Making the Grade: UFC 266: Volkanovski vs. Ortega edition

On paper, UFC 266 was a solid event with a pair of title fights at the top of the card as well as the long-awaited return of Nick Diaz in a rematch against Robbie Lawler that was 17 years in the making.

What actually resulted was arguably one of the best events in UFC history featuring an epic main event as Alexander Volkanovski retained his featherweight title in a potential Fight of the Year candidate with Brian Ortega, while Valentina Shevchenko continued running roughshod over the flyweight division while dispatching yet another contender in Lauren Murphy.

The showdown between Lawler and Diaz ended up being far more fun than most predicted despite the Stockton, Calif., bad boy sitting on the sidelines for the past six years. While Diaz didn’t look his best, he also didn’t seem like a shell of himself like some on social media suggested after a 10-second shadow boxing clip somehow went viral.

While the top three fights certainly stole the show, the undercard and prelims also featured more than a few exciting moments including Jessica Andrade tearing through Cynthia Calvillo and Merab Dvalishvili somehow managing one of the greatest comebacks in recent history to defeat Marlon Moraes.

There was also a battle between Dan Hooker and Nasrat Haqparast after both of them endured a wild travel scheduled to actually make to the fight before engaging in a three-round battle on Saturday night.

All told, UFC 266 was a fantastic show almost from start to finish so with that said let’s talk about what passed and what failed in the latest pay-per-view event. This is Making the Grade for UFC 266: Volkanovski vs. Ortega.

PASSES

Alexander the Great

Through no fault of his own, Alexander Volkanovski had somehow been painted as the bad guy after he managed to win a pair of decisions over Max Holloway to win and then defend the UFC featherweight title. Despite two wins over Holloway, Volkanovski still hadn’t been truly celebrated as the best 145-pound fighter in the world, which meant he had something to prove in his fight against Brian Ortega.

After 25 minutes in the cage on Saturday night, Volkanovski managed to redefine his title reign by engaging in an absolute war with Ortega that could go down as the best featherweight title fight in history.

While the scorecards were lopsided in his favor — only a single judge managed to even give Ortega a round — Volkanovski had to prove himself time and time again in order to win the decision. In particular, Volkanovski’s ability to survive a pair of submission attempts in the third round—which may end up as the best five minutes of MMA action all year long—showed just how much he wanted to remain champion.

He then poured on the punishment both on the feet and on the ground while dishing out a whopping 214 significant strikes — and a quick look at Ortega’s face afterwards proved just how significant those strikes really were.

While Volkanovski would have surely loved a first-round knockout, he arguably gained more favor with fans by showing his heart and determination over the course of that entire fight.

Volkanovski also proved without a shadow of a doubt that he deserves to have that featherweight title around his waist. Perhaps he’ll attempt to solidify that in a third fight with Holloway at some point down the road but for now it’s time to give Volkanovski his due, especially after a performance like that at UFC 266.

Unstoppable

In 2010, director Tony Scott released what would be the final film of his legendary career called Unstoppable about a runaway train that’s barreling towards a small town with seemingly no way to actually slow down or deter this mechanical monstrosity from causing utter destruction.

In the movie, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine manage to save the day but when it comes to the UFC flyweight division, it appears nobody can actually slow down or come close to stopping Valentina Shevchenko from just demolishing all of the competition put in her path.

The latest example came at UFC 266 where Shevchenko dismantled yet another challenger—this time, Lauren Murphy—who managed to make it to the fourth round before she finally crumbled under pressure from the champion.

Shevchenko was methodical and calculating with her strategy to just pick apart Murphy round after round in order to set up the finishing combination later in the fight. There was never a moment when Shevchenko looked out of control or even rattled by anything Murphy was doing, which led to a dominant performance prior to the TKO in the fourth round.

It almost seems unfair with the way that Shevchenko has smashed every opponent the UFC has thrown at her at 125 pounds. Even the fight that was supposed to be her toughest challenge didn’t make it out of the second round after Shevchenko bludgeoned Jessica Andrade with elbows to defend her title earlier this year.

There are only two problems Shevchenko might face in the future — one would be her own complacency due to a lack of compelling competition, which seems highly unlikely given her attitude going into many of her recent fights where she’s already been favored by ridiculous odds over her opponent.

The second issue would be Demetrious Johnson syndrome — a condition the former UFC flyweight champion faced after he tore through so many opponents in a row that people seemed to lose interest in watching him compete in fights where it almost felt guaranteed he would win.

Of course, Shevchenko shouldn’t really be bothered too much by the latter problem because that’s simply out of her control but judging by her recent performances, and the depth at flyweight right now, it’s hard to imagine any fighter currently in the division coming anywhere close to beating her.

Ruthless Gets Revenge

For the last 17 years, Robbie Lawler had to live with the viral highlight that showed him being faceplanted by a punch from Nick Diaz in their first fight from 2004. At UFC 266, Lawler got a measure of revenge with a third-round finish against Diaz in their rematch.

There was a lot riding on this one for Lawler, especially after he dropped four fights in a row with his last couple of losses looking like the former welterweight champion was suddenly starting to lose a step. He was listless and just out of sorts in fights against Colby Covington and Neil Magny and it looked like maybe Lawler’s best days were just behind him.

But with his rematch against Diaz on Saturday night, Lawler showed that this old dog still had time left to learn a few new tricks.

Much like his fight against Ben Askren in 2019, Lawler looked like he was shot out of a cannon as he came sprinting across the cage, throwing bombs with both hands and looking to overwhelm his opponent. It was a particularly effective strategy going up against Diaz because he hadn’t fought since 2015 and there was no telling how much ring rust might be lingering in that opening round.

While Diaz certainly had his moments in the fight — he still managed to throw 339 strikes in just over 10 minutes — Lawler avoided the damage and dished out plenty of his own. As much as he probably would have loved to return the favor and send Diaz crashing face first to the canvas, Lawler had to feel good about the way he won at UFC 266.

After connecting with a check right hook that dropped Diaz to the canvas, Lawler followed up with another huge uppercut before demanding his opponent rise back to his feet to meet him again. With blood trickling out of his nose, Diaz wanted no more and the referee swooped in to stop the fight just 44 seconds into the third round.

Overall, Lawler looked great and regardless of the time off, Diaz showed up ready to fight.

With the win, Lawler can now put that four-fight losing streak behind him and while it’s tough to say if he’ll ever be a legit threat to the top of the welterweight division again, there are still plenty of fun fights out there for him in the future.

Maybe next time Nate Diaz would want a chance to avenge his brother in a fight against Lawler? Anything seems possible.

The Georgian Bulldog

A new bantamweight contender emerged on Saturday night after Merab Dvalishvili picked up the biggest win of his career over former title challenger Marlon Moraes but not before he surviving a serious scare in the opening round.

After two straight knockout losses in a row, Moraes was gunning for a much better ending this time around and he nearly got it after blasting Dvalishvili with a combination early in the fight that had the Georgian on rubber legs. There were several moments where Moraes was dishing out a savage series of strikes and it appeared that Dvalishvili might just be out on his feet.

But referee Keith Peterson let the fight continue because while Dvalishvili was down, he was never completely out.

In order to slow down Moraes’ attack, Dvalishvili grabbed onto the clinch and then looked for a takedown and within a matter of seconds, the entire momentum in the fight shifted.

Dvalishvili started dropping down sledgehammers that immediately had Moraes in trouble and suddenly it was the Brazilian trying to hold on until the end of the round.

From there it was all Dvalishvili as he would have made UFC Hall of Famer Kevin Randleman proud with his relentless brand of wrestling and vicious ground-and-pound to just punish Moraes until he could no longer continue.

For quite some time, Dvalishvili has been the boogieman at bantamweight that nobody was rushing to face. Now with this latest win, he’s served notice that he’s not just a player at the top of the 135-pound division — he’s a serious threat to the title.

Credit Where Credit is Due

There were so many great performances at UFC 266 it almost seems unfair not to mention a few more.

First up, Jessica Andrade deserves a whole lot of praise after she not only bounced back from a loss to Valentina Shevchenko earlier this year but she became the first person to finish Cynthia Calvillo after she overwhelmed the former strawweight with strikes in the opening round.

On the preliminary card, Dan Hooker managed to earn an impressive win over Nasrat Haqparast after traveling halfway around the world from New Zealand and not even arriving at fight week until Thursday evening with less than 12 hours remaining until he had to make weight. Jet lag has wiped out more than a few fighters over the years but Hooker is definitely undefeated in that particular category.

Chris Daukaus remained undefeated in his UFC campaign after he took out Shamil Abdurakhimov with a blistering second-round knockout. Fast and athletic with huge power in his hands, Daukaus has been a welcome addition to the UFC’s heavyweight division and it would be great to see him face a top-five ranked opponent next just see how far this Philadelphia police officer can go in the octagon.

Also, Jalin Turner looked fantastic as he dispatched previously undefeated prospect Uros Medic with a first-round rear naked choke and then Matthew Semelsberger needed only a single combination to put away Martin Sano with a knockout just 15 seconds into the opening round.

All told, UFC 266 featured 13 fights with eight finishes by knockout or submission with a total of 13 ranked athletes competing—according to the latest Global MMA Rankings by MMA Fighting—and it’s going to be awfully hard for anything to top this for the best card of the year when 2021 is concluded.

EPIC FAIL

Commentary Track

Truth be told, there really wasn’t anything to complain about with UFC 266 but Marvin Vettori did manage to inject himself into the conversation after ripping color commentator Paul Felder, who was calling the fights alongside Jon Anik and Daniel Cormier on Saturday night.

Vettori took aim at Felder by calling him “the worst to ever do it” and then said the recently retired lightweight was “double faced” for allegedly “calling a fight one sided when it’s really not.”

That criticism all stemmed from the way Felder called Vettori’s last fight against Israel Adesanya in June.

On that night, Vettori lost a unanimous decision with all three judges scoring the fight 50-45 in favor of Adesanya. Immediately afterwards, Vettori told Adesanya that he thought he deserved to win the fight and he was none too happy with the result.

But in addition to the judges that night, MMA Decisions shows almost every media member scoring the fight also gave the nod to Adesanya by that same 50-45 score with only two journalists giving Vettori a single round.

Now Vettori might be able to complain that the scorecards don’t tell the entire story of the fight because while he may have lost every round, he didn’t get completely overwhelmed by Adesanya but the commentators working the event have nothing to do with the judges. His real issue is with the scores handed down that night because Vettori clearly doesn’t agree with them.

But at some point, you’ve got to let it go and move forward and blasting Felder’s commentary four months later seems like an awfully weird hill to die on.

Vettori is already scheduled for another fight in October against former middleweight title contender Paulo Costa. If Vettori wants to get back to Adesanya, the best way to begin that journey would be dispatching Costa in impressive fashion in their upcoming main event.

What won’t help is attacking a commentator like Felder, who actually does a tremendous job, while still complaining about the way people saw your past fight.

Yes, Vettori can hold onto the angst that he obviously kept after the Adesanya rematch but hopefully he’s at least acknowledged the mistakes that were made that night so he can improve and get better in his next appearance.

Unfortunately by attacking Felder’s commentary, it would appear that Vettori still isn’t willing to concede defeat despite every recognizable metric in the sport telling him that he lost that night.

OVERALL GRADE FOR UFC 266: A+

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