UFC 244 could easily go down as the biggest fight card of 2019 -- even though the headline bout involves one fighter, Nate Diaz, who recently took three years away from the sport, and another, Jorge Masvidal, who has headlined exactly one event in his UFC career.
There is also not a single championship fight to speak of. Except, of course, the one for the made-up BMF belt.
Saturday's pay-per-view event at Madison Square Garden is about as nontraditional as you can get, but it illustrates the power certain athletes are enjoying and perhaps a newfound willingness by the UFC to embrace different ideas and marketing concepts.
Don't forget, less than four months ago, the UFC was at odds with its biggest star, Conor McGregor, over a dispute about his potential placement on a summer card. The UFC wanted to book McGregor in the co-main event, behind a championship fight. The entire negotiation eventually fell through, in part due to a McGregor injury.
If New York isn't the beginning of a new era, it's at least an outlier worth noting. Diaz has willed this main event slot, and even the creation of a BMF belt, into existence with his enormous popularity. And it's very likely this welterweight fight will outshine next month's actual welterweight title fight between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington, which will headline UFC 245 in Las Vegas.
Longtime fans of the sport have to appreciate the irony in all of this. It took Diaz and Masvidal years to turn into household names and start generating the type of paychecks they long felt they deserved. And now here they are, breaking some of the unspoken, but very real, rules the UFC has traditionally lived by.
By the numbers
7: Consecutive fights in which Diaz (+120 as of Friday afternoon) has been the betting underdog, including this one. Nate won four of the previous six.
5: Seconds it took Masvidal to knock out Ben Askren in July, making it the fastest KO in UFC history.
2,131: Strikes by Diaz during his UFC career, the fourth most in promotion history.
2: Previous main event slots for Diaz in a UFC pay-per-view event. Both were fights against Conor McGregor (UFC 196 in March 2016 and UFC 202 that August).
26: Fights for Masvidal since he last was finished. That happened in a 2009 Bellator bout in which Toby Imada submitted him via the rarely seen inverted triangle. Since then, Jorge has finished eight of his opponents.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
A look back
Five vs. five
Jorge Masvidal's most recent results
Win: Ben Askren (KO1, July 6, 2019)
Win: Darren Till (KO2, March 16, 2019)
Loss: Stephen Thompson (UD, Nov. 4, 2017)
Loss: Demian Maia (SD, May 13, 2017)
Win: Donald Cerrone (TKO2, Jan. 28, 2017)
Nate Diaz's most recent results
Win: Anthony Pettis (UD, Aug. 17, 2019)
Loss: Conor McGregor (MD, Aug. 20, 2016)
Win: Conor McGregor (SUB2, March 5, 2016)
Win: Michael Johnson (UD, Dec. 19, 2015)
Loss: Rafael Dos Anjos (UD, Dec. 13, 2014)
"Ben Askren had never been knocked out when I got a hold of him. The dude from England [Darren Till] had never been knocked out when I got a hold of him. And the list goes on and on. If you look through my career, I put an end to a lot of guys [who had] never been knocked down, never been stopped. ... That's the only thing I'm trying to do, is take this guy out of consciousness for a while. That's my job. That's entertainment."
-- Masvidal, during a UFC conference call with the media
"I think it's already set in stone: I'm the baddest m-----f-----, and he's the runner-up."
-- Diaz, during the same media call
Dom & Gil's film study
Cruz on Masvidal as a stand-up guy
Cruz: Masvidal exhibits some high-level boxing
Dominick Cruz displays how Jorge Masvidal's boxing has caused problems for previous opponents. Order UFC 244 on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Melendez on Diaz making advances
Melendez: Diaz uses the pressure to his advantage
Gilbert Melendez breaks down how Nate Diaz applies pressure to his opponents. Order UFC 244 on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Brett Okamoto's prediction
Could be a tale of two fights. Early on, I like Masvidal's boxing and his power. I like his defensive grappling for the most part, especially against a non-dominant wrestler in Diaz. I also like his experience. I don't think a couple of "Stockton slaps" are going to throw Masvidal off his game. And even though they are both former lightweights, I look at Masvidal as the more natural 170-pounder. The longer the fight goes, however, the more it could favor Diaz and his unmatched cardio. Very tough fight to pick, but I'll go Masvidal via TKO, fourth round.
This fight show is brought to you by the No. 500
UFC 244 will mark the 500th live event in the fight promotion's history. How many did you see? Remember your first? Here are some numbers to ponder, compiled by ESPN Stats & Information:
Number of fights: 5,394
Number of fighters: 1,997
Number of male fighters: 1,834
Number of female fighters: 163
Number of champions: 95, including superfight and tournament champions
Number of cities that have hosted: 156 (Las Vegas has hosted the most events: 121)
Number of countries that have hosted: 28 (United States has hosted 334 events)
Number of continents that have hosted: 5 (No Africa or Antarctica)
Number of KO/TKO wins: 1,796
Number of submission wins: 1,121
Largest attendance: 57,127 at UFC 243 (Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya on Oct. 5 at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia)
Smallest attendance: 594 at UFC Fight Night 5 (Anderson Silva's UFC debut, a 49-second KO of Chris Leben) on June 28, 2006, at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas; the show was headlined by Jonathan Goulet vs. Luke Cummo and also featured future light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans as well as future welterweight title challengers Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch)
Longest title reign: 2,457 days by Silva, from 2006 to 2013
Shortest title reign: 33 days by Georges St-Pierre in 2017
What else to look for ... beyond the main event
The rest of the card, co-main event down:
PPV (via ESPN+), 10 p.m. ET
Kelvin Gastelum vs. Darren Till | Middleweight
Stephen Thompson vs. Vicente Luque | Welterweight
Derrick Lewis vs. Blagoy Ivanov | Heavyweight
Kevin Lee vs. Gregor Gillespie | Lightweight
ESPN2, 8 p.m.
Corey Anderson vs. Johnny Walker | Light heavyweight
Shane Burgos vs. Makwan Amirkhani | Men's featherweight
Brad Tavares vs. Edmen Shahbazyan | Middleweight
Andrei Arlovski vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik | Heavyweight
ESPN+, 6:30 p.m.
Jennifer Maia vs. Katlyn Chookagian | Women's flyweight
Lyman Good vs. Chance Rencountre | Welterweight
Julio Arce vs. Hakeem Dawodu | Men's featherweight
Dom & Gil break down the co-main event
Melendez says Gastelum needs to apply the pressure
Gilbert Melendez explains how Kelvin Gastelum must push Darren Till back to open up opportunities to display his punching power. Order UFC 244 on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Gastelum (16-4, 1 NC), coming off April's middleweight interim title bout loss to Israel Adesanya, has never lost back-to-back fights.
Till (17-2-1), moving up from welterweight, is on a two-fight losing streak after starting his career unbeaten in his first 18.
Strength in numbers at UFC 244
Fighters in the ESPN divisional rankings: 7 -- Derrick Lewis (No. 6 at heavyweight), Corey Anderson (No. 6 light heavyweight), Kelvin Gastelum (No. 3 middleweight), Jorge Masvidal (No. 5 welterweight), Stephen Thompson (No. 10 welterweight), Katlyn Chookagian (No. 3 women's flyweight), Jennifer Maia (No. 7 women's flyweight)
Former UFC champions: 1 -- Andrei Arlovski, who reigned at heavyweight from 2005 to '06
Title challengers: 7 -- Kelvin Gastelum (middleweight, 2019), Nate Diaz (lightweight, 2012), Darren Till (welterweight, 2018), Stephen Thompson (welterweight, 2016 and 2017), Derrick Lewis (heavyweight, 2018), Kevin Lee (interim lightweight 2017) and Andrei Arlovski (heavyweight, 2005 and 2006). Looking beyond the UFC, Jorge Masvidal challenged for the Strikeforce lightweight belt in 2011, and Lyman Good was welterweight champ in Bellator in 2009.
Top 10 vs. Top 10
A lot of high-level fighters will enter the Octagon on Saturday at the Garden, but only one bout will pit two ranked fighters against each other: the feature fight of the early prelims (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+) between Katlyn Chookagian, No. 3 in the women's flyweight Top 10, and seventh-ranked Jennifer Maia.
Chookagian (12-2), who has won three of her past four, is a victory away from tying Gillian Robertson, Joanne Calderwood and champion Valentina Shevchenko for the most wins in women's flyweight history.
Maia (17-5-1), who has had her arm raised in her past two fights, needs a win to tie Molly McCann for the second-longest active win streak in the division; Shevchenko has won four straight.
Cruz: Walker's movement leads to exciting finishes
Dominick Cruz breaks down how Johnny Walker has won his last two fights in thrilling fashion. Order UFC 244 on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Johnny Walker (17-3) has fought three times in the UFC, and he has won all three bouts by knockout, earning Performance of the Night bonuses each time (and celebrating with the "worm" dance). He KO'd Khalil Rountree in 1 minute, 57 seconds last November, TKO'd Justin Ledet in just 15 seconds in February and TKO'd Misha Cirkunov in 36 seconds in March.
That makes him one of three fighters (along with Vitor Belfort and Shane Carwin) to win each of his first three UFC fights within two minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. No one has done so in his first four, and with a KO at any point in Saturday's first five minutes, Walker would join Carwin as the only modern-era UFC fighter to start a career with four first-round knockouts.
Walker's opponent in the feature prelim (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Corey Anderson, also has won three in a row and also has some superlatives on his résumé. Anderson (13-4), No. 6 in the ESPN light heavyweight rankings, has 52 takedowns in his UFC career, the most in 205-pound history. He has the third-highest takedown accuracy in light heavyweight history (50%), and with a win, he would tie Ovince Saint Preux for the most wins in the division since 2014 (10).
Odds 'n' ends
The UFC has visited Madison Square Garden three previous times, and welterweight Stephen Thompson has been on two of those fight cards. He fought to a draw against then-champion Tyron Woodley in 2016 and defeated Jorge Masvidal in 2017. "Wonderboy" (14-4-1), who has lost his past two outings, faces Vicente Luque (17-6-1), winner of six in a row. It's a bout that, in contrast to the BMF main event, should have at stake a GG belt to honor two of the good guys on the UFC roster.
Gregor Gillespie (13-0) is seeking to become the third fighter to start 7-0 at lightweight (joining Khabib Nurmagomedov and Benson Henderson). He fights Kevin Lee (17-5), who is returning to 155 pounds after a one-fight detour to welterweight.
The featherweight prelim between Shane Burgos and Makwan Amirkhani has some superlatives attached to it. Burgos (12-1) has the highest striking rate (7.06 per minute) and the highest takedown defense percentage (94.4%) in UFC featherweight history. Amirkhani (15-3) has the second-best strike absorption rate (1.62 per minute) and ranks fifth among active 145-pounders in takedown accuracy (48.2%).
Brad Tavares (17-6 overall, 12-5 UFC), who faces rising contender Edmen Shahbazyan (10-0), is one win from tying Thales Leites, Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami for the third-most UFC middleweight wins, behind Michael Bisping (16) and Anderson Silva (14).
Andrei Arlovski (28-28, 2 NC), who faces 8-0 Jairzinho Rozenstruik, already has the most wins in UFC heavyweight history (17). If he wins by knockout, he would tie Cain Velasquez, Lewis and Junior Dos Santos for the most KOs. A finish of any kind would be the 12th of his UFC career, which would put him second in division history behind Frank Mir (13).