Real or not: Nick Diaz returns to the Octagon in 2021? Bigger cage favors Israel Adesanya?


Is Nick Diaz ready to return to the Octagon for his first UFC fight in over five years? His manager told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani that Diaz is “100 percent” committed to fighting again, and the plan is for an early 2021 return.

The manager, Kevin Mubenga, even provided a video of a trimmed down Diaz, who apparently cut weight and is keeping an eye on the upcoming high-profile welterweight bouts, including Colby Covington vs. Tyron Woodley, which is set for Sept. 19.

Diaz teased a return during an interview with Helwani last November, but Helwani believes the latest correspondence should be taken seriously. Diaz has not fought since losing a decision to Anderson Silva on Jan. 31, 2015, which was later ruled a no-contest as both fighters failed drug tests.

Meanwhile, the UFC has tried to make Covington-Woodley on several occasions but was unsuccessful for various reasons. It finally looks like it’s on track, and it should be explosive with legitimate bad blood fueling the hype. It will be interesting to see Covington perform for the first time since a parting of the ways with ATT, while Woodley has been training with Covington nemesis Jorge Masvidal.

Animosity also punctuates the storyline for the next pay per view, featuring Israel Adesanya against Paulo Costa at UFC 253, set for Sept. 26, set for Abu Dhabi. Since the bout will be on Fight Island, it will take place in a bigger cage than the one in the UFC’s Apex facility in Las Vegas. Conventional wisdom suggests the extra space will help the rangy Adesanya. But will it?

ESPN’s MMA experts — Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi — offer insight on what’s real and what’s not concerning these fights and more.

Real or not: Nick Diaz will return to the Octagon in 2021

Helwani: I think it’s real this time. Nick Diaz isn’t doing a 14-week training camp just for kicks. I believe he was serious when he told me last November he wanted to return, but I don’t think it was the right time for him. Ultimately, I don’t know at this time what helped kicked this off, but what I do know is he appears to be in the best shape he’s been in in about five years. His team insists he’s “100%” coming back and is targeting a return in early 2021. I like the idea of Diaz fighting the winner of Covington-Woodley. He has history with both guys. Sure, he has not fought in almost six years, but hey, he’s only 37. The game misses Nick Diaz. It would be nice to see a healthy, fit Diaz back.

Real or not: Colby Covington will be too much for Tyron Woodley, even without training at American Top Team



Colby Covington speaks with Ariel Helwani about his decision to leave American Top Team, pointing to the issues he had with Jorge Masvidal, Dustin Poirier and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

Raimondi: “Too much” is a step too far. Should Covington be the favorite coming in? Of course. There’s no doubt that Covington has established himself as one of the elite welterweights in the world, a place where Woodley was not too long ago. Covington is an excellent fighter and a problem for everyone in the 170-pound division. But you cannot count out Woodley. Not with his wrestling prowess and one-punch knockout power. It only takes one for Woodley, and you know how badly he wants to land one of those on Covington, his longtime rival. Covington will likely apply the same game plan that Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns had for Woodley: suffocating him against the cage. Covington is absolutely good enough to do that. Has Woodley made the right adjustments? Can he put Covington in trouble with his hands? Those are the big questions coming in.

Real or not: The bigger Octagon will favor Israel Adesanya against Paulo Costa

Helwani: I believe so. The big cage will allow Adesanya to use his speed, length, range and striking in a much more effective manner than if they were fighting in the tighter, smaller cage. Costa would prefer to keep the fight close, so I’m guessing he was pulling for the smaller cage. But alas, this favors Adesanya much more, especially considering his movement. He will be able to flow in there and not feel suffocated. I favored Adesanya from the moment this fight was announced, regardless of cage size, but I think the fact that it’s happening in the bigger cage makes him an even bigger favorite.

Real or not: Leon Edwards shouldn’t keep waiting for a title fight and should face ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson next

Okamoto: All right, so this is a tough one — because at this point, Leon Edwards almost has to feel like any decision he makes will be the wrong one. Or at least, some bad luck will come along and mess up his plans. This guy has done his job. Eight wins in a row. Hasn’t lost a fight in nearly five years, and that was to Kamaru Usman, the current champ. Edwards knows the UFC is high on him and considers him a title contender, because the promotion was in contact with him earlier this year on a potential title shot, but the timing didn’t work out. If I’m him, I’m probably waiting it out. Usman is fighting Gilbert Burns next, and Edwards is, hands down, next in line. Especially now that Jorge Masvidal has elected to fight Nate Diaz next. That’s a fun, money fight, but it’s not a fight that propels Masvidal back into an immediate title shot. Now, I’m sure Edwards wants to fight and he wants to get paid, and waiting for the winner of a title fight in December is a long time to sit out. But my guess is that’s what will happen. Edwards will wait and fight the winner of Usman vs. Burns in 2021.

Real or not: The UFC is moving too fast with Khamzat Chimaev if it’s planning for him to fight Gerald Meerschaert on Sept. 19th and Demian Maia next

Raimondi: I’m not sure they are moving too fast. The main objection I have is it appears most people have looked completely past Meerschaert, a very solid middleweight with six UFC wins to his credit. Apparently, this also means that Chimaev’s next fight will be at middleweight and then he’ll drop down to welterweight for Maia — if he beats Meerschaert.

Meerschaert isn’t a household name, but he immediately becomes the toughest test of Chimaev’s career. Meerschaert has 44 career fights; Chimaev has eight. Even with how impressive Chimaev looked in mauling John Phillips and Rhys McKee in July over a span of just 11 days, that’s the kind of experience discrepancy that might make an athletic commission executive director — the person in charge of clearing bouts proposed by promoters — raise an eyebrow. On paper, it looks like a mismatch. In reality? It’s probably not.

Let’s say Chimaev does beat Meerschaert, who has a sneaky submission game and plus striking, Maia represents another huge step up. He’s not in his prime, but since the beginning of 2019 Maia has knocked off the likes of Ben Askren, Anthony Rocco Martin and Lyman Good. Last I checked, Askren is a pretty good grappler — like Olympic-wrestler good. Maia submitted him. Chimaev’s best asset is his grappling.

Late-career Maia would certainly be a heck of a litmus test for Chimaev. Maybe it works out, maybe it does not. It’s a risk putting a blue-chip prospect on this kind of fast track. But it also carries a hefty reward. With how good the UFC welterweight division has been lately, perhaps fast-tracking Chimaev is worth the gamble.

Real or not: Frankie Edgar vs. Dominick Cruz will be a fight to decide the No. 1 contender at bantamweight

Murphy: The bigger question is whether Frankie Edgar and Dominick Cruz will actually fight, not whether the winner would land a title shot.

That latter is all but certain. Cruz has one non-title fight in the last decade, a 61-second knockout of Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 178. Frankie Edgar, once a championship-only booking, shot up to fifth in the bantamweight rankings with a narrow decision in his divisional debut over Pedro Muhnoz. Marlon Moraes has taught us 135 is not a meritocracy, and yesteryear highlights carrying belts help marketability. Whoever wins instantly becomes the easiest sell for the Petr YanAljamain Sterling winner.

Whether it all materializes remains the greater uncertainty. Edgar, age 38, recently expressed interest in the “legacy” fight on Bruce Buffer’s podcast. Cruz, 35, has less incentive to rush in. He has an established broadcast career and isn’t exactly a model of activity or durability, with five appearances in almost nine years. Every day that passes diminishes both Edgar’s incentive to wait and public appetite. It’s a fantastic fight to make, but it needs to happen quickly.

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