There’s a scene in the classic ’90s comedy “Dumb and Dumber” in which Lloyd, having straight-up traded their one-of-a-kind dog van in exchange for a minibike, pulls up to a hitchhiking Harry in hopes of getting the pair’s misguided cross-country trek to Aspen, Colo., back on track — after Lloyd took a wrong turn and got the dimwitted buddies way off course.
“Just when I think you couldn’t be any dumber, you go and do something like this,” Jeff Daniels’ apparently-still perturbed Harry growls at his pal, before the stunning 180-turn, “and totally redeem yourself!”
And that sums up pretty neatly the way virtually the entire combat sports world felt about how the monumental weight miss from headliner Khamzat Chimaev reshuffled Saturday night’s UFC 279 lineup on the fly Friday afternoon. The gargantuan gaffe led to something much, much more compelling.
What had once appeared as an apparent squash match between Chimaev, the mauling wrestler from Chechnya with limitless potential, and needle-moving but wrestling-deficient superstar Nate Diaz became the most sensible booking of the entire fight card. Diaz, unable to face Chimaev after a 7.5-pound whiff on the scale made a Nevada State Athletic Commission green light tough to achieve, was paired with Tony Ferguson. Like the Stockton, Calif., native, “El Cucuy” has been a reliable bringer of violence and elite 155-pounder for the bulk of the past 10 years. (In this case, though, the pair would meet at 170 pounds).
UFC president Dana White, speaking with media members after the conclusion of UFC 279, offered a peek as to how the paying public at T-Mobile Arena felt about the switch.
“Whenever the main event changes, you can refund tickets,” White explained. “Not only was not one ticket refunded, the day that all the craziness was going on, we sold 250 tickets.” He added the sold-out venue netted a $5.67 million gate and that pay-per-view sales “killed it.”
On paper, Diaz-Ferguson was a huge upgrade in entertainment value for the main event, the bout theoretically intended to lure those casuals who mostly know Conor McGregor and his various rivals — such as Diaz. From fans to reporters to fellow fighters, plenty could see Chimaev-Diaz looked to be booked solely to send Diaz into free agency with the dented value of a three-fight slide while offering some shine to someone who’s sticking around. It’s hardly sinister or unprecedented; just ask any fan of territory-era pro wrestling.
And Diaz-Ferguson delivered the carnage and curiosity typically associated with a Diaz fight — and that includes those of older brother Nick. Ferguson’s shin streamed blood from a checked kick as both men were happy to exchange on the feet for nearly 20 minutes. Diaz provided his expected gestures, like some playful finger-pointing, and threw in a little chit-chat with folks outside the octagon for good measure. He capped the night with a fourth-round guillotine submission of the former interim lightweight champion.
“I’m just here to get my job done,” Diaz (21-13, 17 finishes) said in the cage afterward. “I had one fight left. I told them, after not letting me have fights forever, give me anybody you got. And at least I got a worthy, OG representative of mixed martial arts [in Ferguson].”
Curious what the alternate-universe main event would have looked like at T-Mobile Arena? Perhaps you watched Chimaev run through Kevin Holland in this universe just before the main attraction. The Chechen, who faked a glove touch and shot for a takedown off the bat, put away Holland — like Diaz, weak to wrestling — with a D’Arce choke in just 2:13. Chimaev (12-0, 11 finishes) landed the only punch of the fight; Holland (23-8, 19 finishes) recorded no strike attempts. Maybe Diaz would have gotten a Stockton slap in there to spice it up, but hard to imagine Chimaev-Diaz going much different than Chimaev-Holland.
Rather than a distasteful, deflating end to this phase of Diaz’s career — he added Saturday night that he plans to “take over and own another sport, like you’re supposed to do it,” whatever that means — Nate looks great on his way out the UFC gate. Wins and losses have done little to dull Diaz’s shine anyway, but this was best-case-scenario stuff for a man who just might be able to “kill it” on his own if, say, he were to box YouTuber-turned-boxing lightning rod Jake Paul.
There’s no public acrimony between Diaz and UFC brass, with both he and White offering only thank yous and well wishes. Diaz didn’t close the door on a return down the line but made clear that he’s not re-signing with the promotion anytime soon.
It took a village to make — to paraphrase former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, Ferguson’s coach on “The Ultimate Fighter” — chicken salad out of chicken s–t. First and foremost, kudos to the fighters for rolling with the punches, with six men — Diaz, Ferguson (25-8, 20 finishes), Chimaev (yeah, even him), Holland, Daniel Rodriguez and Li Jingliang — all agreeing to compete against opponents they spent zero time preparing to face. Don’t forget all the unsung heroes that make the UFC machine go behind the scenes every week, like the video producers who cobbled together new hype packages with fresh fights.
And props to the UFC decision-makers who, on attempt No. 2, got the matchups right. They might not be happy with Chimaev, whom the unfilterable Diaz labeled a “b—h-ass rookie” for weighing closer to middleweight than welterweight on Friday, but through his combat sports cardinal sin, he let the UFC totally redeem itself.