Before MMA became my obsession (and career), I spent a great deal of time at the horse races, both thoroughbred and standardbred, which is “the one with the guys in the little carts behind the horses,” as I often had to explain.
Going to and betting on the ponies was a family tradition passed down for generations, and what started as a day to get snacks and watch a couple races when I was quite little turned into something I cared a great deal about, eventually worked in, and followed intently. My brother was even more entrenched than me, pursuing a career as an announcer and television commentator for many years, as well as working hands-on for various trainers.
And because of those experiences and those neural links, I can’t help but make horse racing analogies all time, even if they don’t make that much sense to anyone else.
For example: last weekend’s event in Paris was, for me, the UFC equivalent of the horses coming out of the backstretch and hitting that big, sweeping turn that carries them to the top of the stretch — the setup to the big, final push to the finish line.
While the stretch drive is the most exciting, keen observers know that races are won and lost in that final turn. In terms of the UFC, the September slate is flush with critical matchups for a number of divisions, and what happened last weekend, and what happens this weekend and next will have an undeniable impact on how things line up heading into next year.
Here’s a closer look at the middle leg of the UFC’s three-week push towards the home stretch.
This is the UFC 279 Fight-By-Fight Preview.
*Nate Diaz vs Tony Ferguson
Welterweight veteran Nate Diaz arrives looking to play spoiler to Tony Ferguson's return to the welterweight division the same way he did in his impromptu first meeting with Conor McGregor at UFC 196. He’s dropped each of his last two outings but showed in the final minute of his UFC 263 clash with newly minted welterweight champ Leon Edwards that he’s always capable of shaking things up if you let him hang around long enough.
Ferguson returns to the 170-pound ranks for the first time since winning the welterweight competition on Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter. A long-time title contender and former interim lightweight champion, “El Cucuy” has dropped four straight after amassing an impressive 12-fight winning streak, and looks to reverse course with a move up in weight this weekend.
*Due to weight management issues with Khamzat Chimaev, Tony Ferguson steps in to replace the third-ranked welterweight in the main event.
*Khamzat Chimaev vs Kevin Holland
Rising welterweight star Khamzat Chimaev puts his unbeaten record on the line against a man looking to continue to make a name for himself in the welterweight division in Kevin Holland during this five-round co-main event inside T-Mobile Arena.
Undefeated in 11 professional starts and entering off a crucial unanimous decision win over Gilbert Burns in April, Chimaev now gets the opportunity to headline an event and potentially compete over five rounds for the first time. After storming through the competition in his first four UFC assignments, the fight with Burns at UFC 273 proved he was mortal, but also that he could navigate his way through a grueling, back-and-forth affair.
Following a breakout campaign in 2020 that saw him win five fights in seven months, Holland ran into struggles in 2021, resulting in two lopsided losses and a no contest verdict in a fight with Kyle Daukaus, all of which prompted him to decamp for the welterweight division. Since arriving, the 29-year-old “Trailblazer” has collected a pair of stoppage wins over veteran mainstays Alex Oliveira and Tim Means to rekindle thoughts that he’s a contender in the making.
The man come to be known as "Big Mouth" has an incredible opportunity on the line while having the chance to make a serious statement against Khamzat Chimaev.
*Due to weight management issues, Khamzat Chimaev will now face Kevin Holland in a five-round catchweight (180) co-main event.
*Li Jingliang vs Daniel Rodriguez
Chinese stalwart Li Jingliang looks to build on his Performance of the Night-winning effort in July by clashing with a dominant finisher in Daniel Rodriguez, who will be looking to break into the welterweight division's Top 15 himself.
A fixture in the Top 15 for the last several years, “The Leech” rebounded from his one-sided encounter with Chimaev at UFC 267 by registering a second-round stoppage win over Muslim Salikhov in mid-July on Long Island. The 34-year-old has put together a strong resume over the years, entering Saturday’s contest with an 11-5 mark inside the Octagon, with his best wins coming in his most recent victories, which suggests he’s in top form heading into this one.
In seven starts since getting called up to the UFC on short notice, Rodriguez has posted a 6-1 record, entering Saturday’s bout with Li on a three-fight winning streak. Last time out, “D-Rod” jumped into a short-notice assignment opposite Kevin Lee, dropped the opening round, and then rallied, earning a unanimous decision victory to further cement his position just outside the Top 15.
A win for either man on the weekend has the potential to carry them into a date with a ranked opponent next time out. You know what you’re going to get from the always focused, always crisp Rodriguez, but Li consistently brings the chaos, which is what makes this such an intriguing clash in the middle of the main card.
*The fight between Li Jingliang and Daniel Rodriguez will be contested as a catchweight (180) bout.
Irene Aldana vs Macy Chiasson
The main card rolls on with an important matchup in the bantamweight division, as Irene Aldana faces off with former TUF winner Macy Chiasson.
The 34-year-old Aldana returns for the first time since registering a first-round stoppage win over Yana Kunitskaya at UFC 264, in a bout where she missed weight by a considerable margin. She’s 3-1 in her last four outings, including a first-round knockout of Ketlen Vieira, and once again feels on the precipice of submitting her name for title consideration.
All things considered, Chiasson has had a pretty typical go of things since winning the featherweight competition on Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter. She’s earned five wins in seven starts, stumbling against more seasoned opposition, but continually shows improvements, as you would hope to see from someone that is just now 11 fights into their career.
Things at the top of the bantamweight division are still a little uncertain at the moment, as no one is quite sure what is going to come next for two-time champ Amanda Nunes. While it might be a bit of a stretch, a dominant effort for either woman in this contest could put them in the thick of the chase, so expect to see the very best of both Aldana and Chiasson this weekend at T-Mobile Arena.
Johnny Walker vs Ion Cutelaba
All-action light heavyweights kick off the main card as Johnny Walker collides with Ion Cutelaba.
Three years ago, Walker was the talk of the division — a rising star on a three-fight winning streak where each performance was better than the last. He was charismatic and creative in the cage, with a massive smile, an unorthodox approach, and undeniable power. Since then, however, it’s been a tough road for the 30-year-old Brazilian, as he’s dropped two fights on either side of his win over Ryan Spann, and enters this one still looking to recapture some of that early momentum.
Has anyone had a more frenetic, more chaotic 12-fight run in the UFC than Cutelaba? The 28-year-old bundle of angst and energy touches down at UFC 279 with a 5-6-1 record in the Octagon that includes various weigh-in tussles, some moments where he looks like a burgeoning contender, and his “I was just pretending to be hurt” loss and subsequent legitimate knockout loss to Magomed Ankalaev.
Both Walker and Cutelaba are guaranteed excitement when they compete individually, and I can only imagine what kind of chaos will ensure when they hit the Octagon together on Saturday night.
Hakeem Dawodu vs Julian Erosa
Fixtures in the featherweight division Hakeem Dawodu and Julian Erosa close out the preliminary slate on Saturday in what should be an entertaining clash from start to finish.
Dawodu has been on the cusp of breaking into the rankings for the last couple of years, but has never quite gotten there. A five-fight winning streak after dropping his promotional debut brought him close, but a loss to Movsar Evloev slammed the door closed. He rebounded with a good win over Michael Trizano last time out, and he looks to build off that effort here against Erosa.
Erosa is one of the better “feel good” stories in the UFC over the last couple of years.
A member of Team Faber on Season 22 of The Ultimate Fighter, he won his fight at the finale, lost his next bout, and was released by the promotion. Two years later, he earned a second-round knockout win on Dana White’s Contender Series, but didn’t get a contract, only to receive a short-notice call-back, which resulted in three straight losses and a second release.
A third chance to compete on the big stage came in the summer of 2020 and Erosa has made the most of it, posting a 4-1 mark over his last five fights, including stoppage wins over Sean Woodson, Nate Landwehr, and Charles Jourdain.
Dawodu is a polished, technical striker who likes to work clean, keep things standing, and look for openings to exploit, while Erosa is the opposite — a “go on feel” type of fighter who carries his hands low, will take one to land one, and has never seen a slight opportunity he wasn’t willing to chase after.
Jailton Almeida vs Anton Turkal
In a bout being held at a catchweight of 220 pounds, ascending Brazilian Jailton Almeida and newcomer Anton Turkalj square off in an intriguing fixture.
Almeida’s rookie campaign in the UFC began in February with a light heavyweight win over Danilo Marques, but got more intriguing when he ventured up to heavyweight and stormed through Parker Porter in May, extending his overall winning streak to 11 in the process. Now he’s committed to fighting in the big boy ranks and staring down an opportunity to punch his ticket to the Top 15, all before the one-year anniversary of the Dana White’s Contender Series win that resulted in his earning a UFC contract.
Speaking of the Contender Series, Sweden’s Turkalj didn’t get a contract when he defeated Acacio Dos Santos in Season Six’ opening week in July, but he did get a decision win to extend his record to 8-0 with seven finishes, so when Shamil Abdurakhimov was forced out of this weekend’s bout, the 26-year-old got the call. And while it’s a tough test to say the least, Turkalj now has his foot in the door with the opportunity to kick it down at T-Mobile Arena.
Denis Tiuliulin vs Jamie Pickett
Originally scheduled to compete in mid-July, middleweights Denis Tiuliulin and Jamie Pickett will finally meet in the Octagon as part of this weekend’s preliminary card slate.
Tiuliulin has been thrown to the wolves, literally, in his first two UFC appearances, as he lost his short-notice debut to “The Black Wolf,” Aliaskhab Khizriev, and now faces off against “The Night Wolf” on Saturday. The 34-year-old Russian, who trains at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, was 10-5 before his debut loss, and looks to return to the form that produced four stoppage wins in five starts prior to his arriving on the UFC stage.
It took Pickett three attempts to graduate from Dana White’s Contender Series to the UFC, and three appearances before he earned his first UFC win. After collecting consecutive victories over Laureano Staropoli and Joseph Holmes to bring his record to 2-2 in the Octagon, Pickett was submitted by Kyle Daukaus last time out, and looks to avoid a second consecutive loss here.
Each of these men has to feel backed into a corner as they head into battle this weekend, which should mean that we get a spirited clash as they work to maintain their place in the middleweight ranks on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Jake Collier vs Chris Barnett
Heavyweights also occupy the opening slot on Saturday’s televised prelims, as Jake Collier and Chris Barnett face off in what promises to be a slobberknocker for as long as it lasts.
Collier has alternated losses and wins throughout the entirety of his UFC career, carrying a 5-6 mark into UFC 279 after dropping a debated split decision to Andrei Arlovski last time out. The former middleweight and light heavyweight has shown flashes since returning from a nearly three-year hiatus and looks to put things together with more consistency starting with this fight on Saturday night.
UFC 279 FREE FIGHTS: Tony Ferguson vs Katsunori Kikuno | Li Jingliang vs Muslim Salikhov | Khamzat Chimaev vs Gilbert Burns | Khamzat Chimaev vs Li Jingliang | Nate Diaz vs Cowboy Cerrone | Nate Diaz vs Conor McGregor
A long-time favorite of hardcore fans, Barnett finally got the chance to compete in the UFC for the first time last spring, losing by submission to Ben Rothwell. He rebounded with a tremendous showing against Gian Villante at Madison Square Garden.
He dropped his last outing to Martin Buday and, like Collier, aims to begin putting forth more consistent results with a return to the win column here.
Norma Dumont vs Danyelle Wolf
After having her three-fight winning streak snapped last time out, Norma Dumont looks to get back into the win column as she squares off with debuting former amateur boxing standout Danyelle Wolf.
The 31-year-old Brazilian dropped her promotional debut to Megan Anderson in February 2020, but then rattled off victories over Ashlee Evans-Smith, Felicia Spencer, and Aspen Ladd to garner some momentum as a possible emerging contender in both the bantamweight and featherweight divisions. But she missed weight for a featherweight assignment against Chiasson last time out and then dropped a split decision on fight night, leaving her in need of a rebound this weekend.
Wolf had Olympic boxing aspirations, but switched to mixed martial arts when her weight class wasn’t added to the slate in consecutive Olympics. The three-time US National Boxing Championships winner defeated current Invicta FC bantamweight champ Taneisha Tennant by unanimous decision two seasons ago on Dana White’s Contender Series to earn her UFC contract, and finally makes the walk for the first time this weekend.
This is a critical fight for Dumont and a first look at Wolf on the biggest stage nearly two years after she punched her ticket to the Octagon. All bets are off in terms of how this one plays out, and that’s what makes it so intriguing.
Chad Anheliger vs Alatangheili
Bantamweights Chad Angeliger and Alatangheili clash on the early prelims in what should be an ultra-competitive, highly entertaining battle between two veteran competitors.
Anheliger took a long, winding, difficult road to the UFC, cobbling together an eight-fight winning streak following a 2-5 start to his career to land an opportunity on Dana White’s Contender Series. A hard-fought win over highly regarded Muin Gafurov resulted in a shot to compete in the Octagon, and the Alberta native made the most of it, collecting a third-round stoppage win over Jesse Strader in his promotional debut in February.
Five fights into his UFC tenure, Mongolia’s Alatangheili is 3-1-1 and coming off his most impressive performance to date — a first-round knockout win over Kevin Croom in April. The 30-year-old logged a lot of appearances early in his career and like Anheliger, was saddled with a less-than-inspiring record at different points, but he’s gone 11-2-2 over his last 15 fights and looks to be hitting his stride inside the Octagon.
This should be a lot of fun, as Anheliger is a crafty veteran playing with house money at this stage of his career, and “The Mongolian Knight” is a powerhouse for the division with designs on continuing to climb the rankings. Settle in and don’t miss a second of this one on Saturday night.
Melissa Martinez vs Elise Reed
Newcomer “Super Mely,” Melissa Martinez makes the walk to the Octagon for the first time on Saturday night, squaring off with former CFFC titleholder Elise Reed.
The 25-year-old Martinez is a perfect 7-0 in her career with a wealth of kickboxing accolades to accompany her undefeated mixed martial arts record. She flourished under the Combate banner, earning stoppage victories in four of her six appearances, and looks to establish herself as someone to pay close attention to in the strawweight division this weekend at UFC 279.
Reed’s promotional debut loss to Sijara Eubanks is a throwaway result — she was fighting up a division, against a fighter best suited to competing at bantamweight, and got beaten. Since then, she’s split a pair of appearances in the 115-pound weight class and looks to recapture the form that produced good wins over Jasmine Jasudavicius, Jillian DeCoursey, and Hilarie Rose prior to her UFC call-up.
Darian Weeks vs Yohan Lainesse
Welterweight still in search of their initial UFC victory meet in Saturday’s opener, as Darian Weeks faces off with Contender Series alum Yohan Lainesse.
Weeks has given a solid accounting of himself through his first two UFC starts, unanimous decision losses to Bryan Barberena (on short notice) and Ian Machado Garry. Originally scheduled to face kickboxer Cedric Doumbe in Paris last weekend, he shifts back Stateside in hopes that the third time is the charm as he squares off with Lainesse this weekend in Las Vegas.
Lainesse won the CFFC welterweight title with a second-round stoppage win over Evan Cutts last summer, and then followed it up with a first-round knockout win over Justin Burlinson in front of UFC President Dana White to earn his place on the roster. He landed on the wrong side of a stoppage last time out against Gabe Green, and aims to rebound from his first career loss with haste on Saturday.
UFC 279: Diaz vs Ferguson took place live from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 10, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!