UFC 266 notebook: Can Volkanovski silence doubters?

9/24/2021 12:29:07 PM EST

An undisputed UFC champion who holds back-to-back wins over Max Holloway, UFC featherweight kingpin Alexander Volkanovski faces another constant challenger: legions of doubters.

Despite the Australian's consecutive victories over the Hawaiian - both of which came by way of decision - many fans have been reticent to label Volkanovski the division's best fighter and contend that Holloway should've emerged victorious from either one or both of the two fights.

Volkanovski, 32, hasn't lost a professional fight since 2013 when he was fighting at welterweight. His UFC tenure includes impressive victories against featherweight greats like Holloway, Jose Aldo, and Chad Mendes.

In the main event of UFC 266, Volkanovski will face Brian Ortega, the division's second-ranked contender and his coaching rival during this past season of the Ultimate Fighter reality TV competition.

Ortega, 30, rose to prominence as a prospect in the featherweight division on the strength of his uncanny finishing ability as a grappler and has since developed a refined striking - particularly boxing - arsenal.

Following a blowout TKO loss to Holloway, Ortega took a respite from the sport and returned to a thrilling, career-best performance against perennial contender and fan favorite Chan Sung Jung, "The Korean Zombie."

The bad blood between Volkanovski and Ortega is real, but the technical competitiveness of the fight is a reason why many fans have circled this main event title fight on their calendars.

Speaking to the media, Volkanovski lambasted his foe for what he perceived to be Ortega's lack of professionalism, stating, "Hard work gets you to where I am. Talent only gets you so far, and he's unprofessional. He ain't doing what I'm doing. I guarantee you he doesn't deserve that belt. He ain't taking it from me."

Ortega, meanwhile, fired back at Volkanovski's trash talk and stated that he remains focused on the fight.

"I'm not here to talk s---. If he has something to say, I'll talk to him one-on-one when there's no cameras. F--- the bulls---. I'll come get you in person if you really want to go there. I'll come get you in the elevator if you want. I think if me and him were to be in a room and actually hang out for real, we'd be good acquaintances," he told MMA Junkie.

--Is Valentina Shevchenko Unbeatable?
In the co-main event of UFC 266, UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko defends her title for a record sixth consecutive time against former Invicta FC bantamweight champion Lauren Murphy.

Kyrgyzstan's Shevchenko, 33, has looked and been simply unbeatable since dropping down ten pounds after the inception of the flyweight division, where she has reigned as champion since a clear decision over ex-UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk in December of 2018.

One of the more well-rounded fighters in the Octagon, Shevchenko has stifled, knocked out, or ground-and-pounded her way through the division's top five in one of the more dominant runs in recent memory.

At UFC 266, she will face the third-ranked Murphy, 38. Despite a difficult start to her UFC tenure and a losing effort against inaugural UFC flyweight champion Nicco Montaño on The Ultimate Fighter Season 26, Murphy has strung together five victories en route to her first UFC title opportunity.

Speaking to the media ahead of the fight, Murphy said of Shevchenko, "You don't get to be where she's at by not being well-rounded and not being really, really damn good at everything, but everybody is human. Everybody has habits and things that are exploitable. Everybody has weaknesses. Anybody who thinks they don't have a weakness, that in itself is a great weakness. Everybody makes mistakes," (h/t MMAJunkie).

But given that Shevchenko has only lost to two women - a 2010 defeat since avenged to Liz Carmouche and two decision losses to UFC bantamweight and featherweight champion Amanda Nunes - in her career, it remains difficult to imagine her losing in the Octagon at flyweight.

The champion told the media, "For all the years that I was fighting, it's kind of hard to surprise me with something special if you are not a superhuman. I know she is well-rounded. I know she is strong. I know she is dangerous. This is everything that I have to know about her. But something special that I could put pressure on my shoulders? No," ((h/t MMAJunkie).

--The Return of Stockton's Nick Diaz
For the first time in a fitting 209 months, one of the more popular fighters of the last two decades returns to the Octagon as Stockton's Nick Diaz faces former UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler in a rematch 17 years in the making.

Diaz, 38, hasn't fought professionally since 2015 and notched his last official victory way back in 2011. Despite the lengthy layoff, few fighters or fights on the UFC 266 are more highly-anticipated by fans than Diaz.

An entertaining fighter who put on memorable fights and scored highlight-reel finishes across Strikeforce FC, PRIDE FC, Elite XC, and the UFC, Diaz earned a reputation as a fan-favorite in part due to his in-cage success, but also due to his unique and intriguing personality.

His career includes bouts against the likes of Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, B.J. Penn, Diego Sanchez, and a host of other notable competitors.

At UFC 266, Diaz will return on the pay-per-view main card against a former foe in Robbie Lawler, whom he defeated by knockout back at UFC 47. The 39-year-old has fallen mightily since his championship days, dropping his last four fights and four of his five outings since losing his title to Tyron Woodley in 2016.

But for Diaz, the Lawler fight didn't make much sense. In fitting Diaz fashion, his eyes are on a bigger fight:

"I think I'll beat the sh*t out of Usman," Diaz told ESPN MMA (h/t MMAJunkie). "I'll have a better shot against Usman than I do Lawler, just because I already beat Lawler. This doesn't make sense for me to go in and fight Robbie Lawler again. I don't know why I'm doing this. ... This should not happen. Whoever set this up is an idiot. I don't know why I'm doing this. I don't know why this happened. I should be fighting Kamaru Usman - and that's it."

Will Merab Dvalishvili Announce Himself as a True Contender?
While the main card of UFC 266 has received the bulk of media and fan attention, the bantamweight bout between former title challenger Marlon Moraes and surging Merab Dvalishvili on the preliminary portion of the event is a fight with significant implications for the division.

Georgia's Dvalishvili, 30, is currently ranked eleventh in the bantamweight divisional rankings. The winner of six straight fights, the high-volume pace pusher has announced himself as a contender in the making in recent performances.

In his last outing, Dvalishvili overwhelmed Cody Stamann en route to a unanimous decision, a win that followed similar showings against John Dodson, Gustavo Lopez, and Casey Kenney. Since his first two UFC bouts - losses to Ricky Simón and Frankie Saenz - Dvalishvili has been unbeaten in the Octagon.

However, he'll have his hands full at UFC 266 against former two-weight World Series of Fighting champion Marlon Moraes, 33.

Brazil's Moraes has faltered of late, dropping three of his last four including a championship defeat at the hands of retired dual-weight champion Henry Cejudo. Of the three losses, all three have come by way of knockout.

Despite the skid, Moraes' five UFC victories and the incredible level of opposition he has faced to date continue to see him ranked sixth in the division. As such, a victory for Dvalishvili would be massive for his career and title aspirations.

If Dvalishvili is able to put the sort of pace he has been known to push on Moraes and secure a win over his most notable opponent to date, he could very well signal his arrival as a major player in the division and break into the Top 10.

--Field Level Media

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