Diamond in the Rough: Is Nate Diaz Built for a UFC Championship?
Every tale of the tape contains a hidden message: There is no such thing as a “fair fight.”
At the elite levels of most modern sports, coaches, scouts and statisticians are always searching for the next great champion. The diamond in the rough. We often have specific factors to look for in scouting athletes, whether it’s a physical build, clutch play ability, or a very specific performance metric like shooting accuracy or fastball speed. NBA team advisors pay special attention to “anthropometrics,” or the measurement of human physical attributes, when drafting players, because a guard with long arms may cause more turnovers than one who is average. In the military, Special Forces instructors speak of filtering candidates for the right combination of genetics and work ethic. Having a genetic disposition to certain types of muscle fiber can also create a significant advantage in athleticism, just like musculoskeletal size. Succeeding at anything ultimately requires having good innate potential to begin with, then maximizing that potential through hard work.
Sports present an obvious experiment to test this idea because physical traits are far easier to measure than intellectual ones. Not to say that brains aren’t an important part of athletic competition, they absolutely are, but succeeding in basketball gets a lot easier the taller you are, and most sports have similarly clear size or strength preferences. So if we can identify the right combination of physical traits for MMA and combine them with athletes showing high performance skills, we should find some fighters with champion potential.
In MMA, the Tale of the Tape tells us the basics of Age, Height, Weight and Reach, and each of these data points contains important information. But deciphering what’s most important requires us to look at the fighter population as a whole to understand what is good, and what is truly exceptional. Among these metrics age is critically important, as fighters reach their physical peak in their mid- to late-twenties, and older fighters are prone to knockouts. And analyzing UFC fights in general also reveals that Reach is definitely important in the striking game, but surprisingly, in the submission game as well. What’s missing from the Tale of the Tape, however, is fighting stance, and here, natural left handers or fighters that can switch stance tend to do better in MMA.
Interestingly, two current UFC champions, Jon Jones and Anderson Silva, are rangy southpaws; long-armed left handers that have dominated the competition. Moreover, other than Silva and the sidelined welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre, all other UFC champions are under the age of 30. So when we look back at the Tale of the Tape, we should ask what is the ideal lineup of basic anthropometrics for MMA? The answer: we want to find left handed fighters with long reach for their weight class that are still in their twenties.
When combing through the ultra-competitive lightweight division, a few names immediately pop up as hitting the Tale of the Tape trifecta. These guys are young, rangy southpaws, and they have bright futures in the division.
Nate Diaz tops the list of lightweight contenders, both in Dana White’s opinion, and in the Tale of the Tape. Diaz is the rangiest Southpaw of them all, and is currently fighting in the peak age range.
But excellence isn’t born, it’s developed over time. No matter their natural gifts, high level athletes must train like crazy in order to maximize their physical potential. Just think of a seven foot center that can’t get up and down the court, a speedy receiver with hands of stone.
In MMA, we look broadly at the skills of striking and grappling. And while grappling is harder to quantify, no one doubts the jiu-jitsu skills of Gracie phenoms Nick and Nate Diaz. In recent fights, few have attempt to test the Diaz brothers on the mat, and look no further than the first ever submission of high level black belt Jim Miller to verify Nate’s credentials when it really counts.
But we do want to look deeper and assess Nate against other fighters in terms of performance. Fortunately, there are a few statistics that correlate highly with success in the UFC. The creators of FightMetric ran the mother of all multivariate correlations to find that one great performance indicator. They call it Significant Strikes Landed per Minute, or SLpM for short. Significant strikes are the ones that really count, think of punches and kicks, or elbows and knees from the clinch. The focus is on power strikes that can do damage and win a fight. The statistical question to validate our hypothesis that Diaz has championship potential is how does he stack up against other rangy Southpaw champions, or against the other lightweight champion contenders in terms of performance?
It’s clear that Nate Diaz has excelled in his return to the lightweight division. His successful performances also relied heavily on his striking ability, not just his already well-respected (and feared) jiu-jitsu. While his accuracy in landing significant strikes is eclipsed only by Jon Jones and Anderson Silva in this analysis, Diaz’s pace of striking already exceeds them all, especially his Lightweight peers. In fact, on the all-time FightMetric list of Significant Strikes Landed in the UFC, Nate places #6 overall, within proverbial striking distance of future hall of famers like Rich Franklin, BJ Penn and Georges St-Pierre. Being the youngest fighter on the top 10 list means that Diaz will likely rank first overall in this key measure of Octagon performance and experience at some point in his career.
Searching for the next great fighter has brought us an interesting gem in Nate Diaz, arguably the diamond in the rough of the lightweight division. The young, rangy Southpaw has the ground skills that no one wants to tangle with, but the striking skills that few have been able to deal with. He presents a fascinating conundrum for whoever walks away with the lightweight belt at UFC 150 in August. Whether it’s Ben Henderson or Frankie Edgar, each would have their hands full with the next #1 contender. And much to the surprise of many fans, the first UFC title contender named Diaz may be Nate.