"If I've learned something," Gracie told MMAjunkie.com (MMAjunkie.com
) about his decade-plus prepping fighters to become UFC champions, "it's don't let the hype get to you."
Gracie has long identified the 27-year-old lightweight title challenger as a future champion. Nate Diaz has endured hype perhaps longer and more substantiated than anyone in his decorated camp. At 22, Diaz won "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series' inaugural 155-pound tournament in 2007. With a win this weekend, Diaz would be the first "TUF winner" – or alum for that matter – to become champion since Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans, who are the only two fighters to enter the octagon via "TUF" all the way up to the title, did so in 2008.
"People never thought [Diaz] was going to get there," Gracie said. "He's obviously proven that he deserves to be here. Like I said, I expected it, so I'm not surprised at all. It's just a matter of time, so that's the way it is."
As he came into the UFC, Diaz's youth and lanky, unassuming 6-foot-tall, 155-pound frame led to early underdog status. Throwing up double-barrel middle fingers during April 2008's flying-triangle-choke finish of Kurt Pellegrino highlighted his star potential. Winning just one of his next four, though, found a frustrated Diaz journey to 170 pounds for a 13-month stint and 2-2 record. However, his 8-5 mark in the octagon improved to 11-5 in the past 16 months with Diaz revitalized by a return to lightweight. The subsequent three-fight win streak earned the Stockton, Calif. native his chance at Henderson and $215,000 in disclosed performance bonuses.
Gracie insists Diaz will be his first UFC champion because his fighter works for those skills and plainly, "That's the plan." Still, the dollars and landmarks Diaz amassed to achieve No. 1 contender's status posses many of fight hype's combustible elements.
His UFC 135 "Submission of the Night" win over former PRIDE lightweight champ Takanori Gomi put the first big-show titleholder on his resume. A late-2011 "Fight of the Night" throwdown at UFC 141 saw Diaz set a UFC three-round striking record as he nailed a game Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone with 82 percent accuracy (258 of 314 punches). Finally, Diaz overcame a home-field disadvantage at UFC on FOX 3 as he stopped Jim Miller for the first time in the New Jersey native's 25 professional outings.
"Anytime you have a championship fight in the UFC, there's a lot of media, and there's a lot of talking," Gracie said. "You get barraged. There's a lot of hype that gets built up. If you let that get to you, you don't perform correctly. The best thing is to train, train, train and take is as another fight you have to win."
Titleholders are not foreign to Gracie's camp; it's just that none has been in the octagon. In 2010 Gracie touted Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez alongside welterweight champ Nick Diaz and middleweight titleholder Jake Shields. That was before Diaz and Shields left behind their belts for UFC title shots. Yet there isn't much verbal guidance offered to Nate Diaz ahead of his UFC title bid, Gracie said. It's a lead-by-example gym. And in this case, it's up to Diaz to be the example.
"These guys are champions whether they have a belt or not," Gracie said of his stable. "They are up there in the cream-of-the-crop level. Obviously we want Nate to be champ so people can give him the respect that he deserves."
Back in 2010 at the WEC's final event, Anthony Pettis' flying roundhouse springboard off the cage helped deliver Henderson his only career Zuffa loss. That once-in-a-lifetime highlight didn't finish Henderson, so Gracie hopes his fighter can be decisive enough even if it goes the distance.
"The judges don't really care about the Diazes that much – their talking style," Gracie said regarding his camp's attitude toward decisions and the way the Diaz brothers may be perceived by judges for the in-cage antics.
And he then thought about it some more.
"I'm not going to say no decisions will go our way, but it's certainly not going to be – well, we don't expect close decisions to go our way," said Gracie, concluding his thoughts on the subject with a laugh. "We'll be surprised."
Henderson is an athletic and tough southpaw champion. Gracie recognizes he is mentally durable too. The MMA Lab representative's 11 appearances under the Zuffa banner – 5-1 WEC and an unblemished 5-0 UFC mark – offer little blueprint on how to defeat the 29-year-old. Maybe it's Diaz's current hype that cut a nearly 3-to-1 opening betting line in half with fight night looming. Perhaps it's the concrete numbers in his performances.
It's compelling to wax philosophical on the UFC's first lightweight title bout to hit FOX's airwaves, but the hype isn't the pressure that matters, Gracie said.
"I think [Diaz] is going to do what Pettis did to him and pressure him a lot," he said. "Get in his face. Really bring the fight to the guy. Put the fight on his terms. But that's what Ben Henderson is going to try to do to Nate. So I'm expecting a great fight."