LAS VEGAS -- It's hard to tag a bout a must-win for a fighter who is 11-2-1 and has beaten some of the best fighters in the world. But if Gray Maynard wants to remain remotely in contention for the UFC lightweight title, then he has no other choice but to defeat Nate Diaz when they meet on Saturday in The Ultimate Fighter 18 finale at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Maynard's record is magnificent, and he was seconds away from having Dana White wrap the lightweight belt around his waist on New Year's Day 2011, when he knocked champion Frankie Edgar down three times in the first round of their bout at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.
But Maynard is just 1-2-1 in his last four fights and a loss to Diaz on Saturday would literally mean a year or more climb back to relevancy in the division.
The fighters are so evenly matched at the highest levels of the division that losses take on a lot more meaning. A series of losses can be a killer to one's title hopes.
Maynard not only hopes to win a rubber match with Diaz -- He lost to Diaz during Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter, then defeated him in 2010 in a closely fought rematch -- but to snap out of a recent doldrums.
He drew with Edgar on that memorable 2011 bout, one of the greatest matches in UFC history. He then was knocked out by Edgar in a rematch, eked out a close decision over Clay Guida in a terrible fight and then was knocked out by T.J. Grant in a title eliminator bout at UFC 160 on May 25.
Maynard is ranked fifth in the UFC's lightweight division and Diaz is eighth, but if he loses, it's impossible to see how he fights his way back into contention in a year.
The four contenders ranked above him -- No. 1 Benson Henderson, No. 2 Gilbert Melendez, No. 3 Grant and No. 4 Josh Thomson -- are a combined 22-3 in their most recent bouts.
So much is at stake for Maynard, who by any measure is one of the division's greats. But for a title shot to remain realistic, he has no choice but to defeat Diaz on Saturday. And it wouldn't hurt a bit if he were to look good doing it.