Did three years away from the UFC actually help build Nate Diaz’s legacy?

In the three years since what was then the biggest pay-per-view event in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, Conor McGregor has done a lot.

He headlined and won the first UFC event at Madison Square Garden, became a two-belt world champion, crossed over to boxing to take on Floyd Mayweather, made a heck of a lot of money, lost his mind by attacking a bus, landed himself in legal trouble, threatened to retire, launched a whiskey brand, got submitted by Khabib Nurmagomedov and, allegedly, punched a man for refusing to taste that aforementioned whiskey.

Nate Diaz? He’s been chilling.

Yet somehow, during what turned from a short layoff into one long enough that you wondered if one of mixed martial arts’ most enigmatic fighters would ever return, Diaz actually managed to send his popularity skyrocketing.

“This is for the heavyweight title,” Diaz joked, as he met with the media this week.

It isn’t, of course. Diaz is a welterweight whose inactivity dropped him from the rankings, and he will face Anthony Pettis, the No. 7 contender in that division, Saturday in Anaheim, CA. But what he meant was that it is his drawing power that will drive the gate and the PPV sales, as well as the overall interest in UFC 241.

The 34-year-old from Stockton, CA, has lingering issues with the UFC organization. He doesn’t feel he has gotten the respect he deserves, which is part of the reason he sat for so long.

“They’ve been trying to degrade me the whole time I’ve been out,” Diaz said. “They tried to put me low on the card. It don’t matter, I believe I am the main event. They will do the best they can to keep me from that.”

He was frustrated that while McGregor got an immediate rematch after Diaz stunningly submitted him in early 2016, there was no quick push for a trilogy fight when the Irishman edged a points decision the second time they met, at UFC 202 on August 20, 2016 — the last time Diaz stepped into the Octagon.

Similarly, UFC president Dana White has had his frustrations with Diaz and his brother Nick, claiming repeatedly they are the two most difficult fighters to deal with in the company. However, he can’t deny Diaz’s pull with the fans, which has only heightened the anticipation for this weekend’s show from the Honda Center.

“It is always interesting dealing with the Diaz brothers,” White told ESPN. “They are these figures the fans love. One thing about them, all the stuff said and everything that happened, the Diaz brothers show up to fight.

“You are not going to make Nate Diaz do anything. He is going to do what he wants to do on his own time. I don’t know if he was laying around the house and just decided one day, ‘Now I am ready and want to fight.’ He called and said he wanted to fight, so we booked him.”

But Pettis piqued his attention because he is the kind of figure Diaz takes issue with, someone who has been given the sort of promotional push by the UFC that he wishes he had. When he saw Pettis on a Wheaties box, that kind of sealed it in his mind.

“I did more work than all these guys and they are pushing them as ‘the guys,’” Diaz said. “If you are a fighter and they’re pushing this guy, I am definitely going to step up and say ‘Nah, I am the guy.’ That’s why I said (expletive) to the Wheaties box, man. I am going to fight him, why the hell is he on it? I have been here.”

Diaz was speaking on Wednesday as part of a quite remarkable appearance at the UFC’s open workouts. Before the session, he lit up a blunt before passing it to a friend, seemingly a promotional ploy for a brand of marijuana-based products.

He later said it contained CBD, a product that is permitted under the UFC’s anti-doping protocol.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UFC gave him permission to skip Thursday’s official media day. As White admitted, you never know what he is going to do next.

Which is part of what makes his fight with Pettis – and his return in general – so fascinating.

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