by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
For many years it seemed as if a fighter lost at a UFC event then they would most likely be gone from the roster only to return many months if not years later. However with the growing popularity of MMA in the US and the expansion of shows the UFC will hold in the coming years, there is more security for fighters wishing to stay in the company.
Still with the added security of knowing the UFC needs to fill multiple spots on multiple shows, there are still some fights that are make or break, even for established fighters within the company. Such is the case with the upcoming Joe “Diesel” Riggs and Nick Diaz fight taking place this upcoming weekend.
Both fighters have won multiple times for the company and have looked good, but they’ve also lost multiple times, including in their respective last fights. With the welterweight division becoming increasingly log-jammed every week it seems, the loser of this bout could find themselves out of the big show for a while as new, less expensive, talent enters the company.
It’s not that long ago that Joe Riggs was one of the fastest rising middleweights around. Originally starting out at over 300lbs in the Rage in the Cage promotion in 2001, Riggs quickly established himself with his solid wrestling base and devastating elbow strikes.
During his time as a heavyweight, Riggs performed well against fellow young fighters, but had difficulties against experienced opponents like Homer Moore, Wesley “Cabbage” Correira and Travis Fulton, losing to each of them. As 2003 came to an end, Riggs decided he needed a change and began his decent down the weightclasses.
After a brief stop at the light-heavyweight division, Riggs settled on the 185lb weightclass and went on a tear, impressing the UFC enough to earn an invite to the company’s August 2004 show against highly regarded submission specialist “Dirty” Joe Doerksen in a match of debuting fighters.
It was clear that Riggs’ strength and quickness advantage was too much for Doerksen as Riggs quickly ended the bout in a hail of elbows. Upon returning to the WEC to finish out his contract there and RITC, Joe returned to the UFC to face Ivan Salaverry at UFC 52. Unfortunately Joe’s aggressiveness cost him against the cool Salaverry as Ivan managed to triangle choke Riggs half way through the first round of their fight.
After a quick win back in the WEC, Joe was asked if he’d be willing to drop to 170lbs to face tough veteran and friend Chris “Lights Out” Lytle at UFC 55. Always willing to take a new challenge, Riggs, who had begun to train with Jeremy Horn and work with conditioning coach Billy Rush, dropped the weight for a wild battle with Lytle. In the end, it was elbows, this time from the bottom (a trait picked up from Horn) allowed Joe to cut open Chris and earn him his first welterweight win.
Riggs then stepped in for an injured Karo Parisyan at UFC 56 to face 170lb Champion Matt Hughes in what was supposed to be a title fight. However, Joe’s trainer Billy Rush was ill and unable to help Riggs make final weight cuts, thus Joe weighed in over the limit and the fight became a three round non-title fight. Perhaps distraught about not making weight, Riggs fell quickly to a Hughes kimura in the first round, ending his championship aspirations.
Now Joe returns in what looks to be a must-win situation against Nick Diaz at UFC 57. Like Riggs, Nick is in a similar situation, he’s still young and very marketable, but in order to continue with the company he has to win and wipe out any thoughts detractors may have that he’s not ready for stardom.
Unlike Riggs, the long and lean Nick Diaz has always competed at the 170lb weightclass. Debuting in late 2001 at an IFC event in his native California, Diaz’s well-rounded skills and steadfast attitude made him a quick standout on the Cesar Gracie team.
In just his second fight he bested MMA veteran Chris Lytle and was impressive enough to be added to the Ultimate Athlete: King of the Mountain single night 8-man tournament. Upon winning his first two fights in the evening, Nick was matched up against a fighter he’d become very familiar with in the coming years, Jeremy Jackson, in the finals.
Perhaps worn down from his earlier fights, the young Diaz was overwhelmed quickly against Jackson and would lose the match just 49 seconds into the first round. Nick would go on to split his next three bouts, winning two and losing one, before getting his rematch with Jackson in the IFC this time for Diaz’ US Welterweight Championship.
This time things were different, Diaz would prove his earlier loss to Jackson might have been fatigue related as he finished Jeremy just before the end of the first round. Nick had his revenge and the UFC having been impressed with his output so far invited Nick into their ranks in late 2003.
In what would prove to be the rubber match between he and Jackson, Diaz fought a hard two rounds before arm barring Jeremy in the third to take the 2-1 advantage in their series of bouts and put Jackson behind him for good. Nick would then go up against highly regarded hitter Robbie Lawler at UFC 47 in a fight that appeared to be a contrast in styles, the striker VS the grappler.
Things however didn’t turn out as many expected. Diaz chased Lawler around the octagon much of the fight, and in a move uncharacteristic of his normally calm and quite nature, Nick taunted Robbie in an effort to get Lawler to engage him. Perhaps eager to shut Diaz up, Lawler swung wildly at Nick who was ready and in turn landed a stiff shot right on Robbie’s chin, knocking him out. Nick had served notice that he wasn’t just a submission specialist, but a complete fighter.
Apparently headed on the fast track to stardom, Nick was favored to beat Karo Parisyan at their UFC 49 showdown but was unable to apply himself and lost a controversial split decision to Karo. Nick rebounded to beat tough underdog Drew Fickett at UFC 51 and clearly overmatched Pancrase fighter Koji Oishi at UFC 53 to get back on track.
With a record of 4-1 it seemed as if Diaz was working his way back into contention when he was matched up with The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 winner Diego Sanchez at the TUF 2 finale in November of last year. Visibly unhappy with the pay rate differences between he and Diego, Nick went into the fight with a definite chip on his shoulder and was unable again to apply his game and be stifled throughout much of the match, losing a unanimous decision.
Now Nick finds himself at a crossroads in his UFC career. With an increasing number of new 170lb fighters coming into the UFC from other promotions and from TUF 2, it’s going to be hard to make a name for anyone in the division that doesn’t win constantly. Thus Nick must defeat Joe Riggs in order to keep his spot in the company or perhaps fall further down the pipeline behind the influx of new talent.
Conventional wisdom sees this fight as a match between the brawler and the stylist. Riggs’ strength and relentless agression make it easy for him to overwhelm opponents not ready for his attack. Diaz on the other hand is a cool and collected fighter who uses counters both standing and on the ground to manipulate his opponent into bad positions where Nick can take advantage.
This fight may very well boil down to Diaz being able to weather the storm of Joe’s attack and not get cut or knocked out before he can apply his game. If the past has shown anything, Joe, especially at a lower weight, may have issues with stamina whereas Nick has gone three full rounds at full power multiple occasions. If Joe cannot control his attack it could very well be Nick’s night, but Diaz has to avoid a hurricane of elbows to get to that point.
The winner of this fight will find themselves back in good standing within the division. Most likely they will be used as a measuring stick for the incoming talent while Matt Hughes, BJ Penn and Georges St. Pierre settle the battle for the 170lb Championship. The loser may be out of the UFC or might only see action on Ultimate Fight Night shows on the undercard, out of the title race for what could be a couple years.
With the welterweight division as stacked as it has ever been in the history of the sport it’s important to get a solid position with the UFC now before it gets too crowded and fighters get relegated to spending extended periods of time on the second tier shows. And that’s a fate, while not befitting talents like Joe Riggs and Nick Diaz, that one or both may find themselves in if they do not live up to promise they’ve always shown and become the fighters they were meant to be.