With three title fights at the top of the card, there’s little doubt that UFC 261 was promoted as one of the biggest events of the year but hype doesn’t always intersect with reality when the fights actually happen.
Except in the case of this past Saturday night, which delivered in every way possible from a raucous crowd in Jacksonville, Fla., to all three title fights ending with dramatic finishes, UFC 261 will likely go down as one of the best events of 2021.
The night was capped off by Kamaru Usman closing the book on his rivalry with Jorge Masvidal with a vicious right hand in the second round that sent the “BMF” champion down to the canvas in a heap. Not only did Usman satisfy his own desire to improve upon his last performance against Masvidal but he shut the door on any questions about where he stands in the division versus all of his contemporaries.
In the co-main event, Rose Namajunas became a two-time UFC strawweight champion after finishing Zhang Weili in the opening round with a stunning head kick. Namajunas has been a top-ranked strawweight her entire UFC career but she cemented her place in history as the first to ever reclaim a title in that division.
Valentina Shevchenko also once again proved her dominance by running roughshod over Jessica Andrade, who was touted as arguably her toughest opponent to date. Instead, Shevchenko grounded the heavy-hitting Brazilian and then blitzed her with elbows to get a second-round finish.
There’s plenty to break down from UFC 261 on Saturday night so let’s take a look at what passed and what failed from the card. This is Making the Grade for UFC 261: Usman vs. Masvidal 2.
When you think about it, Kamaru Usman is starting to put together a pretty ridiculous resume.
The UFC’s reigning welterweight champion dispatched yet another top contender on Saturday night while becoming only the second fighter in history to hand Jorge Masvidal a loss by knockout or TKO. The jaw-dropping finish came after Usman blasted Masvidal with a right hand that spun his entire body around before he fell to the canvas.
Many believed that Masvidal was the opponent who would give Usman his toughest challenge but after earning a lopsided decision in their first meeting, “The Nigerian Nightmare” was even better than before. He looked confident in his strategy, which included throwing hands with arguably one of the most dangerous strikers in the UFC.
In fact, many believed Usman would have to rely heavily on his wrestling to beat Masvidal but he looked sharper than ever with combinations on his feet and a rocket behind the right hand that ultimately ended the fight.
The win moved Usman to 14-0 in his UFC career and 5-0 in title fights as he inches closer and closer to solidifying himself as the greatest welterweight of all time and one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport today.
At worst, Usman is now sharing rarified air with Georges St-Pierre when it comes to the debate about the best fighters to ever compete at 170 pounds, which has been a marquee division for the UFC for many years. He’s now wiped out four of the top five fighters ranked at welterweight with two wins over Masvidal and knockouts of both Colby Covington and Gilbert Burns.
Following his win, Usman declared that he’s going to be his own toughest opponent moving forward and he’s got a point. The only person that seems capable of stopping Usman right now is Usman just losing interest in a series of rematches that might have dwindling returns when it comes to his legacy in the sport.
He already broke Covington’s jaw in their first meeting — how could he possibly top that in a rematch?
Well, that might actually be a dangerous question to ask after Usman’s performance at UFC 261 on Saturday night.
After being touted as “the next Ronda Rousey” during her appearance on The Ultimate Fighter 20, Rose Namajunas has now forged her own path in the sport while becoming a two-time champion — an accomplishment no woman in the UFC including the “Rowdy” one ever managed to achieve.
Perhaps the most impressive thing witnessed in Namajunas’ first-round knockout against Zhang Weili was her calm under pressure against one of the most powerful strikers the 115-pound division has ever seen. Namajunas was quick on her feet, constantly swerving away from Zhang’s powerful hands and then setting up the perfect head kick that floored the now former champion.
Afterwards, Namajunas was encouraged by her coach and fiance Pat Barry to recognize that she is the best — and over and over again she chanted that to herself like a set of war drums that were leading her out of a winning battle.
It’s far too early to anoint anyone in the strawweight division as the best to ever do it but Namajunas is certainly making her case to be listed among those names when a list finally comes together.
Of course, now that she’s a two-time champion, Namajunas will once again have a large target on her back with a number of contenders gunning for the belt as strawweight remains the most competitive women’s division in the UFC.
When it comes to dominance amongst current UFC champions, Valentina Shevchenko is doing everything possible to secure her spot at the top of those rankings.
In a fight against Jessica Andrade that was supposed to be her toughest test to date at 125 pounds, Shevchenko dismantled the former UFC champion inside two rounds and stopped the fight with a barrage of elbow strikes that had the Brazilian stuck eating shots without any chance of escape.
Long before Saturday night, Shevchenko had already defined herself as the class of the flyweight division but it’s frightening just how good she’s gotten when compared to her competition.
Andrade is absolutely legit — she demolished former title challenger and perennial contender Katlyn Chookagian in her flyweight debut. But against Shevchenko, she had no answers whatsoever and shifted into survival mode after the reigning champion tossed her to the ground a record seven times in less than two rounds.
If there’s one complaint regarding Shevchenko it’s that she’s so thoroughly dominated her competition that the list of people left for her to beat continues to shrink. Make no mistake, Lauren Murphy and Joanne Calderwood will absolutely attempt to make their case when they meet later this year with the winner expected to serve as Shevchenko’s next opponent, but no matter who is standing in the octagon across from her, that person will be an overwhelming underdog.
Much like Usman, the only person seemingly capable of toppling Shevchenko will be herself if she just can’t get motivated to face another opponent. That said, Shevchenko only seems to get better with time and it’s tough to imagine losing interest while racking up title defenses.
One of the biggest storylines heading into UFC 261 was the return of a sold-out crowd in Jacksonville, Fla., as the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena served as the landing spot for the first event back with fans in attendance with no restrictions since the coronavirus pandemic started more than a year ago.
From the start of the prelims, the crowd in Jacksonville was electric as they came unglued for every big moment from the first fight until the last. Sure, there were a couple of “USA” chants during a fight between an American and a Canadian and the Ric Flair “woooos” returned as well, which was to be expected.
Still, the crowd noise and the reaction to the fights, especially the result in the three title bouts, really added an extra layer of excitement to this card.
While there were times it was nice to hear the sounds of a fight in an empty arena, particularly getting a chance to listen to the coaches shout instruction or maybe Kevin Holland actually shouting at his opponent, the fans coming back in full force was such an unforgettable moment.
Perhaps over time we’ll once again lose sight of what it means to have people in attendance at sporting events or concerts or whatever, but at least for one night at UFC 261, it was nice to get back to some sense of normalcy and just enjoy the show.
What’s The Score?
While UFC 261 was largely a night filled with exhilarating highs and very few lows, if there was one issue worth pointing out afterwards it was the judging and the commentary regarding the scoring.
Now judges have taken numerous hits in the “fail” category over the years and it’s a subject that sadly comes up quite often because unfortunately scoring in this sport rarely sees dramatic improvement. That said, it would be nice for the actual criteria to be followed both by the officials scoring the fight and the commentators talking about the action cage side.
There was a particular moment during the prelims when Kazula Vargas locked on a guillotine choke against his opponent Rongzhu that seemingly ate up the majority of the round. While Rongzhu was defending, he was still stuck in the near-submission for well over a minute as Vargas continued to look for the finish.
While Rongzhu eventually escaped and took advantage of the position on the ground momentarily until Vargas was able to slip free, the commentary during the fight noted that perhaps this was actually a closer round than it seemed. The argument was because Rongzhu was on top that he was actually “winning” the exchange despite fending off a submission for several minutes.
Now it’s impossible to say if judges are looking at fights that same way but educating the audience watching the events is also incredibly important. A quick look at the actual criteria tells exactly how this round should be scored:
“Legal blows that have immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute towards the end of the match with the IMMEDIATE weighing in more heavily than the cumulative impact. Successful execution of takedowns, submission attempts, reversals and the achievement of advantageous positions that produce immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute to the end of the match, with the IMMEDIATE weighing more heavily than the cumulative impact. It shall be noted that a successful takedown is not merely a changing of position, but the establishment of an attack from the use of the takedown. Top and bottom position fighters are assessed more on the impactful/effective result of their actions, more so than their position. This criterion will be the deciding factor in a high majority of decisions when scoring a round. The next two criteria must be treated as a backup and used ONLY when Effective Striking/Grappling is 100% equal for the round.”
The language in regards to this particular exchange is rather clear — Vargas was attempting to finish the fight with his submission so it doesn’t matter if he’s on top or bottom. He’s the one creating offense in order to attempt to finish the fight. Rongzhu isn’t getting bonus points because he escaped or just because he ended up on top. Meaningful offense is what is considered effective striking or grappling and that’s what Vargas delivered.
Now all three judges correctly scored the round for Vargas but even suggesting otherwise is a dangerous precedent to set, especially when many fans are learning and depending on the commentators to serve as the de facto judges during the event.
The fact is for all the grief we give judges, scoring a fight isn’t easy but following the criteria to determine that scoring is essential to the sport. Here’s hoping everybody involved from the judges to the commentators calling the fight are all on the same page for what counts towards a winning round.