Sports

UFC 266 was everything fighting is supposed to be

Why can’t all nights of fighting be like this? Why do we get swept up in trashy melodramas when we instead could stimulate our minds and endorphins with a night of fighting such as what we just witnessed at UFC 266?

Saturday night had everything.

Alexander Volkanovski stood up to another challenge in the main event, as he quietly has been doing for years, waiting for someone to notice. The Aussie’s 20th straight victory, a bloody battering of featherweight challenger Brian Ortega, was a five-round battle in which the champ twice had to escape tight submission attempts by a fighter best known for his jiu-jitsu game. Even after two recorded victories over Max Holloway, this win ought to finally draw a little more deserved attention to “Alexander the Great.”

Another great put on a show in the co-main event. Valentina Shevchenko showed off why she is perhaps the sport’s most dominant champion, thoroughly outclassing flyweight challenger Lauren Murphy in a fourth-round TKO. No fighter is above being defeated on a given night, but there simply is no 125-pounder who appears capable of hanging with Shevchenko. And even as a -1,500 betting favorite, she was thrilling to watch — right down to when she addressed the fans in four languages. What can’t she do?

The night’s starriest attraction, though, was Nick Diaz. During his six-year absence from fighting, we might have forgotten that he is a wizard at drawing from all of us every emotion we’re capable of experiencing. He reminded us by engaging in a battle with Robbie Lawler that turned back the clock a little. Not to their first meeting 17 years ago, but surely to a time when Lawler wasn’t mired in a four-fight losing streak and Diaz’s desire to fight wasn’t being questioned.

Neither Diaz nor Lawler looked to be in his prime, but neither was this sad spectacle some might have feared. Lawler got the TKO in the third round after a relentless back-and-forth that had T-Mobile Arena reach deafening heights. Here’s hoping both men took in the fan adulation gushing from every corner of the building. They’ve always kept it real, and Saturday night was no different.

Those three bouts were just the culmination of a night that was essential for combat sports. In a time when the YouTuber-as-boxer trend is inching its way from the distant fringe to at least a tributary of the sports mainstream, a night of real fighters doing real fights is no longer a luxury. It is a necessary ingredient for MMA to sustain its place in the landscape — and boxing, too. Earlier in the day, Oleksandr Usyk dethroned heavyweight champ Anthony Joshua in front of 66,000 fans in London.

But UFC 266 was a sustained feast of fighting. Before the two title bouts and the Diaz return, there were clashes between ranked fighters at both heavyweight (Curtis Blaydes dominated Jairzinho Rozenstruik) and women’s flyweight (Jessica Andrade knocked out Cynthia Calvillo). We also saw Merab Dvalishvili pull off an astounding comeback, surging from the brink of being knocked out by Marlon Moraes to turn things around for a TKO win of his own — on the strength of a triple-digits barrage of unanswered strikes.

And there was even more. This was one of those nights that would have made late-night TV infomercial huckster Ron Popeil proud. That’s an old-time reference, to be sure, but maybe it’s appropriate on a night that was something of a throwback to the days when fight cards were packed with the right kind of drama. And real fights. –Jeff Wagenheim

Diaz showed signs of his old self, but it’s time to step away

Marc Raimondi: I was one of the first people in the world to watch Nick Diaz’s raw interview with Brett Okamoto earlier this week. And I’ve maintained for the past several days that I wasn’t overly concerned with what Diaz was saying. We’ve known about Diaz’s mixed feelings about the sport of MMA for a decade now. Diaz has never been shy about telling us he never liked to fight, it was just something he did out of necessity. He was born to do it, even though it was something he ultimately loathed. Even after Diaz bowed out of his UFC 266 fight with Robbie Lawler in the third round, I don’t feel too much differently than I did before the fight.

Let’s be clear here. Diaz didn’t look slower or in worse shape than usual because of anything he said in that interview. Those were because he’s 38 years old and had not fought in almost seven years. Diaz brought the fight to Lawler. He landed more significant strikes — 150 to 131, according to ESPN Stats & Information — and landed the most significant strikes in a loss in a bout that ended as early as this one did in UFC history. Diaz’s punches were slow, but he landed a bunch of combinations and won at least one round against Lawler.

Diaz told Okamoto this week that he would regret not taking this chance to return now before it was too late. He said he wasn’t sure how he’d feel about himself if he didn’t at least take the opportunity. Well, now he has done so. And, despite having some decent moments against Lawler, it’s time for him to hang up the gloves for good. Outside of a few aging legends like himself, I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be with watching Diaz against someone else the UFC might line up for him next. Lawler was an excellent matchup, another aging warrior whose best days are in the rearview mirror.

In the end, this wasn’t a disaster, nor was it a rousing success. It was somewhere in the middle. I’m glad Diaz knew when to say he was done. He had that presence of mind before things started to go downhill quickly. Hopefully, he can now be at peace with retirement with no potential regrets about his MMA career. He’s given us all enough, and now it’s time for him to take a step toward the rest of his life.

Diaz has given us nearly two decades of fighting entertainment. He’s not one of the greatest fighters of all time. But he’s one of the most popular fighters of all time, because you always knew what you were going to get — an absolute war. That’s what it was against Lawler on Saturday night, and Diaz knew when to wave the white flag. It’s time to do the same for his storied career.

Appreciate Valentina Shevchenko, even if she’s erased the drama in a sport that relies on it

Brett Okamoto: For the record, I think we do appreciate Shevchenko. I do believe this sport is aware of just how uniquely special she is. This sport gives Shevchenko her due.

But it’s not always easy, right? It’s easy to overlook her, because we, as viewers, want the unknown. Of course we admire greatness, but there’s only so much dominance we’re willing to take before our interest wanes. And right now, Shevchenko could be headed into that territory. She’s demolished every flyweight she’s faced, and she’s already taken out the best challengers available to her.

If we squinted real hard, and used our imagination, maybe we thought those challengers had a chance. The Joanna Jedrzejczyks and Jessica Andrades of the world. Shevchenko ate them up. Now, just to get new matchups, we’re going to keep heading down the 125-pound rankings. And the betting odds are going to stay very, very high in Shevchenko’s favor. And as viewers, sometimes that’s going to be hard to get up for.

But the way Shevchenko has honed her craft, and continues to dedicate herself and improve in a sport that demands so much — that is worth paying attention to. So, keep watching Shevchenko. And keep admiring her for what she is. Even if it’s like seeing a movie you’ve already seen 100 times over.

Dan Hooker should get big name next

Carlos Contreras Legaspi: The fight happened, which was a big enough deal in and of itself. Both fighters’ visas arrived at the last moment, and we got a dominant display from Dan Hooker over Nasrat Haqparast. Neither requested a catchweight — it was important for Hooker to stay at lightweight to prove that he belongs close to the top five in the division again.

Michael Chandler‘s early knockout over the New Zealander made a lot of people forget that Hooker was part of some of the best fights of 2020. Two 25-minute wars, against Paul Felder and Dustin Poirier, got Hooker into title contention talks, and he should stay there after what we saw on Saturday. He had less than 72 hours to fly from Auckland to Las Vegas, make weight and beat Haqparast. He was great on the feet and put together a decent performance on the ground with his much-improved wrestling.

It might be a good time for him and some of his City Kickboxing teammates, like middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, to make a short-term decision to spend more time in the U.S., because quarantine protocols and embassy shutdowns will continue to complicate efforts to lock down big fights in a stacked division. Rafael dos Anjos, Tony Ferguson and Beneil Dariush would each be great matchups. Hooker can also be a great test for the up-and-coming Arman Tsarukyan.

After all the trouble he had getting to Las Vegas this fight, Hooker was one of the biggest winners of UFC 266. And he deserves a reward for his performance in the form of another big fight.

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