Options have grown scarce as they relate to Kamaru Usman. Such is the plight of a truly dominant divisional champion.
Usman turned away another would-be assailant and retained the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title, as he cut down former Sanford MMA stablemate Gilbert Burns with punches in the third round of their UFC 258 main event on Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Burns succumbed to blows 34 seconds into Round 3, suffering his first defeat in nearly three years.
Sailing was far from smooth for Usman. Burns clipped and nearly floored him with an overhand right in Round 1, the four-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion poised to spring the upset. However, Usman recovered, steered clear of further danger and let his hands do the rest. Backed by his championship mettle, his jab paved the way for a pivotal second round and set the stage for a finish in the third. Burns hit the deck twice, and though referee Herb Dean offered him every opportunity to continue the fight, the punches kept falling until the job was done.
In the aftermath of UFC 258 “Usman vs. Burns,” here are five matches that ought to be made:
Kamaru Usman vs. Leon Edwards: Usman established an all-time record with his 13th consecutive victory inside the welterweight division, breaking the mark held previously by Georges St. Pierre. Since he captured the 170-pound title with a rousing five-round decision over Tyron Woodley a little less than two years ago, “The Nigerian Nightmare” has slowly tightened his stranglehold on the weight class with decisive wins over Burns, Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington. In terms of top-shelf challengers, only three remain: Edwards, Stephen Thompson and Michael Chiesa. Perhaps the most deserving of the three, Edwards has not fought since he laid claim to a unanimous decision over Rafael dos Anjos on July 20, 2019, his progress undercut by multiple fight cancellations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. He faced Usman once previously, as he wound up on the wrong side of the scorecards at UFC on Fox 17 in 2015. Edwards has since rattled off eight straight wins.
Alexa Grasso vs. Roxanne Modafferi: Long lauded as one of the sport’s top prospects, Grasso may have finally turned the corner to contention. The Lobo Gym standout secured her most significant victory to date in the three-round co-headliner at 125 pounds, as she took a unanimous decision from the returning Maycee Barber and staked her claim as a Top 10 flyweight. Grasso outlanded her counterpart by a 95-50 margin across three rounds, neutralizing three Barber takedowns with activity off her back and an efficient standup attack. The 27-year-old will enter her next assignment on the strength of back-to-back wins. Modafferi lost a three-round unanimous decision to Viviane Araujo at UFC on ESPN 20 in January but remains a strong litmus test for rising contenders.
Kelvin Gastelum vs. Sean Strickland: Gastelum re-established his foothold in the middleweight division and washed away the stench of a career-worst three-fight losing streak, as “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 winner laid claim to a unanimous decision against former Legacy Fighting Alliance titleholder Ian Heinisch. Scores were 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28. Gastelum surprised Heinisch with his effectiveness in the wrestling exchanges, once again flexed his superiority in the scrambles and pecked away with stinging straight left hands for his first victory in nearly three years. Strickland returned from two-year absence due to injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident and enjoyed a 2-0 campaign in 2020. The former King of the Cage champion last competed at UFC Fight Night 182 on Nov. 14, when he disposed of Brendan Allen with second-round punches.
Ricky Simon vs. Yadong Song-Kyler Phillips winner: Simon has emerged as a dark horse in the bantamweight and featherweight divisions. The Team Oyama representative put his third consecutive win in the books—this one at 145 pounds—with a unanimous decision over onetime Ring of Combat champion Brian Kelleher. Simon hacked open a vertical cut between his counterpart’s nose and right eye with an elbow strike in the first round, controlled a majority of their exchanges and completed six of his nine takedown attempts. While he can certainly hold his own as a featherweight, he might be better served returning to 135 pounds for the foreseeable future. An absolute brute of a bantamweight, Simon already holds a submission victory over the 12th-ranked Merab Dvalishvili. Song will meet Phillips at UFC 259 on March 6.
Belal Muhammad vs. Jingliang Li: Muhammad, 32, seems to have hit his stride in the welterweight division. The former Titan Fighting Championship titleholder overwhelmed two-time “Ultimate Fighter” finalist Dhiego Lima on the undercard with pace, purpose and precision, as he walked away with a three-round unanimous verdict despite eating 26 leg kicks from the Atlanta-based Brazilian. Since falling short in his UFC Fight Night 143 battle with Geoff Neal in January 2019, Muhammad has pieced together a four-fight winning streak to improve to 9-3 inside the Octagon. Li last appeared at UFC on ABC 1, where he punched out Santiago Ponzinibbio a little more than four minutes into their Jan. 16 confrontation.
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