With a championship double header, and a rematch 17 years in the making, to call UFC 266 a loaded pay-per-view card would be an understatement. The main event pits The Ultimate Fighter: Season 29 coaches against each other with the featherweight championship on the line. Australia’s Alexander Volkanovski won the featherweight championship from Max Holloway in Dec. 2019, and, then, he successfully defended his belt in a rematch with the Hawaiian in July 2020. He will look to make his second title defense against Brian Ortega this weekend. Ortega came up short in his first title bid against Holloway in Dec. 2018, but rebounded nicely with the best performance of his career when he defeated “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung by a lopsided unanimous decision last October. He will try to build upon that momentum as he looks to defeat Volkanovski and begin his own title run in the main event this Saturday night on the Las Vegas Strip.
In the co-main event, Valentina Shevchenko will look to make her sixth successful flyweight title defense, which would tie her with Ronda Rousey for the most title defenses in women’s UFC history. Standing in her way is a streaking Lauren Murphy who has won five fights in a row leading into this championship showdown. She will have to deliver the performance of her lifetime in order to successfully dethrone the long reigning champion and become the third ever women’s flyweight champion.
Perhaps even more anticipated by fans than the two title showdowns is the rematch between Nick Diaz and Robbie Lawler. The pair first fought at UFC 47 back in 2004, when then-20-year-old Diaz picked up a stunning second-round knockout over Lawler who was only 22 years old at the time. This will be the first fight for Nick Diaz in over six years. He last fought in 2015, losing to Anderson Silva by unanimous decision, before the result was eventually overturned to a no contest after both men failed drug tests. Diaz popped positive for marijuana metabolites, and Silva for the anabolic steroid androsterone.
Lawler has been a much more active fighter, but he has struggled of late. He lost his last four fights, albeit one was a controversial stoppage by Herb Dean in his submission loss to Ben Askren at UFC 235. The fight between Diaz and Lawler this weekend will be a five-round, non-title main card bout, marking only the second time in UFC history that a non-title, non-main event fight has been scheduled for five rounds. Diaz’s younger brother Nate fought in the first such bout earlier this year against Leon Edwards.
UFC 266 takes place inside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. The early prelims air live on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ at 6:00 p.m. ET, followed by the prelims on ESPN+ and ESPNEWS at 8 p.m. ET. From there, the action shifts to pay-per-view for the main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s Toe-to-Toe.
There is a bit of bad blood between TUF coaches Alexander Volkanovski and Brian Ortega. How does it play out when they meet inside the cage?
Sumian: The bad blood in this epic featherweight title bout was certainly exaggerated due to the drama that usually cultivates as a result of two fighters coaching against each other for the several weeks of a TUF season. However, this showdown features two of the top-three featherweights in the world with the winner not only earning bragging rights, but also a chance to continue building his own legacy.
For Volkanovski, a win over Ortega solidifies his dominance as the UFC featherweight champion, and further proves to fans around the world that the New Zealand native is on his way to becoming one of the most decorated featherweights of his generation. For Ortega, defeating his TUF nemesis not only allows him to claim the title he has been chasing throughout his UFC career, but, in all likelihood, also sets him up for a rematch with Holloway to correct the only loss of his professional career.
It was Volkanovski’s second-round TKO of Chad Mendes that made fans, and the UFC alike, realize he would one day be fighting for the title. He took out one of the most experienced and powerful featherweights of the last decade, which solidified him as a top-ranked featherweight before going on to defeat former champion Jose Aldo several months later. Those victories led to back-to-back decision wins over the now-former champion Holloway. Volkanovski will look to solidify his title reign as he takes on the always dangerous Ortega.
Watching Ortega’s rise in the UFC has definitely been one of the most interesting and pleasant storylines in the featherweight division. The California native has dazzled fans with his impeccable ground game, daunting finishing ability and entertaining personality. Number-two ranked Ortega fell short in his first UFC title shot where he traded shots with Holloway for four straight rounds before a doctor stoppage put an end to the fight. He took an immense amount of punishment in the bout, but showed his heart, toughness and resilience by refusing to go down and standing toe-to-toe with arguably the best boxer in the featherweight division today. He rebounded swiftly with an absolute trashing of the Korean Zombie almost two years later in what was advertised as a grudge match due to an altercation between the two at a prior event.
Ortega controlled Jung from start to finish by picking his opponent apart with well-timed leg kicks, counter straights and, of course, a highlight spinning elbow that dropped the Korean almost instantly. Ortega earned himself a clean 50-45 unanimous decision victory on all three scorecards, putting himself next in line to fight for the title. The always improving former title challenger will look to come home with a victory in his second UFC title shot when he finally meets his TUF foe in the Octagon.
This fight will truly be a tale of two game plans. Volkanovski’s style and game plan revolves around one word: pressure. The champion is extremely good at continuously pushing the pace and darting in with heavy combinations to keep his opponent backpedaling and unable to build any momentum. Constant forward movement, fainting and a powerful overhand are what generally leads to a smooth victory for Volkanovski. On the other hand, Ortega is far more relaxed when facing an opponent, and he tends to gradually build up momentum as the fight progresses. He makes adjustments in real time to better counteract his opponent’s offensive strategy. Ortega tends to hang back and fire off well-timed leg kicks, counters and uppercuts as he looks to tire out his opponent before landing a hard shot or pursuing a takedown to implement his craft and slick submission attack.
When all is said and done, Ortega will leave the cage as the newly crowned champion after enacting a well-balanced game plan and negating Volkanovski’s aggressive forward pressure attack. This will be a highly contested bout with both men finding success throughout the fight. Ortega will be one step ahead due to his recent improvements in striking and patience. A rematch with Holloway will likely be one of the most anticipated featherweight bouts the UFC can put together for 2022.
Petela: There is not much that I disagree with my colleague on regarding this fight, except who will win.
There is no doubt that Brian Ortega looked incredible in his last outing against The Korean Zombie. His combinations were crisp with no wasted movement, and he navigated the Octagon with smooth footwork that let him pick his opponent apart without absorbing much damage. He will need that same style in order to go the distance against Volkanovski. Ortega will have his moments throughout the contest, but the forward pressure and chopping leg kicks of the champion will ultimately be enough to earn him a decision victory.
The biggest reason Volkanovski will win is that he can nullify Brian Ortega’s ace in the hole, his submission grappling. It’s not that Volkanovski is the same level of grappler that Ortega is, but he possesses the ability to stop the fight from ever getting down to the canvas. Volkanovski has an unbelievable ability to get in close range where he can land heavy low kicks, and thunderous combinations with his hands, without being susceptible to getting taken down. He is able to force a clinch along the cage and wear on his opponents without giving them any momentum to use that clinch to secure a takedown. After a close first four rounds, where Volkanovski is likely slightly ahead on the scorecards, Ortega will know that he probably needs a finish to get the win and claim the belt. He will repeatedly look to jump on a guillotine, or get a takedown, to pick up a Hail-Mary submission. The well-coached champion will be well aware of this and avoid being submitted to pick up a unanimous decision victory.
Valentina Shevchenko has looked nearly unbeatable as the women’s flyweight champion. Does she rack up another decisive title defense against a surging Lauren Murphy?
Petela: Yes. Murphy is a well-deserving challenger, and she has looked very impressive recently. She is currently riding a five-fight winning streak that put her in position for this title shot. However, Shevchenko is just the superior fighter in all aspects by a wide margin, and this will be yet another dominant performance by the incumbent champion.
Frankly, there just isn’t a clear path to victory for Murphy in this contest. She is a talented grappler with a brown belt in jiu-jitsu under John Crouch, but the champion is a black belt in judo, who has shown time and time again that she excels on the canvas despite many opponents thinking that the ground game is their best chance at dethroning the long reigning queen. Murphy is also no slouch standing up, but Shevchenko is a former multiple-time Muay Thai world champion. At the end of the day, this will be a one-sided affair from the opening bell until Shevchenko scores the finish.
Sumian: I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague. Murphy is truly as tough as they come and has looked extremely sharp against everyone she has faced leading up to this title bout. Unfortunately, Shevchenko will do what she always does, and it will all come down to how and when she chooses to finish Murphy.
Nick Maximov and Martin Sano — do we need to know these names?
Sumian: Yes and no. Maximov joins the UFC after a perfect 6-0 record outside the biggest promotion in mixed martial arts today. He had a fantastic debut on Dana White’s Contender Series back in Nov. 2020, which led to a middleweight showdown with Karl Roberson. Maximov will continue his undefeated streak when he stops Roberson via submission and earns himself a step-up in competition for his sophomore UFC appearance.
Sano enters the UFC after compiling a 4-2 record and is 0-2-1 in his last three professional appearances. He takes on Matthew Semelsberger, who will unfortunately spoil the debut of Sano with a victory and rebound from a unanimous decision loss to Khaos Williams several months prior.
Petela: Maximov is a big question mark in my opinion. He stays active competing in grappling matches, but he’s still a relatively green fighter with only six professional MMA fights. He has the win on the Contender Series – and won a fight in Legacy Fighting Alliance – but he doesn’t have more than a few fights at a significantly high level. He could pan out to be the real deal, but it’s too early to truly gauge his potential.
Sano will likely be one-and-done inside the UFC. He hasn’t fought since 2017, and he hasn’t had a victory since 2014. The fight between Sano and Semelsberger might be entertaining, but don’t expect the newcomer to come away with a win or show much potential to be truly elite.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 266?
Petela: Cynthia Calvillo. She comes into her fight with Jessica Andrade as the fifth-ranked fighter in the women’s flyweight division. Even though she is coming off a loss to Katlyn Chookagian, she still might manage to earn a title shot this weekend. An impressive performance could be all she needs to be next in line for the belt, since Shevchenko has already beat three of the four women ranked ahead of her and will most likely defeat Murphy this weekend. This would make Calvillo the highest ranked contender who hasn’t yet faced the champion.
Sumian: The obvious choice is Brian Ortega who will finally get to wear UFC gold and realize his goal of becoming a featherweight champion. The less obvious choice is Merab Dvalishvili, who will turn in the most impressive victory of his career when he wrestles and outpaces his way to a clean 29-28 decision victory over Marlon Moraes. This would earn him a top-five bantamweight opponent for his next UFC appearance.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 266?
Sumian: Lauren Murphy. As previously stated, the number-three ranked flyweight contender is as tough as they come, but will, unfortunately, have no answers for the experience and dominance of Shevchenko. The champ will be able to yet again successfully implement her game plan to perfection and pull off a convincing unanimous decision victory further solidifying herself as the second-best women’s mixed martial artist of all time.
Petela: Brian Ortega. The submission ace will wind up on the wrong end of a championship fight, for the second time in his career, against a different champion. That puts him in a difficult place at featherweight. It’s quite possible that one of the two men to beat him, Max Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski, will be champion for quite some time so Ortega will be on the outside looking in at the title.
Whose UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Robbie Lawler. Not only is he on a four-fight losing streak, but he has been hesitant to pull the trigger in his recent losses. This is one of the tell-tale signs that a fighter is nearing the end of the road. Combine that with the pressure of fighting a returning Nick Diaz in a long-awaited rematch – in which Lawler lost by knockout – and a loss might be enough to make the former champion hang up the gloves. It could surely be enough to make the UFC cut ties.
Sumian: Karl Roberson. Despite coming into the UFC looking like a notable prospect, he has been nothing short of average in his UFC career. Pair this with missing weight for his high-profile bout against Marvin Vettori, if he suffers a third straight loss courtesy of Maximov, it will surely be the end of his time in the promotion.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Marlon Moraes vs. Merab Dvalishvili will likely be the most fast-paced and exciting fight of the night for a number of reasons. Moraes is currently riding a two-fight losing streak and is eager to get back to his winning ways in effort to hold onto a notable ranking in the extremely loaded bantamweight division. The Brazil native is a proven finisher who can put on a thrashing against any bantamweight when on his game. On the other hand, the Georgian native Dvalishvili will look to continue his rise up the ranks after compiling a whopping six-fight winning streak and earning himself a top-15 bantamweight ranking. Expect pure excitement when these two meet, and they put on a show that will have fans entertained through its entirety.
Petela: Dan Hooker vs. Nasrat Haqparast. This fight is a striking fan’s delight. Hooker is coming off a devastating knockout loss to Michael Chandler, and he will be looking to rebound in a big way. He has the perfect dance partner in Haqparast. This one will stay standing as long as it lasts, and they will test each other’s chins early and often. Be prepared for a back-and-forth battle of durability as each man’s offensive skills are on full display.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Jairzinho Rozenstruik. When “Bigi Boy” wins, he does it emphatically. He has a big opportunity this weekend in a difficult stylistic match-up against Curtis Blaydes. If this fight goes down to the canvas it will be all Blaydes, but don’t expect Rozenstruik to let it get there. He will deliver a devastating knockout early in the opening round that steals the show and earns him his third “Performance of the Night” bonus since joining the UFC.
Sumian: Valentina Shevchenko. She will put on another impeccable performance, which will result in a stunning finish of challenger Murphy. Shevchenko is hands-down the second-best female fighter of all time and will yet again prove her dominance come Saturday night.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: Chants of “Diaz.” Despite this card featuring two prolific title bouts that are guaranteed to deliver action and excitement, the night will belong to Nick Diaz when he returns to the Octagon after over six years. The arena will be roaring with cheers, once he delivers a finish of Lawler and takes to the mic to call out whomever he desires to face next.
Petela: It’s hacky and cliché, but still fitting – Foster’s. The Australian featherweight champion will successfully defend his title against a very unique opponent and give his home country a reason to celebrate. Crack open a few beers, use your best Crocodile Dundee accent to say, “Foster’s, Australian for beer,” and celebrate with the Aussies as they watch their countryman retain his featherweight title.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
FW Championship: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega
Women’s FlyW Championship: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy
WW: Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler
HW: Curtis Blaydes vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik
Women’s FlyW: Jessica Andrade vs. Cynthia Calvillo
Preliminary Card (ESPN+ and ESPNEWS, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Marlon Moraes vs. Merab Dvalishvili
LW: Dan Hooker vs. Nasrat Haqparast
HW: Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Chris Daukaus
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Manon Fiorot vs. Mayra Bueno Silva
MW: Karl Roberson vs. Nick Maximov
WW: Matthew Semelsberger vs. Martin Sano
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