UFC 266 was an absolute blast. The world’s largest MMA promotion stacked the deck and the move paid off in spades. Alex Volkanovski and Brian Ortega put on an absolute thriller, Valentina Shevchenko kept her stranglehold on the division, and Robbie Lawer & Nick Diaz actually managed to turn back the clock a little for an old-fashioned donnybrook.
So, is Volkanovski looking at yet another fight with Max Holloway in his future? Should Shevchenko have to start her bouts with a two-point handicap? And did Merab Dvalishvili just add his name to the deep pool of bantamweight contenders?
To answer those questions – and so much more – I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methodology from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. Hopefully, by following that model, a few of these bout ideas will actually make it off the page and into the Octagon. Now, let’s get to the fights.
After two razor thin fights against Max Holloway, this was exactly the kind of bout the Aussie needed; a chance to establish a legacy on his own terms, and not just on the basis of whether or not fans felt he was getting the benefit of questionable judging. Volkanovski did well to control the pace early in the fight, put Ortega on the back foot, and start setting him up for bigger, more powerful shots down the stretch. It wasn’t easy, and the champ still had to fight through hell, but it was decisive. The ‘Great’ defended his title, and once again made it clear that he’s the man to beat at 145. Unfortunately, with Holloway vs. Rodriguez upcoming, the ‘Blessed’ specter looms large once more. The Korean Zombie is probably a win or two from contention again, Kattar is coming off a landslide loss, Emmett has been injured, Magomedsharipov may never fight again, the Holloway vs. Rodrigues winner really does feel like the lone contender’s bout booked right now.
In some ways, Brian Ortega has been very fortunate that the featherweight title changed hands between his two shots at the belt. Despite losing handily both times, it still doesn’t feel like he’s far out the conversation for UFC gold. In part that’s because of how obviously dangerous he still is. Ortega may have lost four out of five rounds (or all five, according to a couple of judges), but he also came within a millimeter of finishing the fight on a couple of occasions as well, and stormed back late in round 5 to put some serious hands on Volkanovski. If he can take a step down and get a couple more dominant wins, he’ll still feel the part of a serious contender. Fights against Josh Emmett, Calvin Kattar, or even Arnold Allen & Giga Chikadze all seem like decent ideas. If Emmett’s instagram is any sign, he appears to be on the mend, after recovering from an ACL injury. If he’s in shape and ready to go anytime in the next few months, I’ll say Emmett vs. Ortega feels like the most fun option. Otherwise, Ortega vs. Kattar would be an equally violent banger.
There really isn’t a reasonable “next fight” for Shevchenko waiting in the wings. She could go face Nunes again, but it’s still not a fight I need to see a 3rd time, considering the second was miserable and she’s 0-2 against the ‘Lioness’. There’s strawweight vs. flyweight title matchup potential, but having seen her against Andrade and Jedrzejczyk, it’s also clear that the ladies from 115 generally don’t have the physicality to handle Shevchenko at 125. Speaking of which, Jessica Andrade is otherwise the only woman in any real position to contend right now. But we just saw that fight and it wasn’t close. Shevchenko vs. Andrade 2 is the best fight available in her division, but at this point she probably just needs to wait a while to see if any new contenders shake out.
This was always going to be a rough outing for Lauren Murphy. It mostly seems like she had the unfortunate choice of whether it would end in a hurry or take a be a drawn out beating. She played it cautious and made it all the way to late in round 4 before eating a huge countershot that put her on rubber legs and spelled the beginning of the end. Still, it’s not like this division isn’t full of fighters who have failed to beat the champ, so she’s got plenty of bouts she can take. First up on the list, how about a rematch with Katlyn Chookagian? The two women met back in 2016, at bantamweight, with Chookagian winning a decision. Seems like an excellent time to run it back, see which fighter has evolved the most since their first face-off. Chookagian vs. Murphy 2 seems like a great bounce-back opportunity after a hard loss.
The closest thing to a vintage Robbie Lawler performance we’ve seen in a few years now. Diaz clearly came ready to trade shots with Lawler standing and keep the fight in the pocket, which is exactly the kind of fight Lawler loves to have. In the past, it might have even been a fight Diaz would win—but Lawler started busting him up to the body, and eventually it looked like Diaz’s will to continue was just gone.
Does that kind of victory make Lawler a contender again? No. No it does not. But, it does keep him in position for more big action fights in a way his other recent performances haven’t. Santiago Ponzinibbio recently returned from a long layoff and has yet to really fully find the kind of elite performances that had him lined up for contention before numerous injuries derailed that dream. Should be just the right kind of fight for both men to show their best work. Ponzinibbio vs. Lawler, to see which veteran slugger can keep turning back the clock.
This wasn’t the kind of loss Diaz can easily shrug off as a moral victory, and ultimately it’s hard to even know if he wants to keep going. Leading up to the bout, he sounded like he wanted to start taking more fights—but the aftermath felt a lot more like someone who was confused as to exactly why he was still putting himself through all this hassle. If he really does want to keep going, most of the bouts that make any sense for him at all are still down at 170 lbs. Men like Donald Cerrone, Matt Brown, or Tim Means. If he’s dead set on fighting again, I’ll say Nick Diaz vs. Matt Brown is the fight to make. But it isn’t something that has to happen.
Not a pretty fight for Blaydes, but coming off a big KO loss, it would have been a hell of a surprise if he’d really gotten reckless against a counter-puncher like Rozenstruik. Even still he got dinged up a bit. However, the end result is a definitive victory that keeps him floating around that top 5, waiting for a path to open up toward title contention. After the bout, Blaydes made a few callouts. He’s looking for fights with Stipe Miocic, Ngannou or Gane, or Jon Jones. I’ll believe Jon Jones is fighting again when I see it, and honestly think Miocic probably doesn’t want anything other than title shots or other ‘big’ fights at this point in his career. So the most logical option would be the loser of Ngannou vs. Gane. Of course, if that’s Francis Ngannou, then Blaydes vs. Ngannou 3 doesn’t feel like a fight I need to see at all. Gane off a loss is the best option, otherwise Blaydes may just have to take Daukaus up on that callout he made earlier in the night.
A landslide win for Andrade, who found Calvillo out there trying to go 1-for-1 with her and used that opportunity to put serious hands on the AKA talent. It’s another dominating performance from the Brazilian, but where exactly that leads is anyone’s guess. She called out Rose Namajunas after the fight, and that bout still has some heat to it, but if that’s the fight she’s looking for, she’s pursuing it in the wrong division. The UFC also seems to be priming her for title contention once more, but she just lost to Shevchenko back in April. It hasn’t been six months since that fight. Personally, I’d argue for a fight with Jennifer Maia, or a rematch with Joanna Jedrzejczyk (strawweight or flyweight, doesn’t matter). Instead it sounds like the UFC has their sights set of Andrade vs. Shevchenko 2. And I get it, she’s the division’s only contender. But I don’t particularly like it.
Marlon Moraes put one hell of a scare into Merab Dvalishvili in the first round, dropping the Georgian twice in what should have been a clear path to victory. But the Serra-Longo talent showed once again why he’s one of bantamweight’s toughest outs—storming back, getting a big takedown, and hurting Moraes badly enough that he may very well have stolen back that first round. More of the same in round 2 and Dvalishvili now finds himself on seven straight wins. So what’s next? TJ Dillashaw? Rob Font? Jose Aldo? If I’m any of those men, there’s no way I’m fighting Dvalishvili as close as they already are to fighting for UFC gold. And yet, with Aldo saying he’s waiting for a title shot, Dillashaw recovering from surgery, and Cory Sandhagen looking like he’s going to fill in for Aljamain Sterling against Petr Yan, Rob Font seems to be the odd man out. Is it a dangerous fight for Font? Yes, but the division is getting too crowded for everyone to simply do nothing. Merab Dvalishvili vs. Rob Font would be a war.
A clean and complete victory for Hooker, who put Haqparast on the back foot from the jump and kept the pressure high all through the bout. And then, when he had Haqparast desperate in round 3, he hit a couple beautiful reactive takedowns to seal the whole thing. One of the most controlled and patient performances of Hooker’s career. Especially impressive when considering how much hassle he went through just to make it to fight night. That puts him back in position for more top 10 caliber bouts, and Hooker had a great callout already primed: Beneil Dariush. My initial reaction was that Dariush should be too close to title contention for that fight to make sense but, looking again, and that Chandler/Gaethje fight has a lot more potential to crown a next contender coming out of Poirier vs. Oliveira. And that fight isn’t even happening until December at the earliest. So, if Dariush has nothing to do, then Hooker vs. Dariush would be a hell of a fun scrap. Might as well go after it.
A fantastic performance for Daukaus in the aggregate, as he was kinda getting pieced up early in the fight, and having trouble dealing with Abdurakhimov’s variety and timing. Still, he stayed patient, stuck to his guns, and kept initiating exchanges where his speed could pay off. Eventually he started landing the kind of shots that threw this fight on its head and got him another big win. He’s rocketing up the division, and had some big call-outs to match. Personally, I’d kinda like to see him face Tom Aspinall, but with names like Stipe Miocic, Curtis Blaydes or the Tybura/Volkov winner on his mind, that feels like a downgrade. Since it seems like the most reasonable step forward of all the options, I’ll go with Chris Daukaus vs. the Tybura/Volkov winner. It’s a tough fight, but if he’s looking for it, I’d like to see it. Of course, if Blaydes can’t find anyone to meet him in the cage, then Daukaus just might get a chance at the top 5.
It feels like it’s time for another step up for Turner. He’s tended to feast on the relative newcomers he’s taken on, and is steadily becoming a much more comfortable fighter than he was when he made his debut against Vicente Luque and dropped that bout against Matt Frevola. If he’s putting away everyone else, then clearly he needs another challenge. That could mean a fight against Mark O. Madsen or Grant Dawson or even Rick Glenn (although it now turns out Dawson and Glenn are fighting one another). But I like the idea of keeping Turner in there against the really tall, oversized guys. Which is why I’m pushing for a bout against Joel Alvarez. Alvarez has made some decent waves in the UFC with his rangy muay thai and his snap sub game. And it feels like someone who could equal Alvarez from distance could be a huge problem. For Turner, this is exactly the kind of skilled opponent he still needs to prove he can beat. Jalin Turner vs. Joel Alvarez would be a great test to see if Turner can move up the division.
OTHER BOUTS: Jairzinho Rozenstruik vs. the Tybura/Volkov loser, Cynthia Calvillo vs. Vivi Araujo, Marlon Moraes vs. Cody Stamann, Nasrat Haqparast vs. Damir Hadzovic, Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Augusto Sakai, Taila Santos vs. the Grasso/Calderwood winner, Roxanne Modafferi vs. Molly McCann, Uros Medic vs. Rodrigo Vargas, Nick Maximov vs. Andre Petroski, Cody Brundage vs. Dusko Todorovic, Matthew Semelsberger vs. Ramiz Brahimaj, Martin Sano vs. Louis Cosce, Jonathan Pearce vs. Steven Peterson, Omar Morales vs. Youssef Zalal