I had been crapping all over UFC 279 for the entirety of the week leading into the event. While it still isn’t a good card, it does have a major wild card that I can’t remember to this degree. The top three fights on the card were all switched around the day before the event after Khamzat Chimaev missed weight for his scheduled welterweight scrap by 7.5 pounds. Nate Diaz refused to fight him at that weight – understandably – forcing Uncle Dana and the rest of the UFC brass to do some negotiating with all the camps. Thus, the top of the card originally looked like this:
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Nate Diaz
Tony Ferguson vs. Jingliang Li
Kevin Holland vs. Daniel Rodriguez
Now looks like this:
Nate Diaz vs. Tony Ferguson
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Kevin Holland
Jingliang Li vs. Daniel Rodriguez
That leaves an incredible amount of uncertainty as none of the six fighters is facing their original opponents. Will their training now have an adverse effect on their new opponent? How does it affect their mental state? How will it affect their long-term standing with the organization? Well, outside of Diaz of course. I’ll do a quick rundown of each of the contests, but the late nature ensures this won’t be my best work.
Nate Diaz vs. Tony Ferguson, Welterweight
Diaz emerges as the real winner out of all this. Not that he’s guaranteed to beat Ferguson – he’s not – but he gets a far more favorable matchup than he had against Chimaev. Thus, if Diaz leaves the UFC as he has talked about doing, he could be going out on top with his middle fingers proudly raised in the air.
The funny thing about all the last minute shuffling is that it’s also favorable to Ferguson. If Ferguson loses to Diaz, it won’t be any skin of his back. Diaz has a name and a reputation whereas a loss to Li would be a death knell to his marketability. Thus, even if Ferguson loses, he could still have the credibility with the fans to still be seen as a major player.
The reason this is more favorable for Diaz is Ferguson isn’t going to just bowl him over the way Chimaev would have. It isn’t that Ferguson can’t wrestle; he chooses not to, having last officially secured a takedown in 2015. Ferguson has been content to break opponents with his insane pace, unpredictability, and an ability to take an astonishing amount of punishment. It doesn’t seem like he can take the punishment like he used to… but will that matter with Diaz?
Diaz has never been considered a power puncher. Not that his boxing can’t hurt his opponents, but it usually comes in a punches in bunches style. Given Ferguson’s nonstop movement, it’s hard to see Diaz being able to land the strategic heavy-handed slap he tends to hide in his combinations. Not that I don’t think Diaz can’t outvolume Ferguson; he absolutely could. But I could also see Ferguson’s diverse arsenal putting him over the top of Diaz’s one-dimensional standup.
There is another wild card: desperation. Ferguson has lost four in a row. Even if a loss to Diaz doesn’t hurt him as much as a loss to Li, name a fighter who has come back from five losses in a row to remain relevant. Ferguson is eccentric, but he isn’t stupid. He knows Diaz is a poor defensive wrestler. Given how badly Ferguson needs a win – and he needs it much more than Diaz – would it be a surprise to see Ferguson utilize his wrestling? Perhaps for a good chunk of fans, but not to me. Desperation is the mother of all innovation… and we all know what an innovator Ferguson is.
There’s also the Diaz wild card. Ferguson isn’t going to break Diaz, physically or mentally. Again, that doesn’t automatically eliminate Ferguson as being able to win, but his typical road to victory is unlikely to be there. Plus, there’s a reason people were asking if Diaz could beat Chimaev. Diaz has a unique ability to pull something magical out of nowhere. His hurting Leon Edwards is a perfect example of that. I don’t want to see either man lose – perhaps we can get an epic back-and-forth battle that ends in a draw – but I have to pick someone. I’ll go with the Diaz magic to work itself one last time in the UFC. Diaz via decision
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Kevin Holland, 180-pound Catchweight
Chimaev has damaged his reputation more in the last week than he could have if his scheduled fight with Diaz had gone forward and he were to somehow lose. Perhaps in an attempt to establish himself as a gangster on par with Diaz, Chimaev got into several scuffles with damn near anyone who wasn’t in his camp leading up to the event. Then, not only does he miss weight by a ridiculous amount, he doesn’t seem to care that he did. If Chimaev doesn’t seem to care about his career, why should anyone else?
All of that said, it doesn’t mean Chimaev isn’t going to be a badass in the cage. This is a guy who tore through the first four opponents of his UFC career in a manner we had never seen before. He looked like a man among boys in the cage. Hitting takedowns at will. One-hitting-quitting established veterans. Carrying around his opponents around the cage like a young girl carries around her doll. Chimaev’s start to his UFC career was indicative of someone destined to be an all-time great. Hell, even though Gilbert Burns gave Chimaev a strong run for his money, it proved Chimaev can walk through fire and emerge victorious.
Of course, Holland has a bit of the Diaz aura in that he can pull something spectacular out of nowhere. Holland has a freakish reach which he has been able to make great use of. He isn’t the most consistent striker from the outside, but his unorthodox striking from particular angles makes him a unique challenge for anyone. And don’t let his skinny frame fool you; Holland can throw with some serious power.
The problem is, Holland moved down to welterweight in hopes of solving his issues with being taken down at will by his opponents. Against Chimaev, Holland is not only going to be the smaller man again; he’s going to be facing the best wrestler and most physically dominant fighter he has ever faced. Holland was easily controlled by the likes of Derek Brunson and Marvin Vettori. Sure, those guys are solid wrestlers, but they aren’t Chimaev. Holland is super tough and pretty damned durable to boot, but all I can see him lasting is past one round with Chimaev. Chimaev via TKO of RD2
Jingliang Li vs. Daniel Rodriguez, 180-pound Catchweight
The forgotten contest in this whole shakeup should be fun. Rodriguez has yet to be in a boring fight in the UFC and Li’s grinding ways haven’t been seen for several years. Sure, these two don’t have the name recognition of those above them in the card order, but they have an extremely good chance of stealing the show.
One thing that needs to be pointed out is the cojones on Li. Even though Rodriguez weighed in at 180 for his contest with Holland and Li at 170 for his fight with Ferguson, Li accepted this contest anyway. That puts him at one hell of a disadvantage in a fight that would require serious analysis to make a sound pick if they were on equal footing. It isn’t impossible for him to overcome Rodriguez, but there’s no denying he has an uphill battle ahead of him.
Rodriguez is and was one of the busiest fighters on the roster. He is in the sense that he throws a ridiculous amount of volume, more than willing to eat a shot or two in order to deliver two or three of his own. He was in the sense that he fought 7 times in the first 18 months of his UFC run. He’s returning now after a year away, needing some time off to deal with hand issues. There could be a silver lining in the layoff as I’m sure his hand wasn’t the only thing that needed some time to heal. At 35, Rodriguez got a bit of a late start in the sport and is now in his prime.
Li is a bit younger than Rodriguez and may even be a bit slicker on the feet. Plus, he’s extremely durable, never having been finished by strikes in his career. However, Li has also been fighting for a longer time than Rodriguez against a much higher level of competition. We all know granite chins don’t remain granite forever. Rodriguez may not be the hardest hitter Li has faced, but he will certainly test his chin multiple times over. Even if Rodriguez doesn’t finish him, it’s hard to believe he won’t hurt him. Li is a hell of a hitter himself, so him putting Rodriguez to sleep can’t be discounted. However, I do think those extra 10 pounds will make a difference in this fight. Enough that I’m going with Rodriguez. Rodriguez via decision