UFC 279 takes place this Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, and while it might not be the most stacked card in recent memory (to put it nicely), there’s plenty of buzz around the main event clash between Khamzat Chimaev and Nate Diaz — and plenty of questions about just how crazy the fight could get.
In the co-main event, Tony Ferguson makes an unexpected move up to welterweight for an even more unexpected matchup with Li Jingliang. Does this fight carry its own weight or is there an ulterior motive to having “El Cucuy” be ready for a 170-pound bout?
MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Steven Marrocco, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew share their predictions and break down the upcoming pay-per-view event.
1. What’s the most Nate Diaz thing that could happen at UFC 279?
Martin: To be clear, the most Nate Diaz thing that could possibly happen at UFC 279 would be to duplicate what he did to Conor McGregor back in 2016 and end the hype surrounding Khamzat Chimaev, though the odds of that actually happening appear to be rather slim.
Now, that’s not to say Diaz can’t pull off the upset — he’s a very capable fighter with a ton of experience under his belt — but he’s not a legit welterweight, and he’s taking on a guy like Chimaev, who could potentially challenge for the UFC middleweight title in the relatively near future. Diaz will be undersized, overpowered, and undermanned against a grappler with Chimaev’s immense size and strength for this division.
That said, Diaz clearly wants out of the UFC, and this is just the fastest exit he could find after sitting on the sidelines for more than a year just waiting on his chance to test free agency. When the UFC finally came back with Chimaev as a final offer, Diaz essentially had no choice but to accept so he could finally fight out his contract and get a taste of freedom.
But as much as Diaz can’t wait to leave the UFC, there would be no better way to say goodbye than to somehow pull off a massive upset and beat one of the most highly touted prospects the promotion has signed in recent years.
The idea that Diaz has nothing to lose because he’s exiting the UFC regardless of a win or loss isn’t really accurate because there’s still a chance to endure a whole lot of damage over five rounds with a mauler like Chimaev. That’s definitely not the result Diaz wants as he looks to secure a future outside the UFC, though getting paid seven figures to face somebody like Jake Paul in a boxing match appears to be inevitable regardless of this particular result.
Still, Diaz going out guns blazing and somehow finishing Chimaev would be the ultimate way he could stick it to the UFC on his way out the door. Chances are he’d do it with double middle fingers in the air as his celebration.
It’s nearly impossible to even imagine the kind of post-fight speech Diaz would give with a victory — it might be the night when the UFC censors finally have to kick into high gear on a pay-per-view broadcast. Will it actually happen? It seems unlikely, but Diaz has proved doubters wrong before, and there’s no better chance to drop one more “I’m not surprised motherf******” on the UFC than by taking out Chimaev.
Marrocco: Sure, a Diaz victory in the cage would be a pretty Diaz thing to do. Diaz would take a couple hundred punches, look like Frankenstein’s stepson, and then surge back after the overconfident Chimaev ran out of gas in deep waters. That’s the most likely scenario in the event of a Diaz win, and probably the dream scenario everyone with a soft spot for him wants. But it’s not the only way we could Diaz things up here.
For that, I’ll go back in the not-too-distant past to lean on two historical foes of the Brothers Stockton: schedules and drug testers. Let’s say we roll into Tuesday of fight week and Diaz is mysteriously absent in Las Vegas. It’s fine, his reps assure. He missed a flight. Who hasn’t had travel delays these days? Then we get to Thursday, the day of the big press conference, and Diaz is still absent. He missed the open workouts for the pay-per-view event. Dana White takes the stage, and that little white placard on the dais is the only trace of the UFC 279 headliner.
For casuals and/or those of the McGregor generation, this is pretty much what happened at UFC 137. Nick Diaz, Nate’s older brother, chose not to show up at the press conference ahead of a fight with Georges St-Pierre, prompting White to make the extraordinary decision to can him from the title fight and replace him with Carlos Condit, who reportedly shed tears when handed the headliner against the welterweight GOAT. (Alas, he would shed more when St-Pierre injured his knee and withdrew from the event.)
Nate Diaz has always played ball with the UFC more than his older brother. But if there were any time where he wouldn’t, where a sudden slight or a pang of rebellion might spur him to throw the whole finale out the window, this might be it.
The other scenario comes from much more recent history when a pre-fight drug test for Diaz’s UFC 244 headliner with Jorge Masvidal returned a reportedly “adverse” finding. After much ballyhoo, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency clarified the result was instead “atypical” and linked to a possibly tainted multivitamin. The substance found in Diaz’s system, USADA said, didn’t provide any performance-enhancing benefit.
That all took place in the two days before a pay-per-view event located in New York. Would the same happen in Las Vegas, where the Nevada Athletic Commission likely wouldn’t have the time to call a special hearing before the fight? Could the UFC then move the entire event, a la UFC 232, to California? Maybe, but maybe not.
The latter scenario is far more realistic. But neither are outside the Diaz multiverse.
Meshew: Why do people love the Diaz brothers? Because they smoke pot and say funny things? I mean, sure, but no. Is it because they’re the best fighters in the world? Of course not. No, they love the Diaz brothers because they well and truly do not give a f***. Not in a poseur way like Colby Covington, and not in a “I’m really just doing this to get more money” way like Jon Jones, but in a “no seriously, we actually don’t care.” We’re talking about the dude who demanded he be able to slap Dana White during contract negotiations. Nick and Nate are the figureheads for anti-authority sentiments everywhere — not because they chose to be, but because that’s simply who they are — and what could be more anti-authority than for Nate to leave the UFC on his own terms, giving one great big metaphorical finger to Dana White, the UFC, and the entire system that put him in this ridiculous position?
Nate Diaz should walk into the cage to fight Chimaev, wait for the bell to start the round, and then immediately have Nick throw the towel in for him, all while staring Dana White down and firing the Stockton Salute.
Can you imagine the anarchy? The look on White’s face? The incredible linguistic gymnastics Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan would go through trying to put into words Nate’s final and greatest act of defiance?
“This is crazy! Nate Diaz must simply be too afraid to fight Chimaev! That’s the only explanation!”
“Come on, Joe! We’re talking about Nate Diaz! He’d fight Francis Ngannou! This is just Nate being Nate.”
As others have articulated, this fight is a farce, the UFC wielding its near-infinite power in the most ignoble and injurious way possible. And so Diaz should give this fight the same deference Conor McGregor gives to the laws of a functioning society, or the UFC gives to Henry Cejudo: none whatsoever. Nate owes the UFC and the fans nothing beyond, legally, one more fight. Once the horn sounds, Diaz has fulfilled his obligation and should thus exit immediately to pursue more lucrative and enjoyable uses of his time. And doing so by leaving Dana White holding a flaming dumpster of his own creation? Well, it’s the sort of stuff legends are made of. And remember, heroes get remembered, but legends never die.
2. What does Khamzat Chimaev actually gain with a win over Nate Diaz?
Martin: In reality, Khamzat Chimaev doesn’t stand to gain nearly as much with a win as he did two weeks ago when Kamaru Usman was still UFC welterweight champion.
When this main event was booked, it appeared that Chimaev winning was essentially a formality, and then he could get matched up with Usman in a welterweight title fight that would surely do huge numbers at the box office for the UFC. With less than a minute left in his rematch with Usman at UFC 278, Leon Edwards ended those plans after he landed the head-kick knockout heard round the world.
With that upset, Edwards is almost certainly going to face Usman in an immediate rematch, which means Chimaev will be stuck in limbo regardless of a victory over Diaz at UFC 279.
Now, it’s easy to say Chimaev will gain star power by headlining a pay-per-view and beating a needle-mover like Diaz, but even that seems a bit dubious given the odds for this fight. Chimaev is currently sitting as an 11-to-1 favorite to beat Diaz according to the oddsmakers at Draft Kings, so he’s absolutely expected to win this fight.
Not only that, but the expectations are so high on Chimaev that anything less than an absolute mauling would almost seem like a disappointment. Chimaev has to treat Diaz like Eminem did Machine Gun Kelly, so when the fight is over, the Stockton bad boy might actually have to consider a new career.
That’s how lopsided this fight needs to be just so Chimaev’s stock doesn’t drop.
Even if all that happens, Chimaev will still be stuck on the outside looking in when it comes to the title picture at welterweight, so assuming he crushes Diaz, “Borz” should instead turn his attention to somebody like Colby Covington so he can at least get another huge fight and attempt to add another top-ranked contender to his résumé because unfortunately he’s not getting that with a win at UFC 279.
Al-Shatti: For as silly as this main event is — and as transparent as the UFC’s motivations for it are — it still feels a bit too-far-in-the-foresty to straight-up dismiss UFC 279 as a no-win situation for Chimaev. Because sure, everyone who’s either reading and writing this column right now? We all see this fight for what it is. But we’re also not the target audience for UFC 279.
Because you know exactly who is: The ever-elusive casual sports fan who can name four UFC fighters or less.
There’s a damn good chance those golden geese are aware of the name Nathan Diaz right now — and depending on how Saturday goes, there’s a fairly decent chance they’ll soon be aware the name Khamzat Chimaev as well (or at the very least, they’ll know The Scary Bearded Dude Who Pulverized Poor Nathan Diaz Into A Fine Powder).
That’s not a given, of course. It’s MMA. If Diaz mounts any sort of competitive challenge at all — which he very well could — Chimaev’s stock won’t get the rub the UFC wants, much in the same way Leon Edwards’ stock stayed static after UFC 263.
But if Chimaev flies out to Las Vegas and looks like the same mythical blood god he was before Gilbert Burns, you’re being disingenuous if you think the casuals won’t take notice.
Chimaev’s next fight is going to be in a title shot either way. (It’d be promotional malpractice for his management to throw Colby Covington an opportunity when their client is already the guaranteed next in line after Edwards vs. Usman 3.) But if Chimaev is able to pull off a flawless victory against a man who still registers as one of the sport’s biggest names, it’s hard to argue that it won’t propel him to a higher level of MMA stardom.
Marrocco: Um, Mr. Al-Shatti... Edwards’ stock stayed static because of one Nathan Diaz, the previously mentioned messenger of the fickle MMA gods. In one punch, Diaz took all of Edwards’ contender hopes and sent them down the road. It really can be that simple when it comes to critical mass, and especially when you’re dealing with a star as beloved as Diaz. As much as the UFC puts its finger on the scale, the ultimate owner of his destiny after Saturday night is Chimaev and the performance he brings to the table.
Chance are, Chimaev is going to perform, and perform very well. The only X-factor competitively is Diaz’s toughness and cardio. But I tend to think that whatever happens, his stock will remain high after Diaz. Whether his stock takes an immediate dip from a loss and recovers with or continues its relentlessly upward trajectory, this guy brings an audience. He’s valuable to the UFC’s strategic interests in EMEA. Doesn’t that count for a lot in the modern UFC?
I would say that Chimaev is going to get way more chances to shine than your average Fight Night headliner. Win or lose, a lot of people are going to watch this fight, and more than likely, he’s going to win. In the process, he’ll get comfortable as a pay-per-view star. He’ll do big business in places where the UFC wants to do big business, and the promotion can take his career in a variety of directions. Let’s not forget, middleweight is a possible second act. There are plenty of matchups at middleweight in addition to those at welterweight, and he is only 28.
3. Why did the UFC book Tony Ferguson against Li Jingliang?
Meshew: Because apparently UFC 279 is the card where good feelings go to die.
Seriously, this is some atrocious booking. “Hey fans, would you like to see two of your favorite fighters thumped into the ground in brutal fashion? Well, have I got the $75.00 Saturday night purchase for you!” I’m not even a big Tony Ferguson guy, but who the hell is this fight even for? Li Jingliang is a fun enough fighter, but he’s not going to fight for a belt, so sacrificing Tony to him makes zero since. At least with Nate and Khamzat there’s the vague hope that Chimaev will get a bump in popularity. This one is simply baffling.
I think the only possible explanation here is that Ferguson is the insurance plan should something happen to either half of the main event. Tony will have no qualms about stepping in on a day’s notice to fight either Chimaev or Nate and if that happens, the card maintains a high-profile main event, instead of being a UFC 151 situation. And so given that, I can only assume “The Leech” was the only guy ready and able to take a 170-pound fight on such relatively short notice. But still, this is not good vibes.
My great and enduring hope is that Chimaev has visa issues and cannot make the fight, so the UFC is forced to do Tony vs. Nate in the main event, an appropriate (and awesome) fight that the fans will friggin’ love and that won’t leave anyone feeling like they were party to a public execution.
Al-Shatti: In the immortal words of Chael Sonnen, I’m not trying to be a dick, but what the hell are we doing here?
Look, I get it. We’re at the stage of Ferguson’s career where the eulogies are being written en masse. As the driver of the “El Cucuy” bandwagon for the better part of a decade, that sucks. The fact that we’ve already hit the “desperation move up/down in weight to reverse fortunes” stage of the process is an even bigger bummer, but I also understand it’s part of the natural order of things and all we can do is let this play out to its inevitable conclusion.
But what is this matchmaking? There are three moves with a fading star like Ferguson at this juncture: 1) Give him a dramatic step down in competition in an effort to prolong the inevitable, coax out a win, and inject some juice back into his name; 2) Set him up against a similar fading legend, a la Nathan Diaz, and let the fan base enjoy some nostalgic violence without being made to feel bad about what they’re watching; or my least favorite, 3) Feed him to the new hotness and let the young eat the old as they’ve done for centuries in the fight game. That’s just how this goes. Three options, all viable, all tried-and-true.
But UFC 279? That’s none of these!
No offense to Li because he’s a fine fighter, but he doesn’t check any of those boxes. He’s good enough to have a very real shot at winning and also has grenades in his hands. But he also is a 34-year-old middling contender who’s been in the UFC for eight years and is never going to touch a title. There’s a better-than-decent chance whatever is left of Ferguson’s legendary name is going to be violently sacrificed at the altar of a man who’s never going to headline an event and who Chael Sonnen had never heard of until like two weeks ago. Why? Isn’t that a waste? Someone with more of a future in the welterweight division like Jake Matthews or Michel Pereira weren’t available? It’s just weird.
But hey, maybe trick-or-treat Tony will surprise us all and dial back the clock, leaving one last victim looking like a defeated character sprite from Street Fighter II.