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Diaz bests Pettis in first UFC fight in 3 years

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Diaz beats Pettis in UFC return (1:04)

Nate Diaz makes a victorious return to the UFC by defeating Anthony Pettis by decision. (1:04)

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- What's three years anyway, right?

In his highly anticipated return to the Octagon, Nate Diaz was brilliant in a unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28) win over Anthony Pettis in the co-main event of UFC 241 on Saturday at Honda Center.

Diaz had not fought since a loss to Conor McGregor at UFC 202 on Aug. 20, 2016. He imposed his will on Pettis early and often. Diaz was able to press Pettis against the cage in every round and land punch combinations, elbows and knees. He closed the first and third rounds in good positions on the ground, an area he also controlled when the fight went there.

Afterward, Diaz said he is interested in fighting Jorge Masvidal next, adding that he was impressed by Masvidal's five-second knockout of Ben Askren last month.

"All respect to the man, but there ain't no gangsters in this game anymore. There ain't nobody who does it right but me and him," said Diaz, who hails from Stockton, California, and enjoyed a huge partisan crowd on Saturday. "So I know my man's a gangster, but he ain't no West Coast gangster."

At his postfight news conference, UFC president Dana White said he wouldn't be opposed to making Diaz-Masvidal fight if that's what both fighters wanted next.

Diaz's best round was the third. As had happened multiple times, Diaz pushed Pettis against the cage and landed a lengthy combination with punches. Pettis dropped but survived until the end of the round.

Pettis had his moments in every round. When striking at distance, he was more effective than Diaz. By the end, Diaz was cut near his right eye. But whenever Pettis started gaining momentum from the outside, Diaz closed the distance and made it a clinch fight, which he dominated.

Pettis posted a photo of his foot looking severely swollen and bruised on Instagram after the fight, saying in the caption that Diaz had a hard head. Pettis' head coach Duke Roufus told ESPN's Ariel Helwani that his fighter suffered a broken right foot in the first round of the fight and may need surgery.

The bout was contested at welterweight, though both men have spent the majority of their careers at lightweight. Diaz is the fifth fighter in UFC history to land more than 2,000 total strikes.

Diaz (20-11) went 1-1 against McGregor in 2016. They were two of the biggest pay-per-view events in UFC history. Diaz, 34, has a huge cult following among fans for his irreverence, exciting fighting style and propensity to flip a double bird. He had not fought since that star-making year because he wasn't able to come to terms with the UFC.

Pettis (22-9), the former UFC lightweight champion, was coming off a knockout win over Stephen Thompson. "Showtime" has alternated wins and losses going back to 2016. Pettis, 32, has been one of the UFC's most marketable stars over the years, once getting his likeness emblazoned on Wheaties boxes.