Neither the love spilled from the Arizona crowd nor the legendary reputation that followed him into the Octagon on Saturday could save Nate Diaz from the wrath of welterweight contender Leon Edwards.
Boy, did Diaz come close, however, from pulling off nothing short of a last-minute miracle.
After being bloodied and brutalized through four-plus rounds, Diaz (20-13) badly wobbled Edwards (19-3, 1 NC) in the final minute of their five-round battle and appeared on the verge of stopping him at the final horn in a featured fight on the UFC 263 card inside Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona. Edwards hung on for a unanimous decision via identical scores of 49-46 and just barely avoided the kind of heart-breaking defeat that would've been par for the course in his recent run of bad luck and fights falling apart.
"Nate is a veteran. I hit him in the head with everything but the kitchen sink," Edwards said. "Fair play to him and he gets my respect in there tonight."
Diaz, 36, ended a two-year layoff by curiously asking for a fight against Edwards when seemingly no one else was. Diaz also requested it be contested over five rounds, which made the 170-pound fight the first of its kind for a non-main event or title bout.
Although the risk didn't pay off in the end as Diaz was hoping to catapult himself to the front of the line in a crowded welterweight title picture, the mercurial Stockton, California, native was able to retain his reputation as a blood-and-guts warrior and impossibly erase the image of seeing him so badly dominated by Edwards for most of the fight.
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"I had a hard time getting going all night long," Diaz said. "I got cut in training about a month ago. I think it slowed my whole momentum down. Congratulations to Leon. I was close to taking his ass the f--- out."
Diaz was beaten to the punch repeatedly by Edwards, a 29-year-old native of England, and dropped multiple times over the final two rounds before the rally. Diaz was also dominated on the ground throughout and was badly cut in two places -- above his left eye and on the side of his head -- from Edwards' elbow strikes on the ground in Round 3.
But just when it looked as if the elite level of the sport had badly passed Diaz by in the final round, his desperate surge nearly connected when a two-punch combination wobbled Edwards. Diaz initially pointed at his opponent to mock him and might have cost himself a chance at a finish. Still, Diaz kept the pressure on before the final bell and continued to hurt Edwards before running out of time.
"He caught me with a [combination] and it is what it is," Edwards said. "It was hard enough to wobble me. I have only been wobbled probably once in my career. It came through the guard and caught me up the middle."
Diaz failed to lure Edwards into a brawl over the first three rounds and was resigned to taunt his opponent with various pieces of performance art including nearly turning his back on Edwards and sticking out his rear end. Edwards, to his credit, stayed poised and chipped away at Diaz with leg strikes that appeared to start compromising Diaz's movement by Round 3.
"It's the Nate Diaz army," Diaz said. "We are lions out here, my whole team."
Although Edwards was booed after the fight, the victory could be enough to land him a long-awaited shot at Kamaru Usman's welterweight title. Edwards improved to 9-0 (1 NC) since a 2015 non-title loss to Usman by unanimous decision.
"I kind of put myself in there mentally. I've been watching Nate… I've seen the stats today on Instagram," Edwards said. "When I was at my pro debut, he was headlining a UFC event. I've watched Nate Diaz for a long time so I know exactly what he does. I just thought he was trying to talk shit. I went to my corner and my corner just told me to stay composed, don't play into his game, just do your thing and that's what I did. I stayed composed."