When one of the UFC's most recognizable, controversial and fiery fighters, Nate Diaz, steps into the Octagon Saturday night to fight Benson Henderson for Henderson's lightweight belt on UFC on FOX, he'll conjure plenty of images in fans' minds.
First is his thick-as-thieves relationship with his older brother, Nick, a UFC welterweight contender who'll soon come off a yearlong suspension for testing positive for marijuana metabolites. Then there's the Stockton, Calif., brothers' thuggish reputation that follows them wherever they go, fairly or not. Then there's Diaz's penchant to throw double middle fingers at the camera after -- or even during -- his fights.
The surface image that Nate Diaz conjures is neither a positive nor a wholesome one.
But what the casual UFC fans may not know about Diaz and his brother may be the one thing that defines them most outside the Octagon: Their manic attention to fitness and nutrition.
Where most UFC fighters train with an obsessive focus on their next fight, Diaz ran two 10-kilometer races in the weeks leading up to this main event fight on national television. ("Coulda done a little better," Diaz said after the first 10K. "Nick beat me by a couple minutes.") Running for distance and competing in triathlons gives him an edge in the Octagon, he believes, because his cardio is among the best in the UFC. He runs or bikes twice a day on top of wrestling, boxing and martial arts training.
"Racing fits in good with fighting," Diaz told FOXSports.com. "Mentally they got a lot of similarities. But stuff can change cardio-wise real quick if you get hit in the face really hard. That's when everything changes."
One thing that never changes for either Diaz brother is their strict adherence to a diet that avoids both "land meat" and dairy. When Nate Diaz was a teenager and first getting into competitive mixed martial arts, he saw his older brother give up meat and dairy. "If Nick is not doing it, I'm not doing it," Nate said. "And he'd still beat people up real good."
It seems a diet more fit for a fashion-model waif trying to keep her girly figure than for a combat artist competing for the title of baddest man on the planet. But Diaz has simple reasons for eating almost exclusively raw fruits and vegetables, organic and whole foods as opposed to manufactured foods, and only occasionally throwing in fish and eggs: It makes him feel better. It makes him train harder. He has fewer injuries than other fighters. And he never gets sick because of his strong immune system.
"I'm not involved in that garbage," Diaz said of eating meat. "(Meat and cheese) grosses me out nowadays. I stopped for a while. I was missing it at age 17: 'I can't wait to have some cheese!' I gave it up for a fight, then had it after not having it for a month, and it messed me up and made me sick."
Being a professional UFC fighter is often seen as a barbaric way to make a living. Step into the cage and you're engaging in the ultimate test of who is the stronger man, who is the better fighter. Arena shows are filled with bloodlust and alcohol. They aren't places where fans clap politely and eat strawberries and cream.
But there's no shortage of fighters like Nate Diaz whose views on food seem more at home at an effete New York City organic restaurant, or at a granola-y West Coast farmer's market, than at a cage fight.
"The food system, people don't realize what they're eating," Diaz said. "You look at food and think, 'What's in that?' 'It's just chocolate!' 'It's just Gatorade!' But on the list of ingredients, there's a long list of garbage they put in your food. Not all that crap for me. It's just the way I live, man. I'm 27, and I've been that way for nine years."
In the month leading up to his UFC on FOX fight, Diaz went to an all-raw diet, meaning he's only eaten uncooked, unprocessed, organic foods. He can eat more than if he were on a typical American meat-and-potatoes diet, he says, and it helps the 155-pounder keep weight off. A couple of days before Thanksgiving, I asked Diaz what he'd eaten for dinner the night before. He'd had raw pasta noodles made out of kelp -- that's seaweed, folks -- and topped with pesto.
The recipe seems to work. After springing onto the UFC map by winning season five of The Ultimate Fighter by dislocating Manny Gamburyan's shoulder in the final, Diaz has climbed to the top of the lightweight division after briefly flirting with becoming a welterweight. He suffered a setback in 2010 when he lost a controversial decision to Gray Maynard, but he has compiled a three-fight win streak over Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller. On Saturday the 27-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, one of the UFC's toughest and most unrelenting fighters, will fight for the second time in a row in front of a nationally televised FOX audience, this time for the title.
So say what you will about the reputation of vegetarianism as a diet for wimps. Proclaim the merits of the red-meat-heavy Atkins Diet. Scoff when someone asks for the veggie burger. Nate Diaz may even listen to you for a moment. Then he'll get into the cage and whoop your flesh-eating butt.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com .