Just when you think nothing in MMA will surprise you anymore, Jorge Masvidal goes and accepts the first UFC title fight of his career on six days’ notice.And you know what? I’ll definitely fall for it again. Even though I’ll try to remember moving forward that I know nothing, and this sport will always out-bizarre itself from the week before — at some point I’ll drop my guard and think, “Well, surely now I’ve seen it all.” And MMA will have to humble me once again.The UFC will kick off its four “Fight Island” events with UFC 251, which is scheduled to feature three championship bouts. In the main event, Kamaru Usman will defend his welterweight title against Jorge Masvidal. Also, Alexander Volkanovski will put up his featherweight crown against former champ Max Holloway, and Petr Yan will face Jose Aldo for the vacant bantamweight belt.Purchase UFC 251 hereUFC 251: Usman vs. Masvidal• July 11, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates• 6 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN PPV
Seriously, when I think about some of the storylines I’ve covered in the past 10 years, they baffle me. Remember the time Conor McGregor threw a dolly at a bus while other fighters were aboard? That was at the same event where Tony Ferguson withdrew from a title bout against Khabib Nurmagomedov because he was injured tripping on a cable during a TV appearance, and Max Holloway stepped in on days’ notice, only to be ruled out in the middle of his weight cut. So Al Iaquinta fought Nurmagomedov for a championship on essentially zero days’ notice.Or how about the time the UFC moved an entire event from Las Vegas to California because the Nevada commission wouldn’t license Jon Jones over an atypical drug test finding that popped up at the last minute near Christmas? Or the time Anderson Silva agreed to fight Daniel Cormier at UFC 200 on two days’ notice, two months after undergoing surgery to remove his gall bladder?The common denominator in all of these is the UFC’s absolute “The Show Must Go On” mentality … and the willingness and courage of its fighters to jump at these opportunities. And maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic that has, for the most part, ruined sports so far in 2020, but that shared mentality feels like the greatest aspect of the sport right now, doesn’t it?2 RelatedHow great is it that Masvidal, who has fought 48 times in his career but never for a UFC championship, is willing to take this moment of a lifetime on six days’ notice? How great is it that Usman, who has sooooo much to lose in this scenario, didn’t blink over changing opponents? And how great is it that the UFC did what it took to make this happen, even when it had two other title fights still on the UFC 251 pay-per-view?I’ll admit, when the UFC was so bullish earlier this year about continuing to promote fights during a pandemic, I wondered about the quality of the product. Would the UFC be able to book its best matchups with all the logistical hurdles that would exist? And would the performances of the athletes suffer under the extraordinary circumstances they face?As it’s turned out, the sport hasn’t missed a beat. Arguably, there has never been a better example of why this sport is so fascinating and unpredictable than the past several months.And I hope anyone watching realizes that all of these bizarre happenings are not because of MMA in a pandemic. This is just MMA, folks.ESPN.com IllustrationWelterweight championship:Kamaru Usman (c) vs. Jorge MasvidalBy the numbers11: Consecutive victories for Usman, tying him with Amanda Nunes for the second-longest active winning streak in the UFC, behind Khabib Nurmagomedov’s 12 in a row. An Usman win would tie him with Georges St-Pierre for the longest streak in UFC welterweight history.Michael Bisping25*Dustin Poirier22Jorge Masvidal18Donald Cerrone18Thiago Santos18* = only one to win title3: Consecutive wins by Masvidal. All came by knockout, including a UFC-record 5-second KO of Ben Askren last year.42: Takedowns in the UFC for Usman, third most among active welterweights, behind Colby Covington’s 58 and Neil Magny’s 45. (Magny has had 22 UFC fights, exactly twice as many as Usman.)2.43: Significant strikes landed by Usman for every one absorbed, the highest positive differential ever for a UFC 170-pounder.1: Number of fighters who have been awarded a “BMF” belt inside the Octagon. Masvidal is one of a kind.Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC StatsA look backFIRST TITLE TRY — Although Saturday will be Jorge Masvidal’s first chance at a UFC championship, he did take a shot at a Strikeforce belt in 2011, dropping a decision to lightweight champ (and now ESPN analyst) Gilbert Melendez. Josh Hedges/Forza LLC/Getty ImagesFive vs. fiveKamaru Usman’s most recent resultsWin: Colby Covington (TKO5, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Tyron Woodley (UD, March 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Rafael Dos Anjos (UD, Nov. 30, 2018)Win: Demian Maia (UD, May 19, 2018)Win: Emil Meek (UD, Jan. 14, 2018)Jorge Masvidal’s most recent resultsWin: Nate Diaz (TKO3, Nov. 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Ben Askren (KO1, July 6, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Darren Till (KO2, March 16, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Loss: Stephen Thompson (UD, Nov. 4, 2017)Loss: Demian Maia (SD, May 13, 2017)Dom’s film studyDominick Cruz breaks down Jorge Masvidal’s advantages:play1:44Dominick Cruz joins SportsCenter to discuss the advantages Jorge Masvidal has in preparing for his UFC 251 fight against Kamaru Usman.And the winner is …Make your UFC 251 picks! Watch the action on July 11 LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ and pay-per-view. Make Your Picks
Masvidal has a real, real shot, in my opinion. This is not a guy who needs a long camp to go out and feel comfortable in a fistfight. Masvidal is the kind of guy I would give a shot to against anyone. The man just knows how to fight, and he’s supremely confident — especially now, after the 2019 he had. But at the end of the day, Usman is not a guy I would want to fight at anything less than 100 percent. The travel, the weight cut, the Abu Dhabi heat, Usman’s pressure and wrestling? Too much to predict the upset. Usman by decision.Men’s featherweight championship:Alexander Volkanovski (c) vs. Max Holloway 2Seven months after Volkanovski ended Holloway’s reign of 2½ years with a unanimous-decision victory, they’re going to do it again in Saturday’s co-main event. Will the Aussie’s leg kicks be the difference once again, or will the ex-champ have an answer that allows him to bring his old belt home to Hawaii? This rematch is a meeting of two fighters at the top of their games.By the numbers2-8: The combined record of fighters who have lost a UFC championship, then attempted to regain the belt in an immediate rematch. The only success stories to inspire Holloway are those of Randy Couture (defeated Vitor Belfort in 2004) and Stipe Miocic (beat Daniel Cormier last year).Joanna Jedrzejczyk78Alexander Volkanovski75Joanna Jedrzejczyk752,071: Significant strikes landed by Holloway in the UFC, the most in promotion history.3.01: Significant strikes landed in the UFC by Volkanovski for every one absorbed, the fourth highest differential among active fighters.51: Percentage of strike attempts that landed for Volkanovski in the first Holloway fight. Both men threw 303 strikes, and Volkanovski connected with 157 to Holloway’s 134 (44%).1: UFC champions born in Australia. It’s just Volkanovski, mate.Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC StatsA look backAND NEW! — Alexander Volkanovski unleashes the uplifting emotion of having just been declared UFC featherweight champion, dethroning Max Holloway by unanimous decision in December. Steve Marcus/Getty ImagesFive vs. fiveAlexander Volkanovski’s most recent resultsWin: Max Holloway (UD, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Jose Aldo (UD, May 11, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Chad Mendes (TKO2, Dec. 29, 2018)Win: Darren Elkins (UD, July 14, 2018)Win: Jeremy Kennedy (TKO2, Feb. 11, 2018)Max Holloway’s most recent resultsLoss: Alexander Volkanovski (UD, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Frankie Edgar (UD, July 27, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Loss: Dustin Poirier (UD, April 13, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Brian Ortega (TKO4, Dec. 8, 2018)Win: Jose Aldo (TKO3, Dec. 2, 2017)Dom & Gil’s film studyCruz and Melendez show how Alex Volkanovski won with leg kicks: And the winner is …Monday through Friday, host Mina Kimes brings you an inside look at the most interesting stories at ESPN, as told by the top reporters and insiders on the planet. Listen
Holloway is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of the past five years, but I’m in agreement with Volkanovski and his team when it comes to that first fight between the two. It wasn’t particularly close. It was competitive, for sure, but Volkanovski was the clear winner. Holloway needs to close that gap in this rematch, and he’ll have to do it without a full, traditional camp. Volkanovski had the right game plan the first time around and executed it perfectly. Of course Holloway is capable of rewriting the narrative in this fight, but I have to lean toward the champ. Volkanovski by decision.Men’s bantamweight championship (vacant):Petr Yan vs. Jose AldoAldo has lost two fights in a row, including his 135-pound debut in December. But he’s a legend of the sport, the UFC’s first featherweight champion, with nine title defenses (counting his time in the Zuffa sister promotion, the WEC). Now the 33-year-old from Brazil is looking to further enhance his legacy. It won’t be easy. Standing in his way is Yan, a Russian who is unbeaten in the UFC.By the numbers7: Fighters who have held UFC championships in multiple weight classes. Aldo, a former featherweight champ, is trying to become the eighth. The previous ones: Randy Couture (heavy, light heavy), BJ Penn (welter, light), Conor McGregor (light, feather), Georges St-Pierre (middle, welter), Daniel Cormier (heavy, light heavy), Amanda Nunes (feather, bantam) and Henry Cejudo (bantam, fly).Petr Yan6Aljamain Sterling5Marlon Vera51-8: Combined record of Brazilian men in UFC title fights since Aldo dropped the featherweight belt to Max Holloway in June 2017. The only winner: Deiveson Figueiredo, who missed weight for his fight with Joseph Benavidez in February and was ineligible to win the flyweight championship.2.50: Significant strikes landed by Yan in the UFC for every one absorbed. It is the third highest differential in bantamweight history.6: Consecutive UFC victories for Yan, the longest streak among active bantamweights. Overall, he has won nine in a row dating to July 2016.0: Five-round fights for Yan. Aldo has gone five rounds seven times, though not since 2016.Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC StatsA look backTHE REIGN BEGINS — Jose Aldo is punching his way toward the WEC featherweight championship, a title later moved to the UFC, with a 2009 victory over champ Mike Brown (now Jorge Masvidal’s head coach). Aldo will remain champ through nine title defenses. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesFive vs. fivePetr Yan’s most recent resultsWin: Urijah Faber (KO3, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Jimmie Rivera (UD, June 8, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: John Dodson (UD, Feb. 23, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Douglas Silva de Andrade (TKO2, Dec. 29, 2018)Win: Jin Soo Son (UD, Sept. 15, 2018)Jose Aldo’s most recent resultsLoss: Marlon Moraes (SD, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Loss: Alexander Volkanovski (UD, May 11, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Renato Moicano (TKO2, Feb. 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)Win: Jeremy Stephens (TKO1, July 28, 2018)Loss: Max Holloway (TKO3, Dec. 2, 2017; watch on ESPN+)And the winner is …I think it’s Yan’s time, at least for now. Whether Yan will become a dominant bantamweight champion for years to come, we’ll have to see. There are a lot of tough fights at 135 pounds right now, which is why I was sad to see Henry Cejudo retire. There was a lot of meat left on that bone, in terms of title defenses. Stylistically, I think Yan matches up well with Aldo. Aldo will be dangerous, of course. He has a lot of experience in these five-round title fights. But Yan’s youth, confidence and power will be too much. Yan by decision.Saturday’s fight cardPPV (via ESPN+), 10 p.m. ETKamaru Usman (c) vs. Jorge Masvidal | WelterweightAlexander Volkanovski (c) vs. Max Holloway | Men’s featherweightPetr Yan vs. Jose Aldo | Men’s bantamweightJessica Andrade vs. Rose Namajunas | StrawweightAmanda Ribas vs. Paige VanZant | Women’s flyweightESPN/ESPN+, 6 p.m. ETVolkan Oezdemir vs. Jiri Prochazka | Light heavyweightElizeu Zaleski dos Santos vs. Muslim Salikhov | WelterweightMakwan Amirkhani vs. Danny Henry | Men’s featherweightLeonardo Santos vs. Roman Bogatov | LightweightMarcin Tybura vs. Maxim Grishin | HeavyweightRaulian Paiva vs. Zhalgas Zhamagulov | Men’s flyweightKarol Rosa vs. Vanessa Melo | Women’s bantamweightDavey Grant vs. Martin Day | Men’s bantamweight(c) = defending championWhat else to look for … beyond the title boutsThe slam that made Jessica Andrade a champion last year was one of the most violent finishes ever. Now Andrade and Rose Namajunas are back for more. Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesFrom slam finish to rematch: Ex-champion vs. ex-championRose Namajunas is a former UFC strawweight champion, dethroned by a Jessica Andrade body-slam knockout in May 2019. Andrade is an ex-champ as well now, losing her belt to Zhang Weili by 42-second KO just four months after she won it.Namajuas, who was in control of last year’s fight until the slam abruptly ended it, has not fought since and considered retirement. But now she is ready to take another shot at Andrade, who also has some career rebuilding to do after her short title reign.A couple of handy facts:Five more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information):1. Paige VanZant is being tested in the last fight on her UFC contract. VanZant has never entered a UFC fight as anything but a favorite, but she is a heavy underdog against strawweight Amanda Ribas. The Caesars Sportsbook odds as of Wednesday: VanZant was a +650 underdog, with Ribas at -1000.2. Jiri Prochazka, making his UFC debut in a light heavyweight bout with Volkan Oezdemir, has won each of his past eight bouts by KO/TKO, seven of them in the first round. Overall, 24 of the Czech’s 26 career wins have been by stoppage (22 KO/TKO; 2 submissions).3. Also making his debut is Roman Bogatov, who faces lightweight Leonardo Santos. Bogatov is from Russia, which bodes well for Saturday. Among eight countries with at least 30 fighters to debut in the UFC, Russians have won the highest percentage (58.8%, for a 30-20-1 record).4. Marcin Tybura, who faces late replacement Maxim Grishin in a heavyweight prelim, is on an interesting run. Each of his past three wins has been by decision, and each of his past three losses has been by knockout. He has not finished an opponent since March 2017 (Luis Henrique). Tybura’s 82.1% success in takedown defense is best ever among qualifying heavyweights.5. Judges might as well go take a break during the men’s featherweight prelim between Makwan Amirkhani and Danny Henry. Ten of Amirkhani’s 15 career wins have been by submission (four decisions, one KO). Henry has posted 10 of his 12 wins by finish — five by KO/TKO, five by submission.Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight card preview.