Lawler and Diaz, two aging fighters revered for their classic MMA fights, went to battle again Saturday night at UFC 266 at T-Mobile Arena. The two pushed a relentless pace -- especially considering they are both closer to 40 years old than 30 -- but in the end, Lawler was the victor via TKO at 44 seconds of the third round.
"Thank you for bringing the best out of me," Lawler said he told Diaz afterward. "I have a lot of respect for you. Hopefully your life is gonna get together and good things are going to happen to you."
Lawler, the former UFC welterweight champion, landed a combination, culminating with a hard right hand to Diaz's nose that dropped him. Referee Jason Herzog asked Diaz if he wanted to continue, and Diaz shook his head. Herzog waved the bout off.
"That's what I expected," Lawler said in his postfight interview. "I expected him to push the pace and try to break me. And I didn't let him."
Diaz, a cult favorite among fans, had not fought since UFC 183 on Jan. 31, 2015, a unanimous decision loss to Anderson Silva that was later overturned to a no contest when Silva tested positive for a steroid and Diaz tested positive for cannabis.
In an interview earlier this week with ESPN's Brett Okamoto, Diaz expressed resentment toward the sport of MMA and said he wasn't really sure why he was fighting. That led to some concerns in the MMA community about whether Diaz should be fighting. But when he was in the Octagon on Saturday, he showed he was game, landing long combinations and his usual volume, though the strikes came slower than usual.
"I've always had respect for Diaz," Lawler said. "He brings it every freakin' time he gets into the ring. ... He came to battle and put on a hell of a show."
Afterward, Diaz was holding a towel up to his nose, which was bleeding. He had not been finished in a fight since 2007 and was finished only once before in something other than a doctor's stoppage (2002). When the bout was stopped Saturday, two judges had the score tied at 19-19 and the other had Lawler ahead 20-18.
"I knew I was leaking in here," Diaz said. "I didn't want to leave too much of a mess."
This was a rematch of a 2004 fight in which Diaz knocked out Lawler in the second round at UFC 47. Saturday's bout took place at middleweight, a switch that took place during fight week at the request of Diaz, and was contracted for five rounds, which is unusual for nontitle, non-main event bouts.
"At least I put on a show," Diaz said. "I knew I had it coming. There was a lot of stress coming into this one."
The first two rounds were very competitive. Diaz landed a bunch of combinations in the first round. Lawler countered with the harder shots in the second and third rounds. Diaz actually landed more significant strikes, 150-131, according to UFC Stats. Diaz is only the 12th fighter in UFC history to land 150 significant strikes in a loss -- and all the other fights went longer than this one, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The 150 significant strikes are tied for the fifth-most in a middleweight fight, and the 281 combined significant strikes are tied for the third-most in UFC middleweight history.
Lawler (29-15, 1 NC) had lost four straight coming in and had not won since a unanimous decision over Donald Cerrone at UFC 214 in July 2017. The Florida resident held the UFC welterweight title from 2014 to 2016 with two successful title defenses. Lawler, 39, is a former Elite Xtreme Combat middleweight champion and has been a pro fighter since 2001.
"He's a warrior," Lawler said of Diaz. "That was a rough fight. He was standing right there in the pocket. I throw hard shots, and he was taking them. It was a lot of damage. When you go back and watch the fight, it was a three-round war. I hit pretty hard, and it just wasn't his night."
Diaz (26-10, 2 NC) was looking for his first victory since 2011, when he beat BJ Penn at UFC 137. The Stockton, California, native is the former Strikeforce welterweight champion, and he compiled three title defenses before being brought into UFC for his second run with the promotion. Diaz, 38, is the older brother of fellow UFC star Nate Diaz, also one of the most popular fighters on the roster.
"I spoiled some plans," Lawler said.