For the first time since Mar. 7, 2020, the UFC will hold its first event in front of a full-capacity crowd for a big fight card that consists of three title fights.
Saturday’s UFC 261 will take place at the sold out VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
What is in store for fight fans Saturday evening? Let’s take a deeper look into the three title fights and other notable bouts on the card.
UFC Welterweight Championship: (c)Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal 2
In a rematch of UFC 251’s headliner, Jorge Masvidal will get another chance at gold as he looks for a better game plan after getting dominated by the current champion in their first fight. Usman won the first fight by unanimous decision, with two judges scoring it 50-45.
Masvidal had no answer for Usman’s dominant wrestling as he was taken down five times for a total control of 16:38. Not only was Usman in control of Masvidal on the ground, but was efficient in the clinch as he landed 39 of 49 strikes.
An aspect Masvidal should look into heading into the rematch is attacking the legs of Usman more. He did land 14 of 17 in the fight, but that was over the course of five rounds and not one or two rounds. If Masvidal can land some heavy leg kicks early on, it could make Usman’s night difficult as his legs would weaken and make takedown attempts harder.
With a win Saturday night, Usman would match former champion Tyron Woodley with four title defenses and I think he will get the job done. This time, with a finish.
Prediction: Usman def. Masvidal via TKO
UFC Women’s Strawweight Championship: (c)Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas
It’s been over a year since Zhang has been in action. Her last bout was not only the best in women’s strawweight history, but one of the greatest in UFC history as she went back-and-forth with former champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk in a five-round war.
Saturday, Zhang will get the woman that beat Jędrzejczyk twice in “Thug” Rose.
After losing her title in 2019 due to a slam from Jessica Andrade, Namajunas took a year off to mentally recover and make her return to the Octagon on her own time. She returned in the summer of 2020 in successful fashion as she got her revenge over Andrade in a split-decision victory.
Arguably, this is one of the best matchups ever for women in UFC history. Zhang is going to come at Namajunas with ruthless aggression and power as she is one of the strongest fighters ever in women’s MMA history. However, she can’t get too aggressive and get touched up by Namajunas, who displays sneaky power with her quick hands. In 2017, she knocked out Jędrzejczyk to win the strawweight belt in the first round at Madison Square Garden during UFC 217. Namajunas also possesses the agility that can keep her off the center line and make Zhang miss bad to open up some counter opportunities (maybe a head kick similar to her fight with Michelle Waterson).
This is as toss-up as any fight can be in MMA. I think we are going to get one for the history books and a finish coming for the defending champ. Get your popcorn ready, fight fans.
Prediction: Zhang def. Namajunas via TKO
UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship: (c)Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade
One of the greatest MMA athletes of all time in Valentina Shevchenko will look to defend her flyweight title for the fifth time as she takes on her strongest competitor since Jędrzejczyk in 2018 when she first won the flyweight belt.
During Shevchenko’s reign, the flyweight division has been pretty thin. It doesn’t take anything away from “Bullet” as she proved her greatness at the bantamweight level. The only person she failed to overcome was the greatest women’s MMA athlete of all-time in featherweight and bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
While not all her title defenses have come via finish, she has dominated all of them with her statement victory coming in her first title defense when she brutally knocked out Jessica Eye with a devastating head kick.
Before she moved down to strawweight and was champion, the 5’1’’ Andrade used to compete at the bantamweight level. She was never a title contender in that division, so she dropped to 115 and her power was prevalent instantly. Andrade went 7-1 in the division before getting finished in the first round by Zhang to lose the strawweight belt. Last year, she fell to Namajunas and was done as a strawweight.
She moves to the 125-pound division, which hopefully will bring a good balance of her power, but also some more stamina as she doesn’t have to cut all the way down to 115. She made noise in her flyweight debut as she ended No. 1 contender Katlyn Chookagaian with a vicious body shot in the first round.
While Shevchenko is the clear favorite, this is a massive upgrade in competition and the first time you could question an easy victory for her since the vacant flyweight title bout with Jędrzejczyk.
I have faith Valentina will get the job done, but don’t sleep on the power of Andrade and her pulling off a stunner similar to Namajunas beating Jędrzejczyk.
Prediction: Shevchenko def. Andrade via decision
Uriah Hall vs. Chris Weidman
Time is running out for both of these middleweights to make runs at the title. Both athletes are 36-years old and need to keep their respective momentums going.
Hall currently sits on a three-fight win streak, but has only fought once every year since 2018. He has two finishes during this win streak over Bevon Lewis and one of the all-time greats in former middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
Since losing the middleweight belt to Luke Rockhold in 2015, Weidman has been less than stellar. He owns a record of 2-5 since that fight and has been brutally finished in those losses.
I expect the same to catalyze the fan excitement heading into the title fights.
Prediction: Hall def. Weidman via KO
Predictions for rest of card:
Crute def. Smith via TKO
Brown def. Oliveira via submission
Grant def. Sekulic via decision
Allen def. Roberson via submission
Connelly def. Sabatini via decision
Batgerel def. Natividad via TKO
Rong def. Vargas via KO
Aori def. Molina via decision
Liang def. Carnelossi via submission
The early prelims for UFC 261 begin at 6:00 p.m. EST on ESPN2 and ESPN+. The televised prelims will air on ESPN at 8:00 p.m. EST, followed by the main card on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10:00 p.m. EST.