Trapped in a Prison

MMA Fighter Nick Diaz and the Dark Side of the Ring

I’ll admit to being as bloodthirsty as the next Neanderthal, but there came a time last year when it was just plain difficult to watch Chuck Liddell fight.

Here was a champion—one of the people who ushered the sport of mixed martial arts into mainstream consciousness, no less—quickly starting to fade.

First, you could see his speed and timing start to go: he would plod around the mat awkwardly, rarely connecting with anything unless he stood still and ate a few punches beforehand.
Then he started getting punch-drunk. In each of his last six fights, he was caught with devastating blows to the skull and it clearly started to affect his behaviour outside the cage. At press conferences, his speech slurred slightly and he was much more irritable than he had ever seemed.

It was clear that a career of hand-to-hand combat had caused Liddell some sort of irreparable brain damage, and the thought of him continuing to fight was difficult to bear.
Thankfully, his bosses at the Ultimate Fighting Championship stepped in and refused to promote any more fights for the former champ. Liddell was still a bankable fighter but, in this case, the UFC put the man’s health before profit.

Recently, though, the UFC was presented with a similar dilemma—but this time they made the wrong decision.

Welterweight contender Nick Diaz was supposed to promote his upcoming bout with titleholder Georges St-Pierre by appearing at two press conferences. He missed the first, in Toronto, without offering an explanation.

One week later, in Las Vegas, he was a no-show at the second press conference. His manager Cesar Gracie told reporters that Diaz had actually run out the back door of his house when Gracie came to check up on him.

As a punishment for effectively refusing to do his job, Diaz was removed from the event. But the next day, the UFC announced he would remain on the card, fighting B.J. Penn in the co-main event instead.
In other circumstances, Diaz vs. Penn could be one of the year’s most thrilling bouts. Both have beautiful boxing technique, are elite submission grapplers and fight with a kind of desperation you rarely see in this level of combat sports.

But a few months before missing the Vegas press conference under nebulous circumstances, Diaz said something—on the record—that should have raised red flags about the state of his mental health.

“Why the fuck am I doing this right now?’ I’ve been trapped in this prison, and after every fight there is another,” he told Fighters Only magazine. “If I fight, I lose, no matter what, win or lose. I don’t look forward to anything like that. I look past that, like, ‘Holy shit, if I win this shit, I’m fucking stuck in this game.’”

No matter what your pessimistic inclinations might tell you, human beings aren’t hard-wired for violence. Most people will do anything to get out of a fight—not only for fear of being hurt, but also because it’s tough to deal with hurting another person.

Most elite level fighters deal with this problem by looking at MMA as an athletic competition where, just like in any other sport, the worst thing to fear is a bad performance.

But Diaz has always seen it as just fighting, similar to getting into a scrap in the alley behind a bar. When another fighter signs a contract to fight him, Diaz seems to take it as a personal affront.

I’ll admit to being as bloodthirsty as the next Neanderthal, but there came a time last year when it was just plain difficult to watch Chuck Liddell fight.

He’ll call his opponent a bitch at a press conference, or shove him at the weigh-in. He’ll stick his chin out during a match and actually allow the other fighter to punch him. He’s been involved in two post-fight brawls in the cage, including one on a live CBS broadcast.

Most infamously, after his bout with Joe Riggs in February 2006, he actually picked a fight with Riggs in the hospital they were being treated in.

This has always made Diaz a fascinating subject. It’s how he was able to cultivate a following during the years he fought outside of the UFC.

In part, it’s because he’s so intriguing that we’ve just brushed off this outlandish behaviour as a coping mechanism. If that’s how a man like Diaz has to get himself ready to step into a steel cage and fight for money, then so be it.

But it’s now clear that Diaz’s approach to MMA may have created several serious psychological problems for the 28-year-old fighter.

Even when you look at it as a sport, losing a fight is a haunting experience. You can’t shift the blame to the coach’s poor strategizing, a teammate’s fumble or a bad call from the ref. The other man is simply better than you. It can create an existential void inside your soul.

But when you make the fight into something personal like Diaz always does, the stakes are infinitely higher. The fear of losing starts to consume you. Losing to someone you hate, to someone you’ve publicly derided, is embarrassing and emasculating. It becomes a kind of prison, as Diaz said.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Diaz’s. When he fought in Japan, I would get up at 5:00 a.m. to catch the bout online. When it was announced he would be fighting for the UFC championship, I was giddy for weeks. If you’ve never seen him fight, just Google his match with Takanori Gomi. I guarantee it will give you an out-of-body experience.

I don’t want to see Diaz put himself through this anymore, though. He needs help, and the people making money off him have to realize that some injuries extend beyond the body.

This summer has already shown us the all-too-real connection between fighting and mental issues in the sports world after a trio of NHL enforcers died within a few months, forcing the hockey world to look at the prevalence of prescription pill usage and depression among the league’s fighters.

In boxing, guys like Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Floyd Mayweather and Arthuro Gatti all had demons to contend with outside the ring. If anyone thinks MMA fighters might be the exception to this trend, they’re only kidding themselves.

A few months ago, the UFC set itself ahead of every other fight promotion on the planet when it began providing its fighters with year-round health insurance. Now it’s time for the organization to put that insurance policy to use and start encouraging—or even mandating—its athletes to seek psychological help when they need it.