There is perhaps no better venue for the UFC to reintroduce fans than the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. The site hosted the first event post-shutdown completely devoid of an audience, when Tony Ferguson clashed with Justin Gaethje at UFC 249. Now, the home of the National Arena League’s Sharks and the ECHL’s Icemen welcomes back a crowd with a trio of championship fights atop Saturday’s UFC 261 card.
The coveted headlining slot goes to reigning welterweight king Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman in a rematch against Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal. Usman won a unanimous decision the first time these two men squared off on Fight Island at UFC 251, where Masvidal replaced Gilbert Burns on short notice after Burns tested positive for COVID-19. Masvidal has been very vocal since that fight in suggesting that if given time for a proper training camp he would not only come away with a win, but that he would become the first person to knock out Usman. This certainly got Usman’s attention. The champ took the opportunity to call out Masvidal after defeating the aforementioned Burns in his most recent title defense.
The co-main event is a women’s strawweight title fight in which Zhang Weili attempts to defend her belt against former titleholder Rose Namajunas. Zhang last fought just over a year ago when she defeated Joanna Jędrzejczyk in a thrilling back-and-forth contest that left both women needing plenty of time to recover. Now, Zhang faces the woman who first defeated Jędrzejczyk to take the title off the Polish striker. “Thug Rose” has been a contender since the division’s promotional inception, coming up short in the inaugural title fight against Carla Esparze. She shocked the world with her knockout of Jędrzejczyk and then went on to take a unanimous decision in the pair’s immediate rematch. Namajunas earned this shot at the title by avenging her loss to Jéssica Andrade, the woman who took the title off of her with a vicious slam and then succumbed to a first-round knockout to lose her belt to Zhang.
The aforementioned Andrade is one half of the first title contest of the night. She looks to capture gold in a second division and dethrone women’s flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko. The Brazilian looked stellar in her divisional debut in which she finished Katlyn Chookagian in the first round. Andrade seeks to become the first woman since Amanda Nunes to defeat Shevchenko and the first fighter to top the Kyrgyzstani fighter since her own move down to 125 pounds. “Bullet” has looked nearly perfect since claiming the strap, having lost only one round on the judges’ scorecards through her four title defenses.
The main card’s lineup also includes a rematch over a decade in the making between former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman and The Ultimate Fighter alum Uriah Hall. The two men first clashed under the Ring of Combat banner, where Weidman needed less than a round to hand Hall his first pro loss and capture the league’s middleweight crown.
The main card opens in the light-heavyweight division, where Anthony “Lionheart” Smith battles Jimmy “The Brute” Crute. Smith is in searches of consecutive victories for the first time since 2018 as he looks to make another run at the title. Australia’s Crute, who currently sits at No. 13 in the UFC’s official light-heavyweight rankings, will have the chance to crack the top 10 when he meets the sixth-ranked Smith.
UFC 261 begins at 5:45 p.m. ET with the early prelims, which can be seen on both ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass. The televised prelims follow at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The action switches to pay-per-view for the main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Jorge Masvidal has claimed that he’d beat welterweight champ Kamaru Usman if given a full camp to prepare. Now, he has had exactly that. How much better will he fare in this rematch?
Sumian: Since winning the championship at the expense of Tyron Woodley in March 2019, Usman has been the definition of a perfect champion. His three title defenses consist of TKO victories over Colby Covington and Gilbert Burns, along with an uneventful, yet masterful unanimous decision against the formerly surging Masvidal.
To put it bluntly, Usman is on his way to establishing himself as one of the most technical and prolific champions in UFC history. The welterweight king has been on a roll since winning TUF in 2015. He has used his outstanding wrestling background, ever-improving striking, and athletic dominance to bully his counterparts while compiling an undefeated record. In addition, he is an incredible tactician both as a fighter and a businessman, which led to his callout of Masvidal for a rematch. On Saturday night, Usman will have the opportunity to seal the coffin on Masvidal’s championship aspirations by once again defeating one of the company’s most prized and entertaining superstars.
It has been just over two years since Masvidal was slated to serve as cattle for the surging Darren Till as the UFC sought so desperately to push Till further up the rankings. Till had just come off a submission loss to Woodley for the belt, and the UFC was eager to get him back in the win column. This led to a headliner against the unranked Masvidal, who was coming off a year and a half layoff. Many expected the British fighter to run through Masvidal and quickly regain his lost momentum. What followed was a comeback victory for the Miami native and the only knockout loss for Till in his pro career.
Despite all odds, Masvidal was back and ready to take on the world. He followed up his comeback victory with arguably the most famous knockout in UFC history against Ben Askren and a doctor’s stoppage of Nate Diaz to clearly establish himself as the “BMF.” His latest UFC appearance was the short-notice affair with Usman. Now, Masvidal will have a chance to show the UFC and fans alike that he is the best welterweight in the world when given the proper time to prepare.
This fight only came to fruition because the UFC does not have a clear top contender to challenge Usman and create enough buzz for a successful pay-per-view event. Leon Edwards and the aforementioned Covington were likely the two names at the top of the list, but their respective recent showings against Belal Muhammad and Woodley make it difficult to justify a rematch with the champion.
As a result of the lack of a true top contender, we instead have a rematch between the best welterweight in the world and the most marketable one. The fight itself will not be different this time around. Despite the factors cited by Masvidal no longer playing a part in his performance, it does not change the fact that Usman is by far the better mixed martial artist.
Usman will once again bully Masvidal into exchanging where he wants the fight to take place, which will be in the clinch and up against the fence. Usman will land several takedowns yet again. He will also connect on several of his stinging jabs and put his improving striking on display.
Can Masvidal land a hail-mary punch and change the course of this fight? Absolutely. Don’t expect it, though. Usman will ride his way to another unanimous decision and officially shut the door on Masvidal. The champ is only getting better and will be eagerly watching the scrap where Edwards will defeat Diaz and establish himself as Usman’s next opponent. This will be perfect for both Masvidal and Diaz, too, as they will be paired up for a BMF rematch and make a ton of money as they enter the final years of their careers.
Petela: There are two things that will make this title fight vastly different than the first one: Masvidal’s full camp to prepare for a five-round fight and the knowledge he gained from his first 25 minutes in the Octagon with the champ.
The first time these two welterweights met, the odds couldn’t have been stacked any higher against Masvidal. Not only did he take the fight on short notice, but he flew halfway around the world to do so. He also had to cut over 20 pounds, which absolutely took at least a small toll on his explosiveness and endurance. This was only made worse because “Gamebred” was facing a guy whose style is tailor-made to drain an opponent’s energy.
The experience of going the distance against Usman will not only give Masvidal an extra level of confidence heading into the rematch, but it provides him with a feel for what it’s like to have Usman successfully implement a game plan to stifle any and all of his offense. Masvidal will be able to use this knowledge to make early reads and avoid being completely neutralized with his back against the fence or flat against the mat.
It will be while stopping an Usman takedown or breaking away from a clinch that Masvidal lands a devastating shot that prompts the referee to halt the contest. This is likely to happen within the first two rounds. Usman will protest the stoppage, which then leads to an eventual rubber match between the two fighters.
The women are featured heavily at this show, with Valentina Shevchenko set to defend her flyweight belt against Jéssica Andrade and Zhang Weili putting her title on the line against Rose Namajunas. Which belt is most likely to change hands?
Petela: The strawweight strap.
Namajunas has shown that she has the ability to avoid taking a ton of damage when she faces more powerful strikers, in large part thanks to the genius of her coach, Trevor Wittman. There’s no doubt in terms of pure power that Zhang has an advantage, but the slick footwork from Namajunas could pose problems for the champ as she tries to put together combinations.
Zhang’s cardio held up tremendously in her 2020 Fight of the Year against Joanna Jędrzejczyk, but there will be a big difference in the later rounds of her contest against Namajunas. Zhang connected with so many of the punches and kicks that she threw against Jędrzejczyk. By sliding out of the way of Zhang’s heaviest punches, Namajunas will leave the champion catching nothing but air. This exerts a lot more energy than throwing a strike that connects flush.
This fight will wind up as a highly technical battle between a bull and a matador. In this case, the matador — Namajunas — will emerge victorious.
Sumian: Nope. The strawweight belt isn’t going anywhere. Zhang will use her superior power, tenacity and confidence to claim a convincing decision over Namajunas. Namajunas will have her moments in the first couple of rounds, but it will ultimately come down to who shows up as the fight wears on. It will be Zhang. It is clear that people don’t understand just how good she is in the cage, but this fight will prove further that Zhang is here to stay.
The flyweight belt will also stay put. Shevchenko will pummel Andrade for five rounds to earn a unanimous nod. Despite her sheer power and thunderous hands, Andrade is nowhere near as talented of a mixed martial artist compared to the top tier of competitors, including Shevchenko. The champ will avoid the power of the challenger and fire off powerful jabs and kicks of her own en route to the victory.
The outcomes of these fights will make the UFC’s next move fairly obvious: a superfight between Shevchenko and Zhang.
Pat Sabatini, Zhu Rong, Jeff Molina, Qileng Aori and Na Liang — do we need to know these names?
Sumian: The submission ace Sabatini is probably the most high-profile name on this list as a result of his long-term success in the Cage Fury Fighting Championships organization. The featherweight prospect joins the UFC after posting a 13-3 mark. He is currently on a two-fight winning streak. However, he faces Tristan Connelly, who is coming off a successful UFC debut of his own to extend his winning streak to five fights. This will be a stiff test for Sabatini.
The arrival of China’s Zhu might be the most exciting of the five debuts. He has compiled a 16-3 record outside of the UFC that includes 11 knockouts and four submission wins. The lightweight prospect is a notorious finisher who has provided fans with plenty of highlight-reel material. He’s on a 10-fight winning streak and fresh off four consecutive finishes. For his Octagon debut, Zhu takes on Rodrigo Vargas, who is 0-2 in his UFC career. The 21-year-old Zhu will take the lightweight division by storm, beginning with a finish of Vargas via a memorable knockout.
Molina and Qileng fight each other in the flyweight division. They have impressive records outside the UFC, where Molina has gone 8-2 and Aori has compiled an 18-6 mark. Molina is on a seven-fight winning streak, whereas Aori has won six straight fights.
Finally, we come to Na, who makes her promotional debut after compiling a 13-4 record. She puts her four-fight winning streak on the line against Ariane Carnelossi. A victory here would certainly get the buzz going around the latest roster addition from China.
Petela: I am less bullish than my colleague on this incoming class of fighters, with the exception of Sabatini. This is the second time Sabatini has been slated to make his debut with the company. He was originally supposed to face Rafael Alves in February before Alves missed weight by a whopping 11.5 pounds and forced the cancellation of the contest. Sabatini and Connelly, a fellow submission wizard, will put on a fun show early in the evening. Expect big things from Sabatini inside the UFC.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 261?
Petela: Jorge Masvidal. He will back up his trash talk with a huge victory to secure the welterweight title. He has certainly come a long way from his street-fighting days on YouTube. As someone who was once labeled as a journeyman of the sport, Miami’s Masvidal will silence any lingering critics when a belt is wrapped around his waist.
Sumian: Zhang Weili and Valentina Schevchenko. These two ladies will each turn in a dominant performance and then pair up for a highly lucrative superfight. The winner of that superfight will be in the argument for most dominant women’s champion once Nunes retires.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 261?
Sumian: Uriah Hall. The former surging middleweight is on a three-fight winning streak, but it will end when he is finished via submission by Chris Weidman. Hall’s streak is very misleading, as it comes at the expense of Bevon Lewis (knockout), Carlos Antonio Jr. (split decision), and an aging Anderson Silva (TKO). None of Hall’s victories are impressive, nor do they warrant his current standing at No. 9 in the division. This will be utterly evident when Weidman scores a dominant submission victory over the TUF veteran to show everyone that he still has what it takes to compete against the best in the world.
Petela: Jéssica Andrade. After a lopsided loss to Valentina Shevchenko, there will be more questions than answers about where the Brazilian goes from here. Andrade has competed in three of the four women’s weight classes inside the UFC. She briefly held the strawweight title, too. There are certainly more than a few winnable fights for her in the top half of the flyweight division, but it will be clear after Saturday that she is yet another fighter who is not on the same level as the seemingly invincible “Bullet.”
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira. Frankly, he just hasn’t looked like the same fighter over the past several bouts. There’s no doubt that all of the slugfests he has been in are taking their toll. He is beginning to show the first signs of a shop-worn fighter, especially in his reluctance to pull the trigger in situations where he would have done so earlier in his career. With a second consecutive loss for Oliveira, the UFC will use this opportunity to cut ties with the Brazilian fighter.
Sumian: The loser of the fight between Chris Weidman and Uriah Hall. Neither man is even remotely close to being considered a top middleweight at this point, and they will likely never be in the title picture again. They are probably on the expensive end of the UFC’s middleweight payroll. The loser could find themselves in a position where the UFC is no longer interested in their services.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Karl Roberson and Brendan Allen. Prior to suffering losses in their most recent respective UFC appearances, these guys were considered to be prospects poised for a big year. Now, they each return after being finished in their last appearance. Roberson and Allen have combined for 21 finishes and will enter the Octagon eager to put on a show.
Petela: It is hard to call a main-card fight on a pay-per-view a sleeper, but that’s what happens when the bill is stacked with three championship contests. However, not nearly enough is being made of the rematch between former middleweight champ Chris Weidman and Uriah Hall. It has been nearly 11 years since the pair first met in the Ring of Combat promotion. Hall finally gets the chance to avenge his previous loss to Weidman and take out another former UFC kingpin as he looks to make his most serious run as a contender.
Unfortunately, despite both men being vastly evolved versions of the men who met in Atlantic City, N.J., this will have a similar ending to their first affair. Weidman will still use his superior wrestling to force Hall onto the canvas, where Weidman will then work his ground-and-pound to secure a stoppage. Until the fight gets to the canvas, though, fans of “The All-American” will be holding their breath. It could turn ugly in an instant if Hall lands with precision and power to the chin of Weidman.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Jimmy Crute. The Australian is starting to build his name as one of the best young light heavyweights in the world. He will continue this mission with a stoppage victory over former title challenger Anthony Smith. Crute has the skills on his feet to get the better of the veteran “Lionheart,” and he has already picked up two submission wins via kimura inside the UFC. Whether he forces a tap or scores a knockout, Crute is sure to collect a bonus check.
Sumian: Kamaru Usman. Whether he finishes Masvidal or pummels him en route to a very lopsided decision victory, Usman will be rewarded by the UFC. There are big things headed Usman’s way once he takes care of business on Saturday night. He might even headline a pay-per-view in Africa sooner than we think.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: “It’s time!!!” Finally, the UFC is back in full force with fans able to attend live events. This event will mark the first of many incredible UFC cards in 2021 and will be defined by the dominance of each reigning champion. All three titleholders will score victories this weekend and further establish their hold on their respective division as the UFC works to manufacture new contenders. UFC 261 warrants celebration, so plan out a fun gathering with friends that involves great food, well-made drinks, and an appreciation for the current champs.
Petela: This card is so full of storylines that it is hard to keep them all straight. One might even call it an enigma. So, pair these fights with a Glenlivet Enigma Single Malt scotch and enjoy what is sure to be a fun night of action. Just be careful to remember that the scotch is 60.6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), so don’t overindulge or you might end up more confused at the end of the card than when you began.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
WW Championship: Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal
Women’s StrawW Championship: Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas
Women’s FlyW Championship: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jéssica Andrade
MW: Chris Weidman vs. Uriah Hall
LHW: Anthony Smith vs. Jimmy Crute
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Randy Brown vs. Alex Oliveira
WW: Dwight Grant vs. Stefan Sekulić
MW: Brendan Allen vs. Karl Roberson
FW: Tristan Connelly vs. Pat Sabatini
Preliminary Card (ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass, 5:45 p.m. ET)
BW: Danaa Batgerel vs. Kevin Natividad
LW: Zhu Rong vs. Rodrigo Vargas
FlyW: Jeff Molina vs. Qileng Aori
Women’s StrawW: Ariane Carnelossi vs. Na Liang
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