“Conor McGregor got his ass kicked by a vegan,” boasted UFC Welterweight fighter Nick Diaz via Twitter, three days after his baby brother Nate’s stunning submission win over UFC Featherweight Champion and Sports Illustrated cover boy Conor McGregor. A week removed from his upset victory, Nate can’t help but echo his elder sibling’s sentiments that toppling their sport’s most gushed-over male athlete was a knockout blow in the back and forth over whether guys who don’t eat meat can rule the Octagon.
“Who’s the real caveman here?” Diaz — who strictly abstains from meat, poultry, and dairy — laughs in response to critics like UFC commentator Joe Rogan who’ve derided diets focusing on plant-based nutrition. “Who’s the real beast? [Eating predominantly raw and vegan] is more savvy and animalistic than anything. If anything, meat’s gonna slow you down.”
Naysayers notwithstanding, more and more mixed martial arts competitors are either following the Diaz clan’s example or speaking out about a lifetime of animal-free consumption. UFC featherweight fighter Alex Caceres, who defeated Masio Fullen this past January via unanimous decision, converted to veganism within the last couple of years. Retired UFC combatant and former Ultimate Fighter welterweight winner James “Lightning” Wilks has long advocated plant-based eating. High-profile UFC signee CM Punk is a longtime vegan who also swears off any booze or intoxicants. Ex-Super Fight League Women’s Bantamweight Champion Colleen Schneider’s stuck largely to fruit and veggies for nearly 30 years. And then there’s Mac Danzig, generally cited as the first vegan pro MMA star, who made the switch about halfway through his career in the mid-2000s and was prominently featured in the 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives.
Even though Nate’s been at this no-meat thing for a dozen years himself (inspired by Nick, he adopted the parameters at 18, narrowing to majority raw foods a few years hence), he harbors no barbs about bandwagon-jumping for fighters just catching on. Far as he’s concerned, the more meat-averse peers, the merrier.
“People are jumping on slowly but surely,” he acknowledges, adding, “but I think it’s cool. I think you’re a smarter and more intelligent fighter. Me and my brother are at the top of the game and have been for a long time. We’re obviously doing something right. Besides knowing how to kick somebody in the head, you should know how to feel good tomorrow.”
It should be noted that, in 2016, anyone on the vegetarian/vegan/raw spectrum has exponentially more options in grocery stores and at restaurants than back in the day. Grapplers-in-training don’t have to subsist on carnivorous menus to bulk up and get protein. Guys like Nate can feast on everything from bean-based pastas and tempeh or tofu twists on typical entrée dishes to healthful bowls of oatmeal, berries, and nuts. The end result is more energy, fewer preserved foods tenuously digesting, and a built-in weight-maintenance diet. And after a while, Nate promises, not only does your appetite naturally crave earthier foods, your body necessarily rejects the alternative.
“I stopped eating dairy when I was about 17 for a fight,” Diaz recalls. “And about a month went by that I didn’t eat cheese or milk, and then after the fight was done I got a big bowl of Fettucine Alfredo, and I was like, ‘Finally, I get to eat what I want.’ Then I went home and was sick and had a headache and was in and out of the bathroom for a week. That shit really messed me up. So after that cleared up, I was like, ‘OK, I don’t need that anymore.’ I felt better and realized I work better without that stuff.”
And if the Diaz men can make that transition, anyone can. Growing up in Stockton, CA, Nate remembers he and Nick having little else to choose from beyond “ketchup, bread, and salt in the fridge” while their mom was at work. “She’d bring home fast food to us every day,” Nate remembers sympathetically. “She didn’t know better. She didn’t have time to know any better. We had gas-station food for breakfast and McDonald’s for dinner.”
He admires that his mother managed to juggle everything on her plate and always appreciated that she made sure they were fed. It never even occurred to him that there was a healthier approach until Nick — whom Nate has long credited for helping him live more cleanly — “changed his diet, found Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and decided that’s what he wanted to do.” At that point, Nate remarks, “I just followed the leader.”
More than a decade later, and especially coming off the bout against McGregor, Nate has become an unlikely de facto spokesperson for a self-discipline that started out as a means to an end and way to emulate his older brother. Given his own absence of pretensions, you’d figure the 30-year-old gladiator would shy away from the obligation. As it happens, Nate relishes the chance. It’s more fuel for him to prove that, as Nick declared, he’s a vegan who will kick your ass.
“I like to promote the vegan industry,” Nate enthuses. “I hear a lot of criticism from people saying you need meat to be strong and for recovery, and it’s a bunch of bullshit, because I train harder than everybody. It’s so easy to argue with these people. I’m like, ‘Dude, have you done a tenth of what I’ve done?’ ”