A lot can change in six-and-a-half years. Over the course of 83 pay-per-view events, UFC gold has changed hands no fewer than 43 times, while a legion of new stars have made their name on the biggest of stages.
Yet, despite his frustrating exile from the sport, Nick Diaz remains a bona fide UFC superstar. Two title fights may be taking place at UFC 266 this weekend but, make no mistake, all eyes will be on the 38-year-old as he makes his long-awaited return to the Octagon.
It has been a long hiatus for the Stockton-born fan-favourite. Diaz last competed against UFC legend Anderson Silva at UFC 183 in January 2015, where he initially lost by unanimous decision.
After a six-and-a-half-year exile, Nick Diaz makes his return to the UFC this weekend
However, Silva tested positive in pre-fight drug screening for drostanolone, androstane, oxazepem, and temazepam, rendering the fight a no contest.
But it was bad news for Diaz, too. The 38-year-old had tested positive for marijuana metabolites for a third time in his MMA career and in September 2015 was handed a five-year ban from the sport and a US$165,000 (£120,000) fine.
That ban was appealed and reduced to an 18-month suspension, while the fine was reduced to $100,000 (£73,000).
Even so, it meant that he could not corner his younger brother, Nate, for his two blockbuster showdowns with Conor McGregor in 2016.
Diaz was last in action against Anderson Silva at UFC 183, which was later ruled a no contest
The 38-year-old tested positive for marijuana and served an 18-month suspension from MMA
Since then, Diaz has appeared some way off making a UFC return. The American has long been uncomfortable with the spotlight and has spoken about his struggles in handling media obligations and public speaking.
For UFC president Dana White, it is Diaz’s fighting condition that has been the primary source of his concern, with the supremo regularly shooting down the notion of the 38-year-old setting foot in the Octagon.
‘My whole thing with Nick Diaz is I just question how bad he really wants to fight,’ White said earlier this year.
‘We got together, we had a great conversation, talked about a possible comeback for him. I just don’t know. We’ll see how it plays out this summer and the rest of this year.’
Diaz’s younger brother Nate has risen to fame while the 38-year-old has been sidelined
Given such a long lay off and Diaz’s advancing years, White had expressed fears that the veteran does not have the hunger required to compete at the top level.
‘When you hear him [Diaz] talk about fighting, you hear him talk about the sport, and I sit down daily or talk to daily [with] hungry, young savages that want to break into the top-10, become world champions, all that stuff.
‘Nick Diaz has done it all, seen it all, he’s been in big fights, I just don’t see that in him when I talk to him,’ White added.
Yet it takes two to tango, and as was the case 17 years ago, all roads lead to Robbie Lawler.
If White were to give an example of the sort of fighters he describes as ‘young savages’, he could be hard pressed to find a better definition than Diaz and Lawler 209 months ago.
Dana White has been hesitant to allow Diaz a return to the sport, citing a lack of ‘hunger’
However White has been stunned by Diaz’s ‘incredible’ training. The UFC veteran recently trained with heavyweight champion Tyson Fury
Lawler had emerged as the talk of the welterweights, with his freakish knockout power and ruthless style seeing him dubbed as the future of the division.
Diaz, making only his second UFC appearance, was largely written off by the masses with his jiu-jitsu-heavy approach unfavourable among fans and pundits.
‘It was like, there was no way I was going to win because I am fighting Robbie Lawler,’ Diaz reflected. ‘So when I went out there I did what I knew, and I spooked him.’
And spook him he did. Diaz left Lawler – typically unrelenting in his forward pressure – trigger shy as he secured a sensational second-round knockout to send shockwaves through the UFC.
All roads lead back to Robbie Lawler, who Diaz defeated 17 years ago in a seismic result
Diaz’s win is still regarded as one of the greatest performances in UFC history and, with that, Diaz had announced himself as a serious player in the sport.
Since that famous night at Mandalay Bay, Diaz and Lawler have fought a combined 60 fights, with the latter winning the welterweight title in 2014.
It is fair to say that at 38 and 39 respectively, the duo’s peak years are behind them, but Diaz believes that having not taken any punishment for six-and-a-half years, he is in better condition than his rival, who is currently on a four-fight losing run.
The Californian regularly trains and shared a gym session with boxing superstar Tyson Fury earlier this year.
The 38-year-old will bid to prove he can still compete at the top level at UFC 266 this weekend
Diaz, who is vegan, said: ‘I’m going to be really unstoppable having made the right decisions. I’m going to beat Robbie again.’
White has been completely won over by Diaz’s drive and revealed that the veteran is undertaking ‘incredible’ work in the gym.
‘I’m hearing stories of him having incredible sparring sessions, the guy’s still doing triathlons,’ he said.
‘A lot of times what happens is if a guy leaves for a while, they don’t work out and they don’t do anything for a few years. Not like going to the gym and mess around, but they are not training at that level. This kid’s a world class athlete. So, I don’t know, we’ll see.’
Six-and-a-half years out of action has left Diaz in need of a kickstart. Lawler, then, presents the perfect opportunity to prove he remains a seismic challenge to his UFC rivals, just as he did 17 years ago.