Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will send reigning featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski into battle against top 145-pound contender Brian Ortega, one of two championship title fights atop the UFC 266 pay-per-view (PPV) event this Sat. night (Sept. 25, 2021) inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Joining The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) coaches are flyweight rivals Valentina Shevchenko and Lauren Murphy. “Bullet” will look for her sixth straight title defense against the “Lucky” Alaskan, who punched her ticket to a 125-pound title shot by winning five in a row, two of which ended violently.
Even though UFC 266 is headlined by a pair of high-stakes title fights, much of the talk surrounding this weekend’s “Sin City” extravaganza has centered on the return of Nick Diaz. The former Strikeforce 170-pound champion will rematch ex-UFC welterweight kingpin Robbie Lawler after previously stopping “Ruthless” in April 2004.
Elsewhere on the five-fight main card, Curtis Blaydes looks to shake off his knockout loss to Derrick Lewis last February by taking out fellow heavyweight title contender Jairzinho Rozenstruik. In addition, Brazilian bruiser Jessica Andrade will try to work her way back into flyweight title contention at the expense of 125-pound rising star Cynthia Calvillo.
Before we break down tomorrow night’s championship doubleheader, go ahead and take a look at what MMA whiz kid Patrick Stumberg had to say about the ESPNN and ESPN+ “Prelims” contests here and here. The latest UFC 266 odds and a complete betting guide for all the “Volkanovski vs. Ortega” action can be located here.
Let’s talk shop.
145 lbs.: UFC Featherweight Champion Alexander “The Great” Volkanovski (22-1) vs. Brian “T-City” Ortega (15-1, 1 NC)
Alexander Volkanovski will fight someone not named Max Holloway for the first time in over two years, which I’m sure is a relief for the rest of the 145-pound contenders. “The Great” still hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves as featherweight champion because he deposed Holloway, who was perhaps the most beloved champion in any weight class. It also didn’t help that Volkanovski may have stolen a win in their UFC 251 rematch, a split-decision victory that could have gone in either direction. Regardless, the show must go on and the Aussie will have a fairly stiff test in front of him, though I can’t help but wonder what Brian Ortega brings to the table that Volkanovski hasn’t already seen — and defeated. The former rugby front rower could be considered undersized for the division, standing just 5’6” which is shorter than anyone in the featherweight Top 5. The flip side is “The Great” holds a 71” reach, longer than both Holloway and Ortega and certainly a contributor to his 22-1 record.
Ortega was dusted by Holloway in a lopsided title loss at UFC 231 and I expected it to pose a bigger setback than it did. To his credit, “T-City” roared back with a dominant victory over Chan Sung Jung, one that had everyone in the MMA blogosphere jumping for joy. I guess I was the only spectator who thought “Korean Zombie” handed him that win on a silver platter, courtesy of a spectacularly uninspired performance. The flat-footed Jung only threw 166 punches in that five-round headliner, compared to the 248 he threw against Dan Ige in his very next fight. I don’t want to take anything away from Ortega, it was a brilliant performance, though I will argue it wasn’t enough to erase his drubbing — and the shortcomings that came with it — against Holloway. Remember, Volkanovski has the second-highest number of strikes landed per minute (second only to “Blessed”) but is tops in the division in both striking accuracy and striking defense.
This is going to be a very entertaining (but not a very competitive) contest. Ortega fans might wanna rewatch his performances against Clay Guida and Cub Swanson to remind themselves why he spent the first half of his UFC career known as “The Comeback Kid.” I do expect things to start out fairly evenly but once Volkanovski settles in and establishes his rhythm, Ortega is going to spend the rest of the fight playing catch up. When you look at how both combatants performed against Holloway, it’s hard for me to make a convincing case for Ortega with nothing but a buried “Zombie” to show for it.
Prediction: Volkanovski def. Ortega by unanimous decision
125 lbs.: UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion Valentina “Bullet” Shevchenko (21-3) vs. “Lucky” Lauren Murphy (15-4)
So uh ... it’s kinda hard to deconstruct a title fight that has the champion ballooning up to a -2000 favorite on most of the sports books. There wasn’t a lot to say when Valentina Shevchenko defended her flyweight strap against well-traveled veteran Jessica Eye and I don’t think there’s much to dissect here, either. Lauren Murphy certainly earned her spot, winning five in a row with two finishes, and she’s helped by the fact that “Bullet” has already shot down most of the eligible contenders. I guess the best case scenario for Murphy is that Shevchenko has one of her lame-duck performances, like she did against Liz Carmouche at UFC Uruguay. If not, it’s gonna be a rough night at the office for the “Lucky” challenger.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to declare Shevchenko better than Murphy in every area of MMA, though to be fair you could probably make that argument for any contender at flyweight — and maybe even bantamweight, outside of Amanda Nunes. Shevchenko has great wrestling, sneaky submissions, and technical striking with surprising power. The 38 year-old Murphy has ... well, she’s durable with a lot of spirit. That’s not going to win her the fight, but at least she can hang in there long enough to let the fans get their money’s worth. You can argue that Murphy — a former contestant on TUF 26 — has not been finished in any of her four losses, just as you can also argue that she’s never been attacked by anyone with the pedigree of Shevchenko.
There are two ways this fight plays out. Shevchenko can be content to just lay back and strike when convenient, allowing the cageside commentators to cream themselves every time “Lucky” lands a shot, like they did for Jennifer Maia. Or “Bullet” can transition into kill mode and smash Murphy into smithereens. Historically speaking, Shevchenko likes to alternate between the two performances, so I would expect a shooting gallery on Sat. night, along with a commanding five-round decision on all three scorecards.
Prediction: Shevchenko def. Murphy by unanimous decision
170 lbs.: Nick Diaz (26-9, 2 NC) vs. “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler (28-15, 1 NC)
After more than six years of doing ... whatever Nick Diaz does in his spare time, the former Strikeforce welterweight champion will make his highly-anticipated return to the Octagon for a rematch more than 17 years in the making. I know I’m supposed to stand and applaud because Diaz is back and yes, the UFC hype machine has done a solid job of cranking out truncated clips of his greatest hits, but we need to make sure we recognize a few important things before we try to jumpstart the Diaz war wagon. The uncrowned king of Stockton turned 38 last month and has not won a fight in nearly a decade, back when he beat the pineapples off Hawaiian “Prodigy” BJ Penn in Oct. 2011. What followed were three straight losses, including his pot-assisted “No Contest” against Anderson Silva, a fight that is only worth remembering because Diaz took an imaginary nap inside the Octagon.
A lot of those dopey Diaz fans thought the move was “gangster” ... I thought it was stupid. I paid $60 for that PPV card, throw a fucking punch.
Like Diaz, Lawler also made his return to UFC after a slam-bang run for Strikeforce. His record for Scott Coker and Co. was an ugly 3-5, but all three of those wins came by way of murderous intent. “Ruthless” subsequently committed to the welterweight division and put together a torrid 8-1 run, which includes his reign as 170-pound champion, but since losing the title to Tyron Woodley in summer 2016, it’s been all downhill for the 39 year-old slugger. I don’t know what happened to the killing machine who nearly snuffed Ben Askren (before Herb Dean screwed things up), but he certainly wasn’t present in consecutive losses to Colby Covington and Neil Magny. Case in point: Lawler threw just 62 strikes against Magny and landed only 41 en route to yet another uninspired defeat. Not that he’s ever been a high-volume guy, but you can’t win a duel if you don’t take your guns out of their holsters. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s wear-and-tear, I don’t know if we can get an accurate read since “Ruthless” has only competed once over the last two years, which may actually serve to his benefit.
I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest the appeal of this rematch, which should have taken place when both fighters were in their competitive primes, relies heavily on romanticized memories of two great fighters — who represented opposite ends of the fighting spectrum. Diaz, the high-volume boxer with a granite chin versus the savage knockout artist with a thirst for his opponent’s (and his own) blood. I’m not sure those attributes still exist in their present forms, though I do think we’ll see enough to deliver a satisfactory fight. Even with the layoff, it’s hard to pick against Diaz, who continues to run triathlons in his spare time. His punches aren’t delivered with blinding speed or insane power, he just starts throwing them and never stops. It was the blueprint Covington used to overwhelm Lawler and keep him on his heels for 25 minutes. Outside of Robbie’s occasional rage-bro explosions, I’m expecting a five-round game of whack-a-mole.
Prediction: Diaz def. Lawler by unanimous decision
265 lbs.: Curtis “Razor” Blaydes (14-3, 1 NC) vs. Jairzinho “Bigi Boy” Rozenstruik (12-2)
Having now registered knockout losses to both Francis Ngannou and Derrick Lewis, I think it’s time to forget about Curtis Blaydes as a serious title contender, which is a weird thing to say about a fighter who is currently ranked No. 4 in the division. Even with a victory over Jairzinho Rozenstruik this weekend in “Sin City,” the 30 year-old Blaydes will have to wait to see when (or if) Ngannou battles Ciryl Gane to unify the 265-pound titles, and that’s without mentioning ex-champion Stipe Miocic, or former light heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones, who is expected to make his heavyweight debut in early 2022. You can make the same argument against the No. 6-ranked Rozenstruik, who was atrophied by Ngannou at UFC 249 before losing a clear-cut decision to Gane less than a year later. Right now the only option for Blaydes and Rozenstruik is to keep winning in impressive fashion, something they have become known for as evidenced by a combined 21 knockouts in 26 wins.
Blaydes is the most effective wrestler in the heavyweight division, racking up an incredible 59 takedowns since making his Octagon debut back in early 2016. That includes his wrestling clinic against Alexander Volkov, a fight reminiscent of Nurmagomedov-Trujillo in the way that “Drago” was completely shut down from bell to bell. It will be interesting to see how Rozenstruik deals with the threat of the takedown, which can be thwarted when you look at how Lewis used the duck-under to land a fight-ending uppercut. “Bigi Boy” has tremendous power, but he also relies heavily on the inside leg kick to disrupt his opponent’s rhythm and set up his power shots. If he leaves one out there too long, you can bet Blaydes — an NJCAA national champion out of Harper College — to cling to his leg the way Luke Skywalker clung to that belly antenna after getting shit out by the Cloud City garbage chute.
Every fight starts on the feet and anyone who stands across from Rozenstruik is playing Surinamese roulette. “Bigi Boy” has a takedown defense of 80 percent, which is why Alistair Overeem was only 2 for 10 in takedown attempts, slightly better than the 2 for 14 put up by Gane. Fortunately for Blaydes, this bout is only scheduled for three rounds, which is 10 less minutes that “Razor” needs to be worried about getting beheaded. Until wrestling is no longer the dominant style in combat sports, the pick has to be Blaydes. He’s already grounded and pounded strikers who are just as technical as Rozenstruik (Overeem) and hit just as hard (Mark Hunt). I don’t think he’ll get the finish, but who cares? Winning ugly is still winning.
Prediction: Blaydes def. Rozenstruik by unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Jessica “Bate Estaca” Andrade (21-9) vs. Cynthia Calvillo (9-2-1)
Jessica Andrade is back at flyweight, her third (and hopefully) final division after putting together successful — but ultimately inconsistent — runs at both strawweight and bantamweight. The scouting report on the fiery Brazilian has not changed much over the years, as Andrade seems content to just charge forward and unleash hell until somebody drops. Her brains over brawn approach — good enough for 15 finishes in 21 wins — does not hold up against superior strikers like Joanna Jedrzejczyk, or equally savage brutes like Zhang Weili, but it was enough to thwart Rose Namajunas for the 115-pound title and she nearly replicated that performance in a dominant third round of their UFC 251 rematch. That said, Andrade also has nine losses, seven for UFC, so at age 29 I think it’s safe to say that what you see is pretty much what you get.
I had high hopes for Cynthia Calvillo after she made her UFC debut in a very entertaining scrap opposite Pearl Gonzalez at UFC 210 back in early 2017. Then came a pair of scale fails, including one of the more gruesome weigh-in spectacles in recent memory at UFC Argentina. Not surprisingly, Calvillo eventually moved up to flyweight where she jumped out to a 1-0 start opposite Jessica Eye, only to give it right back in a losing effort to Katlyn Chookagian last November. The jury is still out in regards to what kind of flyweight she can be, but one thing we know for sure is the former Team Alpha Male product won’t be at a size disadvantage against Andrade, who stands a mere 5’1” and sports a T-Rex reach of just 62 inches. At age 34, Calvillo can’t afford a loss if she plans to stay in the title conversation once Valentina Shevchenko and Lauren Murphy settle their business in the UFC 266 co-main event.
Stylistically, this is a terrible match up for Andrade. Her biggest strengths are her power and aggression, which are made even more effective in the clinch, but Calvillo is the superior wrestler and one of the best grapplers in the division. Unless “Bate Estaca” can somehow lure Calvillo into a stand-up battle and just go for broke, this fight could play out the same way as Andrade’s loss to Shevchenko at UFC 261. Knowing what’s on the line for both fighters — and only three rounds to get it done — expect Calvillo to come out shooting with the intention of using her size advantage on top. A first-round finish would not surprise me.
Prediction: Calvillo def. Andrade by submission
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 at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the remaining undercard balance on ESPNN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
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