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Fans are back in the building for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s blockbuster pay-per-view event. A triple threat of title tilts tops the titanic tentpole triumph, with a main card that should excite any manner of fan. Multiple relative unknowns populate the prelims and the main card sees wide odds for two of the three championship affairs, but there are still ways to come out ahead. Join us as we swim through the waves of all three title fights, along with a fun middleweight scrap that should entertain for as long as it lasts, in this UFC 261 edition of Prime Picks.
Kamaru Usman-Jorge Masvidal 2 Goes to Decision (-180)
Usman is a prohibitive favorite at anywhere from -400 to -500, depending on the line you seek. Even a narrow play of Usman winning by decision, which would replicate his success from 2020, is a favored -130. Should you wish to pursue a specific fighter coming out with his hand raised, it would be this prop. The unflappability of both men lends credence to this headliner going the full five rounds, as both of them present the capability but not the history of finishing the other. Usman has never been beaten by stoppage, while Masvidal has not been put away since Bellator 5 in 2009. The safest money for this matchup may indeed be that it goes the distance, allowing for the unlikely outcome that Masvidal beats Usman to the punch long enough to take rounds and get his hand raised in the end.
There is a very likely outcome that this rematch plays out exactly as it did some 10 months ago, with Usman imposing his will after finding his range and getting past Masvidal’s strikes. There is reason to believe that of the two, “The Nigerian Nightmare” has improved while Masvidal, who has not fought since their first pairing, has treaded water. The “Gamebred” of 2021 will very likely be the same fighter who fought for the Strikeforce belt in 2011 and was a bad scorecard away from greatness for years. Put simply, there is no amount of grappling training one can do, no amount of high-level wrestling talents to put you through the ringer, that can prepare you for a champion like Usman. Masvidal’s strikes are accurate and powerful and he did some damage in the first round of their meeting, but Usman knows this and will likely take the path of least resistance.
The champion had a moment of surprise against Gilbert Burns in February, when the Brazilian rang his bell early on in their meeting. Usman gathered himself, started working away at a piston-like jab and thwarted takedown attempts as he gained steam. His most improved asset was not his wrestling, nor his clinch work; it was his jab. Much like Georges St. Pierre, Usman worked his jab to brilliant effect, but unlike “GSP,” the strike did major damage and put Burns down twice before the stoppage came. This power jab from Usman is a tool that he had not displayed even when wresting the title from Tyron Woodley, and it is one more to add to his arsenal that makes him an even more dangerous test for anyone.
Oftentimes, it is the threat of the takedown and not actually the takedown itself that can take a striker out of his element. When Masvidal knew Usman’s grinding clinch work into body locks and other takedowns would come, not only did his strikes landed diminish, but he threw less often. The numbers waning as the fight progressed was partially thanks to Usman’s smothering top pressure, as he maintained a consistent work rate and bullied Masvidal around the cage. Unless Usman wants to show off his new toy of this shockingly effective jab, which is where he could find himself getting marked up by “Gamebred,” this is his fight to win. The durability of both men means that this fight will go into the championship rounds and beyond, and the best explanation for this fight going 25 minutes instead of Usman winning by decision is if the champion tries to make a point and go punch-for-punch with the technical boxer.
Weili Zhang (-190)
Perhaps the easiest pick of the evening is not for a certain fighter to win. It may be that Zhang-Rose Namajunas should earn “Fight of the Night” honors for what should be a terrific battle. The stars are aligned for these two strawweight champions to toe the line, with Namajunas aiming to get her belt back after Jessica Andrade dropped her on her head. After a successful rematch with Andrade, Namajunas is in prime position to take on one of the best fighters the sport has to offer. Two volume strikers who are not particularly accurate but are effective will square off, and the smart money is on Zhang, having proven herself brilliantly in her last few outings. Namajunas could surprise if she gets off sharp boxing that catches Zhang off-guard and puts her longer jab to good use, but the champion can crowd the action well and force “Thug Rose” to fight off her back foot for long stretches.
In her sixth fight inside the Octagon, Zhang is ready to buzzsaw through her third former champ, with only Carla Esparza waiting in the wings as the final test among the division’s ex-queens. There are still other threats looming for the Chinese fighter should she get past Namajunas, namely powerful wrestler Tatiana Suarez and submission wiz Mackenzie Dern, but Zhang cannot look past Namajunas. “Magnum” has displayed grit and fearlessness in the face of a nearly unstoppable opponent, as she battered and disfigured but could not get rid of Joanna Jedrzejczyk in her last fight. In just five fights, Zhang is right near the top of the strawweight division when it comes to strikes landed per minute, and she is just a shade off of Jedrzejczyk and Andrade for those high marks. While Namajunas has wins over both of those women, the power of the Chinese fighter cannot be understated.
There is a slight misnomer with her strong 100 percent takedown defense, as she has only needed to fight off three attempts in her UFC tenure, and no more than one from any given fighter. A person that could put Zhang on her back for long periods of time could potentially have a leg up on the competition, simply because she has not needed to display those skills against top-tier tests on the major stage. She may yet pass the test with flying colors, getting up like Israel Adesanya or Robert Whittaker in a hurry, but this could be Namajunas’ best path to victory. There are intangibles that Namajunas will have to overcome, including her unexpectedly pointed political statements that some surmised were a motivational tool to try to “hate” her fighting rival and get her psychologically ready to compete. Namajunas will likely have to fight a perfect fight in order to get her hand raised, and it is hard to bank on fighters having their best possible showing. Savvy bettors on Zhang should be able to capitalize on odds below -200.
Jessica Andrade (+360)
The betting line appears off-kilter in this flyweight championship affair, and it is skewed so heavily in favor of Valentina Shevchenko due her relative dominance in the division. The match will be Shevchenko’s seventh in the division and she has barely lost a round along the way up, but she will be undoubtedly facing her toughest test at 125 pounds. It is not nearly as substantial as when Shevchenko closed as a -1300 favorite against Jennifer Maia or -870 against Katlyn Chookagian, but “Bullet” as a current heavier favorite than Usman over Masvidal is a bit of a stretch. As this line is so distant and should likely be closer, there is solid value on the biggest underdog of the night.
Shevchenko has the technical acumen and footwork that can keep her out of danger and away from the trap of walking straight backwards while Andrade rampages towards her. Even something as simple as circling along the outside while strafing to her right to avoid Andrade’s power right hand would play to her advantage. Her range and kickboxing prowess can keep foes at the end of her strikes and is essential against an opponent that closes the pocket like Andrade. An underrated aspect of her game is her grappling, and Andrade is strong but can be put on her back if someone tries hard enough. “Bullet” has landed takedowns in every one of her UFC bouts outside of her second meeting with Amanda Nunes, and it may come again in this contest. Keeping Andrade on her back and nullifying the ferocious power will work wonders.
Of the two fighters, Andrade is far the more active striker, landing at a clip twice as high as her opponent. Andrade can also spam takedowns like the best in her divisions, whether at 135, 125 or 115 pounds. “Bate Estaca” should utilize that pile driving power to her benefit, muscling the Kyrgyzstani-Peruvian fighter around and demonstrating her brute force. It may be a question as to whether Andrade’s power remains after the third round, as the only time she passed the mark inside the Octagon, Jedrzejczyk blanked her across 25 minutes. MMA math does not work in a vacuum, as Shevchenko later blanked Jedrzejczyk, so styles still clearly make fights. In this situation, the power, aggression and fearlessness of Andrade make her a tantalizing pick in the lone upset of the title trio.
Brendan Allen (-155)
Some nicknames fail to adequately describe a fighter’s true skillset, like Brad Pickett as “One Punch”—even though he only holds a pair of one-punch knockouts across his lengthy career and sports more submissions than KOs—or Corey Anderson’s previous option of “Beastin’ 25/8,” which did not mean anything. When it comes to Allen, “All-In” is perfect: The Roufusport prospect truly charges headlong into battle, throwing everything he has and the kitchen sink at his opponents. Until he met Sean Strickland in November, Allen had been surging with a seven-fight winning streak and five finishes along the way. His ultimate recklessness got him into danger against Strickland. When he faces Karl Roberson, as long as he does not rebound strangely from his first knockout loss, this wild ferocity will play to his advantage and likely result in a win.
Roberson fares best when is able to fight at his own pace, dancing to the beat of his own drum. When adversaries Cezar Ferreira, Glover Teixeira and Marvin Vettori pushed the pace on him or forced him to fight off his back, he was fully taken out of his element. Although more finishes have materialized from submission than from his strikes, Roberson’s hands are fast and have serious pop to them. Allen wading in with his chin up in the air could put him in the danger zone fast. “Baby K” does give up takedowns at a high clip, and everyone who has put him on his back has hunted for a submission of some sort. Count on Allen, whose preferred method of victory is by choke, to push the pace, put Roberson in a disadvantageous position and close the deal. One way or another, this fight is not likely going the distance, and a line of Under 1.5 Rounds at +125 is not a bad way to search out plus money.