Three years removed from the Octagon, Nate Diaz returned an even bigger fan favorite and anti-hero. He also returned a winner.
Diaz (20-11), whose comeback from 1,000-plus day layoff that was handled on his own unique terms, outworked former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis en route to a unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28) in the co-main event of UFC 241 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. CBS Sports also scored the fight 30-27 for Diaz.
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The welterweight attraction saw Diaz, 34, absorb heavy punches yet continue to stalk forward despite a cut over his right eye. Using his size and reach advantage to control from the clinch, Diaz dropped an exhausted Pettis in Round 3 with knees to the head and nearly finished him multiple times with strikes and submission attempts.
"It's the Nick Diaz army motherf---ers!" Diaz exclaimed in a tip of the cap to his older brother that popped the crowd. "It felt good to be back."
Diaz, a native of Stockton, California, said he adjusted his five-round cardio during training camp in order to be more aggressive over the three rounds. Although the pace he set nearly cost him when he opened the second round somewhat flat with Pettis using his boxing to control the action. But Diaz rallied late to take Pettis (22-9) down and finish the close round as the aggressor, stealing it on two of three scorecards after both fighters traded heavy blows from close range.
"I just worked out a little different this fight like [Pettis] so I could push the pace in the beginning," Diaz said. "I am used to five round fights so I got tired trying to go after him. I'm ready to go back to five rounds."
Pettis, 32, showed early on in the final round he was unable to keep up with Diaz's pace. Knees to the face from the clinch finally dropped Pettis and Diaz dove in looking for the finish with hammer fists.
To Pettis' credit, he was able to weather the storm and stay in the fight. Following an exciting scramble on the ground, Diaz took Pettis' back twice and came close to sinking in submission attempts until the final horn.
The victory puts Diaz in position to land a number of big-money fights over two divisions, including a trilogy with Conor McGregor, whom he split exciting fights against in 2016. But it was another name that Diaz had in mind when he grabbed the microphone.
"The reason I was off was because everybody sucks and there was nobody to fight," Diaz said. "But with this belt I want to defend it against Jorge Masvidal, who had a good last fight. He had a good last fight. All respect to the man but there ain't no gangsters in this game. I know my man is a gangster but he ain't no west coast gangster."
Masvidal, who was in the crowd, smiled huge as his name was mentioned. The welterweight has grown considerably in popularity following his five-second knockout of Ben Askren in July that became a viral sensation.
"I'll still be here in 40 years. Still fighting and killing," Diaz said after the fight.