What can we take away from a unique main event at UFC 279 and victories from Nate Diaz and Khamzat Chimaev? Jeff Wagenheim, Marc Raimondi and Brett Okamoto offer up their thoughts from a highlight-packed event in Las Vegas.
The implication behind the term “Plan B” is that it’s a lesser option than the course originally plotted out. But UFC 279 ended up better off for the musical chairs that one day before fight night rearranged the top three fights on Saturday’s main card.
Nate Diaz was unquestionably the Las Vegas event’s top star, but with him poised to exit the UFC after this bout, the promotion did him dirty — a “punishment,” in Diaz’s words — by booking him in a fight whose transparent purpose was to, at Diaz’s expense, brighten the star power of undefeated wrecking machine Khamzat Chimaev.
But when Chimaev shrunk under the heat of his biggest career spotlight — triggering a backstage brawl on Thursday, then missing weight on Friday — the UFC reshuffled the deck and ended up with a main event pitting Diaz against Tony Ferguson.
It was a matchup of two fighters at essentially the same point in their careers. Diaz, 37, came in having lost three of his last four fights, with just a single victory since 2016. Ferguson, 38, had lost four straight. This was more appropriate matchmaking than sticking Diaz in the cage with an at-his-peak Chimaev, who ended up mauling Kevin Holland in the co-main event with boos cascading down from all corners of T-Mobile Arena.
The new main event, on the other hand, had the building electric with fans roaring from the get-go, much as MMA diehards had been expressing love for the reformulated matchup on social media ever since Diaz vs. Ferguson was set on Friday. Those two fighters have always been unpredictable, awkward and inimitable. What joint bizarreness would they bring to the cage?
The fight certainly lived up to all expectations on that note. Both fighters turned their backs to their opponent at various times; when Diaz did it in Round 3, it appeared for a second that we might have a “No mas” situation on our hands. But then the fighting resumed, and there were moments when each man pointed at the other with a smile on their face. Actually, that brings up the one thing that was missing on this night: Because of the mutual respect, we saw none of Diaz’s usual mean-mugging.
But Diaz did his usual stalking, and Ferguson utilized the unorthodox techniques for which he’s known. The fighters’ respect for each other’s skills kept the bout moving at a measured pace, steady but far from frenetic. As bizarre as things got, there was no chaos in the fisticuffs. Diaz was sharper with his punches, opening a bad cut near Ferguson’s right eye. And Ferguson’s relentless lower leg kicks left Diaz’s leg bruised up and compromised.
These injuries eventually added some degree of urgency for two men in danger of not making it to the finish line. So in Round 4, as Ferguson came forward, Diaz grabbed his neck and took the fight to the canvas, where he quickly finished Ferguson with a guillotine choke at 2:52.
Afterward, Diaz reiterated his respect for Ferguson, calling him “a worthy, OG representative of mixed martial arts.”
Then Diaz spoke of a future beyond MMA, saying he planned to take over other sports, including boxing. “Conor McGregor didn’t know how to do it,” Diaz said. “None of these other [MMA] fighters know how to do it. I’m gonna go out there, I’m gonna take over another profession and become the best at that … And then I’m gonna come right the f–k back here to get a mother—ing UFC title.”
That had to sound good to UFC officials, who have reaped massive financial rewards from Diaz’s ability to connect with fans and do what UFC president Dana White famously said Diaz could not do: move the needle in pay-per-view sales.
But fans surely won’t be sitting back and waiting for Diaz to reappear in the Octagon. In big numbers, they will be following him wherever he ends up next. I know I will be.
What’s next for Khamzat Chimaev?
A serious talk between him and his team … and the UFC.
Chimaev might have extended his unbeaten streak this week, but this was a loss for his career. The UFC teed him up as a fighter’s dream at UFC 279, and he flipped them the bird, if I’m being honest. You’ve got a main event fight against one of the most popular fighters in the sport, in a matchup where you are a significant favorite, and you miss weight? Making weight is not fun, and Chimaev cuts a lot of weight to make 170 pounds, but this is still inexcusable.
The UFC isn’t happy about it, nor should his team be happy. Chimaev has shown arguably more potential early on in his career than any fighter in the history of this sport, but if you can’t make weight for this spot — it’s a concern.
If he stays at welterweight, as he said he would do — along with middleweight — after the fight, expect the UFC to monitor his weight the next time. The matchup for him is Colby Covington. It makes all the sense in the world, and Covington is in the best position to test him. Great cardio and strong wrestling. And the ability to get one emotional, don’t forget that.
If Chimaev goes to middleweight, the obvious matchup is Paulo Costa, who he has heat with. My personal preference is Costa at middleweight, but either is good.
Business is about to pick up: The rise of the uber-villain Chimaev
Chimaev did just about everything wrong this week. He nearly got into a physical altercation with Costa at the UFC Performance Institute. He did get into a physical altercation with Holland backstage at what ended up being a canceled press conference. Then, the Chechnyan fighter blew weight by 7.5 pounds and lost his shot at a main event showcase against the wildly popular Nate Diaz. And yet, after all that, there’s little doubt that the UFC has something in Chimaev. Something that could be very big.
Chimaev absolutely ran over Holland in a hastily put together co-main event Saturday night. Then, in his postfight interview with Joe Rogan, he went full heel, seemingly relishing in the hearty boos being heaped on him by the Las Vegas crowd. Chimaev was defiant about the weight miss and screamed that he was going to take out all of the UFC’s fighters.
The truth is, there could be a lot of money in this for the UFC — Chimaev as the terrifying monster villain taking out all of the UFC’s fan favorites, like Holland. He absolutely has the skills to do it. And this week, he turned against the fans in what resulted in almost a pro-wrestling-like reaction Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena.
Villains sell. Just ask Muhammad Ali, whom Chimaev inexplicably referenced in his unhinged interview. Fans will pay their hard-earned money to see fighter after fighter come into the Octagon in an attempt to beat a seemingly invulnerable Chimaev. It’s compelling stuff. Like a real-life, bearded Drago.
Maybe this wasn’t such a bad week for Chimaev after all.
Johnny Walker with the big win … and a big mistake
Johnny Walker used to be a wildman, entertaining fans with his flying, spinning attacks. But after winning his first three fights inside the Octagon with first-round finishes, he met his match in a knockout loss to Corey Anderson in November 2019. What followed were losses in three of his next four bouts.
The Brazilian needed to change something. The Walker who showed up at UFC 279 was more disciplined, patient and well-rounded. He showed off the last of those attributes to finish Ion Cutelaba in the first round. Walker scored knockouts in 15 of his first 18 victories, but in this fight, he took his opponent to the canvas and methodically worked his way to a rear-naked choke submission.
If there was a lapse in Walker’s cage IQ, it came in his postfight celebration, in which he lay prostrate on the canvas and danced the worm. Why did this take away the Worst Celebration of the Night award from heavyweight Chris Barnett’s Richter scale-triggering front flip onto his derrière earlier in the evening? Because when Walker performed the worm to celebrate a victory back in 2019, he dislocated his shoulder and required surgery. C’mon, Johnny, what were you thinking going back to that dance? — Wagenheim
The records, stats and miscellany of UFC 279
Las Vegas witnessed more than just Diaz finish out his contract with Dana White’s promotion, as the UFC 279 fight card became unprecedented with the chaos that ensued in just making the card happen. Per ESPN’s Stats and Information, here are some interesting tidbits from Saturday’s action:
Due to so many fighters missing weight, the four “catchweight” bouts are the most on any fight card in UFC history.
The six fights on one card with at least one fighter missing weight are also the most in UFC history.
Until Saturday’s defeat to Diaz, Ferguson had never been submitted in the UFC and last was submitted in an MMA bout in 2009 against Jamie Toney via triangle choke.
Khamzat Chimaev, who missed weight badly for his weigh-in by 7.5 pounds, ended up in a matchup versus Kevin Holland. Chimaev’s overwhelming wrestling ability made for quick work in the Octagon on Saturday.
This is Chimaev’s fourth UFC win without absorbing significant strike in a fight, tying Anthony Johnson for most such wins in UFC history.
Neither fighter landed a single significant strike.
Chimaev joins Tom Aspinall as the only UFC fighters with 4 first-round finishes since 2020.
Chimaev found victory via D’Arce choke on Saturday, the second time he’s used the submission maneuver to win. Chimaev joins a tiny group of Vicente Luque (4), Tony Ferguson (3), Dustin Poirier (2) and Julian Erosa (2) as the only UFC fighters with multiple D’Arce Choke submissions.
If you were picking underdogs, tonight was your night.