Don’t look now, but UFC 279 just became a better fight card.
Leading into September’s UFC Pay-Per-View, the biggest criticism of the card was the blatant mismatch of the main event. To borrow a pro-wrestling term, Khamzat Chimaev vs. Nate Diaz felt like a squash match. Yet somehow, a large enough portion of the media and fans accepted the pairing to give it a pass, in a moment of what amounts to collective amnesia.
It’s as if the majority had forgotten just how badly such bookings had gone in the past. Supporters argued that Diaz could win the fight, just so long as it made it to the fifth round. Then he could mimic his performance against Leon Edwards, and mount a late comeback attempt (after all, Edwards himself did just that, far more successfully, against Kamaru Usman, right?).
Of course, that ignores the fact that as recently as this week, Diaz told all who would listen that he didn’t even want to fight Chimaev. It’s a fight he had turned down in the past, and for good reason. Feeding the old to the young may be a longstanding UFC practice, but it’s not a very positive one. Diaz simply wanted out of his contract at long last, and accepting the Chimaev fight got him the opportunity to test the free market and discover his worth.
And so he was willing to let the UFC build Chimaev off his name, even if it meant taking a drubbing. Asked during this week’s UFC 279 media day about training for the match-up, Diaz told media outlets including this one that “I gave up on preparing. Whatever. Beat me.”
Not exactly the sort of fight promotion the UFC was hoping for.
Then came the insanity of the UFC 279 pre-fight press conference, which was cancelled midway through when Chimaev engaged in altercations with both Kevin Holland and the Diaz camp. That was followed in turn by Chimaev grossly missing weight on Friday morning, coming in 7.5 pounds heavy for his welterweight main event with Diaz.
Suddenly, everything felt as if it was in slow motion. And just as suddenly, Diaz had all the leverage in the world over the UFC. He used that leverage, reportedly, to insist that he would fight Tony Ferguson, who made the welterweight limit on Friday, rather than Chimaev, who didn’t have the decency to apologize or even look ashamed as he stepped off the scale with a miss so bad it threatened an entire event.
Here’s the rub: Diaz vs. Ferguson is a better fight. A more competitive one. One the fans have wanted to see for years. Rather than a squash match, Diaz vs. Ferguson is two old warriors getting one last shot at glory. Both have enough name value to prop up a card, both probably have enough left in the tank for a few more highlights.
Chimaev vs. Holland, which the UFC secured as the new UFC 279 co-main event, is a better fight as well. Holland vs. Daniel Rodriguez was a fun fight for what it was, but Holland and Chimaev have some legitimate bad blood between them. While Holland denied that during this week’s media day, circumstances at the UFC 279 pre-fight presser belied his claims. And while Holland has struggled with his wrestling in the past, he has continued to work with former UFC welterweight champion Johnny Hendricks, visiting “Hedrickstan” frequently to shore up that vulnerability.
Khamzat should certainly provide an excellent test to see just how far Kevin Holland has come in that department.
Before we go further — there’s a narrative in play that Dana White and the UFC matchmakers “saved” the UFC 279 card by busting their asses to get these new bout agreements signed. While that is unquestionably an impressive feat and no doubt took some slick negotiating skills, the real heroes of UFC 279 are the fighters themselves.
In particular credit should go to Diaz, Ferguson, Holland, and Li Jingliang, the latter of whom will face an opponent in Rodriguez who didn’t have to cut nearly as much weight. As for Chimaev, it’s hard to give any credit to someone who missed weight in such a blase fashion, but at least he accepted the fight and demotion to co-main event.
It should be noted that none of the bunch had prepared for the fighter they were eventually paired up with, either. And so the fighters get the credit, not a handful of UFC execs who created the problem by booking a squash match in the first place, and who didn’t have a back-up plan in place reportedly until Friday morning.
Never mind the fact that a certain MMA journalist called these very match-ups a day earlier. Just call him Mystic Alex.
Cancel Chimaev vs. Diaz.
Diaz vs. Ferguson
Chimaev vs. Holland
Jingliang vs. Rodriguez
— Alex Behunin (@AlexBehunin) September 9, 2022
But let’s get back to the subject at hand: through nothing short of luck, UFC 279 is now a better card than it was just 24 hours ago. Yes, refunds are available for fans disappointed by the main event change, because regulations in Nevada require it. Don’t expect too many to jump at the offer. Instead of the UFC building Chimaev off the Diaz name, we now get a main event that many thought would slip away much as Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson had. Instead of a “fun” co-feature, we get a grudge match. And if you still want “fun,” well, Li Jingliang versus Daniel Rodriguez should be exactly that.
Not too bad a result in the end.