the main card: Yoel Romero vs. Paulo Costa. It’s going to be a thriller! So will the bantamweight tilt between Raphael Assuncao and Cory Sandhagen.

–Just as I was getting ready to publish this article, I noticed on Twitter that Diaz decided to skip today’s UFC 241 Media Days that culminates with each opponent facing off with each other. Diaz reportedly let Dana know ahead of time. If I’m not mistaken, Diaz and Pettis haven’t laid eyes on each other yet this week, but that’ll change at Friday’s weigh-ins and certainly on Saturday night. Here’s Pettis at the scheduled faceoff:

–In case you missed it, Conor McGregor stooped to a new low in April when he sucker punched an old man at a bar in Dublin. Here’s my piece on that development earlier today.

–Folks, if you’re just a casual UFC fan, one that maybe checks out 2-3 cards per year if it’s on at the bar or at a friend’s house, this is THE ONE to check out in 2019. Trust me and enjoy the show!

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