T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, hosts yet another stacked Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) pay-per-view (PPV) this Saturday (Sept. 25, 2021) when UFC 266 hits the ESPN+ airwaves. The night’s twin title fights see Alexander Volkanovski and Valentina Shevchenko attempt to turn aside Brian Ortega and Lauren Murphy, while the middle bout pits Nick Diaz against Robbie Lawler 17 years after their initial meeting.
135 lbs.: Marlon Moraes vs. Merab Dvalishvili
Marlon Moraes (23-8-1) went from losing to Raphael Assuncao in his UFC debut and scraping out a split decision over John Dodson to smashing three elite Bantamweight contenders in less than one round apiece. “Magic” now finds himself in a 1-3 hole, however, most recently suffering knockout defeats against Cory Sandhagen and Rob Font.
He has knocked out 10 opponents and submitted another six.
Serra-Longo’s Merab Dvalishvili (13-4) had his share of misfortune early in his UFC career, dropping a questionable split decision to Frankie Saenz and subsequently fell victim to a controversial submission against Ricky Simon. He’s since put that behind him with six consecutive victories, including a win over Cody Stamann in his most recent effort.
He’ll have one inch of reach on Moraes.
I can’t think of a more punishing crucible for Moraes at the moment. His defensive lapses and cardio issues have become unignorable, and there’s no way he can return to contender status without fixing them. Who better to test his hypothetical improvement than the inhuman Dvalishvili, for whom fatigue is something that happens to other people?
Moraes has great takedown defense and exponentially better striking than Dvalishvili when he’s fresh, but after his recent struggles, I absolutely do not trust him to stay fresh when subjected to this sort of pace. Unless the 33-year-old fundamentally reinvented himself during the last nine months, Dvalishvili tanks his way through a rough first round to smother him on the mat.
Prediction: Dvalishvili via unanimous decision
155 lbs.: Dan Hooker vs. Nasrat Haqparast
The move for Dan Hooker (20-10) from 145 to 155 pounds proved to be just what he needed, as “Hangman” won seven of his next eight to secure a spot among the Lightweight contenders. Recent efforts proved less successful, dropping a decision to Dustin Poirier and suffering a knockout loss to Michael Chandler.
His 17 professional finishes are split 10/7 between knockouts and submissions.
Despite scoring multiple knockdowns, the Octagon debut for Nasrat Haqparast (13-3) saw him fall to Marcin Held for his first defeat since his professional debut. He has since gone 5-1, most recently boxing up late replacement Rafa Garcia in March 2021.
He gives up two inches of height and 3.5 inches of reach to Hooker.
This fight is essentially a trial-by-fire for Hooker’s durability. He’s absorbed horrifying amounts of damage during his UFC tenure, including 263 combined significant strikes from brutal finishers in Paul Felder and Dustin Poirier, and his historically indestructible chin finally gave out on him against Chandler. Haqparast’s single UFC finish in seven bouts belies the startling speed and power in his hands; in other words, if Hooker can’t take strikes like he used to, Haqparast’s got more than enough thump to put him down.
I’ve flip-flopped a few times, but you know what? I think I’ve got Haqparast for the upset. Hooker’s lax defense means he needs to be invincible for his style to function, and the Chandler debacle has me thinking that isn’t the case anymore. In the end, Haqparast puts him down in one.
Prediction: Haqparast via first round technical knockout
265 lbs.: Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Chris Daukaus
This will be the third time in the last two months that these two were booked to fight each other and my thoughts haven’t changed, so let’s just go ahead and use what I already wrote.
Shamil Abdurakhimov (20-5) bounced back from a UFC debut loss to Timothy Johnson by winning five of his next six, including knockouts of Chase Sherman and Marcin Tybura. This led to a UFC 242 main card slot opposite Curtis Blaydes, who overpowered “Abrek” on the mat en route to a second-round stoppage.
This will be his first fight in almost two years.
While he proved unsuccessful in his quest to claim the Cage Fury Heavyweight title, Chris Daukaus (11-3) ultimately joined brother Kyle in the Octagon in 2019. He’s been nothing if not efficient there, scoring three consecutive first-round knockouts and netting two “Performance of the Night” bonuses along the way.
His 10 stoppage wins include nine by knockout..
Between his ground-and-pound losses and occasional tendency to stink out the joint, it’s easy to forget that Abdurakhimov is a genuinely solid striker with better movement and speed than the majority of the division. He’s by far the best standup artist Daukaus has yet faced in the Octagon and could very well potshot his way to victory.
At the same time, he’s been out since 2019 and just turned 40, both of which bode ill for someone so reliant on his legs. Between those worries and the fact that Daukaus can match his hand speed, I like the younger, fresher man to turn the lights out sometime before the midpoint.
Prediction: Daukaus via second round technical knockout
125 lbs.: Roxanne Modafferi vs. Taila Santos
Roxanne Modafferi (25-19) — a two-time The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) competitor — put together a 3-2 run that saw her score sizable upsets of Antonina Shevchenko, Maycee Barber and Andrea Lee. She couldn’t do the same to Viviane Araujo, however, suffering a unanimous decision loss in Jan. 2021.
She has scored six professional knockouts and submissions apiece.
“Contender Series” graduate, Taila Santos (17-1), lost her undefeated record in her UFC debut, which saw Mara Borella grapple her way to a split decision victory. Injury and the pandemic kept her out of action for the next 17 months, though she’s made up for lost time with victories over Molly McCann and Gillian Robertson.
She steps in for the injured Tatiana Suarez on one month’s notice.
Here’s an interesting factoid for you: Modafferi has gone nine consecutive fights without ever winning or losing two straight. It’s not like she’s alternating between good and bad opponents, either, as her level of competition has stayed consistently high. That streak demands a victory here, but I can’t bring myself to overlook Santos’ enormous edge in striking and increasingly potent wrestling.
Even with her understated improvements, Modafferi is hopelessly out-gunned on the feet, and I don’t see her dragging Santos to the mat when a top-notch takedown artist like Robertson failed to do so. The universe needs to personally intervene to keep Modafferi’s pattern going, because if it doesn’t, Santos sprawls-and-brawls her way to a wide victory while potentially landing her own takedowns for good measure.
Prediction: Santos via unanimous decision
You don’t need me to tell you that UFC 266 is a killer card top to bottom; therefore, be sure to join us for it. See you Saturday, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 266 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPNEWS/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC 266: “Volkanovski vs. Ortega” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.