It’s rare that you see a card with two title fights overshadowed by the third fight down the lineup and yet that seems to be the case with UFC 266.
Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski faces a dangerous challenger in Brian Ortega and flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko looks to make it six straight title defenses when she takes on Lauren Murphy, but the majority of the chatter surrounding Saturday’s event has swirled around the returning Nick Diaz.
The buzz around the elder Diaz brother is understandable given that we haven’t seen him compete since 2015. Even better, he’s been paired up with a dance partner from 17 years ago, former UFC champion Robbie Lawler. It’s still somewhat unbelievable that it’s actually a Nick Diaz fight day again after all this time.
Diaz has always been known as one of MMA’s most well-conditioned athletes, but how sharp will he look after such a long layoff and with his passion for actually fighting as muted as ever? And how much could a big win for him upset the welterweight apple cart (even though his bout with Lawler is a185-pound affair)? You get the sense that fans are just waiting to embrace their cult hero again, all they need is a hint of a spark.
In the main event, we have Volkanovski seeking to make up for lost time as he fights for the first time in almost 450 days. His narrow win over Max Holloway in their rematch somehow resulted in fans questioning his credibility even more, so a convincing win over Ortega will go a long way towards boosting his reputation—or possibly set up a third fight with Holloway.
Meanwhile, Shevchenko risks becoming a victim of her own success as her dominance over the 125-pound division has made it so that her peers look vastly inferior in comparison (a dilemma that also plagued former men’s UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson). She’s expected to roll over Murphy, a more-than-deserving title contender, which will both boost her aura of invincibility and leave the matchmakers with an even greater conundrum as to what to do next with her.
In other main card action, Curtis Blaydes meets Jairzinho Rozenstruik in a battle of top-10 heavyweights, and Jessica Andrade stands in the way of Cynthia Calvillo’s mission to become the next flyweight title challenger.
What: UFC 266
Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, Sept. 25. The four-fight early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET. A four-fight preliminary card follows at 8 p.m. ET on ESPNews and ESPN+. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available to watch through ESPN+.
MMA Fighting Global Ranking shown in parentheses
Alexander Volkanovski (1) vs. Brian Ortega (4)
It doesn’t get any easier for Alexander Volkanovski. His reward for going 10 rounds with one of the two best featherweights ever? A matchup with Brian Ortega, one of the division’s best finishers.
Ortega is underrated as far as technique goes, probably because on his way up the 145-pound ranks he scored several late finishes in fights where he was looking less than impressive until the third round. However, “T-City” answered a lot of questions about his striking ability and his maturity in a dominant five-round win over Chan Sung Jung last October. He’s not just a home run hitter, he can fight a smart fight too, which he’ll have to do if he wants to upset Volkanovski.
Volkanovski is just the complete package. He’s a disciplined kickboxer, he’s lightning quick, and he’s got wrestling in his back pocket when he needs it. He also has deceptively long arms, giving him a reach advantage over most featherweights, including Ortega and Holloway. It can be a fool’s errand to force the action against Volkanovski and while Holloway had success, I’m not sure if Ortega’s striking vocabulary is extensive enough to do the same.
Over the course of a five-round fight, Ortega should have at least a couple of moments where he threatens to find a finish, especially if he can grapple Volkanovski for any prolonged period of time, but I like Volkanovski to win a convincing decision that leaves little doubt that he’s the man to beat at 145 pounds right now.
Valentina Shevchenko (1) vs. Lauren Murphy (4)
Lauren Murphy is going to give Valentina Shevchenko a run for her money, even if the end result will be a familiar one for “Bullet.”
Let’s take a moment here to praise Murphy for earning her title shot the right way. She didn’t whine, she didn’t complain, she just kept showing up for work, taking on tough opponents (and low reward-high risk ones like in the case of replacement fighter Liliya Shakirova), and grinding out wins until there was no other option but to give her a title shot. In today’s era of style-over-substance and fast food contenders, we should never lose sight of how great it is to have an actual No. 1 contender fighting for the belt.
Respect and sentimentality out of the way, expect Shevchenko to live up to her status as an astronomical favorite (as high as -1800 on one betting site!) come Saturday. She’s one of the best kickboxers in the UFC and her grappling and submission skills are elite. Her reaction time is second to none and she never loses her composure. That last detail will be important in this fight with Murphy, a fighter who is always willing to take a shot if it means she can pour on the pressure and make a fight ugly.
Murphy is definitely going to struggle to close the distance, but when she does she’ll stay in Shevchenko’s face for as long as she can. Her best chance is to drag this fight to the ground and steal some rounds by removing Shevchenko’s striking from the equation. Murphy has enough striking of her own to hang tough with Shevchenko, but not to beat her on the feet.
As much as Murphy deserves to be here, I have Shevchenko winning all five rounds and recording title defense No. 6.
Robbie Lawler vs. Nick Diaz
Let me hit you with some in-depth analysis here: Six years is a long time.
It’s actually been 2,429 days since Nick Diaz most recently fought, if you want to be more exact, and 3,619 days sins his last win, which came against B.J. Penn at UFC 137. Again, not to dazzle you with fancy technical terms here, but that’s a really, really, really long time!
One could argue that Diaz’s inactivity has saved him from years of wear-and-tear and that on paper he should still be more than a match for Robbie Lawler. He was the better man 17 years ago when they first fought and one can assume he’d be ranked higher than Lawler from that point onward up until Lawler became UFC champion in 2014 when the discussion would become more complicated. Diaz in his prime should beat a prime Lawler more often than not.
That’s strictly a theoretical discussion though as neither fighter is in their prime and Diaz’s laconic nature has been more discouraging for prognosticators than it has in the past. Is he just going through the motions like usual or has time finally caught up to the 38-year-old? As gun-shy as Lawler has been in his recent losses, it’s still terrifying to imagine anyone stepping into the octagon at less than 100 percent to face him.
Even if this is all just Diaz being Diaz, I can’t get past the long layoff. He’ll show flashes of vintage Diaz, but I think Lawler is going to open up in this fight and do some serious damage, possibly even scoring a couple of knockdowns in the early rounds. Diaz will tough it out and go the distance, but Lawler should win a decision in a contest that will be occasionally entertaining and often dispiriting.
Curtis Blaydes (5) vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik (7)
What a pickle Curtis Blaydes and Jairzinho Rozenstruik find themselves in.
On the one hand there’s Blaydes, whose high-level wrestling would seem to be the perfect counter to the kickboxing-minded Rozenstruik; on the other hand, all of Blayde’s losses have come by way of knockout, which suggests that Rozenstruik has exactly the kind of skill set needed to put Blaydes down for the count. And we’ve yet to see how Rozenstruik handles a wrestler of Blaydes’ caliber.
If history has taught us anything, it’s to favor the wrestler in these matchups and I see no reason to deviate from that basic principle here. Blaydes isn’t a fish out of water in the standup anymore, while Rozenstruik will likely be dead in the water if he can’t stuff Blaydes’ takedowns. Rozenstruik is just so unproven when it comes to takedown defense that it doesn’t make much sense to assume he can stop Blaydes from imposing his will on the fight.
Rozenstruik’s best chance is to end this one in the first, which will require Blaydes to make a mistake. We’ve seen “Razor” have mental lapses before, but coming off of a loss he’ll be prepared for the best that Rozenstruik has to offer early. From there, it’s a matter of Blaydes timing his shots to take this fight where he needs it to go and finishing with ground-and-pound.
Jessica Andrade (2) vs. Cynthia Calvillo (9)
Picking this one, it really depends on whether you believe Cynthia Calvillo can be a top-5 fighter at 125 pounds. I don’t see it.
Calvillo is a good athlete, an excellent grappler, and it’s nice to see her competing in a more suitable weight class. If she can someday comfortably make 115, that might be best, but for now flyweight is the place to be for her. The problem is that she’s now taking on one of the best pound-for-pound women in the world and I don’t think she has the tools to defuse Jessica Andrade.
We saw some of Calvillo’s limitations in her recent loss to Katlyn Chookagian. She can land, but she struggles to string together combinations. She can wrestle, but she doesn’t have the most creative entries to initiate that part of her game. Andrade won’t be as evasive as Chookagian because she doesn’t need to be. She’ll welcome Calvillo to get in range of her power and once Calvillo feels it, she won’t be so eager to get that close again.
Even on the ground, Andrade is a pain to deal with. She has outstanding jiu-jitsu and she’s ridiculously strong. If she’s giving up any size to Calvillo, it’s not enough for me to think that Calvillo will be able to use that to control Andrade on the ground for three rounds. This will be contested primarily in the standup and that’s bad news for Calvillo.
Andrade by knockout.