A much anticipated welterweight contest serves as the headliner for Saturday’s ESPN+ streaming UFC 279 pay-per-view fight card from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. In that contest, the heavily favored Khamzat Chimaev faces massive underdog Nate Diaz.
Chimaev, who is the No. 3 ranked fighter in the official UFC welterweight rankings, risks his spot in the promotional rankings and his perfect 11-0 record against a fighter in Diaz who has nothing to lose. This bout marks the last fight on the unranked Diaz’s contract with the UFC.
In the evening’s co-main event, former interim UFC lightweight champion, Tony Ferguson looks to end a four-fight losing skid, which dates back to May 2020, with a move up to welterweight. Ferguson does not have a simple task on his hands, as the UFC has matched Ferguson against Li Jingliang, who is the No. 14 ranked fighter in the division. Jingliang is coming off a July knockout win over Muslim Salikhov.
Ahead of the September 10, ESPN+ streaming PPV event, I look at the questions and storylines to follow on the main card of the UFC 279 fight card.
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Nate Diaz - Does Diaz have one last surprise in his bag o’ tricks.... motherf—er?
It appears the UFC is doing the thing the UFC loves to do in the main event of UFC 279. That thing is send a fighter who is looking to explore free agency out with a loss. The promotion seems to think that doing so will hurt that fighter’s power to negotiate a favorable deal once they hit the free market. Even if Nate Diaz loses at UFC 279, I doubt very much it will hurt his ability to strike a deal that is to his liking.
Diaz has spent his 15 years with the UFC building goodwill with fight fans and becoming one of the most marketable fighters the promotion has ever had under its thumb. That the UFC would book Diaz, who is unranked in the welterweight division and 1-3 dating back to 2016 against the 11-0 Khamzat Chimaev, who is the No. 3 ranked fighter in the official UFC rankings, tells you just how desperate the UFC is to send Diaz out of the promotion with a detrimental defeat.
However, this is not the first fight the UFC gave Diaz that he was supposed to lose for the benefit of the promotion. One glaring example of that was UFC 196, where Diaz submitted Conor McGregor for the upset win. Which leads to the big question: does Nate Diaz have one last surprise in him… motherf—er?
Li Jingliang vs. Tony Ferguson - Can Ferguson beat time?
It’s rare that a fighter has to tell the media and the fans, “no, this fight is fair, makes sense and is not a squash match,” but that’s what Li Jingliang did when he pumped Tony Ferguson’s tires ahead of their UFC 279 matchup.
“For the people who say it like that — Tony Ferguson [has] four losses straight, never fought at welterweight — you forget who he is,” said Jingliang through an interpreter. “He is Tony Ferguson. You forgot all those people whose face got cut by Tony Ferguson. Amazing fighters were choked by him. You should give credit to him.
“I believe if you fight against him, you would know how hard [it is] to deal with a guy like ‘El Cucuy,’” continued Jingliang. “You shouldn’t forget those fighters like Tony, who is a pioneer in the sport. You should give him respect. We cannot see the very superficial things like the four losses straight, got knocked out. He had 12 wins straight before and fought a lot of hard opponents, so we cannot see things in that way.”
You know what? I’ll buy what Jingliang is selling here, but only to a point. MMA is an unforgiving sport and all signs show Ferguson has reached the point of diminishing returns where will, toughness and heart can’t overcome time. To make matters more worrisome in this matchup, Ferguson is moving to welterweight and facing a top-15 ranked fighter who is younger and who has earned his past four victories via knockout.
Frankly, the worst thing that could happen to Tony Ferguson here would be a win and the hope of a career revival that would come with that pyrrhic victory.
Kevin Holland vs. Daniel Rodriguez - Who passes the test?
The circumstances of this fight aren’t ideal, but my feeling is fans will quickly forget those conditions when Kevin Holland and Daniel Rodriguez meet in the center of the octagon at UFC 279.
Holland and Rodriguez were set to meet in 2020, but a Holland injury prevented that scrap from taking place. The UFC 279 matchup came together on short notice and Rodriguez has not fought — because of hand injuries — since he scored a unanimous decision win over Kevin Lee in August 2021.
These two have both battled opponents who have been on the downswing over their past few fights, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against a foe who is at about the same stage of their UFC career.
Holland has never dealt with someone as aggressive as Rodriguez. In fact, no one in the UFC, outside of his previous opponents, has dealt with someone as aggressive as Rodriguez. His 8.24 significant strikes landed per minute is an all-time UFC record.
Irene Aldana vs. Macy Chiasson - Who will be ‘in the mix’ after UFC 279?
Irene Aldana had a chance to put her name in the mix for a bantamweight title shot in October 2020 when she faced Holly Holm in the main event of UFC Fight Island 4. She failed to win a single round of that fight on any of the scorecards.
When Aldana returned to action in July 2021, she referred to the Holm fight as her “worst performance ever.” Aldana bounced back from that loss with a first-round knockout win over Yana Kunitskaya. However, the victorious fighter came in at 139.5 for the bantamweight fight, which might have been one reason the UFC booked her at UFC 279 opposite Macy Chiasson and not against her requested opposition, UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
With that being said, the UFC has not decided who Nunes will fight next. Because of that, this outing is an incredibly important matchup, especially for Aldana, who is the No. 4 ranked fighter in the official divisional rankings.
After two fights and more than a year away from the weight class, Macy Chiasson, who is the No. 10 ranked fighter as 135 pounds, returns to bantamweight. I don’t know the ins and outs of why she is dropping back to the division at UFC 279, but I know the move comes at the right time and this is the right matchup. She’s facing a fighter who is coming off a long layoff and who struggled on the scale in her last outing. There’s also the fact that Aldana has been mentioned as a potential title challenger. If Aldana has issues with weight or cage rust and Chiasson can capitalize on those difficulties, she will quickly become a player in the division.
Johnny Walker vs Ion Cutelaba - Who bounces back?
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to think UFC 279 could be the end of the line for Johnny Walker. I know that sounds crazy, but I think that’s the reality of the situation.
Between November 2018 and March 2019, Johnny Walker knocked out Khalil Rountree Jr. (0:15), Justin Ledet (1:57) and Misha Cirkunov (0:36). With that, the hype behind Walker was high. Since then, Walker has gone 1-4 with two knockout and two decision losses. Walker is currently the No. 13 ranked light heavyweight. If he loses to Ion Cutelaba, who is unranked and 1-3-1 in his past five outings, the best outcome Walker can hope for is that he’ll fall out of the official light heavyweight rankings.
Cutelaba is very good at getting his opponent to the mat — he ranks third among active light heavyweights in takedowns with 30 and first in takedown accuracy (active 205-pounders) at 62.5 percent. Walker struggled with the takedowns of Nikita Krylov, who is far less successful (35 percent) in his wrestling than Cutelaba.
This matchup is a tough one for Walker. If he reverts to his wild style of the past, he could open himself up for takedowns. However, if he goes with the more reserved style he has employed in his past two fights, he could also be susceptible to takedowns. It’s going to be very interesting to see how Walker and his team at SBG Ireland have prepared for this incredibly important fight.