After a good portion of all the world’s nations decided to form separate alliances and fight to the death between 1939 and 1945, the Soviet Head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Central Committee, decided that high on the list of dangerous cultural artifacts was…the saxophone.
That Soviet Chairman, Andrei Zhdanov, argued that jazz would “poison the consciousness of the masses”. Eventually it wasn’t just the saxophone that became the target of cultural incarceration, but drums and bass strings as well. A Siberian prison could be your habitat if you were in a jazz band. All of this was a stark reminder of an uncomfortable truth that “invocations of morality is so often just the sanctification of power”. But it was also an illustration of how those invocations readily become obstacles. The Stilyagi eventually appeared, Russian punk rockers if you will, and a culture of dissent was finally born out of Soviet kitchens and X-rays from hospital bins that could be used to record rock and jazz music on.
The point here isn’t that the Cold War was won by punk rock; only that attitude isn’t merely an abstract force of delinquency. Rather, it can be its own political capital, and thus, as historically tangible as splitting an atom.
Before you begin laughing about what potential conclusions can be drawn from this, I am not arguing that Nick Diaz is a symbol for political change in the world of mixed martial arts. No you don’t call it a victory against the status quo just because you lit a bowl, and followed it up with a gastrointestinal Doritos injection. But he is someone I’ve come to appreciate not as a symbol, but as a presence. Kind of like punk rock.
Nick Diaz, ever the man of the ‘piss off’ freedom we’ve come to know, love, and hate, won’t ever be remembered for his brilliant accomplishments. True, he’s held titles. In 2002, in only his second professional fight, he won IFC’s Welterweight belt from Chris Lytle. In 2003, he won the WEC Welterweight championship against Joe Hurley. He’d fight for the EliteXC title in 2007 versus K.J. Noons, only to lose. In 2010 he’d punctuate his resurgence against Marius Zaromskis for the Strikeforce WW title. Eventually his non UFC success would earn him his Zuffa roster spot back, where he’d fight for the Interim UFC WW belt, and then the actual WW title where he’d go on to lose to Carlos Condit and Georges St-Pierre, respectively.
Then came this past weekend’s bout with Anderson Silva. True, Anderson Silva didn’t look too much like the icon we’ve come to know. But even fragments of pugilist artistry can manifest itself as broad as the specter of defeat if you’re not careful, and Nick never wavered in the face of said challenge.
I’ve always found Nick slightly more thoughtful than often given credit for. I enjoyed his quote in the promos running up to the UFC 183 main event (one who had given before 183):
“In order to love fighting, I have to hate it. There’s no love in this without hate. You gotta love it because you want it so bad you’re pushing yourself to those limits. Or you simply hate it. And if you ain’t there to where you hate it, then good luck trying to love it.”
His words to Anderson Silva as Silva lay on the ground crying hearkened back to what he told Frank Shamrock after blistering him with punches on the ground to a TKO stoppage: “get up, you’re the fucking legend.” And thanking Jeremy Jackson for a rematch after their first brutal (for Nick) encounter behind the scenes, similar to his postfight encounter with Paul Daley in a hotel always seemed like a nice counterweight to his in-cage swagger.
To be sure, Nick has displayed moments of unfiltered petulance. But his allure has always been in the way nobody seems to own him. He’s never been owned in the metaphysical way that Machida was “owned” by Jon Jones. Matt Hughes by GSP. Or Big Nog by Fedor. But most importantly, he’s never been owned by Dana White or the media in that specific way that we implicitly ask our athletes to be accessible, and accommodating.
We’re used to evaluating fighter’s in a very formulaic way; wins, losses, quality of competition, method of victory versus defeat, et cetera. The fascinating part about Nick is watching other’s evaluate him, unclear about how we should confront his personality. It’s easy to tease out the snobbishness of someone reducing him to the stereotypes of a delinquent, or the delirium of those who view his pot bluster as regal. Granted, neither represent the only dichotomy of analysis, but they tend to be the more prosaic “hot takes”. And this despite the fact that he was never villainous so much as childish.
I mention Nick Diaz in the context of ‘punk rock’ because he encapsulates the vitality of the genre so well. By his own admission, he didn’t fit in with any one crowd growing up, which sounds a lot like those of us who found the landscape of punk so intoxicating. Granted, I never personally found wisdom in dying my hair, or wearing torn clothes. I just kind of enjoyed the music, starting with bands like Pennywise, Rancid, eventually the (fantastic proto punk) band called Death, and thinking there was some Socrates level bon mot nestled in the usually simplistic riffs and lyrics.
Of course, the strength of punk rock lies not in its explicit philosophy, but in its residue. What ‘punk’ lacks in foresight and ideas, it makes up for in volition, and anxiety. Like Nick. Even his career speaks to this long winded analogy; nobody will ever look back at Nick’s career on paper and see one of exclusive substance, or unique texture.
But the Russian stilyagi following World War II weren’t symbols of contemplation either. Painting over their state issued ties, chowing down on paraffin wax to mimic American bubble gummers, and wearing zoot suits to jazz clubs didn’t endear them to metaphysics. But they made history by virtue of their craft existing at the level of angst rather than prudence. Nick probably won’t retire. But it’s starting to feel like the end of era, just as it already is for Anderson Silva. However, where Anderson’s status is secure in MMA history, Nick’s is much more open to interpretation. I hope that isn’t the case. Not because I’m a big fan of Nick’s attitude. Or because I think he secretly harbors a great record. But because there’s a place in history not just for the winners, but for the renegades.
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