UFC Fight Night - Fiziev vs GamrotSep 24
It’s not often fight fans are treated to a card of this magnitude but with three world champions defending their belts on Saturday night, UFC 261 promises to be a night to remember in the MMA world.
Here are the five reasons you can’t afford to miss the action this weekend.
One-man wrecking machine
Kamaru Usman needs one more successful welterweight title defence to draw level with Tyron Woodley’s four-fight reign atop the 170lb division.
In doing so, he would confirm his status as one of the greatest fighters ever in his weight class, continuing his charge towards Georges St-Pierre’s GOAT status.
In every fight, the self-styled “Nigerian Nightmare” seems to be improving; known as a grappler when he first burst onto the UFC scene, two of Usman’s three title defences have now ended by stoppage.
His fight IQ continues to come on in spades and now under the tutelage of fabled coach Trevor Wittman, his ruthless streak is beginning to come to the fore.
“I always want to make a statement,” Usman told reporters earlier this month.
“Going 25 [minutes], that’s up to him [Jorge Masvidal]. That’s if he did his homework properly and he came as prepared as he possibly could, then he might be able to drag this thing on for 25.
“But I’m at the point where I’m having fun and come April 24, I’m looking to have fun again as I did February 13.”
If you don’t ask, you don’t get!
Masvidal will have no excuses this time around as he steps into the Octagon to rematch familiar foe Usman for the welterweight crown in the main event.
The 36-year-old fan favourite stepped in to face Usman at barely a week's notice last summer, replacing a Covid-infected Gilbert Burns to rescue the show at UFC 251 on Fight Island.
Lacking any sort of preparation, Masvidal took the champion five rounds – albeit without managing to present any serious threat to Usman’s dominance – before coming up short in a lopsided decision.
His subsequent campaigning for a rematch, this time with the bonus of a full, dedicated fight camp, was granted by UFC boss Dana White following Usman’s demolition job against Burns at UFC 258.
But now the work is done.
Training out of the fabled American Top Team base in Coconut Creek, Florida, Masvidal believes he has concocted a game plan to topple Usman and secure a maiden UFC championship.
“When I win the rematch, we definitely will go for the trilogy,” Masvidal said during a virtual fan Q&A last week.
“I will not go down in history 1-1 with this individual. It’s just not going to happen.”
He’s talked the talk for the best part of a year; can he now walk the walk?
This means more
Zhang Weili’s strawweight title defence against Rose Namajunas took on an extra layer of significance last week after the challenger launched a surprise attack on the Chinese Communist Party.
Pointing to her American-Lithuanian roots, Namajunas explained how her upcoming fight against the breakout star of Chinese MMA had reminded her of the struggle against the Communist movement during the Soviet era.
“…I kind of wanted to educate my training partner [Chico Camus] on the Lithuanian struggle and just the history of it all, so we watched ‘The Other Dream Team’ just to kind of get an overall sentiment of what we fight for,” the 28-year-old said.
“After watching that, it was just a huge reminder of like, yeah, it’s better dead than red, you know? And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Weili is red. That’s what she represents.
“It’s nothing personal against her, but that’s a huge motivating factor of why I fight, and I fight for freedom. I’ve got the Christ consciousness, I’ve got Lithuanian blood and I’ve got the American dream.
“All of those things I’m taking with me into the fight.”
For her part, Zhang has chosen to ignore the jibes aimed in her direction; the 31-year-old’s strength and conditioning coach Ruben Payan Jr. claimed the comments had barely registered with Team Zhang.
“To be honest with you, we haven’t been paying attention,” he said.
“It’s been like watching it but not feeling it. This is the soap opera that’s happening, but we aren’t really engaging in it because we’re just so focused on the fight. It hasn’t even been a topic for the team.”
Don’t sleep on Andrade
Plenty of the talk heading into Valentina Shevchenko vs Jessica Andrade on Saturday night will rightly revolve around the dominant legacy being forged by the Kyrgyzstani queen.
And with good reason; the 33-year-old has already defended the 125lb belt four times with relative ease since defeating Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the vacant strap at UFC 231.
But Jessica Andrade may present Shevchenko with the sternest test of her championship reign yet.
The Brazilian powerhouse is a former conqueror of the strawweight division and one of the UFC’s most seasoned veterans.
Competing now in her third weight division since joining the UFC, it could be that Andrade has found a “Goldilocks” home at 125lb, avoiding the drain of a cut to flyweight while retaining some of the bantamweight strength that brought her notoriety.
“I wanted this challenge when I was strawweight champion, but the first time I defended my belt I ended up losing and I thought this opportunity of fighting Valentina one day was maybe lost,” Andrade told SCMP MMA recently.
“I believe what will work best for me is not giving her space,” she said. “Lots of people underestimate [Shevchenko] and then she can show all her skills and counter-attacks. When you take the space away from her, I feel she gets a little bit lost, she loses her kicks and her spinning techniques.
“My first objective is going to be to tire her a little bit against the cage, ultimately take her down, which I’ve proven I can do very well. And who knows, maybe in the third round when she’s a little bit more tired, get the KO, get the submission, finish the fight?”
The roar of the fans!
It’s been a long, hard year without spectators providing the soundtrack to our favourite sports.
Empty arenas and stadiums have only highlighted the importance of those who help make sport what it is; it is passion, it is energy and it is life.
This weekend, the long wait comes to an end in spectacular fashion with a sold-out crowd expected inside the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
We’ve missed hearing the roars, shouts, screams – and even the weirdos doing the Ric Flair impression from the bleachers!
It’ll be good to have them all back.