The UFC has mastered the art of falling up.
When top contender Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID-19 last week, it should have spelled disaster for UFC 251, the promotion’s first “Fight Island” event of the summer; instead, the matchmakers were able to inject Jorge Masvidal into Saturday’s main event to challenge Kamaru Usman on less than one week’s notice and just like that, the UFC ended up with the welterweight title fight that fans had been clamoring for all along.
Not that UFC 251 would have been lacking in star power had Usman been left off the card. Tonight’s co-main event features Alexander Volkanovski defending his featherweight title for the first time in an immediate rematch against Max Holloway, and a battle for a vacant bantamweight belt between Petr Yan and Jose Aldo that would have made for a worthy headliner itself.
Also on the pay-per-view portion of the show, former UFC strawweight champions Jessica Andrade and Rose Namajunas face off once again, and Amanda Ribas meets Paige VanZant in a flyweight bout that will be the last fight on VanZant’s current contract.
What: UFC 251
Where: UFC “Fight Island” in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi
When: Saturday, July 11. The four-fight early preliminary card begins at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN+, followed by four-fight preliminaries at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.
Call Jorge Masvidal a journeyman if you want. If he actually beats Kamaru Usman on less than a week’s notice and becomes a UFC champion just shy of his 50th fight, he’ll have capped off one hell of a journey.
It’s worth mentioning that in reality, Masvidal has likely been preparing to face the champion for months now even as his dispute with the UFC over fighter pay played itself out in the public eye. But short notice is short notice, and while it’s admirable that Masvidal made championship weight under such difficult circumstances, it has to have taken a toll on him.
Facing an opponent like Usman every edge matters and “The Nigerian Nightmare” already has the advantage in several areas. His wrestling is elite, his striking is rapidly improving, and he has an endless gas tank. Usman might not be the best in the world in any category, but when you can check off as many boxes as he can, that’s a formula for greatness.
Masvidal will give Usman problems on the feet and the first two rounds should be competitive as long as Masvidal’s takedown defense holds up. The versatility of Usman will turn the tide though and he’ll use a steady diet of range striking and pressing Masvidal against the fence to frustrate “Gamebred.” Look for Usman to assert himself in the championship rounds and pull away on the scorecards with a few key takedowns.
Usman by decision.
Count me among the prognosticators who expected Max Holloway to retain against Alexander Volkanovski the first time they fought. And count me among those making that same pick again.
Make no mistake, Volkanovski’s first win over Holloway was convincing. He outworked and out-struck Holloway, bludgeoning the lead leg and controlling the distance through the first three rounds. Holloway gained some steam in rounds four and five, but Volkanovski walked out the rightful victor that day.
Holloway’s success is going to be dependent on stopping Volkanovski’s leg kick game in the early going. It was all downhill for Holloway after Volkanovski took away Holloway’s ability to switch stances, leaving Holloway with no answer for the varied striking attack that followed. If Holloway can fight from orthodox stance more in this fight, his chances greatly improve.
Volkanovski’s brilliant performance absolutely robbed Holloway of his ability to show off his famed volume striking, another factor that will be key in Holloway evening the score. Few fighters can survive a full-on assault from “Blessed” once he starts rolling and as tough as Volkanovski is, his defense could be put to the test.
Fighters always learn more from their losses than their wins and Volkanovski taught Holloway a major lesson last time. A humbled Holloway strikes back with a vengeance in the rematch.
Stylistically, how can you not love Jose Aldo’s chances here? This will primarily be a standup affair and when we’re talking about one of the greatest strikers to ever compete in the UFC, you can never count him out even when he’s facing an absolute beast like Petr Yan.
Though he couldn’t win over the judges, Aldo at times looked like his old self against Marlon Moraes, even if there was an extra gear that appeared to be missing. Remember that prior to his losses to Moraes and Alexander Volkanovski, Aldo made mincemeat out of Renato Moicano and Jeremy Stephens. He’s still a cut above in the striking department.
However, he’s also a step slower than he used to be and that one step makes all the difference in a fight of this magnitude. Yan’s standup game is thrilling, filled with creativity and explosive techniques that he can unleash with little setup. One can picture Aldo hanging with him early and even winning a round or two, but going the full five with a younger, speedier fighter at this point in his career? It’s a tough ask.
Say what you will about Aldo being granted this title shot, but at the end of the day he’s guaranteed to give you a competitive championship fight. There just isn’t enough in the tank these days for him to stop Yan’s march to the top.
Rose Namajunas is getting a chance to right her own wrong here.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that “Thug Rose” looked as good as ever in her first meeting with Jessica Andrade before making a critical error that resulted in her eating a slam that cost her a UFC title. The maturity that she showed in her fights with Joanna Jedrzejczyk was on full display, and while there was plenty of time left in her first meeting with Andrade, it did look like she was on her way to putting together a complete five-round performance.
That’s the X-factor with Andrade though, her immense finishing ability. As nice as it sounds to say that Namajunas will simply dance around her for 15 minutes, all it takes is one shot from “Bate Estaca” to turn everything around. Even she can’t execute another highlight-reel slam, Andrade has power in both hands and a dangerous submission game. There is no point at which Namajunas can take her foot off of the pedal.
Namajunas is saying all the right things about her head being in the right place, and based on that and the strengths she showed in the first fight, I think this time she picks up the win.
You can’t teach the kind of aggression that Amanda Ribas brings to the octagon. Just seven months older than Paige VanZant, Ribas has emerged as the kind of prospect that VanZant herself was viewed as when she debuted in the UFC at just 20 years old. Now VanZant is at a career crossroads, and whichever direction she chooses to go in, she’ll have to go through Ribas first.
On the other hand, if VanZant is looking to possibly leave the UFC with a bang, then Ribas is the perfect dance partner. There are holes in Ribas’ defense that an athlete like VanZant can exploit if she’s patient and if these two decide to stand and bang then this matchup could steal the show. That’s a lot of ifs though and it’s just as likely that Ribas walks VanZant down and disarms “12 Gauge” before she can get out of the gate.
As game as VanZant is, I see Ribas hurting her on the feet and then pouncing for a submission finish.
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