UFC 261: Previewing Kamaru Usman-Jorge Masvidal 2 and Other Matches on the Card
Aaaaaannd we're back.
The UFC, which has spent most of the past year producing shows in fan-free venues, will return to something approaching normal Saturday night with a pay-per-view event in Jacksonville, Florida.
UFC 261 is set for the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, where promotion president Dana White said a crowd of 15,000 fans will see a 14-bout show featuring three championship matches. The same venue hosted UFC 249 and two Fight Night events across eight days in May 2020, but no fans were permitted in the building.
The show is headlined by welterweights Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal in a championship rematch. They faced each other last summer on Fight Island in the United Arab Emirates, but Masvidal took the bout on less than a week's notice after Gilbert Burns pulled out with an injury.
He lasted the five-round distance and dropped a unanimous decision but began claiming immediately after that bout that he would fare much better against Usman with a full training camp.
Elsewhere on the card are two title bouts in the women's strawweight and flyweight divisions, where champions Zhang Weili and Valentina Shevchenko will risk their belts against No. 1 contenders Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade, respectively, in scheduled five-rounders.
Zhang is making her second title defense at 115 pounds since 2019, while Shevchenko is putting her belt on the line at 125 pounds for the fifth time since 2018. Shevchenko and Zhang are ranked second and third on the UFC's women's pound-for-pound list, trailing only two-division champ Amanda Nunes.
Click through to find out everything you need to know about the historic show in northeast Florida.
UFC 261: Usman vs. Masvidal 2 Fight Card and Info
UFC 261 Main Card (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ Pay-Per-View)
Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal
Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade
Uriah Hall vs. Chris Weidman
Anthony Smith vs. Jimmy Crute
UFC 261 Prelims (8:00 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+)
Alex Oliveira vs. Randy Brown
Dwight Grant vs. Stefan Sekulic
Karl Roberson vs. Brendan Allen
Patrick Sabatini vs. Tristan Connelly
UFC 261 Early Prelims (5:45 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass)
Danaa Batgerel vs. Kevin Natividad
Kazula Vargas vs. Zhu Rong
Qileng Aori vs. Jeffrey Molina
Na Liang vs. Ariane Carnelossi
Jamey Simmons vs. Johnny Munoz
Main Event: Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal
OK, we'll say it: Kamaru Usman is the most dominant of the UFC's reigning champions, having ruled the 170-pound class with an iron fist since March 2019—defeating Tyron Woodley (UD 5), Colby Covington (TKO 5), Jorge Masvidal (UD 5) and Gilbert Burns (TKO 3) while climbing to No. 2 on the promotion's pound-for-pound list.
He's an accomplished striker with an NCAA Division II championship pedigree in wrestling, a combination that's allowed him to string together 17 straight wins since a submission loss in his second pro bout.
But if you're looking for a crack in the foundation, here's one.
While it's true that Masvidal was the beaten foe in Usman's third successful defense, he managed to go 25 minutes and present at least token competition after taking the bout on remarkably short notice.
Gamebred outlanded Usman by a 34-25 margin in the first round and was neck and neck in significant strikes (59-56) through 15 minutes before running short of gas.
Given that the rematch was announced more than five weeks before fight night this time around, it's a logical conclusion that Masvidal will arrive with better stamina and enhanced potential for mayhem.
"No excuses. He won the first one. Cool beans," Masvidal told ESPN's Ariel Helwani. "But we'll see how much of a different fight this is the second time around. From the start to the end of it, everyone will say, 'Yep, this was worth it. From the first one to the second one, thank you, Masvidal.'"
Co-Main Event: Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas
Who's the best strawweight in UFC history?
Sometime late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, we will all know.
The co-main event between incumbent champ Zhang Weili and former champ Rose Namajunas will go a long way toward answering the question.
Zhang, a 31-year-old from China, won her title 20 months ago with a first-round stoppage of Jessica Andrade and followed up with a breathtakingly violent split decision over Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248.
The latter was named B/R's fight of the year for 2020.
The champ is a hard hitter, she's athletic, explosive and arrives as a legit knockout artist on a 21-fight win streak since her pro debut in 2013. But Namajunas is no joke. Her reign at the top of the 115-pound mountain began with a first-round stop of Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217 and continued with a unanimous decision over the Pole at UFC 223 five months later in New York City.
Andrade finished it in defense No. 2 just past a year later with a controversial slam KO in Round 2, but Namajunas avenged the loss to earn another title shot with a three-round win on Fight Island in July.
She's got a less violent toolbox than her belt-toting opponent, but Namajunas is a dynamically skilled fighter whose chances to regain the title stay realistic so long as she keeps the fight vertical. She's also added some spice to the proceedings by taking not-so-subtle shots at Zhang's homeland's politics after watching a documentary about her own Lithuanian home.
"Just after watching that, it was just a huge reminder of it's better dead than red," she told Lithuanian state broadcaster LRT (h/t Nick Atkin of the South China Morning Post). "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."
Fight to Keep an Eye On: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade
You know you've got a good card when the "fight to keep an eye on" is a title bout in which the champion is second on the UFC's women's pound-for-pound list.
Valentina Shevchenko, welcome to Saturday night's co-co-main event.
The 33-year-old has performed professionally as both a boxer and a kickboxer, has won multiple amateur world championships as a muay thai practitioner and became an Octagonal champion at 125 pounds with a scorecard defeat of Jedrzejczyk at UFC 231.
Each of four subsequent defenses has featured varying levels of dominance, with two ending with Shevchenko capturing a unanimous decision and two others seeing her finish via KO and TKO.
She has seven submissions, seven decisions and six knockouts in 20 career wins and hasn't lost to anyone not named Amanda Nunes—the No. 1 fighter on the aforementioned pound-for-pound list—since 2010.
Her Saturday night opponent, Jessica Andrade, is no stranger to the title level, either.
She lost a strawweight championship bout in 2017 before returning two years later to win it with a slam KO over Saturday's co-main challenger, Namajunas. She lost to Namajunas' foe, Zhang, in her first defense, however, and has split two bouts since—most recently beating Katlyn Chookagian in October.
She's also similarly versatile to Shevchenko in terms of results, having recorded eight knockouts, seven submissions and six decision victories. She's also lost multiple times by each method, including a first-round loss to Zhang via TKO thanks to a barrage of knees and punches.
Still, confidence is not an issue, particularly if the fight goes long.
"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," Andrade told Drake Riggs of the South China Morning Post. "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."
Best of the Rest
Uriah Hall vs. Chris Weidman
Here's another chance to find out just what Chris Weidman wants to be.
The former middleweight champion has been scuffling in terms of results since his reign ended in 2015, winning just twice in six outings. He was bombed out in a single round by Dominick Reyes in an ill-advised move to light heavyweight in 2019 but returned to 185 for a win in his most recent fight.
He gets seventh-ranked Uriah Hall here amid a hot streak. Hall dropped four of five in a stretch from 2015 to 2018 but has won three in a row since. He'll be a tough test.
Anthony Smith vs. Jimmy Crute
Anthony Smith, like Weidman before him, is a veteran trying to regain elite-level mojo.
The Nebraska resident, now 32, gave Jon Jones all he wanted in a bid for the light heavyweight title in March 2019 and returned three months later to submit Alexander Gustafsson in four rounds. It seemed he would be in the mix at 205 once Jones indicated he would move to heavyweight, but a pair of one-sided losses to Glover Teixeira (TKO 5) and Aleksandar Rakic (UD 3) were a difficult way to begin 2020. A first-round submission of Devin Clark got him back in the win column in November, and he'll face a young lion here.
Jimmy Crute, 25, won 10 straight bouts to begin his career and has won two in a row since suffering his lone loss by submission to Misha Cirkunov in 2019. Crute's two wins since, by first-round submission and first-round KO, earned him Performance of the Night bonus money.
Karl Roberson vs. Brendan Allen
It's in the middle of the prelim portion of the show, but this could be an interesting battle matching a pair of young middleweights trying to bounce back from losses in their previous fights.
Karl Roberson has been around the UFC since 2017 but hadn't strung together two wins until beating Wellington Turman and Roman Kopylov in succession at the end of 2019. The mojo didn't continue in 2020, however, as he was submitted in Round 1 by a streaking Marvin Vettori in June.
It's a similar story for Allen, a 25-year-old graduate of Dana White's Contender Series, who had three in a row in the UFC through last summer before a second-round loss to Sean Strickland in November.