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From a pay-per-view perspective, UFC 258 on Saturday in Las Vegas is a one-fight card. The good news? The one fight—a welterweight title clash between champion Kamaru Usman and challenger Gilbert Burns—ranks as one of the highest-level bouts the Ultimate Fighting Championship can promote at the moment. Beyond the headliner, the slate suffers from the fact that there is not much else in the way of immediate stakes. The Maki Pitolo-Julian Marquez opener guarantees action and everyone else on the main card has contender-level talent, but with UFC 259 and UFC 260 on the horizon, this one could be quickly forgotten.
Now to the preview for the UFC 258 “Usman vs. Burns” main card:
UFC Welterweight ChampionshipC | Kamaru Usman (17-1, 12-0 UFC) vs. #1 | Gilbert Burns (19-3, 12-3 UFC)
ODDS: Usman (-280), Burns (+240)
It has gone under the radar, perhaps since he is not a particularly exciting fighter, but Usman is on track to become one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all-time. Ostensibly the winner of Season 21 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Usman came off the show looking like a future title contender and never really veered from that track. His elite-level wrestling led him to control most of his early UFC fights without much issue—Leon Edwards looked like the best of his opponents in a breakout performance and still suffered a one-sided loss—and by the time Usman started getting some real tests, he was capable of performances like his quick knockout of Sergio Moraes. From there, Usman’s run to the welterweight title was fairly cut and dry. He outlasted and was not particularly tested by Demian Maia or Rafael dos Anjos, and his championship victory over Tyron Woodley was absolutely dominant. Woodley’s ability to create huge individual moments of damage figured to put some fear into Usman, but instead, he just marched down the two-time NCAA All-American, outwrestled him and seemingly broke him over 25 minutes. Usman mixed things up for his first title defense against Colby Covington—a high-paced war that saw him keep the fight standing to overpower a lesser striker—but “The Nigerian Nightmare” was back to his old form against Jorge Masvidal, grinding out an easy win. At this point, Usman does not appear to have any holes in his game. He can still theoretically be caught standing, but he is an above-average striker who can throw with power and volume. Whenever Usman eventually loses the welterweight title, it will have to be to another elite talent who can do a little bit of everything. That just might be a former teammate in Burns.
Like Usman, Burns was a top prospect for years, but the Brazilian’s breakthrough was much more sudden and unexpected. Burns was one of the best grapplers in the world when he moved into MMA, and that was still the book on “Durinho” by the time he made it to the UFC. Burns was lethal on the mat but still far from effective in many other parts of his game. He nearly dropped a decision to a then-unknown Alex Oliveira and got handled by Rashid Magomedov, so by the time he surprisingly lost a decision to Michel Prazeres, the worry was that Burns was a bit of a prospect bust. To his credit, Burns did develop a pressure striking game and some knockout power in his next few bouts, but the run was once again marred by a disappointing loss, this time a first-round knockout at the hands of Dan Hooker. However, in August 2019, Burns—he had been struggling to find opponents at lightweight—decided to take a late-notice bout up at welterweight against Alexey Kunchenko, at which point everything changed. Burns turned out to be one of those fighters where everything clicked up a weight class. With a better gas tank and less worry because of it, Burns’ pressure stylings became absolutely lethal. Add in his willingness to step in on late notice, and the Brazilian put together a four-fight winning streak— punctuated by victories over Maia and Woodley—that took him from unranked lightweight to top welterweight contender in less than 10 months. After COVID-19 scuttled a planned Usman-Burns fight last summer, he returns here to potentially culminate what would be a shocking rise.
Burns is clearly Usman’s stiffest test to date given the stylistic matchup, but at this point, it is difficult to pick against the champion. The main question, at least starting out, is whether or not Burns’ submission acumen will scare Usman off his usual style of clinching and grinding his way to victory. Against Covington, Usman decided to avoid wrestling completely and throw down, but that made more sense than it would here due to his opponent’s lack of knockout power. Besides, that may have been a level of grudge match where Usman just decided to fight against type in order to prove a point; and Burns may be able to win this on the feet anyway. These are two former mat technicians who had their striking built from the ground up by Henri Hooft, and Burns looks to be the more powerful hitter between two fighters with a similar style. However, that comes with a caveat: While Burns may be the harder hitter, Usman can also crack, and the Brazilian has been knocked out in the past. Add in the fact that these two are former training partners and may know a lot of each other’s tricks, and it makes a difficult matchup to call on paper even more of a coinflip thanks to those additional dynamics. At the end of the day, the bet is that Usman is the physically stronger fighter, which can allow him to control the wrestling and grappling exchanges that should make up most of this fight. Most believe he is practiced enough at this point to avoid a sudden submission. There is high upset potential here. This is more of a bet on Usman than a bet against Burns, but the pick is for the champion to retain his title via decision.
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