Fight Island is finally here. Yes, it may not be the tropical paradise that we all envisioned and is in fact a man-made island off the coast of Abu Dhabi but regardless the idea of fights being staged on an island purposefully set up to host a UFC event shows just how far the sport has grown in the past few years. Like many UFC events, even before one fighter had stepped into the octagon, UFC 251 is already making big headlines. The Welterweight title showdown between Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns was sensationally called off 6 days before the event after Burns tested positive for COVID-19. Usually a setback like this can throw any pay-per-view into disarray but thankfully there was one man willing to step up at the 11th hour. The BMF Champ himself, Jorge Masvidal had been embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with the UFC, due to not receiving the pay that he felt reflected his superstar status as a fighter in the promotion. With their backs against the wall, the UFC returned to the negotiating table and cut a deal with Masvidal and thus, one of the biggest fights of the year was sealed.
We haven’t even mentioned that there are two more title fights on this card, with the hotly anticipated rematch between Featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski and fan favourite Max Holloway serving as the co-main event. There’s also the small matter of finding an owner for the vacant Bantamweight title with Petr Yan taking on former pound for pound king Jose Aldo. This card is positively stacked, so let me breakdown what to expect from each fight on the main card and who I think is taking home the gold.
The main card kicks off with one of the poster girls of the UFC Paige VanZant taking on rising star Amanda Ribas. Ribas is 3-0 in the UFC including a high profile win over Mackenzie Dern, in which she took her undefeated record. VanZant has a lot on the line here. This is the final fight on her UFC contract and she has openly talked about fielding offers from other organisations, so she needs a big performance to give her more leverage at the negotiating table. Unfortunately for her, I just can’t envisage her getting the win here. Over the years we’ve seen many fighters fall victim to having too many extra-curricular activities outside of the octagon and I feel Paige has fallen into that trap. It will be massively beneficial to her bank balance but not to her win/loss record. Ribas has also shown a more varied skill set in her recent outings and I think she takes this one without too much adversity.
Next up we have a rematch of the 2019 Strawweight championship fight from 2019. That night Jessica Andrade emerged the new champ with highlight reel KO slam. Re-watch the fight though and you’ll see that for the first 7 minutes, Rose was in complete control. She had the octagon control, was piecing Jessica up on the feet and taking little damage from the dangerous Brazilian. As we all know though, a lot can change in an instant in this sport and Andrade turned this fight on its head quite literally. Since then Andrade lost her belt in her first defence of the title against Weili Zhang and Rose Namajunas has had to take an extended break due to personal issues. This fight will most likely be an no.1 contender’s bout for a shot at Weili Zhang’s title, although the possibility remains that the UFC will book a rematch between Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk after their fight of the year contender earlier this year. This time around I think Rose emerges victorious. The knockout power of Andrade will be a factor but with Rose’s superior technical striking and fight IQ, I don’t see her getting into the vulnerable position she found herself in first time round.
After Henry Cejudo left a gaping hole in the Bantamweight division following his sudden retirement, which in all honesty will most likely be short lived, the UFC needed to book a vacant title fight to crown a new king of the Bantamweights. With this fight they didn’t do that. Don’t get me wrong Jose Aldo is a legend of the sport but he has not exactly earned this title shot with a 0-1 record in the division, even if you do feel he won the Moraes fight. Yan on the other hand has torn through everybody that has been put in front of him, including a dominant win against top contender Jimmie Rivera and a brutal head kick KO of MMA legend Urijah Faber. Although it must be said, he has never faced somebody the calibre of Aldo.
His career may be entering its twilight but he has shown no serious signs of fading away just yet. From what I’ve seen of Yan though, I’m not sure Aldo will be able to cope with his relentless pressure and vicious striking. I’m predicting this will end much like Yan’s last fight, with a vicious KO over a UFC legend. Setting up an intriguing title fight with no.1 contender Aljamain Sterling.
You know a fighter had an impressive reign as champ when he’s awarded an immediate rematch for the title he just lost. That’s the position Max Holloway finds himself in after losing his title back in December to Aussie Alex Volkanovski. The Hawaiian was considered one of the top pound for pound fighters in the UFC, even moving up in weight in a failed attempt to capture the interim lightweight title against Dustin Poirier when he lost to Volkanovski. The dynamic Volkanovski got the nod on all 3 judge’s scorecards thanks in part to his vicious leg kicks which really threw off the gameplan and mobility of Holloway. Holloway has perpetuated a narrative that he felt he won the fight since he lost the title, something that Volkanovski vehemently disagrees with. So much so that Dana White revealed this week that Alex specifically requested running this fight back, to once for all prove that he’s the better fighter.
In my opinion Max will have to really switch up his gameplan for this fight to emerge as the new champion but with Max claiming this week that he was training with his coaches via Zoom, this does not fill me with confidence. Alex looked every bit the faster and more powerful fighter in their previous bout and I’ll be a bit surprised if this one doesn’t play out in much the same fashion as the first fight.
With all due respect to Gilbert Burns, I think we all got noticeably more excited for this card when it was reported that “Gamebred” would be stepping in for Burns following his positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Jorge is one of only a handful of fighters on the UFC roster you could refer to as a bona fide star. His presence on this card will add an estimated300,000 pay per view buys. While Usman is a phenomenal fighter and champion in his own right, he can’t match Masvidal for charisma and his fighting style isn’t quite as pleasing to the eye.
Having said that, once that octagon door closes, none of that matters. Usman world class wrestling would be a problem for any fighter on the UFC roster, Usman even managed to ragdoll former champ Tyron Woodley, an elite level wrestler in his own right. So if Usman uses his head and sticks to a strict gameplan, I can’t see the belt changing hands in the early hours of Sunday morning. However, this is MMA and sometimes fights don’t play out how logically they should. In his previous fight with Colby Covington, we saw Usman slow down at different intervals and as Masvidal has what seems to be an unlimited gas tank, this could provide him with an invaluable opening. We also can’t look past the detriments of fighting on emotion, Usman does not like Jorge Masvidal, not one bit and this could seriously work against him. A couple of times in the Covington fight, Colby was able to goad Usman into letting his guard down, this created brief openings which Colby was not able to take advantage of but Jorge may be able to.
Look, everything is telling me to go with Usman and I’m sure around 5:30 am on Sunday I’ll have just witnessed a wrestling masterclass but sometimes you just have to follow your heart. So I’m saying to Jorge Masvidal to grab the first title of his career with a big TKO finish. If this happens, maybe keep an eye on Conor McGregor’s Twitter account in the immediate aftermath, something tells me that may be a fight he’ll “come out of retirement” for.