Two title fights and the return of Nick Diaz: UFC 266 is a must-watch PPV

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UFC 266 will see Brian Ortega make his second attempt at becoming a UFC champion. And anyone who saw the first attempt knows that the fact he’s back in this position is no small feat.

Ortega (15-1) will challenge Alexander Volkanovski (22-1) for the featherweight crown on Saturday in Las Vegas, almost three years after he came up short against then-champ Max Holloway at UFC 231 in December 2018. Ortega was undefeated going into that fight against Holloway but was brutalized in a fourth-round finish. He absorbed 290 total strikes.

It was the kind of loss that can cast doubt on the rest of a fighter’s career, frankly. The physical and psychological toll of that night was something to keep an eye on with Ortega. Would he recover from that severe of a loss? And if he did, would he be able to make up the ground he was obviously lacking against Holloway from a technical aspect?

That is the question to be answered in this weekend’s main event, one of two title fights on the UFC 266 card. In the co-main event, Valentina Shevchenko (21-3) defends her flyweight title against Lauren Murphy (15-4). And there’s also another high-profile fight on the main card: Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler, a rematch of a bout from 17 years ago. It’s also Diaz’s first fight in over six years.

As for the featherweight main event, Ortega has given us every reason to believe his second UFC title fight will look much different from the first. And if and when he ever fights Holloway again, that might look different, too.

After suffering that loss, Ortega completely changed his team. He parted ways with his longtime head coach, who had been training him primarily out of his garage. Ortega linked up with new coaches, strength and conditioning specialists and sparring partners, including names like TJ Dillashaw and Cub Swanson.

Meanwhile, Volkanovski, of Australia, has cemented himself at the top of the division by beating Holloway via decision twice. There are some in the sport who felt Holloway was robbed on judges’ scorecards in one or both of those fights, but at the end of the day, the results are the results. After 10 rounds with Holloway, the belt is around Volkanovski’s waist.

Volkanovski is considered one of the most consistent, reliable, well-prepared athletes in the sport. If there are still any cracks in Ortega’s revamped game, Volkanovski is the kind of fighter to find them. Ortega has fought only once since changing everything, but the result was eye-opening. He dominated Chan Sung Jung over the course of five rounds last October.

The backdrop for this title fight really couldn’t be any better. Volkanovski has to be considered the best featherweight on the planet, in my opinion. He has earned that. But Ortega is such a mystery going in. If the guy could make it to a UFC title fight while training out of a garage, how good could he be with the professional environment he has now?

Good enough to beat Volkanovski? That’s the million-dollar question.

The main card of Saturday’s UFC 266 is on pay-per-view starting at 10 p.m. ET, with prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. and early prelims on ESPN+ at 6 p.m.

Purchase UFC 266 on ESPN+ PPV


Men’s featherweight championship:
Alexander Volkanovski (c) vs. Brian Ortega

Volkanovski has won his past 19 MMA bouts, a run of success going all the way back to May 2013. That’s the longest active unbeaten streak among fighters currently on the UFC roster, ahead of former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and current welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, both at 18 in a row. Volkanovski takes on Ortega, who is coming off an eye-opening performance last fall in which he landed 127 significant strikes against Jung, the most of his UFC career.

Numbers that could make a difference: 64 vs. 67

Volkanovski has 11 knockouts in his career and three submissions, giving him a 64% finish rate in his 22 wins. Ortega has seven submissions and three knockouts in 15 career wins, a finish rate of 67%. Can one of these fighters get the job done before the final horn?

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats

And the winner is …

“The interesting part about this fight is Ortega is going to have the length and the range, and Ortega is superior in his grappling and jiu-jitsu,” said Marc Montoya, Factory X coach. “If you’re Volkanovski, you can’t hang out in long range because of the disadvantage. He has shorter limbs, so he has to sit in that hook, uppercut, elbow, knee range all night. He’ll be faster there. But the danger of sitting in that middle range is if Ortega snatches the front head lock and gets your neck, you’ve got major problems.”

Check out how Montoya and other experts break down the main event and predict a winner.


Women’s flyweight championship:
Valentina Shevchenko (c) vs. Lauren Murphy

Shevchenko will be making her sixth defense of the title she has held since December 2018. She is the second-longest-reigning UFC champ, behind Amanda Nunes, who won her bantamweight belt in July 2016 (and added the featherweight strap just three weeks after Shevchenko became champ). Shevchenko will be seeking to break a tie (with Nunes and Joanna Jedrzejczyk) for second-most title defenses among women and enter a tie with Ronda Rousey for the top spot. Murphy’s best shot: her 63.5% significant strike defense, fifth highest in women’s flyweight history — because Shevchenko throws kicks and punches with abandon.

Numbers that could make a difference: -1500 vs. +850

The betting odds favor Shevchenko in a big way. That’s not a surprise, considering that she has reigned since 2018 and ranks first in women’s flyweight history in significant strike accuracy (56.4%) and takedown accuracy (71.4%), is tied for first in wins (seven) and is second in significant strike defense (68%). As for Murphy, if she were to win as a +850 underdog, it would be the biggest upset in a UFC title fight since Holly Holm (+870) knocked out Rousey in 2015.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats


The long-awaited return … and rematch:
Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler

Diaz and Lawler first met in 2004, when Diaz was 20 years old and Lawler 22. Diaz, known at the time for his jiu-jitsu, went toe-to-toe with the slugger, and early in the second round he dropped Lawler with a counter right hand for a stunning KO. Now, 6,385 days later, Diaz and Lawler will meet again as both close in on age 40 — and with Diaz having not competed at all in over six years. This will break the UFC record for longest time between meetings for a pair of fighters.

Numbers that could make a difference: 1,536 vs. 6

This bout is being contested at middleweight, but both men have made their mark as welterweights. Diaz has landed 1,536 total strikes at 170 pounds, the sixth most in division history. Lawler’s six knockouts are tied for the fifth most in UFC welterweight history.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats

And the winner is …

“If Nick Diaz is the same Nick Diaz we know, he’s going to put a ton of volume on you, but at times, be hittable. And that’s a problem against a guy like Lawler,” said James Krause, coach (and active fighter) at Glory MMA. “The thing about the Diaz brothers is they don’t go away and they hit deceivingly hard. Anybody I’ve ever talked to about Nick, they say he hits so hard. And I’m like, ‘Dude, it doesn’t look like he hits hard at all.’ But he’s knocking people out and I think it’s just the barrage of punches, the body work, breaking you down over time and then he gets the kill. He could be a real problem for Robbie, but if Robbie hits you, you’ve got big problems.”

Check out how Krause and other experts break down the fight and predict a winner.


How to watch the fights

Watch the PPV and all other fights on ESPN+. Get ESPN+ here.

Watch the prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ and early prelims on ESPN+. Download the ESPN App | WatchESPN | TV schedule

Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access.

Purchased the fight on your phone and want to stream on your TV? Find out how here.

There’s also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.


Saturday’s fight card

ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET
Men’s featherweight title fight: Alexander Volkanovski (c) vs. Brian Ortega
Women’s flyweight title fight: Valentina Shevchenko (c) vs. Lauren Murphy
Middleweight: Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler
Heavyweight: Curtis Blaydes vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik
Women’s flyweight: Jessica Andrade vs. Cynthia Calvillo
ESPN/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Men’s bantamweight: Marlon Moraes vs. Merab Dvalishvili
Lightweight: Dan Hooker vs. Nasrat Haqparast
Heavyweight: Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Chris Daukaus
Women’s flyweight: Roxanne Modafferi vs. Taila Santos
ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET
Lightweight: Uros Medic vs. Jalin Turner
Middleweight: Cody Brundage vs. Nick Maximov
Welterweight: Matthew Semelsberger vs. Martin Sano
Men’s featherweight: Jonathan Pearce vs. Omar Morales


A couple more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)

1. Curtis Blaydes and Jairzinho Rozenstruik meet in a faceoff of highly ranked fighters both coming off losses. Blaydes, No. 5 in the ESPN heavyweight rankings, holds the UFC record for takedowns with 59 and has won four of his past five fights but last was seen being knocked out by Derrick Lewis in February. Seventh-ranked Rozenstruik has used his 80% takedown defense — third highest in UFC heavyweight history — to produce 11 knockouts among his 12 career wins.

2. Former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade is coming off an unsuccessful bid to win the flyweight title — she was knocked out by Shevchenko in April. The Brazilian, No. 5 in the ESPN 125-pound rankings, begins what she hopes is another title run by facing ninth-ranked Cynthia Calvillo, who saw her four-fight winning streak snapped in her last fight (UD by Katlyn Chookagian in November).

ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim also contributed to this fight preview.

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