Stockton superstar Nate Diaz plans to shock the world one more time when he takes on the undefeated Khamzat Chimaev in what looks set to be his promotional swansong at UFC 279 in Las Vegas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Like the much-anticipated main event, the co-headliner at the T-Mobile Arena is set to be a welterweight war with another legendary fan favourite, Tony Ferguson, taking on Li Jingliang.
Entertaining and ever-dangerous Kevin Holland and Daniel Rodriguez collide in a catchweight bout, top-10 bantamweights Irene Aldana and Macy Chiasson battle it out and lethal light heavyweights Johnny Walker and Ion Cutelaba trade leather.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Khamzat Chimaev (1.09) v Nate Diaz (8.00) (Welterweight)
Diaz (20-13) is MMA’s ultimate gangster. A legendary scrapper, he goes to war every time he steps inside the Octagon and keeps it real outside of it. That raw, rare and unapologetic combination has made him one of the most popular fighters and biggest pay-per-view draws in UFC history.
For a decade and a half, Diaz has out-dogged and drowned opponents with his otherworldly relentlessness and toughness. Always coming forward and never out of a fight, he’s melted many an adversary with his pressure, pace and endless boxing barrages, while he’s a stone-cold killer on the ground – a slick and nasty Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Cesar Gracie with 11 submissions to his name.
His heart and skill have seen him fight for the title, put on classic battles, produce iconic moments and defy the odds on several occasions. A perfect example of this was his famous star-making triumph over Conor McGregor, who was unbeaten in the UFC and the featherweight champion when they fought for the first time in March 2016.
Replacing Rafael dos Anjos on 11 days’ notice, Diaz shocked the world by rocking, draining and submitting “The Notorious” in the second round of their welterweight clash, vaulting himself into superstardom and memorably proclaiming, “I’m not surprised motherf**kers” after ending the Irishman’s 15-fight win streak.
He’s been the underdog in all but one of his last dozen fights and while he’s lost his last two bouts – against Jorge Masvidal and Leon Edwards – he’s 6-6 in that stretch, banking wins over the likes of former champion Anthony Pettis and ex-title challengers Donald Cerrone and Gray Maynard.
He’s an even bigger underdog for Saturday’s blockbuster battle than he was for his maiden meeting with McGregor and for good reason as the man he’ll share the Octagon with has had a rampant rise to prominence unlike any fighter before him.
However, two recent events add to the argument that Diaz is a live dog. The first was in his most recent fight against Edwards, who he nearly knocked out in the final round of their five-round clash last June. The second came at UFC 278 last month when Edwards landed a Hail Mary head kick with a minute left in a fight he’d been dominated into starch overwhelming favourite Kamaru Usman and become the new welterweight champion. Two stunning examples that anything can happen in MMA and that durable and dangerous dogs can change a fight at the drop of a hat.
Chimaev is a frightening force out of Sweden who’s taken the UFC by storm. A well-rounded savage, he boasted a 100% finish rate (six knockouts and four submissions) going into his last fight and proved he’s the real deal when he defeated former title challenger Gilbert Burns in a 15-minute war in April to extend his record to a perfect 11-0.
The Czechia-born boogeyman landed 254 strikes and absorbed just two in his four UFC fights before his battle with Burns, a level of dominance bordering on human sacrifices. At 6’2″, he’s a massive welterweight who’s won at middleweight and has light heavyweight-like strength as he showed when he picked up and walked Li Jingliang to the fence while talking to UFC president Dana White at Octagon-side before dumping him and choking him out.
On top of that, “Borz/The Wolf” possesses wicked one-punch knockout power. In terms of firepower, he blows Diaz out of the water but if he comes out guns blazing, he could fall into the trap of running out of gas against the zombie from the 209 in the main event rounds.
He would’ve learned that lesson in his gruelling last fight, though, and is too big and too strong a grappler and puncher for Diaz to go deep with. Diaz has a great chin but years of built-up scar tissue sees him sliced open easily, the TKO/doctor stoppage loss to Masvidal in the third round of their BMF title bout being a perfect example.
The accumulative damage he takes on the feet and overwhelming grappling of the rising star will be too much for Diaz, who’ll be TKO’ed or submitted inside the first three rounds. While it’ll be sad for Diaz’s legion of fans to watch him go out on his shield, it’ll be true to the legendary kill-or-be-killed warrior he is.
Li Jingliang (1.31) v Tony Ferguson (3.60) (Welterweight)
Like Diaz, Ferguson (25-7) is one of the most popular and respected fighters in MMA as a cult of personality with a highly-skilled yet uniquely savage style.
A former interim lightweight champion, blood-thirsty “El Cucuy” has carved out a Hall of Fame career with his lethal and creative striking (12 knockouts), world-class jiu-jitsu (eight submissions) and warrior spirit.
The violent veteran will go down as one of the best lightweights ever and put together one of the greatest streaks in UFC history, however, he hasn’t been the same since that 12-fight tear ended at the hands of Justin Gaethje in 2020.
Now 38, he’s lost his last four fights and his superhuman toughness was shattered last time out by Michael Chandler, who left him unconscious with one of the most brutal knockouts of all time.
It looked by all accounts that that front kick from hell would mark the end of his career, but instead, Ferguson has decided to move up to welterweight for the first time since winning The Ultimate Fighter in 2011. It’s an ill-fated move against a man he would’ve run through in his prime but who he’ll in all likelihood be stopped by.
The most dangerous UFC fighter to come out of China, Jingliang (19-7) boasts 14 finishes (10 by knockout), with his last four wins all coming by KO. That streak should continue this weekend.
Kevin Holland (1.51) v Daniel Rodriguez (2.65) (Catchweight)
Something has to give when these two fighters on the come-up collide.
A former top-10 middleweight, Holland (23-7) has looked great since moving down to welterweight at the start of the year, finishing Alex Oliveira (one of 13 KOs) and Tim Means (one of six submissions).
Rodriguez (16-2) has gone one better, recording three wins in a row, the last an impressive decision victory over former interim lightweight title challenger Kevin Lee. The southpaw loves a good scrap, with half of his wins coming by knockout.
That this is a catchweight bout favours the bigger Holland even more than if it were at welterweight. At 6’3″, “Trailblazer” is two inches taller and will have a massive seven-inch reach advantage over Rodriguez.
In addition, he’s faced and defeated far stronger competition than “D-Rod” has come up against and those size and experience advantages will see his hot streak continue and Rodriguez’s come to an end.
Holland has the firepower and wingspan to get the finish, but with Rodriguez yet to be stopped in his 18-fight career, a Holland win by decision is more likely.
Irene Aldana (1.57) v Macy Chiasson (2.50) (Bantamweight)
Tactically, former Ultimate Fighter winner Chiasson (8-2) will look to stay on the outside and use her size advantage (two inches in height and three-and-a-half in reach) to rack up points and stay clear of the heavier heat coming her way.
With 10 finishes, seven of them coming by knockout, fourth-ranked Aldana (13-6) is the more dangerous and aggressive fighter and won’t have any reservations about closing the distance, having gone the distance with elite striker and ex-champion Holly Holm in a five-round main event back in 2020.
She rebounded from that decision loss with a first-round TKO of Yana Kunitskaya last July and while this is her first fight since then, she’s a solid bet against the inconsistent and unsettled 10th-ranked Chiasson, whose last win – a razor-thin split decision victory over Norma Dumont – came at featherweight.
Johnny Walker (2.70) v Ion Cutelaba (1.50) (Light Heavyweight)
Considered a future title contender when he burst on the scene with three knockouts in a row, Walker (18-7) has crashed like a meteor, losing four of his last five including being knocked out by Jamahal Hill in February.
Cutelaba (16-7-1) finds himself in a desperate situation as well, going 1-3-1 in his last five and losing to Ryan Spann by submission in May. Both men are super aggressive bordering on reckless and as neither can afford another loss, they’ll come out guns blazing in the main card opener.
As a result, I don’t see it going the distance. Cutelaba (12 KOs and two submissions) could look to incorporate some of his high-level sambo to keep Walker (15 KOs and two submissions) guessing, but it would come with the risk of eating one of the dynamic Brazilian’s wicked knees.
With little positives from either pugilist in recent times, the odds as they are and the huge size discrepancy, I’m backing 6’6″ underdog Walker – who’ll tower over his 6’1″ opponent and enjoy a seven-inch reach advantage – to land the knockout blow.