UFC 266: Previewing Volkanovski-Ortega and the Rest of the Card

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2021

UFC 266: Previewing Volkanovski-Ortega and the Rest of the Card

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    Chris Unger/Getty Images

    Yes, Dana White, this card is nothing if not deep.

    Two title bouts involving those ranked fourth and second on the men's and women's pound-for-pound lists, respectively. A rematch between a pair of MMA pioneers whose first bout occurred 17 years ago.

    Not to mention three more bouts that include four more fighters who are ranked in the top six of their divisions.

    That's what's on the agenda at UFC 266, the promotion's 10th pay-per-view show of the year. The five-fight main card starts Saturday at 10 p.m. ET from the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

    As for the specifics, featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski will face No. 2 Brian Ortega in the main event alongside another championship match between women's flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko and No. 3 challenger Lauren Murphy in the co-main position.

    In the third spot, former welterweight champ Robbie Lawler, who turned 39 in March, will face Nick Diaz, the main who beat him by second-round KO at UFC 47—precisely 6,385 days later.

    The return bout is set for five rounds in just the second non-title, non-main event at the title distance.

    "Our skills have evolved so much since that time," Lawler told MMA Fighting"But, obviously, the fans are excited. This is a fight and he's a big name, so I've been training hard. It feels a little different to the extent that I'm doing extra. What I mean by extra is that, at this age, it takes a lot for me to take a fight.

    "I'm not just gonna fight anybody because it's taking time away from my family, and you have to be a little selfish, spend a lot of time on yourself in training. He's definitely a guy and a name that's getting me up and into the gym every day."

    The show's other 11 bouts include myriad up-and-comers, familiar veterans and others simply hoping to boost their profiles for the next time around. 

    The B/R combat sports team perused the remaining menu and identified a few of the tastier highlights.


    UFC 266 Main Card (PPV)

    Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega

    Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy

    Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler

    Curtis Blaydes vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik

    Jessica Andrade vs. Cynthia Calvillo


    UFC 266 Preliminary Card (8 p.m.)

    Marlon Moraes vs. Merab Dvalishvili

    Dan Hooker vs. Nasrat Haqparast

    Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Chris Daukaus

    Roxanne Modafferi vs. Taila Santos


    UFC 266 Early Preliminary Card (6 p.m.)

    Uros Medic vs. Jalin Turner

    Manon Fiorot vs. Mayra Bueno Silva

    Karl Roberson vs. Nick Maximov

    Matthew Semelsberger vs. Martin Sano

    Jonathan Pearce vs. Omar Morales

Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    This one ought to be worth the wait.

    Volkanovski and Ortega were scheduled to get together six months ago at UFC 260, but the bout was scratched when the Australia-born champion contracted COVID-19.

    The drama was amped up when they were chosen as opposing coaches on the summertime return of The Ultimate Fighter on ESPN, and the rivalry will come to a head with the 145-pound title on the line.

    Volkanovski, 32, was a champion in multiple promotions before finally arriving to the UFC in 2016 and winning his first seven bouts, which he then parlayed into a title-bout upset of Max Holloway at UFC 245.

    The two met again in the new claimant's first defense, and the result was the same—albeit far more controversial—when Volkanovski squeaked out a split decision at UFC 251 on Fight Island.

    He's branded as a dangerous striker, and his reputation was honed during his days as a muay thai fighter while competing at a far heavier weight. He's particularly adept at working his opponent's legs, as evidenced by the 75 kicks (a UFC record for a man) he landed on Holloway in their first fight. 

    Complementing the striking is a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and additional training in Greco-Roman wrestling.

    In Ortega, he faces a 30-year-old Californian who turned pro in 2010 and made his way to the UFC in 2014.

    His first seven fights in the Octagon yielded six wins and a no-contest before Holloway stopped him after four rounds of his penultimate successful defense in Toronto in 2018. A nearly two-year hiatus followed before Ortega returned to to out-point "Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung on a Fight Night show last October.

    He's already suggested a Holloway rematch is in order if he ends Saturday as a champion.

    "I'm not trying to speak ahead, nor am I trying to get past Volkanovski, right, cause he beat Max twice," Ortega told TMZ Sports. "I'm not here to say I'm already celebrating. But that would be ideal. I'm a better person, better fighter than I was when I fought him. And, watching his last fight, so is he."

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Call Shevchenko an all-inclusive champion.

    Across six title fights since the final month of 2018, she's gone about cleaning out the flyweight division while beating the current first-, second-, fourth- and eighth-ranked contenders, along with another foe now ranked second among challengers one division below at strawweight.

    And now it's Lauren Murphy's turn.

    The 38-year-old occupies the third slot behind Shevchenko at 125 pounds and will arrive Saturday night to the first title fight of her UFC career having won five straight and seven of 11 since debuting in 2014.

    Still, to suggest it's a daunting task seems a ridiculous understatement.

    Shevchenko is ranked second on the women's pound-for-pound list behind only the consensus greatest female mixed martial artist of all time in Amanda Nunes. And the gap between those two is not so great, considering both of their head-to-head fights—in 2016 and 2017—ended in close decisions.

    The 33-year-old native of Kyrgyzstan seizes advantages through her acumen in kickboxing and her penchant for mastering distance and delivering precision counterstriking.

    Murphy, meanwhile, is an aggressive striker with her own grappling skill set.

    She has a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and has finished eighth career fights by knockout, one by submission (rear-naked choke) and the remaining six by decision.

    "If I go out there and fight her the way that I've been sparring and I capitalize on whatever mistakes she makes, I think I'm going to be OK," Murphy told Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports. "I think we can come out with a win here. I really, really, really believe in my ability to beat her. And so I know that I can beat Valentina. I know that I can. I hope that I do, and I know that I can."

Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler

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    2004 was a long time ago.

    Volkanovski was 15 years old. Shevchenko was 16 years old. (And from other sports, Patrick Mahomes was only nine.)

    When Lawler and Diaz step into the Octagon on Saturday, they'll be reviving a rivalry that began April 2 that year with Diaz's second-round KO in a middleweight bout.

    Now 38, Diaz was the aggressor in that fight and pressed the action for nearly all of six-and-a-half minutes before connecting with a counter right hand that led to a stoppage at 1:31 of the second.

    He continued as an off-and-on UFC fixture through 2006 and then returned to the organization in 2011 for a four-fight stint that included a win over B.J. Penn, losses to Carlos Condit and Georges St-Pierre and another defeat against Anderson Silva at UFC 183 that became a no-contest when both fighters failed drug tests.

    Suspensions from the Nevada commission and USADA contributed to Diaz's extended absence since the Silva fight, while Lawler, now 39, has stayed steadily active with at least one fight in every year except 2018.

    He won the UFC welterweight championship in 2014 and defended twice before losing the belt to Tyron Woodley in 2016. He's won just once in five fights since, most recently dropping a decision to Neil Magny last August.

    In his prime, Diaz relied mainly on boxing but also incorporated Brazilian jiu-jitsu in his game and has submitted eight fighters in his career. Lawler, meanwhile, has been an aggressive power puncher with a karate background, too, and has earned three fight of the night and one knockout of the night bonuses.

    "I'm actually way more of a dangerous fighter than I was when I fought Robbie Lawler the first time," Diaz said on UFC 266 Countdown: Diaz vs. Lawler 2. "I'm going to be really unstoppable having made the right decisions. I'm going to beat Robbie again."

Other Attractions: Heavyweight Crossroads

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    Curtis Blaydes
    Curtis BlaydesAssociated Press

    Neither man is the heavyweight champion.

    In fact, neither man has lasted more than 10 minutes with a heavyweight champion.

    But that doesn't mean Curtis Blaydes and Jairzinho Rozenstruik aren't legitimate UFC bad asses.

    And it doesn't mean their fight on the UFC 266 show won't be must-see TV.

    Blaydes is a 6'4" block of granite who's been able to grind nearly everyone he's every fought—14 of 18 pro opponents, to be exact—into mulch, while Rozenstruik stands 6'2" and has a world-class kickboxing acumen that has left a slightly better ratio of foes (12 of 14) with the agony of defeat.  

    The former is ranked fourth in the division behind interim champ Ciryl Gane, ex-two-time champ Stipe Miocic and beaten title challenger Derrick Lewis. That's two slots ahead of Rozenstruik at No. 6.

    Blaydes' three losses have come to champion Francis Ngannou (twice) and Lewis, while Rozenstruik has only been beaten by Ngannou and Gane.

    Put it all together and it spells a classic duel between grappler and striker, with the added significance of the winner getting started on another run toward the top of the division while the loser takes a step back.

    And Blaydes, for one, is confident.

    "I think it plays out almost like the Derrick Lewis fight, except without me getting hit with the uppercut," the former collegiate wrestling champion told LowKick MMA. "I think I'm faster than him, I'm longer than him. I'm the better fighter overall. I got the better striking. I think I'm more aggressive.

    "I'll be able to put him on the cage and pressure him and then he'll make a mistake and I'll be able to either put him away on the feet or get to his hips and get that first career submission win."

Best of the Rest

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    Chris Unger/Getty Images

    Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Chris Daukaus

    Go ahead, turn away. We dare you.

    This heavyweight duel was initially scheduled for early July before it was nixed by COVID-19 protocols, then misfired again two weeks later on another Fight Night card.

    But it's on the docket for UFC 266 and you should be happy.

    Daukaus, ranked 10th in the division, arrives on a three-fight win streak in the Octagon (and four overall), all by stoppage.

    In fact, he's recorded his last eight wins by finishes since beating Jeffrey Blachly by decision five years ago in just his fifth pro fight. In fact, Blachly is the only one of Daukaus' 10 pro victims to hear the final horn.

    As for Abdurakhimov, slotted three slots ahead at No. 7, it's competitive kill or be killed.

    Seventeen of his 25 career fights have ended before the distance, including five of eight bouts since he arrived in the UFC in April 2015. All three of his Octagon losses have come by TKO, which is a dangerous precedent to set ahead of a meeting with a fighter like Daukaus.

    "I don't get paid by the minute in there. If I get the first-round finish, I get the first-round finish," Daukaus told BJPenn.com. "It is what it is. It's just something I'm super comfortable with. I find the finish but if he can stop it, I'm comfortable going 15 minutes."


    Marlon Moraes vs. Merab Dvalishvili

    Two ranked fighters in the last fight on the card.

    Not a terribly unusual occurrence in the UFC.

    Oh, did we mention it was the last fight on the preliminary card?

    Indeed, the bout between the sixth- and 11th-ranked contenders in the bantamweight division will be available for free as the final appetite enhancer before the pay-per-view show begins.

    Moraes is a former World Series of Fighting champion who defended the 135-pound title five times. He has racked up three performance bonuses since arriving to the UFC and was beaten by Henry Cejudo in a challenge for the 135-pound belt in June 2019.

    He's lost two of three fights since, including a first-round finish by Rob Font last December.

    On the other side of the momentum coin is Dvalishvili, an ex-champion in the Ring of Combat promotion who has won six in a row in the Octagon since dropping his first two UFC bouts in 2017 and 2018.

    He most recently beat Cody Stamann by decision over three rounds on May 1.

    "I want to show everyone what I can do, and I'm sure I'll knock him out," Moraes told AgFight.

    "He's a tough athlete, but I trust my potential. I know that I have a challenge ahead of me. There's a reason he's here today; he's beaten some tough guys. But I have the tools to beat him and I'm sure that I'm going to do just that."