UFC 266 takes place tomorrow night in Las Vegas and we’ve got our picks for all the fights below.
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega
Featherweight champion Volkanovski is looking for his 10th win in a row on Saturday night, while Ortega has lost only once in his 17-fight career.
That being said, Ortega’s only loss was a brutal one-sided beatdown against former champ Max Holloway, who coincidentally Volkanovski has just beaten twice in a row.
However, Ortega then disappeared off the radar for a couple of years and then returned last year with his striking looking much sharper than before as he convincingly defeated ‘The Korean Zombie’, adding a new string to his bow after already having impressed in the past with his deadly Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ability.
So that sets us up for a very intriguing battle here as Volkanovski has proven to have a robust set of skills that makes him hard to beat, with a strong wrestling base, good cardio and durability to go along with a striking game that might not be the slickest or most eye-catching around, but nonetheless has proven to be effective both offensively and defensively.
A potential drawback for Volkanovski is that he suffered from long-Covid earlier in the year, which forced a postponement of this match-up, but while he’s had several months to recover now, we won’t really know how much, if any, toll it’s taken on things like his cardio until the cage door closes shut on Saturday night.
My feeling is that Volkanovski will use his wrestling defensively here to keep the fight standing as Ortega doesn’t really have the takedown ability needed to put him on his back.
I also feel that though Ortega’s last striking performance was an eye-opener, there’s not enough evidence yet to suggest that he’s going to be the same thing to the champion that he did to ‘The Korean Zombie’.
Instead, I think Volkanovski’s more solid, dependable high-volume striking style and forward pressure will enable him to get the better of the action and lead him to a decision victory.
Pick: Alexander Volkanovski wins by decision.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy
Murphy’s rise to a title shot is a great story given that she’s 38 and on a five-fight winning streak despite started her UFC run with just two wins from six outings.
However, there’s been nothing to suggest that Murphy has what it takes to defeat Shevchenko, the dominant force at flyweight whose yet to meet her equal in the weight class.
Murphy is a tough all-rounder, but there’s levels to the sport and Shevchenko is just on a completely different one with her laser-accurate, technical kickboxing ability, strong wrestling, submission ability and excellent cardio-management.
During her winning run Murphy only narrowly got passed a couple of seasoned strikers in Joanne Calderwood and Andrea Lee by split-decision and I think that’s a warning sign for her here as Shevchenko is a more dangerous striker and far more imposing physically, and I suspect that will lead to her getting a stoppage win here by the third round, if not earlier.
Pick: Valentina Shevchenko wins by TKO in Rd3.
Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler
This rematch has been a long time coming – 17 years to be exact, dating back to a time when they were both just young rising stars, with Diaz emphatically emerging with a big KO victory on that occasion.
Both fighters went on to have a lot of success in the sport in the years that followed, but in the present day a lot has changed, with former UFC welterweight champion Lawler now having lost five of his last six fights, while Diaz hasn’t fought in well over six years.
So there’s a lot of uncertainty heading into this fight. What we do know is that, aside from when they first locked horns together, Lawler has generally proven to be the much heavier hitter of the two, although while he’s become a more refined, seasoned striker over the years, in his most recent fights there’s been troubling signs that the 39-year-old might be becoming more hesitant to let his hands go.
As for Diaz, we know that during his long absence from the sport he fell heavily into the party lifestyle at times, and it’s also a concern that on fight week he suddenly managed to successfully negotiate for the fight to take place at middleweight instead of welterweight.
That leaves big questions about how his training camp has gone, but at the same time it feels like the late change in weight stands to benefit him more here.
The reasons for that is that though Lawler has a lot more experience competing at middleweight than he does, he’s definitely performed at his best at 170lbs.
It should also be noted that this is a five-round fight, and even at 170lbs, Lawler tends to have a clear cardio-management strategy that will often see him conserve energy in the middle rounds, with his output noticeably dropping, and that will likely be even more pronounced at 185lbs.
Meanwhile, Diaz has always had strong cardio, and even in his time off was still competing in triathlons. While he’s not known as a power puncher, Diaz has had a great deal of success with his high-volume boxing style and it’s something he can keep up for five rounds.
Of course Diaz also has high-level BJJ, but it remains to be seen if he’d even look to use that, and Lawler will be looking to use his wrestling to keep the fight standing, so I feel the striking will be key, and Diaz’s higher volume and work-rate will stop ‘Ruthless’ from finding his rhythm and lead to a win on the scorecard for the Stockton star.
Pick: Nick Diaz wins by decision.
Curtis Blaydes vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik
Despite being one of the heavyweight division’s most well-rounded fighters, with his wrestling in particular being a strong point, Blaydes has continued to come up just short of title contention in his five-year UFC career so far.
The reason for that is that he’s had problems getting past some of the division’s heaviest hitters, with Francis Ngannou having stopped him twice by strikes in the past, while last time out Derrick Lewis ended his recent five-fight winning streak by way of KO.
With that in mind Blaydes will no doubt be very wary of Rozenstruik’s striking ability given that the former kickboxer has finished all six of his UFC wins by strikes so far.
On the other hand though, Rozenstruik has become painfully gun-shy at times lately for someone with such big power, and he may well be even more hesitant on Saturday night knowing that he doesn’t really have a ground game and Blaydes will be eagerly seeking takedown opportunities.
So, will Rozenstruik be able to land that big counter punch that renders unconscious or will Blaydes get the takedowns he needs and dominate on the mat?
Either is a possibility, but I feel the odds are higher that Blaydes will have more success implementing his gameplan here, so I’ll take him to win by decision.
Pick: Curtis Blaydes wins by decision.
Jessica Andrade vs. Cynthia Calvillo
Andrade comes into this fight having lost three of her last four fights since winning the strawweight title back in 2019, and that includes a TKO defeat in her attempt to seize the flyweight title against Valentina Shevchenko last time out.
As for Calvillo, she’s yet to get her chance to fight for a belt, with Katlyn Chookagian beating her on the scorecards last time out to break a four-fight unbeaten run.
As is pretty much always the case, Andrade gives up both 3″ in height and 2″ in reach to her opponent here, but the stocky Brazilian never lets that deter her from pressing forward aggressively while throwing heavy punches as she looks to impose her will on the proceedings.
Calvillo has clearly worked on her striking over time and she’s developed a range-based striking style with straight punches and kicks that she’ll hope to utilize to ward off Andrade’s advances, but I don’t think that she carries the kind of power that’s going to enable her to carry that off for three rounds.
So, Calvillo’s best bet is still to make use of her talented BJJ skills, as she is a big offensive threat via submission and is very good in the scramble too.
I think she’ll have a hard time getting Andrade down though and so she’d have to rely on the Brazilian making use of her wrestling, and that is something she does like to do, using her strength to land bombing takedowns and then proceeding to maul her opponents, which potentially could leave openings for Calvillo to exploit.
In the end though I think Andrade will seek to keep this one standing more often than not, and with her strength, power and pressure I think that pay off for her on the scorecards.
Pick: Jessica Andrade wins by decision.
Prelims (Predicted winners in bold)
Marlon Moraes vs. Merab Dvalishvili
Dan Hooker vs. Nasrat Haqparast
Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Chris Daukaus
Roxanne Modafferi vs. Taila Santos
Uros Medic vs. Jalin Turner
Karl Roberson vs. Nick Maximov
Matthew Semelsberger vs. Martin Sano
Jonathan Pearce vs. Omar Morales