The lead up to UFC 251 was a long and sordid tale that was well-documented all fight week: Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal had been the UFC’s targeted bout since Masvidal won the “BMF” title at UFC 244; however, the advent of the coronavirus and a contract dispute between the UFC and Masvidal continually delayed the announcement of the bout. Eventually, talks between Masvidal and the UFC soured completely with Masvidal going public with his dispute and shortly afterwards, the UFC moved on and scheduled Gilbert Burns for the title shot at UFC 251. It seemed that Masvidal had negotiated himself right out of a title shot.
But the gods love their little ironies and Burns contracted COVID-19 just a week before the bout. In their hour of need, the UFC turned to the man they had spurned just weeks before and Masvidal stepped in on six days’ notice, promising to “baptize” Usman and complete his ascent to the top of the division. No such coronation was to take place, though.
Saturday night, Masvidal entered the cage with an air of casual confidence, smiling and laughing during Usman’s extended walkout, and when the fight started, that confidence translated to action. Usually a slow starter (but for the Ben Askren KO) Masvidal came out with a blistering pace, trying to take Usman’s head off and landing a number of excellent strikes. Even when he was taken down early, Masvidal threatened Usman and returned to the feet where the champion was clearly technically outmatched. Five minutes in and fans were treated to an exciting round that saw the challenger put the champion on notice. However, what could’ve presaged a title fight to be remembered, instead served as the catalyst of something far less interesting.
After the opening round, Usman went to work on a smothering game plan that saw him stifle the offense of Masvidal with grinding clinch work that drained the energy from the challenger. Usman’s strategy was not a crowd-pleasing one (had there been a crowd there to please), full of foot stomps, shoulder bumps, and body shots, but it was ruthlessly effective and wore down the gas tank of the man who only had six days to prepare for the fight. After one round of it, Masvidal was visibly tired and Usman was just getting started.
For the remaining 15 minutes of the fight, Usman continually backed Masvidal up, and ground him down into the fence. Masvidal had brief moments of success but as the fight dragged on, Usman started to secure actual takedowns and land shots from on top. In the end, the champion remained the champion and Jorge Masvidal’s title aspirations were no more.
And that’s a fitting outcome. Unlike stick-and-ball sports, fighting and fighters are not judged solely on their ability to win. Yes, winning matters and the historical conversation about greatness is almost entirely couched in those terms, but in prizefighting you can be among the most well-paid and beloved athletes while also sporting a pedestrian record, because connecting with fans and generating interest is equally as important as victory. And the “BMF” title, conceived of by Nate Diaz, encapsulates this notion perfectly.
At its core, the “Baddest Motherfu**er” title is not about being thte best fighter in the world; it’s about an ethos. Nathan Diaz is not the greatest fighter in the world. He’s not even the 100th greatest fighter in the world. But Nate Diaz is among the most recognizable fighters in the world because he made people give a sh*t in a way few have been able to do. Diaz is as genuine a fighter as there has ever been in the sport, has a chip on his shoulder, and a willingness to fight anyone at the drop of a hat if the money is right, not because he’s a sociopath but because fighting is just a part of life. And Masvidal is cut from the same cloth.
Masvidal is a fighter in the traditional sense of the word. He doesn’t need a camp or coaches or specialized training to scrap, he can just get off the couch and throw hands. If we’re being honest, there are probably a half-dozen welterweight contenders who would beat Masvidal, but there are very few who could step in on six days’ notice and make Usman work for five rounds, much less do so while captivating the casual fan’s imagination. Usman is one of the most effective and efficient competitors in the sport and against him, Masvidal held his own. Even more impressively, after losing his first title shot, something that took him 48 fights to earn and that he will likely never see again, Masvidal just kind of shrugged it off. It’s rare to see a fighter so unaffected by the outcome of a fight but then again, it’s rare to have a fighter in less need of validation than Masvidal.
Last year, Masvidal had one of the most successful years in UFC history, and while at UFC 251 he was unable to keep that winning momentum going, “Gamebred” proved his moniker true and cemented his “Baddest Motherfu**er” bonafides.
UFC 251 Quotes
“Looks like we’ve got to tighten up our refs and judges here on Fight Island.” - Dana White on the officials’ work.
“It’s hard not to respect a man when you share 25 minutes with him in that octagon.” - Kamaru Usman on the bad blood with Jorge Masvidal.
“The weight cut was tough like everybody knows. I had a little bit of weight to cut but I’m not going to sit here and make excuses. He won. I gambled the dice on myself. I knew I didn’t have the greatest gas tank coming in but I’m still a dangerous man. Six days, one day, six weeks, so hats off to him. We’ll do it again.” - Masvidal on his conditioning and preparation for the fight.
“I like Paige. It’s like Blaydes, when Blaydes fought last. When you talk all that stuff, ‘I’m not being paid enough,’ and fighting inconsistently, one time in the last year, injuries, and then got smoked in the first round of the fight, she should definitely test free agency.” - Dana White, fight promoter, on Paige VanZant’s pay issues and fight.
Alexander Volkanovski: The UFC featherweight champion now holds two wins over Max Holloway, even if most people don’t think he actually won the rematch. That being said, Vollkanovski did manage to decisively win the championship rounds against Holloway despite losing the early rounds, which is a pretty incredible achievement.
Max Holloway: The former featherweight champion rebounded beautifully from his loss to Alexander Volkanovski in December, looking as good as he ever has despite not having a normal training camp due to COVID-19. Most people thought Holloway won the rematch but even though the judges didn’t give it to him, “Blessed” still has a ton left in the gas tank.
Petr Yan: Just two years into his UFC career, Petr Yan is now a champion and he did it by brutalizing one of the greatest fighters of all time. Jose Aldo may not be in his prime anymore but after a tough first two rounds, Yan turned it on late and proved his “No Mercy” moniker to be incredibly apt.
Amanda Ribas: She absolutely steamrolled a durable veteran fighter in Paige VanZant and put the entire division on notice. Ribas could be in line for a title shot sooner rather than later.
Jiri Prochazka: The RIZIN light heavyweight champion made a hell of a UFC debut, knocking out former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir in brutal fashion and announcing himself as a legitimate contender.
Kamaru Usman: Usman proved himself once again to be the Houston Rockets of MMA: smart and efficient, but lacking broad viewing appeal. Making cardio a factor against a short-notice opponent was the correct strategic decision and got the job done, but it won Usman no new fans.
Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade: Both women made adjustments from their first fight but both revealed major flaws as well. Namajunas got her hand raised this time instead of being knocked unconscious, but considering the texture of the bout, it’s a fair question whether that would have been the case were it five rounds. Meanwhile, Andrade looked every bit the barnstorming force of nature she always has been, but still came up short in the rematch.
Jose Aldo: The actual greatest featherweight of all time was so close to winning a second title, but once again fell victim to his Achilles heel. No, not cardio and pressure, rather a complete refusal to throw leg kicks. In the first two rounds, Aldo dictated range and pace with leg kicks and forced Yan to switch stances. Then, he just stopped and once he did, Yan started marching him down and overwhelmed him. Aldo’s steadfast refusal to use his best weapon is one of the most frustrating things in MMA and likely a sign that the 33-year-old-going-on-50 needs to hang them up.
Paige VanZant: Coming into the fight, VanZant had many reasonable issues with the UFC’s pay. Now, she won’t have to worry about that because considering her performance, the UFC is not going to re-sign her, nor should they. At one time, VanZant was a plus athlete with high upside in the UFC; now, she has regressed significantly and looks entirely disinterested inside the cage.
Roman Bogatov: Anytime you get a two-point deduction because you refuse to stop cheating your ass off, your stock goes down, even if it wasn’t all that high to begin with.
The UFC’s first foray onto Fight Island was not without issue, I’d rather not harp on the judging and the three split decisions on the card, largely because the bouts were mostly competitive. Instead, I’d like to talk about whatever the hell Leon Roberts was doing in the fifth round of Petr Yan and Jose Aldo.
I understand the urge to give fighters every opportunity to stay in the fight but by my count, Yan landed 53 unanswered shots on the ground, a good number of which came after Aldo had clearly already checked out of the fight. There’s a difference between “fighting back” and bare minimum survival instincts and Aldo was doing plenty of the latter. Leon Roberts should’ve stopped the fight 15 seconds before he did and could have stopped it almost a full minute before he finally did jump in.
Fights to make
Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns: It’s not a fight many people will care a lot about but it was the fight originally booked and it’s worth revisiting.
Jorge Masvidal vs. Colby Covington: This is a layup. Former “best friends” turned bitter enemies. Plus it pits Masvidal with a full camp against Usman-lite.
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Henry Cejudo: Why not? Cejudo vacated the bantamweight title and there are no clear-cut contenders at 145 right now (which is why Max got the rematch anyway). Let’s have some fun.
Max Holloway vs. Tony Ferguson: With two losses to the champ, Holloway can finally move up to 155 where there are a number of great fights for him, including this battle of angel wing tattoos.
Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling: Yan may hold the belt but I think most would agree that Aljo is the uncrowned king at 135. Realistically, Sterling-Yan should’ve been the vacant title fight so it must be what happens next.
Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili: Assuming the UFC doesn’t want to run back Weili-Joanna, this makes the most sense for the champion.
Jessica Andrade vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk II: Both women are out of title contention for the moment. Run it back and see if Andrade’s improvements can make a difference.
Jiri Prochazka vs. Nikita Krylov: Look me in the eye and tell me this wouldn’t be fun as hell.