UFC 261 offers the most exciting card of the year thus far, delivering three title fights and a pair of compelling nontitle matchups.
The headliner is welterweight champion Kamaru Usman against Jorge Masvidal. These two are running it back from July, when Masvidal took the fight on only six days’ notice after scheduled opponent Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID-19. Usman dominated the bout, winning by unanimous decision, but Masvidal is confident that a full training camp will provide the difference in the rematch.
Valentina Shevchenko also defends her flyweight championship against Jéssica Andrade. Shevchenko has looked dominant in 13 of her last 15 fights, with the only blemishes coming against the great Amanda Nunes. Andrade is a former strawweight champion, but she will likely be no match for Shevchenko. The third title fight is the reigning strawweight champ Zhang Weili defending against former champ Rose Namajunas, which is a fantastic clash of styles. Additionally, the card includes Uriah Hall against 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 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 camp to prepare for the other.
Usman (18–1) won the first fight decisively. Despite going a full five rounds, Masvidal (35–14) did not have the usual sharpness to his work, and the short turnaround, combined with the travel to Abu Dhabi, certainly played a factor.
Masvidal is very durable, and one of his biggest strengths is the way he can weather the storm from an opponent and still find the right shot. We have never seen Usman badly hurt, which would add a new element if Masvidal is able to take a decisive advantage early. But there is a reason that Usman is rarely in trouble, as he is an elite fighter operating on a rare level of greatness. Outside of Khabib Nurmagomedov, we have never seen a wrestler like Usman.
This pace of this fight is likely to be much different than the first but with the same outcome. It looks like another Usman victory, though Masvidal does have a much better shot this time around.
What happens next? And how does Conor McGregor factor into that equation?
There are great fighters in the welterweight division, but it is thin up top—especially with Usman running through 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 move is an immediate rematch/rubber match against Usman. But could we also end up seeing Conor McGregor move to the welterweight division for a title fight following his bout against Dustin Poirier? In terms of matchups, that would be a perfect matchup for McGregor and a chance to get a belt back on him. Stranger things have happened, and as unlikely as it seems, it is definitely not out of the question if Masvidal emerges victorious.
Masvidal also holds the BMF belt. If he loses this fight to Usman, it’s likely we’ll see that back in play, particularly since we have arrived at a breaking point for the key players involved in a potential BMF fight, specifically McGregor and Nate Diaz. Odds are high we’ll see this belt back sooner rather than later.
Is there any flyweight fighter in the world that can challenge Shevchenko?
In a word, no.
Outside of her 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 looked at as a fluke champion. She won the strawweight title in a bout against Namajunas, a fight that Namajunas had dominated until she got too cocky and was dropped on her head. Andrade (21–8) then lost the title in her first defense. A move to flyweight to fight Shevchenko (20–3) will not end well for her. Andrade is simply nowhere nearly as polished or as technically sound as Shevchenko.
With a win, there is no one left for Shevchenko to fight. The question will be whether or not she decides to pursue a third fight against Nunes.
Will we see a title change at UFC 261?
If a title changes hands at 261, it is most likely to happen in the women’s strawweight title bout where Zhang Weili defends against Rose Namajunas.
Unfortunately, this fight has made headlines for the wrong reasons, with Namajunas signaling that a win against Weili, who is from China, is a win against communism. Namajunas has since stated that her comments were not directed at Weili, but it was an extremely perplexing comment to make.
In terms of the fight, Namajunas (9–4) offers one of the most complete skill sets in MMA. Weili (21–1) is still unproven on the ground, so a big telling point will be how much of an advantage it is if Namajunas wrestles her. But Weili is so powerful, technical and smart, making her a tough matchup for Namajunas.
This has all the makings of a fantastic fight, even though both fighters have had considerable time away from the cage. Namajunas is tough, but Weili’s power will be the difference in this title defense.
Is this the farewell fight for Weidman in the UFC?
The middleweight bout pitting 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 like his chin isn’t what it used to be after taking that devastating flying knee from Yoel Romero in 2016. Hall (16–9) is one of the wildest, quickest and most technical strikers in the UFC, a major advantage for him in this bout.
Weidman has dropped five of his past seven, and he needs this win. A loss means he is either retiring or out of the UFC, which adds even more intrigue to this fight.
Which undercard fights will stand out?
The opening bout on the card is a meeting of light heavyweights, pitting Jimmy Crute against Anthony Smith. Crute (12–1) has been set up with good stylistic matchups, including this bout against Smith (34–16), and the UFC would love to see him emerge as a new star out of Australia.
The depth of the 261 card is also apparent in the early prelims, where Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira meets Randy Brown. Oliveira (22–9–1, 2 NC) is a warrior, and he and Brown (12–4) will stand and bang, and Karl Roberson (9–3) against Brendan Allen (15–4) is another exciting matchup. Top to bottom, 261 is a card with great matchups and a genuine flow to the matches. Even if titles do not change hands, Saturday should be a phenomenal night for fight fans.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.