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Most of the chatter around UFC 261 this Saturday will rightfully center around the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s decision to have a sold-out crowd in Jacksonville, Florida, but those in attendance at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena will get to see a loaded main card. Three title fights top this one, and while the headlining welterweight title rematch between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal does not feel super necessary, the supporting two title fights are absolutely excellent. Weili Zhang looks to further prove herself as queen of the strawweights against Rose Namajunas, and Valentina Shevchenko faces her toughest flyweight title defense yet against Jessica Andrade. Add in two relevant bouts as support, and this becomes about as strong as any UFC pay-per-view event gets.
Now to the preview for the UFC 261 “Usman vs. Masvidal 2” main card:
UFC Welterweight Championship#2 P4P | Kamaru Usman (18-1, 13-0 UFC) vs. #4 WW | Jorge Masvidal (35-14, 12-7 UFC)
ODDS: Usman (-420), Masvidal (+335)
With Khabib Nurmagomedov retired and Jon Jones in eternal negotiation limbo with the UFC, Usman would have to be the frontrunner for best pound-for-pound male fighter in the world. Usman came into the UFC as the ostensible winner of “The Ultimate Fighter 21” and was an obvious blue-chip prospect from the beginning, but it was still staggering to see just how easy his rise through the ranks went, at least inside the cage. Within a few fights, it became clear that Usman’s powerful wrestling game would be an issue for anyone on the roster, which in turn led to about a year in which he seemed to be treading water. Given the difficulty he presented as an opponent, there just was not much reason for any viable contender to take on such a tough fight with such little name value at the time. However, Demian Maia and Rafael dos Anjos stepped up to the plate to test Usman, and once “The Nigerian Nightmare” scored two one-sided victories, he was fully established and ready for title contention. Tyron Woodley figured to present some danger, but that fight was once again another clean win for Usman without much drama, as his strength and willingness to pressure laid the shallowness of the then-champion’s game bare. Usman’s first title defense against Colby Covington provided excitement, as it was an unexpectedly high-paced striking match, but it also came with relatively little worry that Usman could lose the belt at any time. Usman’s subsequent defense against Masvidal did not even provide that, as he mostly controlled a slow-paced crawl of a fight. That backdrop made it a shock when former teammate Gilbert Burns managed to stun Usman early in their February bout, and for the first time in the UFC, it looked like he was in danger of losing a fight. However, Usman regained control quickly enough to score a third-round finish, which in turn led to questions about who exactly would be next for such a dominant champion. Usman pitched in with his thoughts after the fight and had a surprising name on his lips: Masvidal, citing his desire to shut his former title challenger’s mouth once and for all. As a result, Usman wound up calling his own shot, and he faces Masvidal in a rematch just two months later.
Masvidal’s 2019 remains one of the best calendar years ever for a fighter, as “Gamebred” cashed in on a decade and a half’s worth of sweat equity to become an overnight sensation. Masvidal essentially trotted the globe for a decade before finding a permanent home in Strikeforce and ultimate the UFC, and while his talent was never in question, his ability to maximize it was often found lacking. Masvidal would inevitably have moments of success over the course of his fights, only to grow comfortable coasting afterwards, content that he had proven his point and won the fight as a result. Of course, this was often wrong. Assuming Masvidal did not score a finish, his wins would wind up closer than they needed to be, and his approach would lead him to many surprising losses on the scorecards. That issue reached its peak with Masvidal’s infamous 2015 split decision defeat to Al Iaquinta, which resulted in his finding a new home at welterweight. Masvidal had a bit of a rough start at 170 pounds but eventually found his footing. A 2017 knockout of Donald Cerrone got him to the fringes of title contention, though subsequent losses to Demian Maia and Stephen Thompson appeared to close that window. Masvidal then took all of 2018 to retool and regroup, setting up that breakout 2019 campaign in which he was able to show off his career-best form. Masvidal is still very much the same fighter on a round-to-round basis, but the small tweak of being more intentional towards hunting for a finish has paid off hugely. Darren Till lulled himself right into eating a blistering knockout in Masvidal’s comeback fight, which then set up one of the most impressive moments in UFC history—a five-second knockout of Ben Askren with a flying knee that will be on every highlight reel until the end of time. Masvidal was now a folk hero gone mainstream, enough so that he headlined Madison Square Garden against Nate Diaz for a “BMF” title belt, eventually winning the bout via doctor stoppage between rounds. That earned Masvidal a shot at Usman’s title, though not under ideal circumstances. Burns was Usman’s scheduled opponent for UFC 251 in July, but he contracted COVID-19, allowing Masvidal to step in on roughly a week’s notice. The result was an understandably flat performance, but Masvidal has kept enough cache and reminded everyone of those late-notice circumstances enough that he is worthy of running it back here.
The circumstances of the first fight were less than ideal for Masvidal, but things still played out as expected in broad strokes. Masvidal is dangerous in bursts, but his willingness to cede control and react to his opponents for large swaths of time figured to come back and bite him against Usman; and indeed, the champ was willing to take what was given and grind out an uninspiring win against the fence. For this rematch, that overall dynamic does not figure to change much. The difference? With closer to a full camp, Masvidal should be able to make those bursts of offense count for more and happen more often. It is still a low-percentage chance given the durability and poise that Usman has shown in the past, but this fight does at least come after his fight against Burns—the lone time in which the champion has appeared to be in any sort of danger inside the Octagon. Everything still lines up where Usman should be able to control a vast portion of this fight, likely against the fence, but find himself mostly neutralized by Masvidal’s skill and savvy, leading to a slow-paced decision won on control. Masvidal probably now has something like a 1-in-10 chance of finding a sudden knockout—instead of 1-in-20 in the first fight—but the likeliest result is still Usman via decision.
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