LAS VEGAS — Nick Diaz lost his first mixed martial arts fight in nearly seven years at UFC 266 on Saturday night, declining to go on after Robbie Lawler knocked him down with punches early in the third round.
Diaz (26-10), a wildly popular 38-year-old fighter who walked away from the sport in early 2015, traded a high volume of strikes with Lawler for two exciting rounds during his return at T-Mobile Arena.
Diaz then crumpled awkwardly to his knees after Lawler caught him with a check right hook early in the third. Diaz rolled onto his back when Lawler hit him again with a left hand, but Lawler declined to go to the ground with Diaz, instead gesturing at him to get up.
The referee then spoke to Diaz, who indicated he wouldn't or couldn't go on 44 seconds into the third round.
Afterward, Diaz disclosed he might have injured his knee, but made no excuses or apologies for his performance in his return.
“I'm glad 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. ... I don't have any excuses. It was a long time off.”
The 39-year-old Lawler ended his own four-fight losing streak by winning the rematch of these MMA pioneers' famed 2004 meeting at UFC 47. Diaz stopped Lawler in that bout for one of his most memorable victories.
Lawler appeared to be much sharper in the rematch than Diaz, who finally found a striking rhythm late in the first round before tiring in the second.
"It was a fun fight, and that's the stuff I like to do," Lawler said.
Diaz is a former Strikeforce welterweight champion and a beloved MMA iconoclast who competed in some of the most memorable bouts of the 2000s before walking away from the sport after his loss in January 2015 to Anderson Silva, his third straight defeat.
Diaz still claims he doesn't enjoy MMA competition, and he backed up his words by refusing the UFC's lucrative offers for six years. His absence only boosted his popularity among fans who adore his antiauthoritarian attitudes and tough-guy image.
He returned for reasons he couldn’t articulate, arriving in Las Vegas this week and immediately saying he didn't want to fight at all, and he didn't want to fight Lawler. Diaz repeated his vague complaints about the matchup after the bout, citing unclear complaints about his management in the matchmaking process.
Diaz persuaded Lawler on Wednesday to change the five-round bout — two rounds longer than a normal non-title UFC fight — from a 170-pound welterweight fight to a 185-pound middleweight fight. That looked like a bad idea in the second round when Diaz tired and Lawler aggressively stalked him.
Lawler is also a veteran with a decorated career, including a stint as the UFC's welterweight champion from 2014-16. Lawler had faded in recent years, losing five of six bouts heading into this rematch with Diaz.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP--Sports