Early in his career as a mixed-martial-arts fighter, Nick Diaz was tagged as someone who had problems with the media. Diaz rolls his eyes and scoffs at the assertion. “I don’t like people in my face when I’m getting ready for a fight — constantly trying to get a story, asking how I feel, trying to get a quote,” he says.

He also isn’t too fond of fans who pull out cell phones to take a selfie when they meet him. “I just need my space,” he explains.

And yet, at his Stockton, California, home, Diaz is self-possessed, relaxed and pleasant. He sips a beer while talking about his recent ordeal with the UFC and the fight life in general. He’s been fighting since 2001, and he’s earned a reputation as one of the most ferocious competitors in the sport. In September, he was fined $165,000 and suspended by the UFC for five years following his third positive test for cannabis, after his January 2015 fight with Anderson Silva. It was seen as a career-ending punishment — one harsh enough that the cannabis community mounted a White House petition drive to have the ban lifted.

Outrage over the penalty has been so intense, in fact, that as we go to press (In November 2015)  the Nevada State Athletic Commission is reconsidering its decision due to public pressure.

At the eye of the hurricane that the UFC has created for itself, however, Diaz seems amazingly serene. He’s certainly not done fighting—and he certainly won’t be changing his ways.

HT: It’s been a month now since the suspension. How are you feeling?

I’ve just had some good time off, from the time of that fight until now. I didn’t expect to fight anytime between then and now—so I’ve just been trying to make some ends meet, standing outside of the whole fight world.

ND: Are you still angry? Because you were pretty angry after the verdict came down. 

Yeah, well, I’m always real angry. But I don’t take it as a loss. I haven’t taken any fight as a loss in the UFC—it’s hard to come back from losses. Defeat is only a state of mind, and I’ve never come to that state of mind.

It’s not like I purposely failed my test, but I purposely did not give a shit. I’m more focused on giving more of a shit about the fight.

You seem somewhat philosophical about this, not all that bitter.

Everything has been a gamble for me. Money and everything [that goes with it] is really a big liability. I could have been a regular guy. People from where I’m from don’t make a hundred grand a year.

At the time, I was upset. It felt like everybody was really putting it to me; I was kind of at a loss for words. I mean, I heard one of the commissioners owns cannabis dispensaries, and I’m suspended for five years? They don’t suspend guys for steroids—but I get five years, and this guy owns dispensaries.

The whole thing is—I don’t even wanna say the word, but it sounds like a setup … like the whole thing was just set up for everything to go down the way it did. It’s such a joke.

Do you think the test was rigged?

I knew that if I was tested, I’d come up under 15 nanograms—which I did. I knew I wasn’t going to come up over 100 nanograms, which was their level. Then I was tested five days later and came back seven times higher. They’re full of shit. Whatever happened is bullshit: I never got tested that many times—at least five times from when I got to Vegas, before the fight and after. 

Do you dwell on this?

What am I gonna do? As far as being suspended, I have to fight, you know what I mean? The ups and downs of life, they’re going to come; I’m just kind of along for the ride. Life chose me. The upside is, I might not have to fight. A lot of these guys in the MMA and all other fighters out there will say they love to fight. I’m going to tell you all that I’m a nonviolent person—I’m not somebody who loves to fight. I fight because I have to. If there was any quit in me, I never would have made it this far. So it’s kind of hard. It’s kind of a curse.

What do you mean, you “have to” fight?

I use to live in, like, some pretty slummy areas around Stockton. I was getting in fights in first and second grade with Mexican kids, Asian kids, black kids. You’d get in fights—everybody would. Out here, you get in fights when you’re a kid, unless you go to a private school—and I didn’t go to a private school. This led me to want to do more martial arts. I was a huge Jean-Claude Van Damme fan: I’d act like him, do kicks like him, do the splits. I was a Van Damme wannabe!

But nobody supported that. My parents weren’t like: “Oh yeah, he loves Van Damme.” Nobody really supported that, but my uncle did aikido, so it was easy for them to sign me up. Anything they could do to get rid of me for a little while, you know?

When did you start training seriously?

I started really training and fighting at 15 or 16. I stopped going to high school my sophomore year. I wasn’t making good attendance. I had a really attractive girlfriend, a cheerleader, and she had a boyfriend before I got to high school. I got into fights with him and the whole football team. I wanted to play football, but that wasn’t going to work out. I was a pretty good swimmer, but I didn’t want to swim in high school because I didn’t think it was very cool. So my social life was all screwed around. I didn’t have a good base, like friends or a squad or anything like that. I went to three or four different grammar schools—see, my parents moved around Stockton and Lodi. I had a lot of anxiety about jumping into another classroom. They were always putting me in special ed. But I was smart; I wasn’t like these kids in the special-ed classes. But it would make me feel a little bit stupid. Then I’d go back into the smart-kids class the rest of the day, and they’re like: “Hey, you know you’re in the retarded class?”

So I’d be behind. Then they’d try to put me on drugs. I had a lot of energy—hyperactivity. But if my energy had been used, I could have excelled. I would have progressed. Nobody ever found me something to do for the day. So I was always just wound up, running around breaking shit. I was pretty destructive.

Did fighting give you a sense of worth?

Oh, yeah, I got that right away. I always thought it’s what mattered. It always had something to do with the girls, the women—even in first grade, I was getting into fights over them. I had a hard time being impressive any other way.

When did you start thinking about becoming a professional fighter?

I found out that this stuff was right in my backyard. I’d rent tapes from the special-interest section at Blockbuster video—Pride FC tapes. I’d watch [UFC Hall of Famer] Royce Gracie’s fights in the UFC. I found out that [UFC Hall of Famer] Ken Shamrock was from around here. I was lifting and getting strong, but I wanted to start training. A friend of mine’s brother was training at the Lion’s Den—it’s a fight school. So I just joined and started learning jujitsu. I did two or three days a week there. It was a fitness gym, too, so I had everything.

I started full-time training and I was really focused, and I found that it was easy for me. I didn’t have a job yet. I didn’t go to school anymore. I just decided that I was going to train harder than guys who were training to fight.

What do you bring to this sport that nobody else does?

I keep it real, that’s for sure. A lot of fighters have problems and issues, but they should just tune it out the way I do. I’ve had all these fights; I don’t dabble in other stuff—I don’t have any interest. Training is more important for me, enhancing my sense of security—because at the end of the day, I’ve got a fight coming in a couple months. It’s always been that way. Now, 14, 15 years later, you realize that there’s more to life. I started to come to some understanding about who I am and where I come from—and the demographic that I’m reaching out to.

You’ve gained a reputation as someone who doesn’t like the media. Is that true?

It’s hard being a fighter. I feel bad for anybody who’s a fighter. I’m going to convince you to not be a fighter before I tell you to be a fighter.

I’m judged on my character, not who I am. My character is a “hate” character. That’s a fucked position to be in. But try being me a week out from a fight, against somebody who really fucking wants to fuck you up. Try that position—you will piss yourself. You will fucking cry yourself to sleep. You won’t last a day in my shoes. I know what I’m going to do to you—and I know what my opponent’s capable of doing to me.

What’s it like physically after a fight?

Depends on what happened. I could walk out there and win in the first—I actually get beat up more when I win than when I lose. The last couple of fights that I lost, I didn’t have anything wrong with me. I was doing fine. 

Following your suspension, the cannabis community has shown you great support. How do you feel about that?

I’m hardly anything compared to Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympic champion of all time.

But he didn’t get suspended.

He lost a lot of sponsors. But losing and money don’t even cross my mind. I had so much money rolling in—I’d just fought like five times in a row for over 500 grand. I fought a couple times for over $1 million. The last thing I think about is money.

How do you feel about becoming a prominent figure in the cannabis movement? There’s an actual petition that was submitted to President Obama.

It’s really nice of the guy who started it.

Ronda Rousey spoke out for you, too.

That was nice of her that she did that. I know her pretty well—I mean, she was living at my house for a while. We trained together, so we’re pretty good friends.

Then ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith went after her.

Yeah. I guess he was basically saying you shouldn’t stick up for your friends. He was calling pot a “gateway drug” and all that shit—trying to keep that stigma strong.

Tell us about your cannabis use.

If I’m at home and I’m training—doing my same things every day—then I’m definitely going to want to use cannabis. It’s gonna help. I’m trying to stay focused on what I’m doing. I don’t want a whole lot of things going on—people to call back, or text messages or whatever. I chill out, relax a little bit, and then I don’t have those issues. If I’m going to train all day, when I get done, I’m gonna want to smoke. If I have to go and train all day, before I go, I’m gonna want to smoke. If I wake up in the morning and feel beat to shit, and it’s going to take me forever to wake up, I smoke some weed and I wake right up. Then I have breakfast and I go do a workout.

What makes a great fighter?

I think that you just have to have that sort of mentality—I really don’t have the words to describe it. If I ever did go back to school, that would be the main thing, just so I could get something across like I want to right now.

For me, I look at it like I’m friggin’ cursed. I don’t look at this as a good thing; I look at it as: “It is what it is.” It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a great thing. It’s what it is—it’s how it’s always been.

When I was a kid, I knew I was going to be something weird. I don’t know how—I just I did. I was 15 when I got into this. Who knows what I would have been? Maybe do some sort of construction work. So many of my friends got into dope gangs. But I couldn’t see myself getting into the dope game—I don’t like being on drugs. I don’t like meth, which is the thing nowadays. I eat organic food—vegetarian for the most part. I don’t like anything chemical, anything made chemically. I don’t like synthetic drugs. And I try to stay away from the doctor if I can.  

You’ve said that you have fundamental problems with the UFC’s fight rules.

The easiest way to put it is, I like the Pride FC—they had it right the first time. You hear about guys bringing that show back, bringing that model back. They need to do it. But you have all these intellectuals out there, all these people out there that went to school for something. And I’m like: Can somebody please understand these things that I’ve already been in tune with for the longest time now? Write a freakin’ book or do something that you went to school for! They’re so far out of tune.

Fans are getting smarter, and they’re starting to hear me—that I’m not ignorant in what I’m saying. Anybody who’s not on the same page with me is actually uneducated on what MMA is: It’s mixed martial arts. We should be promoting MMA, but we’re shutting that down. Instead, we see the “grab-and-go” guy—grab, hold on, or run away—and that wins you the fight.

In Pride FC, they’d yellow-card you if you moved away, if you’d go on top and stall and not advance position. It’s not okay to stay there; they’re going to stand you up. You have to advance position, or be working to advance position, or they stand you up. There’s no elbows—you can’t hold the guy tight and do little elbows to make it look like you’re doing something. You have to create a certain amount of space to punch down on your guy, and that might be the same space that the guy on the bottom is trying to make so he can get back up. With this, we see a whole bunch of action—we get to see mixed martial arts, and the best guy wins. So you can’t run around in a circle; I’ll cut you off in the corner, like boxing. That’s how it should be.

What works to win in the UFC is to fucking hold on or to run away. But if you wanna come forward and try to finish the fight, that doesn’t work. It’s not based on punches landed or damage, either. I don’t know how they score it. How do I not know? If anybody knows, it should be me.

Do you think about life after fighting? 

I’m not very optimistic. I stick to the game plan—if I’m gonna have a fight, it’s definitely gonna enhance my sense of security. So I don’t want to switch things up.

If I were to stop right now, I’m not very optimistic that everything’s gonna just be great. I could teach, open another gym or something like that. I’d be happier with that than going out there and losing miserably, like I’ve seen guys do—like all of them do. It’s kind of a curse. You can’t really get out: There’s always gonna be a bigger payday. But the second that I’m not getting paid more money than I got paid in my last fight, I’m done. I mean, I quit.