Jorge Masvidal (Rob Tatum/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 251 Preview and Predictions

At long last, Fight Island is a reality. It is not what most fans expected when UFC President Dana White made his initial declaration of having a private island for fighters that couldn’t get into the United States due to travel bans instituted because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Regardless, Yas Island, located in the United Arab Emirates, is the host for Saturday’s championship triple header at UFC 251.

The evening’s main event was supposed to be a showdown between teammates Gilbert Burns and Kamaru Usman, but a positive COVID-19 test forced Burns out of the contest. Instead, Jorge Masvidal steps in on short notice to challenge “The Nigerian Nightmare” for the undisputed title. Masvidal has been in the news recently for being reluctant to fight due to issues surrounding his compensation. He claimed that for a title shot he was offered half of his fight purse for his win over Nate Diaz when he captured the BMF title. Using the leverage of a main event about to be canceled, Masvidal no doubt secured himself a handsome payday in addition to a chance to win the welterweight crown.

The co-headliner is a rematch from UFC 245, where Alexander Volkanovski defeated Max Holloway by unanimous decision to take the featherweight belt. It was a competitive fight and one that Holloway thought he had won. Since then, rumors of a rematch have swirled while other top contenders have fought without a clear-cut challenger emerging. If Volkanovski is able to win this rematch, then he cements himself as one of the best featherweights the UFC has ever seen and will have two wins over Holloway to go along with his victory over former long-reigning kingpin José Aldo. If Holloway is able to get a win, then he sets up a trilogy fight and a second run as champion to add to his already Hall of Fame-worthy resume.


Meanwhile, the aforementioned Aldo meets Petr Yan in the first championship fight of the evening when they clash for the bantamweight title recently vacated by Henry Cejudo. Yan earned his title shot with an emphatic head-kick knockout of Urijah Faber. Aldo proved he is a worthy title contender by fighting valiantly in his divisional debut against Marlon Moraes. Despite coming out on the losing end of that match-up, Aldo convinced many people that he should have gotten the nod instead. That performance, combined with his resume as former featherweight champion, earned him a shot for the belt in Dana White’s eyes.

Two women’s fights round out the main card. Rose Namajunas takes on Jessica Andrade in a rematch of a fight in which Andrade won by slam knockout and took home the strawweight belt in the process. Paige VanZant also takes center stage when the main card opens with a flyweight match-up between “12 Gauge” and surging prospect Amanda Ribas. Ribas soundly defeated grappling ace Mackenzie Dern to announce her arrival as a legitimate threat and followed it up by thoroughly thumping Randa Markos en route to a unanimous nod.

UFC 251 takes place on Yas Island, with the early prelims kicking off at 6 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass. They will be followed by the televised portion of the prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET and the main card on pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Welterweight title challenger Jorge Masvidal has been tearing through the competition, including recent wins over Darren Till, Ben Askren and Nate Diaz. How will he fare when he challenges Kamaru Usman for the belt on short notice?

Sumian: As much as this situation sucks for Gilbert Burns, this new pairing should have been the fight to headline UFC 251 all along. Burns is a great fighter and certainly deserves a shot, but the name value isn’t there to generate enough hype for a big pay-per-view such as this one. In comes Masvidal, and the anticipation for this show skyrockets.

As much as this fight will generate a whole new level of excitement for UFC 251, do not expect Usman to lose his belt. Masvidal’s aforementioned last three fights have been wildly entertaining and memorable, which has helped raise his popularity through the roof. However, when comparing resumes, it’s fairly obvious that Usman has faced the better competition. While Till, Askren and Diaz are all great fighters, none of them are or were top-ranked welterweights, which poses the question of just how ready Masvidal is to face an elite talent like Usman.

Masvidal will not fare well. He will hold the striking advantage, but not by much. Usman has steadily been improving his striking game, which was apparent in his last title defense against Colby Covington. Usman is a much more complete mixed martial artist who boasts some of the most exhausting pressure and relentless pace, plus a superb ground game that has been almost impossible to stop in the UFC. The champ enters this fight 11-0 in the UFC and has looked better in every single one of his performances.

Usman is averaging a superb 100 percent takedown defense, 4.60 significant strikers per minute, and 3.44 takedowns per 15 minutes. Yes, Masvidal is the new hot commodity due to his latest streak that has fans aching for his next performance, but that is not enough to win a title in today’s UFC.

The bout will start with both men exchanging on the feet in an effort to feel each other out and establish a base. Masvidal might find some success early due to his fluid striking and movement, but Usman will find his range by round three, make use of his incredible pressure, and possibly take down Masvidal a few times and inflict some ground-and-pound.

Usman retains his title with a unanimous-decision win.

Petela: Agreed. Masvidal’s short-notice title fight will not end with him adding the welterweight championship belt to his mantle next to the BMF crown. It’s true that “Gamebred” has been on an incredible run leading up to this fight. He even finished one of the best wrestlers in the division in Askren, with perhaps the most incredible knockout in UFC history. That won’t be the case this time, though.

There is no way Usman will fall for MMA’s version of the hidden ball trick. Over 25 minutes, it will be the superior wrestling of “The Nigerian Nightmare” that controls the action and wears down Masvidal’s dynamic striking so that he doesn’t have the chance at the beginning of each round to end the fight with one violent flurry.

This fight is not going to be the most exciting contest of the night. Instead, it will look a lot like Usman’s title-winning performance over Tyron Woodley. Despite Usman coming away with the win, it will be Masvidal who achieves the “moral victory.” Several fighters in the division have called out Usman for having a boring fighting style, with nicknames like “Snoozeman” popping up along the way. The path to victory for Usman will once again give fuel to that fire. The champion won’t gain any new fans from the casual viewers who tune in for the first time due to a lack of live sports to watch as the pandemic continues. Masvidal, on the other hand, will gain even more respect from fans for taking the fight on short notice, and he’ll get a handsome payday along the way.

In December, Alexander Volkanovski defeated Max Holloway to become the undisputed featherweight kingpin. Now, Holloway gets his rematch. How different will this fight be compared to their first meeting?

Petela: In their first fight, Volkanovski stifled much of Holloway’s striking by repeatedly attacking with an effective low leg kick. On the surface, it seems as if the key for Holloway would be to address the low kick and come up with an effective counter, perhaps an anticipatory stiff jab or hook. Unfortunately for Holloway, Volkanovski’s corner includes one of the most intelligent and creative striking coaches in the sport today, Eugene Bareman. At the highest level, all fighters and their teams are thinking in complex terms, making obsolete the cliche that one side is playing checkers while the other one is playing chess. However, Bareman takes things to another level. It is like he is playing a new 3D chess game.

On the surface, this fight will largely look like the first showdown. However, don’t mistake a lower-than-expected output for a lack of effort. There will be such in-depth preparation on both sides that for every point there will be a counterpoint that limits either fighter from gaining too much momentum and fully implementing their will.

In the end, it will be Holloway who is forced to say “touche.” Volkanovski, with Bareman in his corner, will retain his title.

Sumian: Holloway seemed bored prior to his fight with Volkanovski. This was apparent in his performance. He seemed… unmotivated?

Call it whatever you want, but the former champ and arguably the most dominant featherweight in UFC history is going to be hungrier than ever in this rematch. Holloway’s volume striking has always been his strongest attribute, as is apparent from his average of 6.66 significant strikes per minute. Volkanovski was able to negate Holloway’s usual tactics due to his incredible pace and constant pressure, something that Holloway seemed ill prepared for as soon as the bout started. The Hawaii native had gotten used to implementing the same well-thought-out yet routine game plan that brought him great success against elite UFC talent such as Anthony Pettis, José Aldo and Brian Ortega. For the first time in his championship career, Holloway met the terrifying entity of adversity against Volkanovski and was unable to find an effective way to defeat it.

In no shape or form was Volkanovski’s win a fluke. In fact, I picked him to win due to his relentless style and the likelihood of Holloway’s usual game plan faltering against such a worthy opponent. The current UFC featherweight champion has beaten Chad Mendes, Aldo and Holloway back-to-back-to-back to claim the gold, which is a feat that should surely be celebrated. Volkanovski has effectively shut down every single opponent put in front of him while averaging a whopping 6.15 significant strikers per minute and 2.16 takedowns per 15 minutes.

This fight should be as close as the first one. Holloway is hungry to regain his belt, and Volkanovski is eager to prove that the first fight was certainly not a fluke. As good as Volkanovski is, expect Holloway to make the adjustments necessary to negate the champ’s constant pressure and pace. Holloway will force Volkanovski to fight at range and bust the champ up with long strikes and heavy counters when Volkanovski darts forward. Volkanovski will absolutely have his moments in the fight, but it will be Holloway who lands more effectively and soundly in each round.

Holloway by unanimous decision.

Petr Yan and José Aldo meet to determine a new bantamweight champion. How would you rate Aldo’s chances in this one?

Sumian: As much as people might not want to hear this, I strongly believe it. Yan was playing with Urijah Faber throughout their entire bout. As soon as Yan decided he was satisfied with the amount of Octagon time he had put in, he turned it on and finished the former WEC champion swiftly and destructively. The craziest part? Yan is only 27 years old and likely not even in his true prime.

Yan is currently averaging 5.65 significant strikes per minute, 1.73 takedowns per 15 minutes, and 1.52 knockdowns per 15 minutes. He has established himself as the most worthy bantamweight — besides Aljamain Sterling — to fight for the newly vacated belt and has looked incredible since his UFC debut in 2018.

The truth of this bout is that Aldo is only receiving a title bid due to former champion Henry Cejudo begging the UFC to give him the next shot since it was probably the biggest “money fight” available. The bantamweight division is stacked with elite talent top to bottom, but none of the top 15 hold enough name value to headline a pay-per-view card. In comes Aldo, but then Cejudo retires following his victory over Dominick Cruz at UFC 249. As a result, the UFC has elected to still give Aldo the shot since it was already signed and promised. It’s a classy move by the organization.

In many ways, Yan is the new version of Aldo. He has destructive striking, relentless pressure, and a champion’s confidence that is apparent in his Octagon performances. The only way Aldo has a shot in this fight is if he can use his historically effective counter striking to land on Yan when the Russian comes close to attack. Otherwise, it is very difficult to imagine Aldo winning this fight. The Brazilian legend does not hold any distinct advantage over the surging Yan.

The fight will be more competitive than people think, but Yan will land on Aldo in the second or third round before finishing the former featherweight king with strikes.

Petela: Aldo lost his bantamweight debut against Marlon Moraes, but he looked good in that fight. Good enough, in fact, that the urging of Cejudo led UFC President Dana White to give him a title shot. Unfortunately for Aldo, Yan is not Cejudo, and this fight will not be competitive.

The rising Russian star is a scary dude. He will be quite a bit better than Aldo on Saturday night. Aldo’s move down to bantamweight came as a surprise, because he always struggled to make weight at featherweight. The weight cut here will diminish Aldo, even if only slightly. To be on the same level as Yan, it would take a peak version of Aldo. That version doesn’t come at 135 pounds.

At least this fight will give the bantamweight division some much-needed clarity. We got the outline of what the hierarchy in the division looks like a few weeks back when the aforementioned Sterling and Cody Garbrandt picked up big wins over Cory Sandhagen and Raphael Assunção. Now, with Yan set to take the reins of the division, there will be a fully focused view of what is to come in this division.

Jiří Procházka, Roman Bogatov, Maxim Grishin and Zhalgas Zhumagulov — do we need to know these names?

Petela: We have some really promising newcomers to keep an eye on this weekend.

The Czech Republic’s Procházka is a Rizin veteran and a real knockout artist. It makes sense that the UFC brass would give him a high-profile name and top-level contender in Volkan Oezdemir for his promotional debut. It will probably end up being too daunting of a task, but this will be a competitive fight that announces Procházka as a force to be reckoned with inside the Octagon.

In Bogatov, we have an undefeated Russian prospect who went on a tear through M-1 before signing with the UFC. He has a tough opponent for his debut as well, as he takes on Leonardo Santos. Bogatov, too, will likely fall short of a victory, but he should also put up a valiant effort and make a name for himself in the talent-stacked lightweight division.

Grishin is taking on veteran UFC heavyweight Marcin Tybura. It marks a big step up in competition from the likes of Jordan Johnson and other Professional Fighters League foes. He could be a name to watch if he gets past Tybura, but this is just the first rung on the ladder with a few more to go before he can be considered a truly elite fighter.

Zhumagulov could make a mark in the flyweight division when he makes his rescheduled UFC debut. He comes in with a 13-3 record. With a vacant title, the division is primed for new blood to make it more compelling. Zhumagulov could be part of a new crop of flyweights that bring the division to a new height of popularity heading into 2021 and beyond.

Sumian: It’s difficult to recall a UFC card that has had such a significant amount of UFC debuts all loaded on the undercard.

Procházka, 27, enters the UFC with an incredible 26-3-1 record. He has proven to be one of the most exciting and dominant fighters outside the UFC. He joins the league’s light-heavyweight division, which is in dire need of new talent to generate further interest. Procházka is on a 10-fight winning streak and has finished eight of those 10 outings in the first round. He is primarily a striker who packs one-punch knockout power, but he is more likely to flood his opponents with vicious combinations and shut off the lights with a powerful straight right or looping left hook. One of his most effective weapons is to feint with the jab and open up his opponent’s guard before firing off a straight right. Over his last three bouts, Procházka has defeated Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, Fabio Maldonado and C.B. Dolloway, all of whom have faced top UFC talent at some point in their careers.

You can tell the UFC truly believes in Procházka’s abilities. The company doesn’t just match any newcomer up with a former title challenger and current contender like Volkan Oezdemir. This is a very dangerous debut opponent for anyone entering the UFC, but expect Procházka to shine with a stunning second-round TKO. He’ll immediately become a top-10 light heavyweight.

Out of the all debuts that will be on display at UFC 251, Bogatov should attract the most attention due to his undefeated 10-0 record. After starting off his career with six wins, he was given the opportunity to fight for the vacant M-1 lightweight strap and won. He went on to defend the crown twice before getting the call from the UFC. The powerful lightweight usually seeks to get the fight to the ground, where he can dictate the pace. He boasts a thunderous double leg that is set up by his crafty striking. Although he prefers to lock up a submission, Bogatov has shown improved striking and mixes it in to complement his elite ground game. This keeps his opponents always guessing.

Bogatov’s debut opponent, Santos, is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace who has not lost a fight since May 2009. Santos also has vastly improved his striking and finished two of his last three opponents via strikes. Bogatov will come out confident and ready to prove he is among the best at lightweight, though, with a unanimous-decision victory.

Grishin is an experienced 205-pounder who has compiled a 30-7-2 record. He will be moving up to heavyweight in his UFC debut. Grishin will use his experience to dominate Tybura and eventually put him away with punches in bunches.

Zhumagulov’s value comes because he is debuting in the UFC flyweight division and has a fairly impressive record. He does possess a unanimous-decision victory over Tyson Nam from April 2018, but the question mark is still there as to whether he’s a legitimate threat.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 251?

Sumian: This might seem like an easy answer, but it’s Kamaru Usman. The welterweight kingpin will get to headline a huge card against arguably the most popular fighter in the UFC today. A win over Jorge Masvidal on Fight Island will launch Usman’s popularity and stardom to new heights, He’ll become much more of a household name with both hardcore and casual fans. This can set up Usman for huge money fights in the near future and open the doors for the Nigerian champion to become an international superstar.

Petela: Aljamain Sterling and the rest of the bantamweight contenders.

Petr Yan is going to emerge as the division’s champion, and there will be more clarity than we have seen since T.J. Dillashaw was suspended. Furthermore, it’s doubtful we will see the return of Henry Cejudo with a champion not named José Aldo.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 251?

Petela: Max Holloway.

When all is said and done, Holloway could very well go down as the greatest featherweight of all time. However, after losing a second consecutive fight to Alexander Volkanovski, he will have a rough road back to the title at 145 pounds.

We have seen this before. It happened to Joseph Benavidez, who put together an incredible flyweight resume but never got a third crack at Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. More recently, José Aldo, the man Holloway defeated to become champion, had to eventually move down a weight class in order to get another chance at UFC gold. The featherweight division is too loaded with talented contenders for “Blessed” to see another title shot in the near future.

Holloway could be forced to move up to the shark tank at lightweight if he wants to try to get a belt wrapped around his waist. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, in other words. Holloway is incredibly talented, and he will without a doubt be able to contend with the division’s elite. However, it was evident in his first foray to 155 pounds that even Holloway, a big featherweight, will be undersized against the likes of Justin Gaethje, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. This second loss will be a major roadblock in Holloway’s attempt to become the clear-cut best to ever do it at 145.

Sumian: Paige VanZant.

VanZant will lose to Amanda Ribas convincingly and once again show that she is not talented enough to compete with the top female fighters in the UFC. “PVZ” is 2-3 over her last five UFC bouts and has not beaten a ranked opponent in a very long time. Ribas, a scary contender who has looked like she is bound to become a top-three flyweight, will dominate VanZant from start to finish.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Sumian: Marcin Tybura. The former top-15 heavyweight is now 2-4 over his last six UFC appearances and has struggled to defeat above-average competition. Despite winning his last bout, Tybura’s stock will quickly decline if he loses to Maxim Grishin. Grishin is moving up in weight, but his vast experience will elevate him in his UFC debut to a TKO victory. In turn, this will remove Tybura from heavyweight relevance.

Petela: Paige VanZant. It is very likely that she will get mollywhopped by Amanda Ribas for a major setback. When you combine that with this being the last fight on her UFC contract and her husband Austin Vanderford currently fighting in Bellator, it has all the makings for an exit fight. At this point in her career, Bellator might be a better fit for her. Bellator will be more than happy to scoop her up, too.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Petela: Elizeu Zaleski and Muslim Salikhov. Zaleski has won eight out of his last nine fights. Salikhov has lost only once since 2012. These two welterweights have flown largely under the radar, but they have built up wildly impressive resumes. This will be a stylistically intriguing showdown as well. Zaleski’s background is in capoeira and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, whereas Salikhov is the only non-Chinese winner of the Wusha Sanda King’s cup. This contest should end in fireworks.

Sumian: Makwan Amirkhani and Danny Henry are going to erupt during the UFC 251 prelims with a “Fight of the Night” performance that will have fans fully warmed up for the main card. Both men are coming off losses to top-ranked featherweights — Shane Burgos and Dan Ige, respectively — and they will be hungry to get back into the win column. Amirkhani and Henry have combined for 21 finishes, too.

In addition, do not sleep on Jessica Andrade and Rose Namajunas either. As much hype as the card is getting due to the three title fights and the late addition of Jorge Masvidal, this one is overlooked. The first fight between these two violent ladies was nothing short of entertaining. Namajunas was continuously battering Andrade with flurries, while Andrade looked to counter with her ferocious power. This one will go to the judges after a closely contested striking affair. Namajunas returns to the win column and quite possibly earns a title shot.

Pair this card with…

Sumian: Glory. Despite all odds, the infamous International Fight Week Card is happening and is absolutely one of the most loaded cards of the year with the addition of Jorge Masvidal. The card will have a number of storylines play out, including the wildly entertaining three scheduled title bouts, a number of exciting UFC debuts, and a top-to-bottom stacked lineup featuring UFC talent that is anxious more than ever to perform on a big stage.

This card will crown at least one new champion, give a former champion an opportunity for redemption, and allow arguably the UFC’s biggest star in the last couple of years an opportunity to realize the one thing he has never been able to achieve: UFC gold.

In regards to drinks and food, bring out the best of the best. Might I suggest some Kikori if you are a whiskey drinker, or some 1942 Don Julio for all you tequila fans? Go to your local market and get the baddest, meanest and most epic-looking meat and snacks you can find, and enjoy what is sure to be a night to remember.

Petela: Yas Island isn’t exactly full of beaches out of a Kenny Chesney song, but it is Fight Island nonetheless. So pair this card with a drink made for a beach: either a piña colada or a Corona. Sit back, put your feet up, and relax as you settle in for a night full of incredible fights.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
WW Championship: Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal Usman Usman
FW Championship: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway Holloway Volkanovski
BW Championship: Petr Yan vs. José Aldo Yan Yan
Women’s StrawW: Jessica Andrade vs. Rose Namajunas Namajunas Namajunas
Women’s FlyW: Paige VanZant vs. Amanda Ribas Ribas Ribas
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LHW: Volkan Oezdemir vs. Jiří Procházka Procházka Oezdemir
WW: Elizeu Zaleski vs. Muslim Salikhov Zaleksi Salikhov
FW: Makwan Amirkhani vs. Danny Henry Henry Henry
LW: Leonardo Santos vs. Roman Bogatov Bogatov Santos
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6 p.m. ET)
HW: Marcin Tybura vs. Maxim Grishin Grishin Grishin
FlyW: Zhalgas Zhumagulov vs. Raulian Paiva Paiva Paiva
Women’s BW: Vanessa Melo vs. Karol Rosa Rosa Melo
BW: Martin Day vs. Davey Grant Grant Grant