UFC 279 is looking a little different.
After one of the most chaotic 48-hour periods we’ve ever seen ahead of a pay-per-view — that featured a press conference cancellation due to a backstage brawl and originally scheduled headliner Khamzat Chimaev missing weight by a whopping 7.5 pounds — the six fighters at the top of Saturday’s card remain, but everyone has a new dance partner.
Instead of Chimaev, Nate Diaz now fights Tony Ferguson in the main event. Ferguson was supposed to fight Li Jingliang in the co-main event, but Li has been bumped down into a catchweight bout against Daniel Rodriguez (even though Li weighed in for a 170-pound bout for his fight with Ferguson while Rodriguez stepped to the scale for a 180-pound catchweight affair) while Chimaev steps into the co-main event slot against Kevin Holland.
Get it? Got it? Good.
Somehow, despite the UFC choosing the path of most resistance when putting together this pay-per-view lineup, the promotion ended up with three logical pairings that are arguably more palatable than the seemingly pointless Chimaev-Diaz matchup and the regrettable Li-Ferguson matchup. You don’t become the most powerful combat sports organization in the world without learning how to fall upward. Make no mistake, that’s what happened here, and the UFC is lucky that its fighters are willing to jump through hoops for it (and hopefully were compensated handsomely).
As this is likely Diaz’s final fight week with the UFC, don’t be surprised if there’s still one more twist before the weekend is through.
What: UFC 279
Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, Sept. 10. The four-fight early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 6:00 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight prelims on ESPNN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Nate Diaz vs. Tony Ferguson
Praise be to the MMA Gods for giving us the main event that we should have had all along.
Forget rankings and win streaks and title shots and all that jazz, this is a dream fight for a lot of hardcore fans out there and for good reason: Win or lose, Nate Diaz and Tony Ferguson come to play and it’s about time that they got to share the octagon with one another.
Still, it’s not as if it’s going to be all hugs and handshakes once Diaz and Ferguson square off. These two will do everything in their power to add one more headlining win to their resumes, which guarantees fireworks for all of us watching. Diaz wants to head into the next stage of his athletic existence on a high note, while Ferguson hopes to find any sort of success to extend the end of the road for at least one more fight.
I’ve always considered Ferguson to be the superior fighter based on their in-cage results, though the high volume attack of Diaz is the perfect foil for “El Cucuy.” Not to mention the fact that Ferguson appears to be just a tad more shopworn at this stage of their respective careers. After his deflating loss to Beneil Dariush, I vowed that I wouldn’t pick Ferguson to win a fight again and I won’t veer from that decision now.
Diaz overcomes a slow start before turning up the heat in the last three rounds, winning a decision, and riding off into the sunset with middle fingers raised high.
Khamzat Chimaev (3) vs. Kevin Holland
Let’s not overthink this pick here: Khamzat Chimaev is a great wrestler. Kevin Holland has poor wrestling defense. Chimaev is going to run through him.
After nearly derailing an entire pay-per-view with a truly egregious weight miss, Chimaev better put on an overwhelming performance against Holland. Anything less than a dominant outing will kill any sort of “heel heat” that Chimaev has built up for himself this past week and just make him someone that fans want to see go away. It’s one thing to play the bad guy, but you better deliver on fight night otherwise your shtick isn’t worth a dime.
Fortunately for Chimaev, Holland is a prime candidate to fall to his fearsome skill set. Holland’s best chance is to keep this one standing, get loose on the feet, and take advantage of Chimaev’s aggression. We’ve seen how creative Holland can get with his striking, so we know he has the tools to catch Chimaev should he make a mistake. He could also get the better of Chimaev in a slugfest, as Gilbert Burns almost did. Plus, Holland has two more rounds to work with than Burns had.
But again, often the most obvious answer is the correct one. Chimaev takes Holland down, beats him up, and finishes in the first.
Li Jingliang vs. Daniel Rodriguez
This has been a week of missed opportunities for Li Jingliang.
It all started off so innocently, with Li’s purchase of a sharp suit featured on Embedded. He was jazzed to show off his new duds at Thursday’s press conference, but that plan was spoiled when that event was cancelled due other fighters’ misbehavior.
Then he lost his fight with Tony Ferguson — an odd bout that was nevertheless highly anticipated by Li — through no fault of his own. His past opponent Khamzat Chimaev made a meal out of his weight cut and suddenly Li and the others had to make up for his mess. And that’s how Li ended up out of the co-main event and in a tough fight with a 180-pound Daniel Rodriguez.
I want to believe that Li will be rewarded for being a company man, but this is a difficult matchup for him on paper. “The Leech” has become one of the welterweight division’s most prolific finishers and his always improving striking will keep Rodriguez honest. However, I don’t see him putting Rodriguez away, which is a problem. Rodriguez is exceptional at winning decisions, while Li hasn’t had much luck in bouts that go past the second round.
Unless Li ends this one early, Rodriguez will figure out his rhythm and outscore him on the feet. Factor in the 10-pound advantage on the scales and you can see how Li faces an uphill battle.
Rodriguez by decision.
Irene Aldana (5) vs. Macy Chiasson (T10)
Welcome back, Irena Aldana, a clear-cut contender who has had a hard time getting fights to stay together. She had a huge fight with Germaine de Randamie at Madison Square Garden fall through last year, which likely would have crowned a No. 1 contender for the bantamweight title, and then missed out on a pivotal bout with Aspen Ladd this past April. In the meantime, the 135-pound division was flipped upside down (and then right-side up all over again).
So where does a win Saturday put Aldana and is she in danger of losing her spot to Macy Chiasson?
Striking-wise, Aldana is in another league from Chiasson. The Ultimate Fighter 28 featherweight tournament winner has a lot of natural power, but it’s difficult to picture a scenario where she beats Aldana in a traditional boxing match. If Aldana can stay out of the clinch and keep her back off the cage, she’ll pick Chiasson apart. Chiasson has to use her physicality to make Aldana uncomfortable, which is easier said than done.
There’s also an experience gap here that’s difficult for Chiasson to overcome so while I think she’ll be a game challenge for Aldana, it’s Aldana who comes out on top with a convincing decision win.
Buried under the myriad head-scratching headlines that have come to define this card is a matchup of quirky light heavyweights Johnny Walker and Ion Cutelaba. This was a popular listener pick on recent episodes of On to the Next One and for good reason. At their best, Walker and Cutelaba can be incredibly unpredictable and, thus, incredibly fun to watch.
Unfortunately for Walker, we haven’t seen the best of him in some time. For whatever reason, the once free-wheeling Brazilian has become remarkably gun-shy, which has made him easy pickings for the better fighters in the division. Cutelaba is a step back from the likes of Jamahal Hill, Thiago Santos, and Corey Anderson, but he’s dangerous in his own right, specifically in the grappling department.
Walker still has fast-finish potential, so catching Cutelaba early will be crucial to his success. If he can’t land that early knockout, Cutelaba will go to his grappling to control the fight. I just haven’t seen Walker do enough from his back to deter Cutelaba from attacking with wrestling and scoring from top control. Once Cutelaba starts raining down punches, it won’t be long before Walker wants out.