In terms of the competition, though, he’s all in.
Dariush (22-5-1 MMA, 16-5-1 UFC) is scheduled to face Tsarukyan (20-3 MMA, 7-2 UFC) in a five-round headliner at Moody Center. The main card airs on ESPN following prelims on ESPN+. With the No. 5 spot in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMA Junkie lightweight rankings, Dariush is in a position in which he has to defend his spot against No. 13-ranked Tsarukyan.
“In terms of status, nothing – I gain nothing from this fight,” Dariush told MMA Junkie and other reporters at Wednesday’s UFC on ESPN 52 media day. “If I win, I don’t think my ranking will change. If I lose, I’m definitely going to get dropped quite a bit. But I’m an athlete who loves to compete and I like to compete against the best people in the world. That’s what motivates me to compete.
“It’s not an issue of rankings. It’s not an issue of status, where it’s going to leave me. I want to make sure before I retire I fight the best guys in the world, and I think I’m doing that.”
Dariush, 34, has been consistent with his messaging about how he handles his career. He’s taken the matchups presented to him and fought downward on the rankings multiple times, but when he most recently had his chance to fight up, he stumbled.
After putting together an eight-fight winning streak at 155 pounds that included the likes of Mateusz Gamrot, Tony Ferguson and Drew Dober, he got the opportunity to fight former champ Charles Oliveira at uFC 289 in June. It did not go Dariush’s way, however, and he lost by first-round TKO.
Dariush said he learned important lessons from the defeat against the highest level of the weight class, and now he’s ready to show he can compete at that level against a surging name in Tsarukyan.
“I think he’s a stud,” Dariush said. “If you look at him in every aspect, he can fight: He can grapple, he can strike, he can mix it up. He’s 27 – he’s a young kid, and that makes him dangerous. When you’re young, you grow in leaps and bounds. I don’t look at him as the last fight or the fight before that. I look at him as a better version. What can he do to be better? I look at that version and prepare for that version.”
Tsarukyan enters UFC on ESPN 52 as a sizable betting favorite over Dariush. That’s a testament to the upside many people see in his career, but Dariush is here to shut that down – for now.
He knows it won’t be an easy task, but Dariush thinks he has what it takes to emerge victorious.
“I think the edge is going to be in experience,” Dariush said. “I think I’m more experienced and I can find little things here and there to create a greater gap between our skill set. I’m hoping I can create that gap and then find that finish, whether it’s a submission or a knockout. But the requirement is to be able to pull away slowly, because our skill levels are so close and his style is so good that I will have to break him little by little.”
For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC on ESPN 52.