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Making the Grade: UFC 251: Usman vs. Masvidal

UFC 251: Usman v Masvidal Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

The first ever UFC card on “Fight Island” is officially in the books.

When UFC president Dana White first mentioned that he was securing a private island where events could be held during the coronavirus pandemic, it sounded kind of insane yet just realistic enough to be true.

The promotion somehow pulled it off with UFC 251 taking place on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi on Saturday night as Kamaru Usman capped off the night with a unanimous decision win over Jorge Masvidal.

Alexander Volkanovski also managed to retain his title in a hard fought battle with Max Holloway while Petr Yan was crowned the new bantamweight champion with a statement performance over Jose Aldo.

There’s a lot to dissect from the card so let’s take a look at what passed and what failed from the debut “Fight Island” show. This is Making the Grade for UFC 251: Usman vs. Masvidal


He’s a Problem

Kamaru Usman once again proved he’s the best welterweight in the sport with a dominant decision over Jorge Masvidal in the UFC 251 main event.

Now Usman has seen a lot of criticism come his way afterwards for what was considered a less than exciting five round fight between two bitter rivals. The problem is Usman did exactly what he needed to do to win, which was negate Masvidal’s striking and never allow the “BMF” champion to catch him with a shot that could end his title reign.

So Usman fought Masvidal in a phone booth almost through all 25 minutes.

He stayed close in the striking exchanges and then bullied Masvidal against the cage. As time passed, Usman started to wear down his opponent’s conditioning, which then allowed him to secure several takedowns. Sure it wasn’t the kind of win that will fit on a Tik-Tok video but that doesn’t negate Usman’s brilliance in victory.

In fact, Usman probably deserves a little more credit considering he was originally scheduled to fight a powerful jiu-jitsu specialist in Gilbert Burns, who also holds hammers in both of his fists. That fight was a particularly tough matchup for Usman because he’s also spent the past eight years training with Burns, which meant they know each other extremely well.

To go from that to a heated rivalry with Masvidal, who is a completely different fighter than Burns was a serious challenge. Yet, Usman passed every test with flying colors to retain his title for the second straight time.

Usman has now tied Georges St-Pierre with the most consecutive wins in the history of the welterweight division with 12 straight victories. While he certainly has a long way to go before he tackles St-Pierre’s title defense streak (9 defenses), Usman is going to be an impossibly tough problem for anybody in the welterweight division to solve.

Strike Fast, Strike Hard, No Mercy

Petr Yan actually had a lot to prove in his title fight against Jose Aldo on Saturday night.

The Russian was undefeated in his UFC career but a quick look at his record reveals that he hadn’t picked up a win over an established top five ranked competitor before being granted his opportunity to compete for gold.

While an argument could easily be made that Aldo didn’t deserve to be there either after he lost his only bout at 135 pounds, many argued that he should have beaten Marlon Moraes that night. If he actually did beat Moraes in his bantamweight debut, no one would argue against Aldo getting the chance to fight for the vacant bantamweight belt.

Through the first two rounds, Aldo looked like he might find a way to add another title to his resume after using some of his signature leg kicks to give Yan some problems. Unfortunately for him it was short lived success as Yan made the necessary adjustments and then started to chip away at Aldo’s defense.

Finally in the fifth round, Yan battered Aldo with punches — a lot more than necessary actually (more on that later) — and the referee finally stopped the fight. Yan has been touted as the next big thing at bantamweight but his win over Aldo in such devastating fashion proves the hype was real.

Of course, Yan won’t get to celebrate his win for very long because there’s a very hungry contender named Aljamain Sterling anxiously awaiting the chance to face him. That’s just about as good a fight as you’ll find in the entire sport much less the bantamweight division.

Third Time’s the Charm

After suffering a brutal slam knockout in their first fight, Rose Namajunas exacted revenge against Jessica Andrade in their rematch at UFC 251. Of course, the win didn’t come easy as Namajunas had to survive a late comeback from Andrade, who busted up her eye and nose while trying to secure the finish.

Namajunas earned a split decision win as well as Fight of the Night honors, which she shares with Andrade following their second fight.

With the victory, Namajunas will almost assuredly move into a title fight against strawweight champion Zhang Weili. Considering Zhang has already said she wanted to test herself against Namajunas, it’s a fight that just makes too much sense.

That said, Namajunas should absolutely revisit the Andrade rivalry in the near future because they’ve now managed to put on two of the most memorable fights in the history of the 115-pound division. The first fight ended with a jaw-dropping finish. The rematch gave us a Fight of the Night on an absolutely stacked UFC 251 card.

The only bad part about that Namajunas vs. Andrade rematch? We only got three rounds instead of five. Here’s hoping the trilogy will take place in a main event somewhere.


Officially Bad

UFC 251: Paiva v Zhumagulov Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

It’s a recurring theme that either referees or judges end up in the “fail” part of this column … and after UFC 251 they both get a mention!

All jokes aside, everyone knows referees and judges have the most thankless jobs in the sport. When they do great work, you never hear about them. When they screw up, however, it’s a non-stop barrage of criticism.

But Saturday night’s card deserves a special mention because there were a litany of problems decorating that event.

First let’s address the fouls.

There were a huge number of groin strikes over several fights on the prelims. Leo Santos took a pair of low blows that put him down on the canvas. Zhalgas Zhumagulov had to deal with the same in his fight with Raulian Paiva.

And guess how many points were deducted for the low blows? If you’re answer was zero, you’d be correct.

Leon Roberts then allowed Jose Aldo to get bludgeoned by a huge number of unanswered strikes on the ground before he mercifully stopped Petr Yan from hitting him any further. Yan didn’t feel like it was an egregious stoppage but Aldo’s brain might disagree.

To his credit, Marc Goddard, who is one of the best referees working in the sport today, did issue a harsh two-point deduction for a flagrant illegal knee strike after Roman Bogatov blasted Santos while he was still grounded.

The judges didn’t exactly have a great night either.

Most believe Zhumagulov should have earned a victory in his UFC debut even without his opponent getting away with a pair of groin strikes in the final round. The first fight of the night also received some particularly weird scorecards after Mark Collette gave Davey Grand the first round in his fight with Martin Day despite getting knocked down hard in a near finishing sequence.

Not to be out done, Vito Paoili then gave Grant at 10-8 second round. Grant definitely won the round but scoring him as a 10-8 seems a little bit too much.

UFC president Dana White also heavily criticized the judges in the featherweight title fight between Holloway and Volkanovski as well.

Listen we complain about these problems all the time but the main reason for that remains a small glimmer of hope that eventually something will change. Judges who issue terrible scorecards should be held accountable. Referees who make bad stoppages should be held accountable.

It just seems like outside of Steve Mazzagatti essentially being black balled from ever working a UFC event again, nothing much seems to change with the officials working the biggest fights in the sport and the number of grievances are really starting to add up.


Maybe It’s Time to Think About It

At the UFC 251 post-fight press conference, UFC president Dana White was asked about Joe Rogan’s recent criticisms about the show and win structure of payment for fighters. While there are exceptions to the rule, typically the UFC (and almost every other MMA promotion on Earth) pays fighters a show purse and then a win bonus paid to the victor.

Considering Rogan’s comments, and the number of fighters on the UFC roster who have also complained about the way they’re paid, White was questioned if the promotion had ever thought about a different structure.

White essentially shook his head and answered “we’ve never talked about it, no”

While this ties back into the larger fighter pay problem plaguing the UFC these days, the show and win bonus structure also speaks to the systemic issues with refereeing and judging referenced earlier.

Despite most believing Zhalgas Zhumagulov should have earned a win on Saturday night, he instead goes home with a loss on his record and half his paycheck. He’s obviously not alone because there have been a huge number of controversial decisions handed out over the years and for all the complaints and arguments, the real losers are the fighters who have to sacrifice a paycheck because of a judge making a bad call.

There are other fighters who have openly talked about making ends meet only if they are afforded a win bonus because otherwise they’re only receiving half their pay. That’s truly a sad state of affairs.

Judges hold so much power in the sport and unless that problem gets fixed, the fighters shouldn’t be forced to pay for their mistakes. It seems far past time for the UFC and other organizations think about that.

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