UFC 266 Preview: It is now or never for the former Invicta champion

September 23, 2021January 5th, 2022

Expect fireworks when The Great and T-City lock horns, writes Nick Peet.

UFC International Fight Week returns next week after an enforced Covid hiatus and is capped by an exciting double-title fight main event at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Alexander Volkanovski defends his featherweight championship against Brian Ortega in the UFC 266 main event, whilst Arizona’s Lauren Murphy has the titanic task of usurping flyweight queen Valentina Schevchenko.

Volkanovski was due to defend his 145lb crown against Ortega back in March, only for a positive Covid test to scupper the matchup. And it was delayed further after the pair were confirmed as coaches for the returning season of The Ultimate Fighter.

After months of filming in Las Vegas, the two coaches finally throw down next weekend and unsurprisingly it’s the relentless little Aussie that starts as favourite. Back-to-back wins over Max Holloway, contentious as they were, define the 32-year-old’s career so far and ultimately landed him on top of the featherweight pile.

After an acclaimed semi-pro rugby league career, Volkanovski has lost just once inside an octagon – way back in his fourth pro fight – and now boasts an intimidating 22-1 record. The champion is strong, explosive, relentless and sets a tempo and pressure few men can handle. As well as Holloway, he also boasts a one-sided points victory over the other guy currently contesting the status of the greatest featherweight of all time, Jose Aldo, along with a second round TKO of perennial contender Chad Mendes.

Similarly, Ortega has lost just once in his 17 professional fights. The 30-year-old was on a run of seven finishes when he snagged his first UFC title shot at UFC 231 in 2018. But he met Holloway at his best that night and was beaten so badly the doctor was forced stopped to stop the fight. It was almost two years until Ortega returned, but when he did it was worth waiting for as the Gracie BJJ black belt proved he had clearly worked on his striking game as he boxed up Chan Sung Jung, aka ‘The Korean Zombie’, back in October.

It’s that latest performance that offers a glimmer of hope for the challenger. Should he handle Volkanovski on his feet to set up a takedown then absolutely Ortega has the ground game to cause all kinds of problems. But taking the champ down, getting him onto his back and ultimately keeping him there is the issue.

In the co-main, Murphy has racked up a solid five-fight winning run to earn her chance at UFC gold. At 38 it’s now or never for the former Invicta champion, who boasts nine finishes in her impressive 15-4 record, which includes fights as high as featherweight. Schevchenko, however, is likely the most technical and well-rounded female fighter the sport has ever seen. Her 21-3 record includes zero defeats in her natural flyweight division, where she is also on her sixth consecutive title defence.

The 33-year-old Kyrgyzstani-Peruvian is deadly at range with her array of kicks, ruthless up close with elbows and trips, and accomplished on the ground either throwing up submissions or down fight-ending elbows.

Volkanovski & Schevchenko Points Double: + 550.

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