Key Questions Ahead of Loaded UFC 251 Card on Fight Island

Taking place on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, UFC 251 features a loaded fight card, headlined by Jorge Masvidal taking on Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title.
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For the past 17 years, Jorge Masvidal has worked for the opportunity he’ll get this Saturday at UFC 251—to challenge Kamaru Usman for the welterweight championship.

The fight was originally scheduled to be Usman against Gilbert Burns, but that was officially canceled on July 3 after Burns tested positive for COVID-19. With under a week’s notice, Masvidal replaced Burns and now has a shot at becoming one of the most well-known fighters in the world.

UFC 251 is the most loaded fight card of the year. Taking place on the UFC’s “Fight Island,” on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, there are two rematches on the card, which includes Max Holloway getting another crack at Alexander Volkanovski for the featherweight championship, as well as Rose Namajunas seeking to reclaim her elite status atop the women’s strawweight division against Jéssica Andrade. The vacant bantamweight championship is also up for grabs in a fight pitting Petr Yan against José Aldo, and the card also marks the return of Paige VanZant, who is likely making her final UFC appearance.

Here are the top questions entering UFC 251:

Can Jorge Masvidal defeat Kamaru Usman on such short notice?

In some ways, Jorge Masvidal has already won just by taking this fight. This is the perfect storm for Masvidal. He stepped up and saved the card, got the money he wanted, and this is a massive win for everyone involved. His presence makes the entire card so much bigger. If Masvidal loses, then it is just another reminder that he accepted this fight on short notice. But there are shades of Michael Bisping taking a fight on short notice against Luke Rockhold at UFC 199, and Masvidal has turned an entertaining card into a potentially great one.

Usman (16-1) is the reigning welterweight champion. Instead of fighting a teammate in Gilbert Burns, he now meets someone he genuinely dislikes in Masvidal (35-13).

This is a very different fight than Usman was training for this whole time against Burns, where he was expecting to grapple. Usman has the more well-rounded skillset, but Masvidal preys upon fighters—like Usman—that have the tendency to let their emotions control their actions in the cage. If this stays a technical fight, Usman will retain. But a new opponent, particularly one Usman does not like, changes his whole approach. This will be especially compelling match-up because Usman is expected to wrestle, which is one of his opponent’s weaknesses, but Masvidal does possess strong takedown defense.

This fight should end with either Usman winning by decision or Masvidal by finish. Usman is leagues above Ben Askren, but he needs to be prepared for Masvidal attempting a quick strike to end this fight in the opening seconds.

What are the conditions like on Fight Island?

The fights are all taking place indoors, but the one real change is the time difference. The main card starts in the early morning in Abu Dhabi. Seeing how fighters adjust to that is an interesting subplot to UFC 251.

Will Max Holloway add to his title collection by regaining the featherweight championship?

Roles have reversed in the Alexander Volkanovski-Max Holloway rematch, as Volkanovski is now the featherweight champion and Holloway the challenger. These two first fought last December in a unanimous decision victory for Volkanovski (21-1).

Holloway (21-5) is only 28, but he has dropped two of his last three bouts. He has not looked like his dominant self since defeating Brian Ortega in December 2018. Is it possible he is no longer the same fighter that won 14 straight featherweight fights? A different Holloway should be on display in this fight, controlling the pace and changing his footwork against Volkanovski.

Volkanovski has great technique, but simply he shut down and overpowered Holloway in their first meeting. Doing that twice against a fighter as versatile and powerful as Holloway is asking a lot, especially considering Holloway will be out of the title picture if he loses. A loss will place Holloway in UFC purgatory, so he needs to win. And a Holloway win would set up a trilogy fight against Volkanovski, perhaps as soon as later this year in New Zealand, on a card headlined by Israel Adesanya.

Is this José Aldo’s last shot at UFC gold?

José Aldo meets Petr Yan in the cage to determine the new bantamweight champion and if Aldo loses, this is his last shot at UFC gold.

Yan (14-1) has been impressive in his fights, a wrestler/grappler in the Darren Till mode that has defeated good-but-not-quite-great competition. Aldo (28-6) presents a number of problems for Yan, particularly with his footwork. He has a solid ground game and is a dynamic striker, which will present challenges that Yan has yet to encounter.

This fight has five rounds written all over it, with the possibility of a throwback Aldo performance where he looks outstanding on his feet. And the winner should meet the wildly talented Aljamain Sterling, who can make a valid argument that he should have been placed in this fight. Despite the depth of the division, Sterling deserves a shot at the winner.

Will Rose Namajunas prove that her loss against Jéssica Andrade was a fluke?

Rose Namajunas returns to the Octagon for the first time since May 2019, when she dropped the women’s strawweight championship to Jéssica Andrade.

Namajunas (8-4) dominated the opening round and looked impressive in the second before she was dumped on her head by Andrade (20-7). The notion that the win was a fluke was only enhanced when Andrade was wrecked in her sole title defense, as Zhang Weili defeated her via TKO.

Namajunas is open about struggling with the mounting pressures and expectations she experienced in her reign as strawweight champ, and she dealt with intense mental warfare in her back-to-back wins against Joanna Jędrzejczyk that served as a prelude to her loss against Andrade. That is no longer a burden for her, and this fight should lead to a great return for Namajunas, vaulting her right back into the title picture.

Is this the end of Paige VanZant’s run in the UFC?

Amanda Ribas is a much better fighter than Paige VanZant (8-4), who is a massive underdog in this women’s flyweight bout. If Ribas (9-1) wins, as expected, this likely marks the end of VanZant in the UFC. This is the last fight on her current deal, and Bellator makes more sense than the UFC for her next landing spot.

VanZant’s story is similar to Sage Northcutt. Despite the hype, neither are top of top-of-the-card fighters in contention. Northcutt went off to fight in ONE, and a change of scenery is also expected for VanZant.

How does Conor McGregor factor into UFC 251?

If Usman wins, then his next fight is likely against Gilbert Burns. And Leon Edwards, who has proven repeatedly that he is deserving of a title shot, also deserves to be in the mix. But if Masvidal defeats Usman, the UFC is going to see giant dollar signs. So much, in fact, that Usman likely won’t receive an immediate rematch.

A Masvidal win puts him on par with the biggest names in the sport. His next fight would likely be against Nate Diaz, especially considering their last fight for the BMF title ended in controversy. Conor McGregor could also emerge as an opponent, looking at Masvidal as an easy target en route to a championship in a third division.

All bets are off if Masvidal wins the belt, an outcome that is certainly in play this Saturday.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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