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Fight Island has arrived, and its first event features an excellent main card. Everything at UFC 251 this Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, carries interest, and the fact that the fights are drenched with narratives makes it even better, from Jorge Masvidal trying to complete two decades worth of work on a week’s notice and Max Holloway attempting to recapture the featherweight crown to something as simple as Paige VanZant hoping to stick it to the company with a win on her way out the door. Observers can take issue with the Ultimate Fighting Championship on several fronts nowadays, but this pay-per-view lineup is not one of them.
Now to the preview for the UFC 251 “Usman vs. Masvidal” main card:
UFC Welterweight ChampionshipKamaru Usman (16-1) vs. Jorge Masvidal (35-13)
ODDS: Usman (-320), Masvidal (+260)
Masvidal gets his long-awaited chance at welterweight gold after putting in more than 17 years of hard work. He has as much street cred as any fighter in the sport, given that was where he started his fighting career: “Gamebred” was birthed from the same Miami street fighting scene that gave the world Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson before he entered the field of mixed martial arts. Within a short time, Masvidal was making a name for himself as a globetrotting action hero, taking fights everywhere from Bodog Fight to Sengoku before eventually finding a full-time home in Strikeforce in 2011. Both there and in the early days of his UFC career, Masvidal established himself as a championship-level talent, if not always a championship-level fighter. His fights were rarely disappointments in terms of action, and he still won far more than he lost, but Masvidal became notorious for taking his foot off the gas. Once he won a few exchanges or otherwise proved his dominance, he was content to coast the rest of the way, lessening the impact of his wins and even resulting in a few close losses along the way. One of those fights, a controversial split decision defeat to Al Iaquinta in 2015, was enough to cause Masvidal to move up to welterweight; and for the first few years at 170 pounds, it was much the same story. Masvidal was at least in more prominent fights, but he coasted to losses against Benson Henderson and Lorenz Larkin. Masvidal kicked off 2017 with a surprising knockout of Donald Cerrone, which temporarily put him on the fringes of title contention, but after a close loss to Demian Maia and a one-sided decision loss against Stephen Thompson, it looked like the die was cast: He would go down as a beloved bringer of violence who could never quite get over the hump to a title shot. That made Masvidal’s breakout 2019 campaign all the more shocking. Masvidal took off all of 2018 and came back with a new look—“Street Jesus” suddenly became a fitting nickname—and a better approach that quickly paid dividends. Masvidal was still content to fight his opponent’s fight, but he has made more of a concerted effort to consistently put a stamp on bouts where he can. He showed as much with a knockout of Darren Till. Then came the most memorable moment of the year, when Masvidal blitzed Ben Askren with a flying knee that ended their bout just five seconds after it began. That immediately made Masvidal the hottest name in the sport, which led him to headline Madison Square Garden opposite Nate Diaz at UFC 244 in November. The buildup was exactly what was needed—the BMF belt was appropriate for what might be the two most machismo-heavy fighters in the UFC—but the fight itself was mostly a Masvidal showcase that ended in a medical stoppage. There are other contenders who might have stronger resumes on paper, but after a 2019 run that included most “Fighter of the Year” honors, Masvidal was obviously the next man up for Usman. That seemed to be the initial plan, but negotiations quickly went south and the UFC decided to go with Gilbert Burns, who has enjoyed his own breakout campaign and would have made for a fun opponent in his own right. However, just as Fight Island was getting ready to launch, Burns tested positive for COVID-19, and the UFC got a second chance to right its wrong. It may be on less than a week’s notice, but the fight that everyone wanted to see has finally come together; and one gets the sense that Masvidal would not want it any other way.
The narrative around this is all about Masvidal’s moment—and rightfully so, given the rare nature of such a late-career breakout—but Usman is quietly putting together a career that could put him among the all-time greats. “The Nigerian Nightmare” came into the UFC via “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2015 and immediately went about showing why he was one of the best prospects in the game. Leon Edwards gave him a bit of trouble, but Usman managed to dominate opponent after opponent with his freakish strength and elite-level wrestling. That quickly put Usman in an unenviable position from a matchmaking perspective, as nobody wants to face a dominant force who has yet to make a name for himself. Even so, Usman kept passing test after test until he simply could not be denied. Usman affirmed himself as an elite welterweight in 2018. Demian Maia and Rafael dos Anjos had problems with Colby Covington, and Usman blew those holes wide open, controlling and wearing out two divisional stalwarts without much issue. Even that did not prepare anyone for Usman’s tear in 2019. If Masvidal went from action hero to championship contender, Usman went from championship contender to dominant divisional kingpin. Usman ended Tyron Woodley’s title reign in a way that was almost embarrassing for the former champion. Usman refused to respect Woodley’s power or his wrestling and was essentially proven right, as he executed takedowns at will, tired out “The Chosen One” and basically left him mentally broken and out of ideas. Then Usman gave everyone a completely different look in a long-awaited grudge match against Covington. It figured to be a battle of elite wrestlers on paper, but instead, the two engaged in a fast-paced striking war, teeing off on each other for five rounds until Usman eventually broke Covington and ended the fight in the last minute. No man is unbeatable, but Usman has done an amazing job of answering every question about him in fight after fight, to the point that only two remain: Who can beat him and how?
Masvidal might be the most qualified to beat Usman and Burns might be a close second, but it is difficult to favor anyone to beat the champion at this point. Usman-Covington was an interesting contrast heading into the fight, at least from a striking standpoint. For years, the main criticism surrounding Usman was that he was mechanical on the feet as he cycled through his options, and Covington was much less of a “thinker” and much more of a “doer,” willing to let his fists fly and get the advantage without worrying about what would come next. The way to beat Usman is probably still to knock him out, but the champion rightfully made the calculation that Covington would not be a knockout threat and showed a highly effective striking game in the process. Usman got hit, but he would return fire with sharp and thudding blows, including an impressive amount of work to the body that eventually paid dividends. Of course, a lot of that probably will not matter against Masvidal, if only because Usman is a smart fighter; and the smartest approach is for Usman to take things to the mat. However, it shows that Usman will not be out of his depth on the feet, even if he should have little desire to keep the fight there. That is what this matchup basically comes down to and why Usman probably has to be favored against any opponent going forward unless something changes. At the end of the day, the champion can pull the ripcord and essentially end a round with a takedown thanks to the power of his wrestling game. Masvidal is talented enough to survive, but he still carries the weakness that has plagued him since the beginning of his career, namely his willingness to fight whatever fight his opponent brings to the table. It is a credit to Masvidal that often manages to thrive in those situations—plus, he might be the most underrated grappler in the sport, given his ability to hang with Maia—but if Usman can get his wrestling going, then that is essentially the end of the story. On the plus side, this is the most dangerous that Masvidal has ever been on the feet and he should be able to cause some drama before the action spills onto the mat. With that said, this is the champion’s fight to lose. It will not win him many fans, but the pick is for Usman to grind out a decision victory.
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