Nearly seven years removed from the Octagon, Nick Diaz received a hero's welcome upon his return on Saturday at UFC 266. Just over two rounds later, he left once more on his own terms.
Diaz (26-10, 2 NC) set an insane pace off the opening horn in his rematch some 17 years in the making against former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler. But their five-round middleweight bout came to a seemingly abrupt end in Round 3 when a right hook from Lawler busted the nose of Diaz and the fan favorite from Stockton, California, chose to stay down and take no more.
Lawler (29-15, 1 NC), who chose not to follow Diaz to the ground after dropping him, was awarded a TKO victory at 44 seconds of the third round to fully avenge the knockout loss he was handed by Diaz back in 2004.
"That's what I expected, for him to bring it to me and push the pace and try to break me," Lawler said. "That's a fun fight and that's the shit I want to do. I caught him with a couple of good body shots but he was doing a lot of work. He did a great job but I was just relentless tonight."
Although Diaz's return became the lead story on an already loaded pay-per-view card featuring two title bouts, it was clear early on just how far the 38-year-old was from his fighting prime in his first return to the UFC since a no contest against Anderson Silva in January 2015.
The 39-year-old Lawler, who appeared to be in much better physical shape and condition, looked equally past his best days as he tried to snap a four-fight losing skid. But the pro-Diaz crowd didn't seem to mind the ages or condition of both as the two stood and traded with reckless abandon for most of the fight.
"I'm glad I at least put on a show," Diaz said. "I knew I had it coming from ol' Rob and I had a lot of stress coming into this show. I have no excuses. I had a lot of time off and I knew I had it coming. I don't know how this fight got set up. The way the fight got set up, it was just a bum wrap. But no excuses. He was in great shape."
Diaz opened the fight by missing a wild, running spin kick but settled in nicely shortly after to let his hands go with combination punches at close range. Even when Lawler backed Diaz up in the opening round, Diaz was able to work with his back to the cage and had little trouble leaving red marks all over Lawler's bald head due to clean punches.
"I have always had respect for Diaz," Lawler said. "He brings it every freaking time he steps in the ring. He is a hell of a fighter and he put on a show. One thing about this camp is that he really got me going and pushed myself to get out there and work because of him."
Lawler leaned on his conditioning advantage to get the better of the exchanges in the second round although the speed of the punches thrown by both left a lot to be desired. But the tenor of the fight changed for good in Round 3 as Lawler opened with big body shots to back Diaz up before flooring him with a short right hook.
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"I watch a lot of tape and that's one of my favorite punches, the check right hook," Lawler said. "I tried to throw it more but he was tough as hell."
Diaz dropped to a knee upon the impact of the punch and eventually pulled guard, which caused Lawler to back up to the other side of the cage in avoidance of dealing with Diaz's grappling skills. But Diaz chose not to get back up, which brought an end to the bout as his busted nose began bleeding.
"I know I was leaking in here and I didn't want to make too much of a mess," Diaz said. "I'm glad I was able to put on a show."