UFC 261 offers the most exciting card of the year so far, with three title fights and a couple of compelling non-title matchups.
The headliner is welterweight champion Kamaru Usman against Jorge Masvidal. These two have been running him since July, when Masvidal agreed to the fight with just six days notice after scheduled opponent Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID-19. Usman dominated the fight, winning by unanimous decision, but Masvidal is confident that a full training camp will make the difference in the rematch.
Valentina Shevchenko also defends her flyweight championship against Jéssica Andrade. Shevchenko has been dominant in 13 of his last 15 fights, with the only blemishes against the great Amanda Nunes. Andrade is a former strawweight champion, but she will probably be no match for Shevchenko. The third title fight is that of reigning strawweight champion Zhang Weili defending against former champion Rose Namajunas which is a fantastic clash of styles. Additionally, the undercard features Uriah Hall versus Chris Weidman in a middleweight division fight, as well as light heavyweight action pitting Anthony Smith against Jimmy Crute.
Here are the most pressing questions when entering UFC 261:
Will the Usman-Masvidal rematch produce a different result than the first fight?
Usman and Masvidal will battle for the welterweight crown, but unlike their first meeting last July, both fighters will enter the Octagon with a full training ground to prepare for the other.
Usman (18-1) won the first fight decisively. Despite playing five full rounds, Masvidal (35-14) did not have the usual sharpness in his work, and the short response time, combined with the trip to Abu Dhabi, certainly played a role.
Masvidal is very tough, and one of his greatest strengths is the way he can weather an opponent’s storm and still find the right shot. We’ve never seen Usman seriously injured, which would add a new element if Masvidal is able to pull off a decisive advantage early on. But there’s a reason Usman rarely gets into trouble, as he’s an elite fighter who operates on an uncommon level of greatness. Outside of Khabib Nurmagomedov, we have never seen a fighter like Usman.
This pace of this fight is likely to be very different from the first one, but with the same result. It looks like another Usman win, although Masvidal has a better chance this time.
What happens next? And how does Conor McGregor influence that equation?
There are great fighters in the welterweight division, but he’s lean at the top, especially with Usman running through his opponents. Leon Edwards and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson are both options, but if Usman wins, his next opponent will be Colby Covington.
If Masvidal wins, the obvious play is an immediate rematch against Usman. But could we also end up seeing Conor McGregor move to the welterweight division for a title fight after his fight against Dustin Poirier? In terms of matchups, it would be a perfect matchup for McGregor and a chance to regain a belt. Stranger things have happened and, as unlikely as it may sound, it is definitely not out of the question if Masvidal is victorious.
Masvidal also holds the BMF belt. If he loses this fight to Usman, we will likely see him in play again, particularly since we reached a breaking point for the key players involved in a potential BMF fight, specifically McGregor and Nate Diaz. The odds are high that we will see this belt again sooner rather than later.
Is there a flyweight fighter in the world who can challenge Shevchenko?
In a word, no.
Outside of his two fights against Nunes, the past 13 fights have illustrated that Shevchenko is unstoppable.
Andrade is an incredibly talented fighter, but she has always been considered a serendipitous champion. She won the strawweight title in a fight against Namajunas, a fight that Namajunas had dominated until he became too arrogant and fell headlong. Andrade (21-8) then lost the title in his first defense. A move to flyweight to fight Shevchenko (20-3) won’t end well for her. Andrade is simply nowhere as polished or as technically sound as Shevchenko.
With a victory, there is no one left to fight Shevchenko. The question will be if he decides to go into a third fight against Nunes.
Will we see a title change at UFC 261?
If a title changes hands at 261, it is more likely to happen in the women’s strawweight title fight where Zhang Weili defends against Rose Namajunas.
Unfortunately, this fight has made headlines for the wrong reasons, with Namajunas pointing out that a win against Weili, who is from China, it’s a victory against communism. Namajunas has since stated that his comments they were not directed at Weili, but it was an extremely disconcerting comment.
When it comes to fighting, Namajunas (9–4) offers one of the most complete skill sets in MMA. Weili (21-1) has yet to be field tested, so a big telling point will be the advantage she would get if Namajunas fought her. But Weili is so powerful, technical, and smart, which makes her a difficult matchup for Namajunas.
This has all the makings for a fantastic fight, even though both fighters have spent considerable time outside of the cage. Namajunas is tough, but Weili’s power will make all the difference in defending this title.
Is this Weidman’s farewell fight in the UFC?
The middleweight fight that pits Hall against Weidman should be an exciting fight between two great fighters. Weidman (15-5) is the more complete fighter of the two, but it seems his chin is not what it used to be after receiving that devastating flying knee from Yoel Romero in 2016. Hall (16-9) is one of the Wildest, fastest and most technical forwards in the UFC, a huge advantage for him in this fight.
Weidman has lost five of his last seven and needs this win. A loss means he is retiring or out of the UFC, which adds even more intrigue to this fight.
What undercard fights will stand out?
The opening fight on the undercard is a light heavyweight reunion, pitting Jimmy Crute against Anthony Smith. Crute (12-1) has been set up with some good stylistic matchups, including this fight against Smith (34-16), and the UFC would love to see him emerge as a new star for Australia.
The depth of the 261 card is also evident in the early preliminaries, where Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira meets Randy Brown. Oliveira (22–9–1, 2 NC) is a warrior, and he and Brown (12–4) will stand their ground and strike, and Karl Roberson (9–3) vs. Brendan Allen (15–4) is another exciting showdown . From top to bottom, 261 is a card with great matchups and a genuine flow of matches. Even if the titles don’t change hands, Saturday should be a phenomenal night for fight fans.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.