Sherdog’s Top 10: Can’t-Miss Fights of Fall 2021

By: Brian Knapp
Sep 10, 2021

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Theirs was a rematch for which fans always pined but never foresaw coming to fruition.

Robbie Lawler and Nick Diaz will meet for a second time—an incredible 6,385 days after their initial encounter—when they collide in a UFC 266 welterweight showcase on Sept. 25 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Diaz knocked out “Ruthless Robbie” in the second round of their UFC 47 pairing on April 2, 2004, the epic barnburner helping to spur both men to eventual superstardom.

Diaz, 38, has not fought since he lost a unanimous decision to Anderson Silva in the UFC 183 main event nearly seven years ago on Jan. 31, 2015. The longtime Cesar Gracie protégé and former Strikeforce champion remains one of MMA’s most beloved figures, having secured 21 of his 26 professional victories by knockout, technical knockout or submission. Wins over B.J. Penn, Paul Daley, Hayato Sakurai and Frank Shamrock anchor the Diaz resume.

Lawler enters the cage on a personal-worst four-fight losing streak. The 39-year-old Sanford MMA rep has not competed since he dropped a unanimous verdict to Neil Magny at UFC Fight Night 175 on Aug. 29, 2020. Lawler has delivered 20 of his 28 career wins by knockout or technical knockout, 11 of them inside one round. His extensive list of victims includes Matt Lindland, Frank Trigg, Murilo Rua, Melvin Manhoef and Rory MacDonald.

The Lawler-Diaz rematch must-see fight in July. Here are nine more:

Christian Lee vs. Rae Yoon Ok
One Championship “Revolution”
Sept. 24 | Kallang, Singapore

A homegrown cornerstone of the One Championship organization, Lee will defend his lightweight crown against the surging Ok in the “Revolution” headliner at Singapore Indoor Stadium. The 23-year-old champion has rattled off six straight victories since being disqualified for executing an illegal suplex on Edward Kelly in 2018. Lee last appeared at One on TNT 2, where he needed just 73 seconds to bury Timofey Nastyukhin with punches on April 14. Ok finds himself on a four-fight winning streak. The South Korean contender last fought at One on TNT 4 in April, when he laid claim to a unanimous decision over former UFC and Bellator MMA titleholder Eddie Alvarez.

Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega
UFC 266
Sept. 25 | Las Vegas

Volkanovski will put his undisputed featherweight championship on the line when he confronts Ortega in the UFC 266 main event at T-Mobile Arena. The two men coached opposite one another on the recently completed 29th season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Volkanovski, 32, has strung together 19 consecutive wins since suffered his only professional setback—a technical knockout loss to Corey Nelson—in May 2013. The Australian champion last competed at UFC 251, where he escaped his rematch with Max Holloway with a five-round split decision on July 11, 2020. The once-beaten Ortega has won seven of his past eight bouts, a technical knockout defeat to Holloway the lone hiccup. The 30-year-old Californian last set foot in the cage at UFC Fight Night 180 on Oct. 17, when he took a unanimous verdict from Chan Sung Jung in their five-round headliner.

Douglas Lima vs. Michael Page
Bellator 267
Oct. 1 | London

Once was not enough. Lima will rematch Page when the rivals lock horns for a second time in the Bellator 267 main event at the SSE Arena. The Atlanta-based Brazilian emerged from their first encounter with his hand raised two years ago, when he knocked out Page in the second round of their Bellator 221 co-feature. Lima, 33, enters their latest battle on the heels of back-to-back losses to Gegard Mousasi and Yaroslav Amosov. The 34-year-old Page, meanwhile, carries the wind of a five-fight winning streak in his sails. The charismatic London Shootfighters star last fought at Bellator 258, where he rearranged Derek Anderson’s face and forced a first-round doctor stoppage on May 7.

Thiago Santos vs. Johnny Walker
UFC Fight Night 193
Oct. 2 | Las Vegas

Fireworks are all but assured when “Marreta” toes the line against Walker in a showdown between two offensive-minded Brazilians at the UFC Apex. The 37-year-old Santos finds himself in dire need of a victory following consecutive losses to Jon Jones, Glover Teixeira and Aleksandar Rakic. Despite his struggles, the imposing American Top Team representative maintains a Top 5 ranking in the light heavyweight division due to his strength of schedule. Santos has delivered 15 of his 21 career victories by knockout or technical knockout. Walker, 29, boasts six sub-minute finishes on his resume. The hyperaggressive Dana White’s Contender Series alum snapped a two-fight losing streak in his most recent outing, as he cut down Ryan Spann with elbows and punches at UFC Fight Night 178 on Sept. 19.

Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream the UFC, PFL, Dana White’s Contender Series and “The Ultimate Fighter” live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.

Vadim Nemkov vs. Anthony Johnson
Bellator 268
Oct. 16 | Phoenix

Nemkov will defend his 205-pound crown when he squares off with “Rumble” in the semifinals of the Bellator light heavyweight grand prix at the Footprint Center in Arizona. The winner moves on to face either Ryan Bader or Corey Anderson in the tournament final. Nemkov, 29, has put together eight wins in a row while emerging as one of the sport’s premier light heavyweights. The Fedor Emelianenko protégé last competed at Bellator 257 on April 16, when he captured a unanimous decision from Phil Davis in their five-round rematch. Johnson, meanwhile, returned from a four-year absence and made his successful promotional debut at Bellator 258, where he knocked out Jose Augusto Azevedo Barros in the second round of their May 7 pairing.

Chris Wade vs. Movlid Khaybulaev
2021 PFL Championships
Oct. 27 | Hollywood, Florida

“The Long Island Killer” will get his long-awaited crack at $1 million, but to complete his journey in the Professional Fighters League featherweight tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, he must succeed where 19 others have failed against the unbeaten Khaybulaev. A former Ring of Combat champion, Wade paved his way to the 145-pound final with victories over Anthony Dizy, Arman Ospanov and Bubba Jenkins. The 33-year-old Rockville Centre, New York, native has won eight of his 11 bouts under the PFL banner. Khaybulaev, 30, boasts an 18-0-1 record as a professional—a July 2019 majority draw with Andre Harrison the lone blemish on an otherwise pristine ledger. He advanced to the featherweight final with decision wins against Lazar Stojadinovic, Lance Palmer and Brendan Loughnane.

Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan
UFC 267
Oct. 30 | Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

The fate of the undisputed UFC bantamweight crown will hang in the balance when Sterling defends his title in an emotionally charged rematch with Yan at Etihad Arena. Their first encounter was marred by controversy, as Yan was disqualified and forced to surrender the 135-pound belt when he connected with an illegal knee strike on the “Funk Master” in the fourth round of their UFC 259 co-feature on March 6. Neither man has fought since. Sterling, 32, enters the Octagon with momentum on his side, the Serra-Longo Fight Team mainstay having won six fights in a row. Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Yan seeks to rebound from his first setback, self-inflicted or otherwise, in nearly five years.

Max Holloway vs. Yair Rodriguez
UFC Fight Night 197
Nov. 13 | TBA

Buckle your seatbelts. Holloway will do battle with one of the featherweight division’s top prospects when he meets “El Pantera” in a hotly anticipated UFC Fight Night headliner. The pair was originally scheduled to collide at UFC on ESPN 26 in July before an injury to the Hawaiian derailed those plans. Holloway bounced back from consecutive losses to Alexander Volkanovski with what many viewed as a career-best performance on Jan. 16, as he routed Calvin Kattar in a five-round unanimous decision at UFC on ABC 1. He set UFC single-fight records for total strikes landed (447), total strikes attempted (746), significant strikes landed (445), significant strikes attempted (744), significant body strikes landed (117), significant head strikes landed (274) and distance strikes landed (439). The 28-year-old Rodriguez has not fought since he posted a unanimous decision over Jeremy Stephens at UFC on ESPN 6 in October 2019.

Charles Oliveira vs. Dustin Poirier
UFC 269
Dec. 11 | TBA

The hunter will become the hunted when “Do Bronx” defends his undisputed lightweight championship for the first time against the indomitable Poirier. The 31-year-old Oliveira enters the Octagon on the strength of a remarkable nine-fight winning streak that stretches back to 2017. He completed his climb on the lightweight ladder and captured the vacant 155-pound title on May 15, when he brought down former Bellator MMA champion Michael Chandler with punches 19 seconds into the second round of their UFC 262 main event. Oliveira already holds the UFC’s all-time record for submission wins (14). Poirier, 32, has rattled off seven victories across his past eight appearances, losing only to the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov. The American Top Team star completed his trilogy with Conor McGregor at UFC 264, where he was awarded a technical knockout after the Irishman suffered a broken leg at the end of the first round of their July 10 rematch.
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