UFC 266 proved to be a tremendous success. If I’m being fair, it’s hard to think of the last time the UFC had a disappointing PPV, but there were several fights deserving of a FOTN consideration, a couple of them perhaps deserving FOTY consideration. At the very least, there were rounds that were instant classics. One of those fights may have turned featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski into a star, turning in a rare performance in which he was dominant, but was still threatened to drop his title to a game Brian Ortega. Of course, the fight most fans were interested in leading into the event delivered as Robbie Lawler and Nick Diaz delivered a satisfying encore to their classic from 2004. Between those two, it’s enough to make everyone forget Valentina Shevchenko turned in another dominant title defense. It was a damn good evening of violence, Let’s get into my Unofficial Awards for a unique rundown of the event....
Biggest Jump in Stock: Those who pay attention already believed Volkanovski as one of the best fighters in the world prior to the event, regardless of weight class. And yet, heading into this fight, I heard and saw arguments where Volkanovski was the fourth-best featherweight in the world behind Max Holloway, Ortega, and Bellator champion AJ McKee. While it isn’t impossible seeing any of those three beating him, none have officially done so, no matter what many want to say about Volkanovski’s second fight with Holloway. His performance against Ortega was exactly what he needed to start getting over with the casual viewer. While Volkanovski was dominant, there was enough drama within the fight that many are walking away declaring the contest the FOTY. More importantly, it left a strong impression in the eyes of viewers. Volkanovski’s cerebral approach has often made it difficult to remember somethibg specific about him. That shouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Biggest Fall in Stock: Nobody suffered a precipitous drop that completely altered how most people saw them before the event, so fall may be too strong of a word. Perhaps dip is a better word in this case. With that said, it feels safe to say Shamil Abdurakhimov isn’t going to be climbing back to the lofty position he carried in the heavyweight standards ever again. Obviously, his age has a fair amount to do with that as he is 40 and looked a half step slower than he previously had. Not that Abdurakhimov ever looked particularly quick, but he could surprise with an occasional burst. That never showed itself against Chris Daukaus. There are still fights for Abdurakhimov to win, but his days hovering in the top ten are over.
Best Newcomer: There weren’t a lot of newcomers on this card. Given only one of them walked away with a win, it made it easy to narrow down. Some may be a bit down on the performance of Nick Maximov given he didn’t finish off his opponent, Nick Brundage, given Brundage was entering the contest on short notice. Fans tend to forget finishes aren’t everything. At 23, Maximov turned in a remarkably mature performance, exercising excellent control over Brundage and avoiding any real damage. There’s a lot he could iron out, but that’s true of any fighter his age. Great job of Maximov acquainting himself to the big show.
Start Typing a Resume: Martin Sano never should have been in the UFC in the first place, but Diaz wouldn’t agree to coming back unless his training partner got a fight in the UFC. Given Sano only lasted 15 seconds, he’s the perfect example of why people hate nepotism. He got his job based on who he knew as opposed to his body of work and many fans would say he got what he deserved. I don’t wish Sano any ill will, but I do agree with those who say he never should have been on the roster in the first place. Here’s hoping he doesn’t get the typically customary second fight.
Saved Their Job(s): I’m not sure how Uncle Dana was looking at it, but I would have cut Matthew Semelsberger loose if he had lost to Sano. Losing to a guy who only came on the UFC radar because of who he trains with wouldn’t reflect well on him regardless of any previous successes. Instead, Semelsberger made it a short day at the office. Good on him.
No Excuses: The fight between Dan Hooker and Nasrat Haqparast may have been one-sided, but the fact they even made it to the fight was a victory in itself. However, not only did they make it to the fight despite their visa issues, they made weight. It’s hard to give leeway to other fighters who miss weight when Hooker and Haqparast are doing their weight cut while having to fly halfway around the world. Kudos to both of them for fulfilling their contracted weight when both have every excuse in the world to ask for a catchweight and didn’t.
Biggest WOW Moment: The room I was in absolutely exploded Ortega caught Volkanovski in the mounted guillotine in the third round. We all thought it was over. It got louder when Volkanovski escaped and began pounding away on the submission specialist. Then Ortega found a triangle... only for Volkanovski to also escape that and seemingly beat Ortega within an inch of his life. It was one of the wildest rounds I’ve ever seen, several seemingly fight ending sequences following one after another only for both to survive the round. No one who took in that round of action is going to forget that round.
Never Seen That Before: Part of what made the round between Volkanovski and Ortega so special is the reputation Ortega has as a submission artist. I can’t recall anyone having escaped one of his chokes once he had it locked in tight. Cub Swanson had survived long enough for the round to end, but didn’t make the escape himself. I don’t know what he did, but Volkanovski somehow pulled his head out from the guillotine and survived. GIven how this sport goes, we knew we’d see someone get out of an Ortega submission at some point, but unfortunately for him, it was when the stakes were at their highest.
As Good Once As I Ever Was.... Lawler is a legend of the sport. It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see a stretch like his run from 2013-16 when he returned to the UFC and became the champion. As has been well documented, he took an insane amount of damage in that time and hasn’t been the same since. However, there’s a common belief that for just one nights, aged legends can find it within themselves to be as good as they were in their prime for just one night. Think Kobe Bryant scoring 60 points in the final game of his career. Well, I wouldn’t say Lawler was in him prime, but it was the best version of him that we’ve seen since he last held the title. Given Diaz is notoriously tough, finishing him off is an impressive feat, even if Diaz hand’t fought in nearly seven years.
Best Callout: From my end, I was disappointed on the callouts that were made. Nobody was specific, leaving out the element of making a callout personal that typical brings them to fruition. Both Curtis Blaydes and Daukaus threw out a list of names, none of which are likely to have interest in them. Blaydes was one of the name Daukaus asked for (he actually said the winner of Blaydes-Jairzinho Rozenstruik, but we’ll count it), but Blaydes had no interest in that idea, not bothering to acknowledge Daukaus’ callout. It’s possible to make a callout personal enough to get the target’s attention without being a jerk about it, but fighters can’t seem to do it. Thus, I’m not giving this award to anyone... not that they actually care.
Quiet Dominance: While I don’t believe Amanda Nunes gets the attention she deserves for her dominance, I do believe she gets more attention than Shevchenko does. Given Nunes has more close contents in her bantamweight title reign than Shevchenko has, it’s fair to say Shevchenko deserves just as much attention. Some may point out it took Shevchenko to eliminate Murphy, but that’s due to Shevchenko just waiting for the right moment to deliver the finishing sequence. Shevchenko dominated the entirety of the fight, extending her win streak to eight and her amount of title defenses to six.
Nine Lives: How in the hell did Merab Dvalishvili survive the early onslaught of Marlon Moraes? I could have sworn Moraes had him dead to rights, Moraes hitting the mat and stumbling around with a severe case of stanky leg for a long stretch after he miraculously climbed back to his feet. Moraes laid the punishment on thick, but Dvalishvili not only survived, he turned the momentum of the fight before the end of the round. I’m of the belief a fighter can only pull of a similar type of sequence so many times before their body can no longer endure that type of punishment. How many of those lives Dvalishvili has left, I can’t say, but he made good use of it this time around.
Aging Out? One of the major themes of the fight was the stark contrast in the age between the winners and losers of several of the fights. There was well over six years between Omar Morales and Jonathan Pearce, about eleven years between Roxanne Modafferi and Taila Santos, eight years between Daukaus and Abdurakhimov, and almost five years between Shevchenko and Murphy. In every case, the younger fighter emerged victorious. There were several other contests with age discrepancies somewhere between 3-5 years in which the younger fighter won, but those were the most notable. There’s always a youth movement of sorts going on, but it was far more defined at UFC 266 than usual.