In as unique a pay-per-view main event as the promotion has produced in some time, UFC 279 touches down in Las Vegas on Saturday headlined by a crossroads welterweight bout pairing new sensation Khamzat Chimaev against legendary warrior Nate Diaz.
The fact that Diaz enters the final fight of his UFC deal — with the expectation being that he exits the Octagon for good — has only added to the soap opera elements of the fight card, which lacks a title bout of any kind and is anything but deep on paper.
As we draw closer to this weekend’s fight card inside T-Mobile Arena, let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines.
1. Nate Diaz’s willingness to accept this fight is the reason why fans adore him
He’s 37. He has just one UFC win in the last six years. He will also be facing an unbeaten future star who will enter the Octagon as high as a -1100 betting favorite. So why would the native of Stockton, California, sign on to face such an unyielding monster in the 28-year-old Chimaev? The romantic answer is that Diaz has always been about that life. (As older brother Nick once famously said, “Don’t be scared, homie.”) But the reality is that Diaz was tired of being put on ice by UFC brass. Was the promotion simply offering Diaz fights it knew he wouldn’t accept in hopes of awaiting Conor McGregor’s return from injury for a trilogy fight? It’s possible, but the better answer is that Diaz remains the perfect boxing opponent for YouTube star turned pugilist Jake Paul. Either way, Diaz was sick of waiting so he began pushing for the one fight UFC couldn’t refuse — a chance to potentially damage Diaz’s brand on the way out while giving Chimaev the best possible platform to become a crossover star before fighting for the 170-pound title. Knowing Diaz, he probably would’ve accepted this fight anyway, even without the contract drama. Let’s not forget, he has taken on the UFC’s prized calf before (McGregor) and was anything but surprised about the result.
2. Was Khamzat Chimaev exposed at all in his all-action victory over Gilbert Burns?
That’s the million dollar question for anyone hoping to make a big chunk of cash betting on Diaz as a massive underdog. Chimaev and Burns co-authored one of 2022’s craziest fights at UFC 273 in April, with the native of Chechnya, Russia, coming away with a close unanimous decision after three rounds. According to Chimaev, he purposely eschewed his dominant wrestling attack in order to showcase just how much of a savage brawler he can be if the moment calls for it. Others in the fight game, however, have openly pondered whether Burns’ ability to trade huge punches on relatively even terms proved that Chimaev was human (in ways his demolitions of Gerald Meerschaert and Li Jingliang failed to do). The Burns fight was notable because it was the first time in Chimaev’s 11-fight pro career that his opponent made it to Round 3. The Diaz fight will be Chimaev’s first attempt at the five-round limit and it just so happens to come against a fighter fit and dogged enough to never be truly out of a fight until it’s over. Just ask newly crowned welterweight champion Leon Edwards.
3. Tony Ferguson attempts a bold reinvention at 170 pounds
It was just over two years ago that “El Cucuy” was riding a 12-fight win streak in arguably the sport’s most dangerous division. No, Ferguson never did get the chance to finally challenge former lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov after five attempts by the UFC to schedule the fight. But the idea of Ferguson’s career falling off a cliff just as he was finally closing in on an elusive title shot didn’t seem realistic at the time. But Ferguson is suddenly 38 and riding a four-fight losing skid, which has included two devastating stoppage losses. The former welterweight winner of “The Ultimate Fighter 13” returns to the 170-pound division for the first time in 11 years when he faces Jingliang, the Chinese slugger who recorded knockouts in each of his last four wins. Will it get easier for Ferguson in his new division? Not likely, especially with how much damage his aggressive style often welcomes. Either way, Ferguson has been such a ready-and-willing warrior for UFC for so many years that the chance to do so has been earned. But the challenger Ferguson is taking on is very much an uphill battle.
4. Expect Kevin Holland-Daniel Rodriguez to steal the show
It’s a welterweight matchup (contested at a catchweight of 180 pounds) that hardcore UFC fans rejoiced upon hearing. Rodriguez, who enters having won 12 of his last 13, returns from a 13-month layoff due to a hand injury when he welcomes the brash Holland, who is 2-0 since cutting down from middleweight. Not only is this a pivotal pairing in the 170-pound rankings as each fighter looks to crash the top 15, the expectations from fans has been that this will be nothing short of a war. Yes, Holland can wrestle and he showcased his ground game in June by submitting a stubborn veteran in Tim Means. But Holland loves to throw hands just as much as he loves to talk and one can expect “D-Rod” to be a willing dance partner. Buckle up.
5. Johnny Walker is close to running out of chances
The 6-foot-5 Walker once seemed to never meet a spinning strike he couldn’t turn into a highlight-reel knockout. In fact, back in 2019, he looked to be one win away from an improbable title shot after opening his UFC career with a trio of first-round finishes. Walker has lost four of five since that time, however, and the most recent attempts from new trainer John Kavanagh of SBG Ireland to tone down the Brazilian’s high-wire act has been difficult to watch. Walker appears anything but comfortable in the cage these days and he’ll take on the rugged Ion Cutelaba this weekend in a light heavyweight bout that wouldn’t be inaccurate to declare as a must-win for Walker in terms of his overall job security at age 30.