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UFC 266 preview: Dual title fights put a cap on the stacked card

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Get the lowdown on the two title fights topping UFC 266, with Alexander Volkanovski and Brian Ortega looking to come out ahead in their feud.

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Alexander Volkanovski fighting Max Holloway at UFC 251
Alexander Volkanovski fighting Max Holloway at UFC 251
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

It isn’t hard to figure out why the UFC 266 co-main event Valentina Shevchenko title fight against Lauren Murphy is being overshadowed by Nick Diaz and Robbie Lawler. Shevchenko tends to win her title defenses with the least amount of drama possible. But it’s a shame the UFC is letting it overshadow Alexander Volkanovski and Brian Ortega’s scrap for the featherweight title. It should be one of the most anticipated fights of the year, but it seems like a majority of fans would rather focus on a fight where one of the combatants hasn’t won a fight in 10 years! By comparison, Volkanovski and Ortega have just one loss each in their careers and appear to be at their peak. I know some will say the UFC put the promotion push of TUF behind the two of them, but TUF stopped being a worthwhile vehicle for the coaches years ago. I’ll admit the personalities of Volkanovski and Ortega aren’t easily marketed in comparison to some others, but isn’t the UFC both an organization and a promotion? Shouldn’t they know how to promote successfully. Enough with that. I digress. Time to dig into the title fights....

Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega, Featherweight

Those who follow the sport of MMA closely aren’t going to be shocked by what I’m about to state, but I’m sure it would come as a surprise to those who only follow casually: he’s one of the P4P greats in the sport today, almost assuredly in the top five. For some reason, those casuals seem to forget he dethroned Max Holloway to claim his title. Of course, many of those same fans would say Holloway won their second fight, but they can’t deny the results of the first fight. If they see Holloway as one of the best fighters on the planet today, Volkanovski has to be right up there.

The reason he doesn’t get as much love is his cerebral nature. Rather than go for the highlight reel KO, Volkanovski sticks to the strategy formulated by him and his coaches, some would say to a fault. Given he’s the champion, it’s a bit hard to criticize Volkanovski for that, but it makes sense if you want to claim his marketability has taken a hit. Regardless, Volkanovski has proven to be the master of neutralizing what his opponent does best. His expert mixing of his jab and low kicks makes it difficult to close the distance, not to mention his wrestling still being readily available for him to fall back on at any point.

By contrast, Ortega is often losing fights until he isn’t. His five-round main event win over the Korean Zombie last October was the first decision win of his UFC career. Up until that point, it could be argued Ortega had never won a round that had gone to completion in the UFC. While it’s an indication his killer instinct is second to none, it’s also a testament to his ability to store away ticks and tells that his opponent is giving him, waiting for the proper moment to strike. What may be the scariest thing for Volkanovski is how much more rapid the finishes were coming for Ortega.

Given Volkanovski is about neutralization, expect him to limit the amount of wrestling given Ortega has the reputation as the most dangerous submission artist on the roster today. Ortega’s guillotine has become legendary – see his mid-air adjustment against Cub Swanson — and there are few who are more dangerous off their back. If Volkanovski is deadly serious about neutralizing Ortega, expect him to produce the most generic performance of his career as Ortega isn’t afraid to throw flying or spinning attacks. Hell, he’s even had good success with those. Ortega’s fundamentals have continued to improve too, leading directly to his decision win over the Korean Zombie.

Even with all of Ortega’s improvements, the smart money seems to indicate Volkanovski is the way to go. He’s very strong, indicating he should be able to outmuscle Ortega should the submission specialist attempt any takedowns. Plus, he appears to have more raw KO power. However, my experience with Ortega is he’s been at his best when my thoughts on his chances are at their worst. Ortega is exceptionally durable too, meaning he’s likely to have five rounds to find a finish. Whether it’s a jumping guillotine or some sort of flying strike, I feel like Ortega is going to find it. There will be zero shock if Volkanovski avoids getting finished, in which case he’ll likely take the decision. But I’m going with the opportunist to find his opportunity. Ortega via submission of RD3

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy, Women’s Flyweight

It could be argued Shevchenko is the most underappreciated of the UFC’s champions. Since claiming her flyweight title in late 2018, she has consistently fought twice a year, looking to claim her sixth consecutive title defense. She’s also the only one to have given Amanda Nunes a close fight since Nunes last lost to Cat Zingano all the way back in 2014. It could even be argued Shevchenko won their second encounter. And yet, there seems to be a collective yawn amongst most fans when her name is brought up. Given that was often the response given towards Demetrious Johnson when he was in his prime, she’s in good company.

Shevchenko’s dominance is attributed to her expert use of distance and angles. She’s not undersized for the division, but she’s far from the longest fighter in the division either. Despite that, her opposition has regularly been neutralized when they fight at a distance, Shevchenko expertly countering any attack they look to make. She’s been so dominant on the feet that it’s often forgotten that she’s an extremely talented grappler too, snatching an armbar from off her back against Juliana Pena.

However, that also highlights the one area that Shevchenko has struggled with: opponents with a physical strength advantage. Jennifer Maia is the only challenger since Shevchenko became champion to have the slightest amount of success, getting Shevchenko down. Can Murphy do that? Eh....

Murphy is exceptionally tough and durable, one of the grittiest members of the entire roster. It makes her one hell of a tough customer in the clinch and she’s typically been hard to hold down, especially now that she plies her trade at 125. But she’s never made wrestling and control a consistent part of her game. Instead, she has preferred to fight in the pocket. Her combinations aren’t exactly the most technical – in fact, they’re a bit ugly – but they’ve proven to be effective. But does anyone think she can outslick Shevchenko? Nope.

Even if Murphy were to focus on her wrestling, it hasn’t been effective enough for me to believe she has a reasonable chance of success. Outside of the traditional puncher’s chance, I don’t see a route to winning for Murphy and that’s not something to bet on. As opposed to who wins, a better question is how the fight ends. Murphy’s grit doesn’t make it a given she gets finished – she never has been in her MMA career – but I also subscribe to the theory there’s a first for everything. Shevchenko via submission of RD2