UFC 266 Predictions: Bleacher Report Staff Main Card Picks
UFC 266 is just around the corner and anticipation couldn't be much higher.
The card, which goes down this Saturday in Las Vegas, Nevada, will be topped by a long-awaited featherweight title fight between once-beaten champion Alexander Volkanovski and dangerous challenger Brian Ortega. Co-headlining honours, meanwhile, will go to a second title fight, as dominating flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko takes on streaking challenger Lauren Murphy.
As if those two title fights weren't enough to drum up interest, the UFC 266 main card will also feature the return of Nick Diaz, who will end a hiatus of almost six years to battle former welterweight champ Robbie Lawler, whom he knocked out way back in 2004.
Beyond that compelling scrap, the UFC 266 main card will be rounded out by a heavyweight contender clash between Curtis Blaydes and Jairzinho Rozenstruik and a flyweight showdown between Cynthia Calvillo and Jessica Andrade.
Who comes out on top in these blockbuster scraps? The staples of the Bleacher Report combat sports team have consulted their crystal balls. Keep scrolling for our predictions.
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega
Tom Taylor: Volkanovski will need to be flawless for every second of this fight. One momentary blunder against a finisher like Ortega and he could find himself locked up in a guillotine or waking up on the Jumbotron. I think he's up to the task. I see the champ landing the better strikes—and maybe mixing in a couple of high-risk takedowns—on his way to retaining the title with a decision win.
Volkanovski by unanimous decision
Scott Harris: I'm a little more sold on Volkanovski's chances here than Tom. Against a relentless pressure fighter like Volkanovski, Ortega will need to control distance. He did a good job of that against the Korean Zombie, but Zombie isn't nearly as quick on his feet as Volkanovski. In other words, pressure is Volkanovski's primary skill, while defusing pressure is more of a secondary skill set for the challenger.
And if that wasn't enough, Ortega doesn't appear to have the takedown defense to stop the champ's high-level wrestling. That will surely come into play. It's a testament to Ortega's toughness that I don't pick the stoppage, but I also don't think the decision will be close.
Volkanovski by unanimous decision
Lyle Fitzsimmons: This is a big-time fight fan's fight.
Volkanovski is an all-around monster who can kick you into oblivion or grind you into mulch, while going to the ground with Ortega is a challenge only the boldest of the bold can master.
Seeing either man win wouldn't be at all a surprise, but it's easier for me to imagine the champion finding a way to get it done. If he stays away from submission territory, he doesn't lose.
Volkanovski by TKO, Rd. 4
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy
Tom Taylor: Show me somebody who believes Murphy is going to win this fight and I'll show you a liar.
Murphy is a good fighter, but Shevchenko is in a completely different dimension when it comes to skill. She should have her challenger beat in every phase of the game, from striking (duh) to wrestling to submissions. Give me Shevchenko by TKO in a fight she can win however she wants.
Shevchenko by TKO, Rd. 2
Scott Harris: This is going to sound like a name drop, but screw it. Years ago I spent the day with Murphy at her house and training camp (The MMA Lab) in Arizona, where she lived at the time. She freely opened her home and life for my article, which covered the sensitive topic of fighter pay. Ever since then, I've been a fan. She's good people, plain and simple.
And I think Shevchenko is going to smear her.
Maybe Murphy will earn a few minutes of respite if she can get some clinch riding time, but everywhere else a win is certainly not conceivable. The champ's advantage on the feet is hard to even conceptualize. I think Shevchenko makes short work of her. No point in drawing out the inevitable, especially against a fan favorite like Murphy.
Shevchenko by TKO, Rd. 1
Lyle Fitzsimmons: Murphy seems like a nice enough person.
She's clearly a world-class athlete and probably kind to children and strangers.
But she's walking into a locked cage with one of the greatest female mixed martial artists in history, and it doesn't seem like she has the arsenal to handle what will come her way. Shevchenko, as my colleagues have already suggested, can and will win in pretty much any way she wants.
Shevchenko by TKO, Rd. 3
Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler
Tom Taylor: On the surface, the outcome of this fight seemingly comes down to whether Diaz's volume-based striking and world-class jiu-jitsu are more effective than Lawler's ferocious power and underrated wrestling. Yet the intangibles are what make this fight really interesting.
Diaz hasn't fought since early 2015, which means ring rust could be a factor. Lawler, meanwhile, has been reasonably active, but he has looked pretty lethargic in his last few appearances. It's a fascinating matchup that could end any number of ways, but I think Diaz shakes off the ring rust and gets to work with his boxing en route to a sound win over an unenthusiastic Lawler.
Diaz by unanimous decision
Scott Harris: I still remember the Nick Diaz who appeared barely coherent in his interview last year with Ariel Helwani. He's much more relevant here than the Diaz who abused BJ Penn or waged the best fight of 2012 in his war with the great (and recently retired) Carlos Condit. And that's to say nothing of the ring rust.
Lawler is 39 himself and past his prime, but he should look a damn sight better than Diaz, at least until or unless Diaz proves otherwise. As it stands, the default is against him.
Lawler by TKO, Rd. 2
Lyle Fitzsimmons: I've got to concede up front, this one doesn't titillate me all that much.
Diaz is certainly a worthy UFC icon and Lawler is a completely respectable veteran pro, but the idea of an inactive fighter meeting a guy who's been skidding for years doesn't register here as a necessity for a championship-distance fight. But it's a minority viewpoint, no question.
Given that he's not fought for six years, the logical mindset suggests that Diaz's gas tank may not be the fullest. So if the ex-welterweight champion manages to get through the initial firestorm, he may be OK. Says here he'll do that.
Lawler by majority decision
Curtis Blaydes vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik
Tom Taylor: This fight is a total throwback and I love it. Blaydes is a relentless wrestler who prides himself on his ability to control fights and avoid taking damage. Rozenstruik is a Dutch-style kickboxer who seemingly has zero interest in grappling.
It's a classic style clash. Which style prevails? It seems pretty evident to me. Blaydes starts hitting takedowns early and often. From there, it's just a question of whether Rozenstruik can survive.
Blaydes by TKO, Rd. 2
Scott Harris: The words "class striker-grappler matchup" aren't thrown around much in the heavyweight division. It's not that either one of these guys is one-dimensional, it's just that they both have very distinct bases, Blaydes in wrestling and Rozenstruik in striking.
Wrestling trumps striking as a rule, and while Rozenstruik has an 80 percent takedown defense rate, per UFC stats, no one has ever tried to take him down more than twice in a single contest. Barring an early knockout, look for Blaydes to surpass that mark en route to get the W.
Blaydes by unanimous decision
Lyle Fitzsimmons: This one, on the other hand, should be fun.
Two gigantic, powerful men. One can maul you. The other can bombard you. And both can lay you out with a single strike—as they've both done to several opponents.
Though it wouldn't be a surprise for one of them to employ their strategy and beat their foe over a longer bout, it feels like the revved-up crowd will prompt the creation of fireworks.
Blaydes by TKO, Rd. 1
Jessica Andrade vs. Cynthia Calvillo
Tom Taylor: I'll come right out and say it: I'm not sure how Calvillo can win this fight. Andrade should be the better striker, the better grappler, and the physically stronger fighter in the cage. Unless she lost all will to train after being strafed by the champ Shevchenko earlier this year, she should win this one handily.
Andrade by TKO, Rd. 2
Scott Harris: Obviously, Andrade wants this on the feet. Calvillo, a wrestler by background, will surely look to get this on the ground. But as Tom rightly pointed out, Andrade is fully equipped to ply her jiu-jitsu if the action hits the mat. So it will be a pretty poor circuit breaker for Calvillo. Andrade gets her way, keeps it standing, and hands Calvillo the first knockout loss of her career.
Andrade by TKO, Rd. 2
Lyle Fitzsimmons: Again, I agree with my learned colleagues.
Unless the downfall against Shevchenko has completely ruined the No. 1 flyweight contender, she's got the leftover game to handle anything her fifth-ranked opponent might bring.
If she stays off the floor and doesn't do anything ridiculous, she wins.
Andrade by unanimous decision