This weekend will see UFC host arguably the deepest card of the year, including three title fights for just the fourth time in the company’s history. In addition to these showdowns for the Welterweight, Featherweight and Bantamweight Championships, the card will also match two former Strawweight champions against one another, with a former Light Heavyweight Championship challenger spearheading the prelims. Evidently, there is a lot to look forward to. Let’s take a look at the bouts UFC 251 has to offer and attempt to forecast what is likely to happen.
Kamaru Usman vs Jorge Masvidal (Welterweight Championship
Usman: 16-1 (last five: 5-0)
Masvidal: 35-13 (last five: 3-2)
UFC 251’s main event has seen dramatic last-minute revisions, which in most people’s opinion, has simply raised the anticipation to a state of fever pitch as the world readies this first look at the organisation’s opening ‘Fight Island’ weekend in Abu Dhabi. Originally, Welterweight Champion Kamaru Usman was slated to face white-hot Jorge Masvidal. But when negotiations stalled, the UFC drafted in #1 contender Gilbert Burns, only for the Brazilian prospect to test positive for coronavirus little over a week before the fight. This consequently convinced the UFC to revise their offer to Masvidal, which he duly accepted, therefore seeing the event come full-circle and now we are, much to the delight of fans, back with the original main event.
Whilst the enormously popular ‘Street Jesus’ stepping up on a week’s notice will help draw in countless additional viewers, it may not provide as tough a test for champion Usman as he had previously been preparing for. Alternatively, it may be infinitely more difficult, which is exactly what makes this weekend’s featured bout so intriguing.
On one hand, Masvidal’s striking capabilities have never been in question, with his record-breaking five-second Knockout over Ben Askren and recent demolitions of Nate Diaz and Darren Till providing more than enough evidence to substantiate claims that the Cuban might just be the best pure boxer in the sport. He is also highly defensively-advanced in both striking and grappling departments, which has led to Masvidal being branded one of the toughest fighters to finish. After all, he may have lost 13 fights in his career, but only three of those have come via stoppage, with the majority of the remainder being close-fought split decisions which one could rightfully assume the ‘reborn’ Masvidal would now win thanks to his newfound killer instinct.
On the other hand, however, grappling-heavy Usman is a wrestler at heart, which has historically been a bad stylistic matchup for Masvidal. Additionally, Usman is very much a large welterweight, whereas Masvidal was able to make the additional 15lb cut to Lightweight for much of his career. That extra size, together with the relentless pace Usman notoriously demonstrates, will make it a hard night out for Masvidal if he is unable to stop the champion’s takedowns.
One could argue that Usman’s stand-and-bang war last time out with Colby Covington suggests the Nigerian may opt to stand with Masvidal, which would be unwise given the latter’s knockout tally extends as far as Usman’s career in its entirety. Provided Usman uses that wrestling threat to mix up the attacks and keep Masvidal guessing on the feet, though, I can see Usman doing enough in the early rounds and gradually taking over as the fight goes on.
That’s my main concern with ‘Gamebred’ – how prepared for a 25-minute, five round war can a fighter be when he’s taking the fight on a week’s notice? While he has done little in the past to suggest conditioning is a cause for concern, Usman’s famed pace and pressure could well be enough to compound the late-notice issues and crumble Masvidal in the late rounds.
Prediction: Usman via TKO (Round 4).
Alexander Volkanovski vs Max Holloway (Featherweight Championship)
Volkanovski: 21-1 (last five: 5-0)
Holloway: 21-5 (last five: 3-2)
Alexander Volkanovski’s first title defence will be against the longstanding champion he took the belt from in December, when the Australian punctuated his rise through the ranks with a masterful five-round shut-out victory over Max Holloway.
The champ and ex-champ are remarkably different in stature: Volkanovski is the shorter man by close to half a foot, yet surprisingly has a modest reach advantage to exercise on paper. Alex ‘The Great’ is a volume striker much like Holloway, but is arguably more versatile as he utilises takedowns to keep his opponents guessing and is remarkably adept at controlling the range, considering he is one of the shorter 145lb-ers.
Much of Alex’s success in the first fight was characterised by his leg kicks, however, and one would hope Holloway will be able to learn from this as his movement is a crucial element to his own game plan. If the champion is to approach this rematch with the same methodical strategy as before, and ‘Blessed’ is unable to find an answer for the leg kicks yet again, the fight will pan out much like it did before.
Those who watch the first fight back will realise, however, that whilst two thirds of the fight were controlled by Volkanovski, it was in fact the then-champion who finished strongly as his famed cardio helped him earn the fifth round as well as the fourth, if you squint. Holloway has a long history of this, as he has a tendency to pick up the pace as the fight goes on and he learns more about his opponent’s strategies and preferences, which sees him perhaps sacrifice the early rounds in order to bag the later ones. Perhaps, then, this is exactly what he did in the Volkanovski fight, but it was simply a matter of ‘too little, too late?’
If Holloway is able to check Alex’s leg kicks and control the pace of the fight, it is quite possible that we will stymie the new champion’s approach. Volkanovski cannot be overlooked, however, as he is a masterful tactician and it is worth noting in the run up to this rematch, he has been vocal about his intention to be the first man to finish Holloway in the UFC, perhaps suggesting he will scrap the original game plan for a more aggressive one. In that case, all bets are off.
Whilst many are understandably anticipating a successful title defence for the new champion, I have a sneaking suspicion the first fight’s fourth and fifth rounds provide us with a glimpse of things to come.
Prediction: Holloway via decision.
Petr Yan vs Jose Aldo (Bantamweight Championship)
Yan: 14-1 (last five: 5-0)
Aldo: 28-6 (last five: 2-3)
This bout differs from the card’s other two title fights in the sense that the challenger, Jose Aldo, has very little concrete evidence to justify his championship opportunity. Whilst the legendary Brazilian’s ten year reign in the Featherweight division cements his name in the all-time history books, his sole Bantamweight outing thus far saw him lose an albeit controversial split decision to Marlon Moraes, who himself was bouncing back after a knockout loss to then-champion Henry Cejudo. Aldo’s decision to move down to 135lbs caused quite the stir when it happened, as whilst most agreed a weight class move could be on the cards, Aldo’s history of tough weight cuts logically pointed towards stepping up to 155lbs rather than moving in the opposite direction.
He committed to the move, however, and did make the cut, albeit having used every ounce of the 136lb non-title-fight limit. This weekend, on the other hand, the fact he is competing for a championship means that additional one pound lenience will not be afforded, meaning ‘Junior’ must add yet another pound deduction to his already gruelling weight cut. This may seem negligible, but it could quite possibly be a bridge too far for the much bigger man.
Petr Yan, on the other hand, represents the division’s new blood. He is viewed as the champion-in-waiting and has walked through every single opponent the UFC has thrown at him thus far. One could certainly argue, then, that Yan’s divisional resume qualifies the Russian for this scrap for the strap, whereas there are still many questions surrounding the legitimacy of Aldo’s claim to 135 superiority.
Yan’s most recent fight saw him obliterate returning legend Urijah Faber via late head kick, with all the action being one-sided in ‘No Mercy’s’ favour up to that point. This shows that Yan is no stranger to taking on known names of Aldo’s generation, and the way in which he ran through Faber gives us no reason to believe the occasion will get to him.
Additionally, Yan’s previous bouts against top ten contenders Jimmie Rivera and John Dodson demonstrated that whilst his aggressive and pressure-heavy style can see him get hurt, his recovery is swift and his relentlessness never dwindles. This means that any power advantage Aldo carries as the bigger man will be of little consequence, and even then, Jose’s inability to put Moraes away in his Bantamweight debut gives us reason to believe perhaps his power does not translate at 135, anyway.
The reality is Aldo is 2-3 in his last five fights, and whilst a performance from yesteryear is not out of the question, it is very hard to turn back the clocks in MMA. Fearless Yan, meanwhile, is yet to experience defeat inside the octagon, and I do not see that changing this weekend.
A victory from Yan will set up the showdown with true #1 contender Aljamain Sterling, which promises to be a far more competitive bout at this point in their respective careers.
Prediction: Yan via KO (Round 3).
Jessica Andrade vs Rose Namajunas
Andrade: 20-7 (last five: 4-1)
Namajunas: 8-4 (last five: 3-2)
Much like Volkanovski vs Holloway above them, this bout is another rematch. The battle of former Women’s Strawweight Champions, however, differs in the sense that Rose Namajunas was handily winning her bout before being dumped on her head by Jessica Andrade, which resulted in one of the most brutal knockouts in women’s MMA. The bout lasted just under eight minutes and ‘Thug Rose’ won seven and a half of them.
This time, Namajunas will be advantaged by the fact the two women are not fighting for a championship, as this means the match is only scheduled for three rounds rather than five. It seems far more likely that the American can control the range and avoid Andrade’s powerful bulldozer-like attacks for 15 minutes instead of the full 25.
The fight marks Jessica’s first time out since her disappointing loss to champion Zhang Weili, who took the belt from her. She will be looking to end things quickly and decisively, whilst Rose will be looking to play a longer and more elusive game, which is likely to frustrate her Brazilian adversary.
The graphic finish in the first fight makes it easy to forget that Namajunas was actually able to hurt and knock Andrade down early on, only for an ill-fated kimura attempt to cost Rose the fight as Andrade was able to brutally drive her head into the canvas below.
Of course, Andrade is only ever going to be one big shot away from another victory, but Rose should be able to make the most of her rangier attacks to play the counter-striking game and bag herself the win she should have had in the first place.
Prediction: Namajunas via decision.
Amanda Ribas vs Paige Van Zant
Ribas: 9-1 (last five: 4-1)
Van Zant: 8-4 (last five: 3-2)
Swansongs rarely end well in MMA, and this looks likely to be Paige Van Zant’s final UFC outing before a slated move to Bellator. The fan favourite will face off against surging Strawweight prospect Amanda Ribas, who is making the jump up to 125 despite her unbeaten record in the UFC’s division 10lbs below.
If it’s a battle of social media followings, Van Zant would be on the winning end of a mismatch, but her recent in-cage performances have often been lacklustre, whereas Ribas’ decision wins over Randa Markos and fellow prospect Mackenzie Dern have shown her to be going from strength to strength.
Van Zant’s most recent bout, meanwhile, did see her win, but it was courtesy of an arm bar submission in a fight she had been losing, against an extremely rudimentary and inexperienced Rachael Ostovich with a losing record.
’12 Gauge Paige’ has been vocal about her intentions to test free agency after this final fight on her contract, whilst her young opponent will see her as a notable name to add to her resume as aims to climb the ranks further. She riding the momentum of a successful four-fight Strawweight campaign, and will be looking to make a statement here as Flyweight Champion Valentina Shevchenko is in search of future opponents.
Prediction: Ribas via submission (Round 2).
Volkan Oezdemir vs Jiri Prochazka
Oezdemir: 17-4 (last five: 2-3)
Prochazka: 26-3-1 (last five: 5-0)
UFC debutant Prochazka will be making the walk with significant fan anticipation, owing to impressive demolitions over former UFC known-names in Rizin before he signed with the flagship brand to test his mettle.
The Czech fighter is a massive Light Heavyweight whose lights-out knockout power saw his latest opponent, C.B. Dolloway, fall several feet backwards on his way to a first round stoppage. Previous adversary Fabio Maldonado’s fate was similar. The Dolloway fight did, however, demonstrate some of Jiri’s defensively irresponsible tendencies as his habit of leaning forward can leave his chin exposed, while he also leans heavily on his lead leg which could open the door for 15 minutes of Oezdemir’s leg kicks.
Despite his highlight reel finishes in smaller organisations, Prochazka is about to find out the UFC is a significant step up in competition, and debuting against Volkan Oezdemir is a real baptism of fire. Given the uncertainty at the top of the division, the Swiss standout will be eager to secure a second title opportunity.
There is a very strong case to be made that he beat Dominick Reyes, who just gave all-time great Jon Jones his toughest ever fight, and Oezdemir’s only other recent losses came to Daniel Cormier and Anthony Smith, both on the ground. Given Jiri is an out-and-out kickboxer, this weakness against elite grapplers is highly unlikely to be a problem for Oezdemir this weekend.
Oezdemir has done well to rebuild his momentum after the injustice of the Reyes fight, with a lights out victory over now-heavyweight Ilir Latifi, and a competitive scorecard win over highly-touted prospect Aleksandar Rakic.
The fighters’ combined 35 knockouts makes it easy to forecast an early finish, but equally I can see the more experienced UFC man playing a smart game and initiating a surprisingly wrestling-heavy fight.
Volkan’s more measured approach as of late, together with his newfound ability to lace takedown attempts within his combinations, is going to be too much for the UFC newcomer. Either way, bombs will be thrown on both sides, as this prelim headliner should have fans tuning in early.
Prediction: Oezdemir Via decision.
Additional Prelim Predictions
Muslim Salikhov defeats Elizeu Zaleski via TKO (Round 1).
Makwan Amirkhani defeats Danny Henry via submission (Round 3).
Leonardo Santos defeats Roman Bogatov via decision.
Marcin Tybura defeats Maxim Grishin via TKO (Round 1).
Zhalgas Zhumagulov defeats Raulian Paiva via decision.
Karol Rosa defeats Vanessa Melo via decision.
Martin Day defeats Davey Grant via TKO (Round 2).