Diggin’ Deep: Can Diaz shock the world one more time?

Nate Diaz preparing to fight Jorge Masvidal at UFC 244 | Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Get the scoop on UFC 263’s main card undercard, featuring the first non-title five round contest outside the main event between a returning Nate Diaz and perpetually underrated Leon Edwards.

Is there anyone not surprised Nate Diaz was able to find a way to negotiate for his non-title contest with Leon Edwards to be a five-round fight? Oh, and it isn’t the main event either, making this contest a first in UFC history. In fact, it could be argued in advance that contest will be the most impactful one on this card, even ahead of the two title fights. That’s because Diaz may very well have opened the floodgates.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Will non-title five rounders outside of the main event become commonplace? Will it be a once a year thing? Once a month? Will it eventually trickle into Fight Night cards? There have been a wide variety of fights I would have loved to see go five rounds in the past that could get the treatment. Diaz has the type of leverage most fighters only dream of, but I expect it to be a far more regular occurrence as time goes by.

As for the fights, I actually find Diaz-Edwards to be the least interesting contest on the main card. The other non-title contests are much more evenly matched. Not that there isn’t a clear favorite in each of those contests, but it’s far easier to see the underdogs getting the damn thing done. Granted, Diaz has overcome significant odds in the past.

Leon Edwards vs. Nate Diaz, Welterweight

Did Diaz negotiate the five-round fight to give him an advantage? The Diaz brothers are notorious for their insane cardio, but it also wouldn’t be shocking to find out Diaz did it just to flex his leverage muscles and grant a historical footnote into his legacy. Whatever the reasoning, it was a smart move by Diaz, though I can’t understand for the life of me why someone as choosy as Diaz opted to take the fight with Edwards.

Edwards is a stylish nightmare for Diaz. Diaz is a pressure fighter who gets up in the face of his opponents. Edwards is an out-fighter who cuts excellent angles and picks his shots expertly. There’s no doubt Diaz will have some moments where he gets into Edwards’ face and lands some shots, but how many power shots will he eat from Edwards in the process? There’s no doubting Diaz’s toughness, but his durability appears to be waning. He ate several hard shots from Jorge Masvidal and was noticeably affected by them. Edwards isn’t the boxer Masvidal is, but he’s bigger and probably more athletic. If Masvidal can hurt Diaz, so can Edwards.

Long has the MMA world praised Diaz’s grappling and submissions. Owner of several highlight reel submissions – eight total in the UFC – opponents largely opted to avoid going to the mat with Diaz. However, there have been some exceptions. Rory MacDonald and Benson Henderson voluntarily ventured to the mat with Diaz time and again, ragdolling the Cesar Gracie protégé. Most wouldn’t place Edwards at the level of either of those two on the mat at the time they faced Diaz, but I believe that would be selling Edwards short. Outside of Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington, he’s probably the best wrestler in the division. Plus, Edwards has never been submitted throughout his career. I’m still willing to give Diaz the edge in BJJ, but his lack of wrestling next to Edwards has me giving the overall edge to Edwards as it won’t do Diaz any good if he can’t get the fight to the mat.

I did say Diaz was smart to make the fight a five-round fight due to his legendary cardio, but he’s going to have to make Edwards fight his fight for that to work. If Edwards is able to sit outside and pick his shots, he’ll be fine. If he can stifle Diaz’s pressure by clinching up with him, he’ll be fine. Not that Diaz sucks in the clinch, but Edwards is better, largely due his edge in physicality. Otherwise, Edwards will settle into a slow paced fight and he’s gone five rounds on several occasions with no problems doing that. A LOT needs to go right for Diaz to win this fight and I don’t see all of the pieces falling into place. Even a punchers chance seems remote as Diaz tends to rack up his KO/TKO’s with attrition rather than a single big shot. Edwards has long needed to make a statement and this will be the biggest stage for him to do so. I’m not sold on Diaz’s durability being what it once was, so I see a late stoppage for Edwards. Edwards via TKO of RD4

Demian Maia vs. Belal Muhammad, Welterweight

After nearly 14 years and 22 wins in the UFC, this could conceivably be Maia’s last career fight. Considered by many to be the best pure grappler in the history of MMA – no hyperbole, there is no one more technically sound than Maia – many would consider Maia to be more significant to the history of the organization than roughly half of the champions who strapped on big gold belts. Unfortunately for Maia, he never attracted much attention from casual fans, but there’s no doubt he’ll be sorely missed by the hardcore fanbase.

There is something that’s different about Maia than most other retirement fights: he’s still a viably ranked fighter. That’s a far cry from the likes of Diego Sanchez or Anderson Silva. A lot of that has to do with Maia emphasizing limiting the amount of damage he takes, only suffering two KO losses in his career. Plus, he’s always been an underrated wrestler. Sure, his technique tends to fade late in contests when he gets tired and desperate for a takedown, but it’s not an easy task to prevent the BJJ ace from securing takedowns early.

That’s going to be the issue for Muhammad. Not that he’s displayed poor takedown defense. In fact, it’s been extremely solid. However, Muhammad also hasn’t faced many opponents whose primary goal was to put him on his back. In fact, it’s usually been Muhammad who has pursued the takedown, utilizing timing and technique to do so. However, nobody believes he’s going to actively look to take Maia to the mat, largely since Muhammad is considered to have one of the highest fight IQ’s on the roster.

Muhammad’s road to victory is going to be behind his striking. Though he’s a pressure striker with an impressively deep gas tank, staying in the face of Maia leaves him open to Maia diving in for a takedown or snaking around to take his back. Muhammad has displayed the ability to stay on the outside and attack with his jab and low kicks consistently and I’d be shocked if that wasn’t his strategy here. Maia isn’t a bad striker, but aside from a brief period of time about 10 years ago, he’s always used that to set up his takedowns as opposed to making it his primary form of attack. In fact, the only victory Maia obtained via strikes was his MMA debut 20 years ago. There’s a part of me that feels like Maia is going to pull this out, but even if he gets Muhammad down, I like Muhammad’s survival instincts to allow him to either get back to his feet or hold on until the end of the round while delivering far more damage on the feet. Regardless, I expect the legend to be competitive, even in a loss. Muhammad via decision

Paul Craig vs. Jamahal Hill, Light Heavyweight

The majority of the MMA media was of the belief that Hill was getting his call to the UFC earlier than was good for him when he impressed Uncle Dana on DWCS in 2019. Instead of suffering the growing pains most expected, Hill has matured at a far more rapid pace than expected, disposing of longtime 205 mainstay Ovince Saint Preux to close out 2020. OSP has never been an elite light heavyweight, but he has generally been effective for separating the wheat from the chaff… and Hill passed the test.

That doesn’t mean Hill is a finished product. The southpaw struggles when his opponents are also fighting from a southpaw stance, his overall defense is lacking, and his takedown defense remains questionable. However, his positives far outweigh those issues and those are all issues Hill is working on. Given he’s still young in his career, it’s hard to believe he won’t get better in all of those areas. Besides, he has plenty of other strengths. If his opponent strictly fights orthodox, Hill does an excellent job of utilizing his 79” reach with a jab and attacks the body with both punches and kicks. His hands are fast and his ability to put together combinations has steadily improved. Plus, his work in the clinch against OSP was impressive, no small feat given OSP is one of the strongest members of the division.

More importantly, the clinch is one of Craig’s favorite areas to operate. Sure, he’s improving his ability to work at range, developing a jab and throwing out a high volume of front kicks, but he’s also used to being the longer fighter in the cage. However, even more important for Craig is the clinch is where he’s most effective at getting the fight to the mat, the area where Craig truly shines. All but two of his 14 career victories have come via a submission hold of some sorts, including a trio of triangle chokes off his back in the UFC.

Provided Hill can avoid hitting the mat with Craig, there’s no reason to believe he’ll come up short in his first PPV main card appearance. If this was the version of Craig from two years ago, I’d be picking Hill without a second thought. However, Craig has improved his takedown abilities beyond trips in the clinch, developing into a legit wrestling threat… not a great threat, but a threat nonetheless. Plus it’s hard to say if Hill has improved his takedown defense. Even with those questions, it feels wrong to pick against Hill given the rapid development he has shown in each subsequent contest. Hill via TKO of RD3

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