Diaz versus Cerrone: The Habits and Growth of Two Fighters, Five Years On

In December of 2011, Donald Cerrone and Nate Diaz met in a barnburner which took 'Fight of the Night' honors. We examine the familiar habits and the strategic changes both men have adopted in the wake of that bout.
August 10, 2016, 4:36pm
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Donald Cerrone is now a welterweight and he has never looked better. Nate Diaz is now the most popular man in MMA, fighting at moneyweight and delivered the first UFC loss to the great Conor McGregor. Both have fought for UFC titles, both are well on their way to another shot, and both have racked up a tremendous number of finishes inside the Octagon. They are now two of the UFC's most exciting fighters, and among the most recognizable, but even when they met in the Octagon in the dying days of 2011, fans knew the match up would be something special. The animosity between the two was palpable and as they refused to touch gloves before the opening round—the anticipation in the crowd was ready to bubble over. Let us consider the traits which both fighters showed within the bout and how they have changed over time.

As Herb Dean announced the start of the contest, Donald Cerrone shot across the ring and threw his hands at Nate Diaz. Cerrone's punching form had always been loopy—even when he was trying to throw straights—and anger only exaggerated this. Diaz moved immediately to the clinch and pushed Cerrone to the fence. Taking the single underhook and placing his head underneath Cerrone's, Diaz adopted the position which Cain Velasquez and Diaz's elder brother made such great use of.

This is a trait which both of the Diaz brothers show. If they want to settle their opponent down a little they won't bother trying to box, they'll just duck in on a clinch and move to the fence. Diaz used this repeatedly against Conor McGregor in their bout. It is a great way to break the momentum of the opponent and can take its toll psychologically if the opponent feels he is just getting going before he is sucked into the clinch. Most importantly it allows Diaz to get to work with short blows and body work. In the Cerrone fight there were glimpses of Nate's brother, Nick in every clinch. Nick Diaz will leave his head out for the opponent to slap on a double collar tie, then grab the back of their head and shrug their hands across them, coming back with body shots, or he would cross face and shrug away. This was how Nick Diaz wilted Paul Daley along the fence. Any time the Diaz brothers can get their head underneath their opponents' along the fence they will open up with body shots. These are more exposed if the opponent does reach up to move or collar tie their head.

Initially it was Cerrone's desire to fight back and brawl with Diaz which got him into trouble. His punches would come out wider than Diaz's seemingly slow moving but perfectly straight blows. In the words of Joe Gans—the first African American boxing world champion and who died one hundred and sixteen years ago today—"Straight hitting gets boxers' plums."

As Cerrone went into a defensive shell, trying to decide between putting on his ear muffs or reaching to parry Diaz's blows, Diaz began to play with his expectations beautifully. Diaz would reach to hand fight and if Cerrone's hand wasn't out, he'd blast straight down the middle with the jab. If Cerrone's hand did begin to get in the way, the right hand would loop around the outside of it.

Hand trap and release straight into the jab. A skipping stone punch into a combination.

Yet each time Cerrone wanted to go on the lead, Diaz would duck in on a clinch or smother the kickboxer's hands.

But Diaz was not flawless in this bout. His narrow stance—almost on a line—and his often inwardly turned lead foot made him very susceptible to the lead leg outside low kicks that always troubled his brother as well. Each time Cerrone kicked Diaz's lead leg it would be thrown across Diaz's body and he would be forced to recover.

But Diaz began to pick his lead leg up and even began using it to enter with his jab. In karate this is called a tobi-komi technique.

However, Cerrone began attacking the standing leg with a cut kick and repeatedly knocked Diaz to the floor with this. In the final round these low kicks set up several close calls on high kicks.

As the fight came to a close it was clear that Diaz had put Cerrone through the meat grinder but key flaws and habits had been exposed in both men. Diaz's lead leg became a nuisance for him as it prevented him from getting anything going in his title shot against Benson Henderson, distracted him and allowed Josh Thompson to kick him in the head for his only loss by knockout, and allowed Rafael dos Anjos to convincingly best him. In his last two bouts Diaz has adopted more of a counter aggressive style which has allowed him to pick up his lead leg a little more and put opponents off simply backtracking and kicking his lead leg out.

Cerrone, meanwhile, still has issues with pressure. That was clear from his title bout with Rafael dos Anjos, who swarmed the taller man and put in hurting blows to his body. However he has not shown the same collapse of discipline which saw him try to brawl Diaz through the first round. His development of the intercepting knee meant that the vast majority of opponents who felt they could get in on him and fluster him simply ended up getting winded and backing out of range again. His move to welterweight—which has only been one fight so far—also saw him in with a fighter more his own build and fighting at a longer range naturally rather than having to keep his man off of him.

While both men have over thirty fights under their belts and are clearly veterans of the game, Diaz is only 31 and Cerrone is 33. With Cerrone's move to welterweight and the UFC and Conor McGregor's insistence that Diaz is a welterweight (even though he contests that he isn't), a rematch between the two can never be ruled out and with how sharp Cerrone has looked in the years since he took a whipping at the hands of Diaz it would make for a fascinating match up. The theme with both men has been that defeats have changed them more than weak moments in victory. Both men can change but require the knock to their confidence to force them to.

Diaz and Cerrone both have fights on the UFC 202 card and it will be interesting to watch the continuing growth and development of these men who in some other sports would be considered too far along in their careers to learn anything new.