What’s Next for Volkanovski, Ortega, and Diaz After an Electric UFC 266?

Robbie Lawlar (left) lands a punch on Nick Diaz (right) during UFC 266 on Sept. 25 in Las Vegas.
Robbie Lawlar (left) lands a punch on Nick Diaz (right) during UFC 266 on Sept. 25 in Las Vegas. All Things MMA

Stare downs and Twitter trash talk? Weak. Looking for true, toe-to-toe UFC battles? Fighters brought it to MMA fans at the Octagon this past Saturday in Las Vegas. Now that the sport’s most dominant and transcendent fighters have answered the bell, it’s time to see who or what might be on deck for each fighter. 

Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega

On the main card, Aussie Alexander Volkanovski quieted his doubters with a tremendous title defense over a very spry Brian Ortega. After a season as opposing coaches on The Ultimate Fighter, the bad blood was thick between the UFC featherweight champion and challenger. After five savage rounds and a hard-earned unanimous decision victory for Volkanovski, there was little left for the men but a sporting hug after a brutal battle. 

Volkanovski toed a dangerous line on his way to a winning decision. Using feints to throw off Ortega’s timing, the champion busted up the challenger’s face before a third round slip nearly ended the fight. Ortega landed a punch on an off-balance Volkanovski and quickly locked the champ in a deep guillotine choke. Volkanovski was able to thrash his way free to end up on top, returning with a fusillade of heavy punches. As the big strikes dropped on Ortega, he was able to strike again in round four with his legs, catching Volkanovski in a deep triangle choke only to see the champion once again wriggle free. 

Though a busted and bruised Ortega remained game throughout the rest of the fight, Volkanovski dominated the action with leg kicks, heavy right hands and jabs en route to win a five-round decision 49-46, 50-45 and 50-44, continuing to own one of the most dominant championship runs in recent history. 

What’s next for the champion best known for his jiu-jitsu game? After besting Max Holloway twice (taking his belt in 2019 and defending it in 2020), “Alexander the Great” may have to answer a third challenge from Holloway in 2021. Holloway remains the top featherweight contender and, in some minds, the legit champ. Both previous fights went the distance and both featured controversial decisions. Some felt Holloway should have won the first fight and many believe he did enough to win the second. Should Holloway get past Yair Rodriguez on November 13 (no small feat, mind you), expect the UFC to set up the trilogy fight with Volkanovski.

Regardless of the public opinion, Volkanovski will likely never achieve unanimous support until he fights Holloway again. Ortega may drop a spot or two in the rankings, but look for the UFC to schedule him against a highly-ranked opponent as a de facto eliminator bout for the winner of Volkonovski-Holloway. Ortega fought – and lost to – both men, but he’s an evolving fighter with some of the best BJJ in the game today.

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Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy

The women’s flyweight co-main event at T-Mobile Arena was just a bit more one-sided. ​​Valentina Shevchenko stepped into the Octagon in her sixth defense of the women’s flyweight title as a ridiculously high favorite on Saturday. The odds against Shevchenko, it turns out, may have been too low. 

Despite Murphy stepping onto the mat on a five-fight win streak, she was never really in the fight. Shevchenko was relentless from the opening bell, landing a variety of strikes from all four limbs at multiple distances. The champion took Murphy down at will, dominating her on the ground as well.

After the fight (and post Shevchenko’s besting the Joanna Jedrzejczyks and Jessica Andrades of the world), the fighter has achieved an almost boring level of greatness, demolishing every flyweight she’s faced and taking out the best challengers available. It’s going to be hard to get up for her matches as rivals start to arrive from lower in the 125-pound rankings. 

For now, it looks like Shevchenko will face the winner of the Nov. 20 Joanne Calderwood vs. Alexa Grasso match. Calderwood was supposed to meet her last year, but ended up losing the shot when she took a fight against Jennifer Maia after Shevchenko got injured. If she bests Grasso, the shot is very likely hers. If the veteran Grasso, on the other hand, upsets Calderwood for what would arguably be her biggest win, she might get a shot at the champ.

Given the way that Shevchenko hones her craft and dedicates herself to continual improvement in such a demanding sport, neither fighter is likely have much chance. The best bet for UFC fans might be to keep admiring her greatness, even if it’s like seeing a movie they already know the end of. 

Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawlar

Though it wasn’t the main event, the night’s brightest attraction may have been 38-year-old Nick Diaz’s return to the Octagon after a six-year absence from fighting. Engaging in a battle with the equally grizzled Robbie Lawler harked back to their first meeting 17 years ago, but these were two men at the end of the line. 

Despite what could have been a sad sight at seeing two past-their-prime men duke it out, Diaz and Lawler treated fans to a relentless brawl that brought the crowd to their feet and a deafening roar to the rafters. In spite of an audience fully behind Diaz during the high-caliber affair, Diaz couldn’t answer the referee’s call early in the third round and lost to Lawler by TKO.

Neither Diaz nor Lawler looked to be in his prime, but they once again earned gushing fan adulation from every seat, keeping things real until the end. Though Diaz showed signs of his old self, it appears the time is nigh for him to step away from the sport. 

Diaz has never been shy about telling his audience he never liked to fight and the warrior’s mixed feelings for MMA over the last ten years came through in a raw interview with Brett Okamoto a few days before the fight. Brawling was just something he was born to be great at, even if it was an activity he ultimately loathed. 

“I’m glad I at least put on a show,” Diaz said after the fight. “I knew I had it coming from ol’ Rob and I had a lot of stress coming into this show. I have no excuses.”

If this his last act, Diaz left it all on the mat.

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