JORGE MASVIDAL VS. NATE DIAZ
This is one of those fights nobody knew they were dying to see until Diaz stood in the center of the Octagon, praising Masvidal’s recent efforts and suggesting the two should share the cage. When the camera cut to “Gamebred,” standing in the audience with his hands behind his back in what is now his signature pose, everyone went nuts and the alarm bells went off.
And thus, the battle for the BMF title was made.
Diaz has always been a real one — a beloved fan favorite who values fighting a particular way more than results and refuses to compromise his beliefs for anything; that’s why it took three years to get him back in the Octagon following his two-fight series with Conor McGregor. But after piecing up Anthony Pettis in August, the younger half of the Diaz brothers dropped his Masvidal callout on the world and showed he’s ready to hustle right back into the thick of things with another sublime matchup that has captivated the audience the way few bouts could.
As for Masvidal, he’s always been a real one, too — it just took folks a little longer to really start paying attention and recognizing everything that is amazing about the Miami-born former street fighter. Yes, the man who introduced “super necessary” and “three piece and a soda” into the MMA lexicon has certainly opened up more in the last year, but from a swagger and performance standpoint, the soon-to-be 35-year-old veteran has always been ultra-skilled and ultra-suave.
What made this fight so appealing as soon as it was spoken into existence is that you know exactly what you’re going to get when these two step inside the Octagon at UFC 244: a good old fashioned scrap between two tough-as-nails talents who represent the no rules, handle your business roots of this sport.
There is no way this isn’t awesome.
UFC 244: Inside the Octagon - Masvidal vs Diaz
UFC 244: Inside the Octagon - Masvidal vs Diaz
KELVIN GASTELUM VS. DARREN TILL
You have to give it to Till, who is making his middleweight debut in this one.
After quickly rising through the welterweight ranks, he followed up his lopsided championship loss to Tyron Woodley by stepping in with Masvidal in the kind of dangerous return bout that can easily go south and leave you on a two-fight slide. That’s precisely what happened and now, even though he’s shifting divisions, the confident Scouser isn’t taking a step back — instead, he’s standing in against a perennial contender who went into the fifth round of a championship fight with Israel Adesanya earlier this year level on the scorecards and carrying all the momentum.
He’s either coming out on a three-fight losing streak facing myriad questions about his competitive future or right in the thick of the title chase in the 185-pound weight class. Either way, you have to tip your cap to the Merseyside man for rolling the dice and betting on himself here.
Gastelum returns for the first time since his epic Fight of the Year candidate against Adesanya in April, where he rallied back from being down early to batter the current champion like no one had done before. Moral victories don’t count on your record, but there were a heap of positives for the 28-year-old to take away from that effort and if he can dispatch Till in impressive fashion this weekend, Gastelum will find himself back at the front of the line of contenders heading into 2020.
STEPHEN THOMPSON VS. VICENTE LUQUE
It’s nice that on a fight headlined by a battle crown the baddest MF’er in the UFC, the undercard also features a contest pitting two of the nicest human beings on the roster as well.
Thompson is a two-time title challenger and the embodiment of the man every father would like to see their daughter marry one day. He’s clean-cut, polite and respectful, but he can also handle business if things get rough. With just one win in his last five starts, “Wonderboy” needs a victory in order to maintain his place in the pecking order and avoid the same “Now what?” question his brother-in-law Chris Weidman is currently facing.
The multi-lingual Luque is the Brazilian version of Thompson — well-spoken, thoughtful and considerate, though equally adept at taking care of himself if hands need to be thrown. Unlike his opponent this weekend, Luque enters on a lengthy run of success, having won six straight and 10 of his last 11 appearances, with all but one of those victories coming by way of stoppage.
Can the veteran contender get back into the mix by halting the upstart’s rise or will Luque keep rolling and give Thompson reason to ponder his place in the division heading into the new year?
DERRICK LEWIS VS. BLAGOY IVANOV
A year after challenging for championship gold, Lewis returns to New York City looking to snap a two-fight slide as he takes on Ivanov, who has won two straight after dropping his promotional debut.
While Lewis’ bouts are always must-see TV, what makes this one particularly compelling is that it’s his first appearance since having surgery to repair the various ligament issues in his knee that he’d been fighting with for the last several years. Think about that: as good as Lewis has been — he’d won nine of 10 prior to his current skid — and as athletic and explosive as he’s proven to be, he’s been doing it all with a seriously jacked up knee.
Ivanov made his first UFC appearance in the summer of 2018, dropping a unanimous decision to Junior Dos Santos in a bout that showed he was clearly deserving of a place amongst the division’s elite. Since then, the Bulgarian sambo specialist has posted consecutive decision wins over Ben Rothwell and Tai Tuivasa to establish his position in the heavyweight hierarchy and begin a march towards title contention.
With the championship chase currently slowed, this is a crucial contest to determine which of these veterans will take another step forward and which will be forced to take a step back as everyone waits for Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier to run it back one more time.
COREY ANDERSON VS. JOHNNY WALKER
There are a bunch dynamite matchups on this card where it feels like folks don’t quite realize just how outstanding those bouts are and this is definitely one of them.
Three straight blistering first-round finishes have taken Walker from being an intriguing newcomer to “The Next Big Thing” in the light heavyweight division in less than a year. The big man from Brazil defeated Khalil Rountree, Justin Ledet and Misha Cirkunov with such style and swiftness that it’s hard not to get caught up in his rare blend of charisma and clear talent.
Anderson is the polar opposite of his UFC 244 opponent. The 30-year-old TUF winner is a grinder who has grown incrementally over the course of his career, making small adjustments and improvements every step of the way to currently stand as one of the best fighters in the 205-pound weight class. Anderson earned a trio of victories in 2018, including taking out a pair of Top 10 stalwarts, and believes this is his opportunity to prove he’s the top contender in the light heavyweight division.
KEVIN LEE VS. GREGOR GILLESPIE
The contrast of what this fight represents for each man — at least in the eyes of the public and pundits — is what makes it such a compelling contest.
Just over two years ago, Lee rode a five-fight winning streak into an interim lightweight title bout against Tony Ferguson at UFC 216. He lost that contest, rebounded with a win over Edson Barboza, but has subsequently dropped his last two outings — a rematch with Al Iaquinta at the end of last year and a welterweight assignment opposite Rafael Dos Anjos this past May.
Once tabbed as a can’t-miss prospect with tremendous upside, the 27-year-old heads into this one looking to re-establish himself after enduring some tough results and switching up his training.
For the undefeated Gillespie, this pairing is designed to show just how good “The Gift” really is and determine if he’s ready to face the established elite in the 155-pound ranks. A perfect 13-0 in his career with six wins and five finishes inside the Octagon, Gillespie has manhandled his opponents on his way to becoming the latest “emerging talent no one wants to face.”
A standout collegiate wrestler who is equally happy to throw hands, the 32-year-old has quietly gone about his business, happy to stack wins and escape to the lake. But a victory over Lee on Saturday would propel him to the fringes of title contention and bring the kind of attention he’s thus far eschewed, establishing him as a dark horse candidate to challenge for championship gold in 2020.
SHANE BURGOS VS. MAKWAN AMIRKHANI
This fight is a reflection of how deep and talented the UFC featherweight division is at the moment as Burgos and Amirkhani are a combined 10-2 inside the Octagon, yet both remain a couple wins away from entering the title conversation.
Both men enter on two-fight winning streaks after suffering their lone loss inside the UFC cage — Burgos having bested Kurt Holobaugh and Cub Swanson; Amirkhani having dispatched Jason Knight and Chris Fishgold. Both are confident, well-rounded competitors with a knack for delivering eye-opening performances, so don’t be surprised if this one sends a shot of electricity through the building and is in the mix for Fight of the Night on Saturday evening.
BRAD TAVARES VS. EDMEN SHAHBAZYAN
Shahbazyan might be the best young prospect on the UFC roster. At the very least, the 21-year-old is amongst a handful of competitors worthy of consideration for such a distinction and now he’s looking to close out his impressive rookie campaign with a victory over one of the longest tenured fighters in the division.
Fighting out of the Glendale Fighting Club, Shahbazyan ran roughshod over the competition he faced on the regional circuit and followed it up with a 40-second stoppage win on Season 2 of the Contender Series, earning a contract in the process. After gutting out a split decision win in his promotional debut, the humble kid who was a training partner for Ronda Rousey at the height of her stardom has posted back-to-back first-round finishes, pushing his record to 10-0 in the process.
A fixture in the middleweight division since his days on Season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter, Tavares has become the test young hopefuls have to pass in order to enter the Top 10 and really start chasing the title. The Hawaiian veteran is 6-2 over his last eight fights with his only losses coming against the two men who just battled to unify the middleweight title last month — Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker.
Can Shahbazyan earn his fourth victory in 12 months and close out his first year on the roster as a Top 10 fighter or will the durable veteran Tavares turn back the young upstart and hand him the first loss of his professional career?
ANDREI ARLOVSKI VS. JAIRZINHO ROZENSTRUIK
Arlovski is to the heavyweight division what Tavares is at middleweight — a veteran presence who often lands opposite up and comers, tasked with determining who takes another step forward and who needs to step back and regroup.
Last time out, the former UFC heavyweight titleholder snapped a four-fight run without a victory by outworking fellow veteran Ben Rothwell, collecting his 17th UFC victory — a new divisional record — in the process. Hoping to make one more run at the title and ready to take on whoever the UFC puts in front of him, Arlovski had no hesitation in accepting this assignment, welcoming the opportunity to compete at Madison Square Garden.
Two fights into his UFC run, Rozenstruick has emerged as an intriguing addition to the heavyweight ranks.
The former kickboxer has posted consecutive stoppage wins, dispatching Junior Albini with a beautiful combination early in the second round of his debut and following it up with a nine-second knockout of Allen Crowder in his sophomore appearance earlier this year. “Bigi Boy” brings a different skill set to the table than most heavyweights and has shown he’s capable of settling things swiftly, so it will be interesting to see how the relative newcomer does against the division’s senior statesman on Saturday night in Manhattan.
JENNIFER MAIA VS. KATLYN CHOOKAGIAN
Dancing on Twitter didn’t earn Chookagian the chance to fight for the flyweight title, but it did land her another date with a top contender that could very well determine the next challenger in the 125-pound weight class.
Chookagian is 3-1 since returning to flyweight and 5-2 overall in seven UFC starts, with each of her losses coming by split decision against recent flyweight title challengers Jessica Eye and Liz Carmouche. She rebounded from her UFC 231 loss to Eye with a quality win over Joanne Calderwood and if she can add Maia’s name to her list of conquest by turning in a dominant effort on Saturday, the 30-year-old “Blonde Fighter” could end the year as the unquestioned top contender in the division.
The former Invicta FC flyweight champ, Maia had her six-fight winning streak snapped by Carmouche in her promotional debut last year, but the Brazilian has bounced back with unanimous decision victories over divisional stalwarts and established veterans Alexis Davis and Roxanne Modafferi in her last two outings. Like Chookagian, a strong effort here could vault Maia to the top of the list of potential opponents for reigning champ Valentina Shevchenko heading into next year.
LYMAN GOOD VS. CHANCE RENCOUNTRE
Hitting the cage second on Saturday is a welterweight clash between the local product Good and streaking Alliance MMA representative Rencountre, who enters on a two-fight winning streak.
Born and raised in NYC, the 34-year-old Good has gone 2-2 in four UFC starts, arriving to Madison Square Garden off a February loss to rejuvenated contender Demian Maia. Part of the Team Tiger Schulmann crew, Good will be making his second appearance at "The Mecca," as he scored a first-round knockout win over veteran Ben Saunders at UFC 230.
This will be the third time in four appearances that Rencountre has competed in New York state, as he dropped his short-notice debut to Belal Muhammad in Utica and secured his first UFC win against Kyle Stewart seven months later in Brooklyn. The 32-year-old member of the Osage Nation has looked very good over his last two appearances, building on his quick finish of Stewart with a hard-fought, clean sweep of the scorecards against Ismail Naurdiev last time out.
The middle of the welterweight ranks are always fluid and this is an opportunity for each of these men to deliver a strong performance and make a push towards the Top 15 to close out the year. Both are well-rounded and durable, so the potential is there for this one to set a high bar as the clubhouse leader in the Fight of the Night race on Saturday.
JULIO ARCE VS. HAKEEM DAWODU
You know a card is loaded when this is your opener.
Both Arce and Dawodu have won three of their four UFC appearances to date and they each enter off impressive finishes, the former having put Julian Erosa to sleep with a beautiful head kick in May, while the latter dispatched Yoshinori Horie in similar fashion two months later.
Featherweight is flush with talent at the moment and breaking into the Top 15 is a Herculean task, but a victory in this clash of promising upstarts will propel the winner closer to reaching that goal and set them up to face more established names in 2020.