LAS VEGAS — This was to be Nick Diaz’s night. The veteran returned to mixed martial arts after a mind-boggling nearly seven years on the sidelines. Imagine a quarterback who retired in 2015 coming back and starting in the NFL in 2021, or a pitcher doing the same.
It’s unheard of, something that is even hard to imagine.
Yet, that’s what Diaz was doing on Saturday against Robbie Lawler at T-Mobile Arena on the main card of UFC 266.
The crowd gave him a hero’s welcome when he made the ring walk and did everything it could during his bout to encourage him to victory.
But when the night was over, Alexander Volkanovski managed to steal the attention from Diaz.
Volkanovski won a unanimous decision over Brian Ortega in one of the greatest fights in the division’s history, retaining his featherweight belt and significantly raising his stature among the sport’s elite. Scores were 50-44, 50-45 and 49-46. Yahoo Sports hit ad it 49-46 for Volkanovski.
Not only did Volkanovski completely rearrange Ortega’s facial features — perhaps worse than what Max Holloway did to Ortega in their 2018 title fight — but he survived two significant submission attempts in the third round.
Ortega dropped Volkanovski with a left hand and quickly caught him in a mounted guillotine. The agony on Volkanovski’s face as Ortega squeeze was apparent, but he somehow managed to escape.
“I thought he was done,” said Ortega, who was transported to a local hospital for a precautionary examination.
He wasn’t, nor was he done a few seconds later when he was caught in a triangle choke attempt. Again, Ortega had it locked in tight and Volkanovski’s expression suggested a title change was imminent.
Not only did he escape, he wound up pummeling Ortega and nearly ended the fight in the waning seconds of the third. Ortega lay prone for 10 or 15 seconds after the bell sounded and was lifted onto his stool by his corner.
Ortega took so much abuse that UFC president Dana White felt Ortega’s corner would stop it before the fifth round began.
“That absolutely was the best [featherweight] fight I’ve ever seen,” White, who did not attend the news conference, said by phone to Yahoo Sports. “I thought [Ortega’s] corner should have stopped the fight after the fourth round and then he came out and won the fifth round. Incredible. Unbelievable.”
Their gutsy battle took the spotlight from Diaz, which was a hard thing to do. Diaz dominated the headlines all week, starting with a request to change the fight from welterweight to middleweight. Then he skipped media day, though he gave a rambling interview to ESPN where he said he didn’t understand why he was fighting Lawler and didn’t really want to be fighting at all.
The majority of questions at Thursday’s news conference were for Diaz, and he got a massive ovation at the weigh-in on Friday.
But when he walked to the cage on Saturday, it was like he was heading out for a major title fight, not returning to the cage for the first time in nearly seven years and looking for his first win in nearly 10.
He earned White’s admiration, despite getting stopped in the third when he appeared to quit after being dropped by Lawler with a right hook.
“Nick Diaz hasn’t fought in seven years and hadn’t really been training,” White told Yahoo Sports. “He blew me away. He looked way better than I expected him to. He is so tough, durable and literally a natural born fighter that kid.”
Lawler ended a losing streak, and said one of his goals was to prove he’s a better fighter than he’d shown recently.
But as good as he looked, it couldn’t compare to the display that Volkanovski and Ortega put on. This is one of those fights that will be on highlight packages for a long time, and the third round will be talked about as one of the greatest ever.
The momentum swings were drastic, and the toughness each showed was jaw-dropping.
“He’s good,” Volkanovski said of Ortega, whom he’d ripped as unprofessional throughout the promotion. “Of course, I’m going to say he’s not on my level and try to get in his head as much as I could, but fair play to him. He’s good.”
Volkanovski waited off to the side as Daniel Cormier interviewed Ortega in the cage following the fight. When Cormier was done, Volkanovski walked over to Ortega, grabbed him by the wrist and raised his arm.
It was a noble gesture, because Ortega performed like a champion and on most nights, against most men, he’d have left the cage with the belt.
Not on this night, though, and definitely not against this man.
Volkanovski’s first words on the microphone in the cage were to say he’s just a normal guy.
There was nothing, though, that was normal about what Volkanovski did Saturday. And it required that kind of effort to steal the headlines from Diaz.