No Title Fights, No Problem: UFC 244 Could Be the Best Card of the Year

Despite having zero title fights on the docket for UFC 244 at Madison Square Garden, the card is loaded with big names, intrigue and potential classic clashes.
Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz

UFC 244 offers one of the most loaded fight cards of the year, presenting a unique attraction atop the card with Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal fighting for the title of baddest man in mixed martial arts.

The card, which takes place at Madison Square Garden in New York, is especially unique because of the lack of title fights. There are, in fact, zero titles on the line, rare for a pay-per-view and even rarer at MSG, with the non-sanctioned “BMF” title merely serving as show. UFC 244 is reminiscent of a fight era when cards did not need titles to close out the card.

In addition to Masvidal-Diaz, there are high-stakes fights that will help add clarity and direction to the heavyweight division (Derrick Lewis-Blagoy Ivanov), lightweight division (Gregor Gillespie fights Kevin Lee, who is getting very little attention entering this card), and a potential upset as Vicente Luque looks to knock out Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, as well as provides some definition to the future of Kevin Gastelum and Darren Till.

But the focus of the card surrounds the main event, as Masvidal attempts to elevate himself into an elite category of fighter with a victory against Diaz.

Here are the top five questions entering UFC 244:

1. Will Jorge Masvidal usurp Nate Diaz as the “baddest” man in the UFC?

Nate Diaz needs no introduction to fight fans.

Diaz (20-11) is one of the toughest fighters in UFC history, and his trips to the cage are raw, unpredictable, and incredibly fun to watch. He has far more name value than Jorge Masvidal, who, entering this fight, feels like something of an overnight sensation that that took 16 years to take place.

Masvidal (34-13) is coming off an emphatic statement with his five-second knockout of previously undefeated Ben Askren this past July. He will likely look for an early knockout against Diaz, but Diaz and Askren operate in entirely different worlds as fighters, so the chances of this happening are non-existent. Masvidal’s fight with Askren was all about the styles and being really prepared to seize on that moment, which Masvidal executed perfectly, but that will not happen against Diaz.

Masvidal-Diaz will be a drawn out fight. The two are equals in terms of all-out brawling ability. Masvidal will, however, run into trouble on the ground. Diaz is an elite jiu-jitsu artist. If they go to the ground, it is entirely Diaz’s fight–so Masvidal is better off playing this out in a scrappy war similar to Diaz’s fights against McGregor.

Diaz looked outstanding this past August following his three-year hiatus from the Octagon in a win against Anthony Pettis. Although Diaz is known as the more well-rounded fighter, the timing is ripe for a Masvidal win. If he can get it done against Diaz, then a title fight is next for Masvidal.

There will be a finish here, and Masvidal is my favorite to win.

2. Can the UFC continue to hold cards built around non-title fights?

UFC 244 contains a litany of wild fights with incredibly skilled fighters all the way through the card. This is the kind of card that can exist without a title fight, even at the mecca of all venues, Madison Square Garden.

I am a proponent of building marquee events without a title. In some ways, it actually heightens the stakes. The positive response UFC has received for this card, without a title fight, especially at MSG, is remarkable. Belts don’t always have to control the destiny of the card, and this is the perfect example. But is there enough star power to do it multiple times?

A fight pitting Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone against Conor McGregor would make for a compelling main event without a title, as would Diaz-McGregor III, if that fight is ever to occur.

There is room for non-title matches to headline cards, but the UFC just needs to be careful about picking its spots to ensure it only happens on special occasions to keep that heightened, intense feel.

3. Can Kevin Gastelum and Darren Till prove they are the fighters they were supposed to be?

The middleweight fight pitting Kevin Gastelum against Darren Till is an opportunity for both fighters to make a statement.

This should be a great standup fight with wild exchanges. These are two big middleweights that like to push the pace and both have a chip on their shoulder.

Gastelum (15-4-1) lost his last fight to Israel Adesanya in the fight of the night at UFC 236 this past April, while Till (17-2-1) has dropped two in a row after going 18 fights without a loss. Till was supposed to be the next big thing in the UFC, but hit a major road block when Masvidal knocked him out in March.

Both are hungry to prove that they are what everyone expected them to be. A win for Gastelum, which I expect will happen, should get him another shot at Adesanya.

4. Which of the other fights stand out?

The entire card is barnburner after barnburner. When Andrei Arlovski is jerking the curtain in a prelim fight on ESPN 2, then you know the card is stacked.

The battle of heavyweights between Derrick Lewis and Blagoy Ivanov is another interesting fight.

Lewis’ gas tank is always a question entering a fight. He has been open about his distaste for training. But competing against Daniel Cormier in a title fight a year ago elevated Lewis into the top echelon in the division, even though he has lost his past two fights. Lewis (21-7-1) looks great entering 244 and has a lot to prove.

Following his impressive run in Bellator and WSOF, Ivanov (18-2-1) entered the UFC with only one loss, but he has simply never been a top-tier heavyweight. I have questioned his ability to compete on an elite level, though he looked impressive in June in a victory against Tai Tuivasa at UFC 238. A win over Lewis and he’ll have a top five ranking and a potential title fight down the line, so the stakes are high in the heavyweight bout.

Vincente Luque (17-6-1) also looks to upset Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson (14-4-1), and, very quietly, Kevin Lee (17-5) could play an integral part in this card in a fight against the undefeated Gregor Gillespie (13-0). This is my pick for sleeper of the night; Lee has dropped three of his past four fights, and Gillespie wants to call Khabib after a win (extremely unlikely to happen this soon, but the potential call-out adds some excitement). Yet Lee is only 27 with a lot of fight left, and can use this win to return to prominence in the UFC.

5. What happens next?

If Jorge Masvidal wins, there are direct title implications.

He will be in front of the line for a Welterweight title shot against the winner of Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington, which takes place in December at UFC 245.

Diaz is not interested in title fights. He claimed recently to not even know who Colby Colvington is, and whether he knows or doesn’t, his point resonates: he only wants to fight big names that are on his level.

Conor McGregor certainly fits that description.

Diaz-McGregor III is a fight that needs to happen. That is a great fight and payday for McGregor, and adds closure to an incredible rivalry.

But the biggest story of this card is Masvidal. His moment to shine is coming.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.