Kamaru Usman and the Real Winners and Losers from UFC 261

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistApril 25, 2021

Kamaru Usman and the Real Winners and Losers from UFC 261

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    Though the UFC had already been the first significant sports entity to return with recurring shows at its Apex facility in Las Vegas and "Fight Island" in the United Arab Emirates, something was clearly missing.

    That's not the case anymore.

    The octagonal mixed martial arts conglomerate welcomed about 15,000 ready-to-burst fans into Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday night, confirming the "WE ARE BACK!" claim that czar Dana White had tweeted upon announcing the show in early March.

    Indeed, UFC 261 went off as a 13-bout show featuring three title fights atop a crowded bill, including a welterweight championship rematch between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal that was a runback of a match on Fight Island last summer that Masvidal famously took on less than a week's notice.

    It was the first UFC show with a capacity crowd in attendance since UFC 248 went off at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on March 7, 2020—a span of 413 days. The Jacksonville venue hosted three shows, including UFC 249, across an eight-day stretch two months later, but no fans were allowed as the pandemic took hold.

    The B/R combat sports team was in the building for all the welcome-back frenzy Saturday and came up with its interpretation of the show's real winners and losers. Take a look and feel free to drop a viewpoint or two of your own in the comments section.

Winner: The Best of the Best

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    Jorge Masvidal's left hand dangled limply in the air.

    But it was the only part of his body still moving.

    The perpetually chatty Miami-based welterweight was all but vaporized by a single right-hand from champion Kamaru Usman, cutting short their highly anticipated title rematch just 62 seconds into the second frame of a scheduled five-rounder in the UFC 261 main event.

    "Wow," Masvidal mouthed to himself, shaking his head as Usman's hand was officially raised.

    Upon further review, his exclamation was apt.

    "Jacksonville, Florida, you all said you wanted violence. You're welcome," said Usman, who's defended the belt four times since winning it in March 2019. "I told everyone I'm still getting better. The sky's the limit for me."

    It was indeed a far cry from the mat-heavy first dance between the two, won by Usman via unanimous decision nine months ago. This time, Usman fared just as well with his hands, though he did get Masvidal hard to the mat about halfway through the opening round.

    Masvidal, the favorite of the Florida crowd, was a bit more active to begin the second round but was still taking the cleaner and more noticeable shots from Usman. When the decisive right landed, he fell to his back and took four more glancing ground strikes before Herb Dean could intervene.

    The two fighters embraced in the cage afterward, and Usman said the rivalry fueled him to work harder.

    "You elevated me," he said. "It's been a while since I've been extremely nervous for a fight.

    "Coach kept yelling at me and telling me: 'Stay with the fundamentals. Stay with the fundamentals,'" he said. "With my fundamentals, I am the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet."

    Masvidal, who'd not been finished in a fight since 2009, was gracious in defeat.

    "First time in my career I've been knocked out like that, and it's in front of all my friends, my family and my people," he said. "That's what happens when you get too overconfident.

    "He won this fair and square."

Winner: Powerfully Positive Thinking

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    Rose Namajunas repeated it to herself before the fight.

    "I'm the best," she whispered over and over again, as UFC strawweight champ Zhang Weili entered the cage for their title bout. "I'm the best."

    Within 90 seconds, she'd proved her inner self correct.

    Already a former champion in the division, Namajunas landed a high left kick squarely on the right side of Weili's jaw, sending her backward to the mat where she landed four ground strikes that moved referee Keith Peterson to stop the fight at 1:18 of the first round.

    "I did it again," Namajunas said. "I shook up the world."

    Weili stood after Peterson's wave-off and reeled backward as he appeared to keep her from falling. Moments later, though, she was clearly not pleased with his decision to step in, and she paced angrily in the cage before the official announcement that Namajunas had regained the belt.

    The 28-year-old Namajunas initially won the title from Joanna Jedrzejczyk via first-round stoppage in November 2017 and successfully defended against her with a unanimous decision five months later.

    She lost the title to Jessica Andrade by second-round finish in May 2019.

    "I didn't see (Weili) moving," Namajunas said. "I was sure she wasn't going to come back from that."

    Namajunas burst into tears when the belt was wrapped around her waist, while Zhang had calmed a bit but was still frustrated, by the time she spoke to Joe Rogan.

    "I'm still conscious," she said. "I think the ref stopped it a little bit early."

Winner: A Star by Any Other Name

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    Her nickname is "Bullet."

    But flyweight standard-bearer Valentina Shevchenko could just as easily be labeled the "sausage grinder," or something else that would translate well back in her native Kyrgyzstan.

    The champion made the fifth successful defense of her 125-pound UFC title belt, repeatedly taking No. 1 challenger Jessica Andrade to the mat and eventually keeping her there for enough time to record a second-round TKO in their scheduled five-rounder.

    "I like to surprise people. I can do everything," Shevchenko said, replying to a suggestion that the fight had been expected to stay vertical. "For anyone who's studying me and looking for a weakness, don't waste your time. There is none."

    As lofty as the comments were, they probably didn't do her performance justice.

    Shevchenko had Andrade, a former strawweight champion, on the mat within 90 seconds of the fight's beginning and got her back to the floor each time the Brazilian managed to escape.

    A particularly hard takedown left Andrade flat on her back about halfway through the second round, and Shevchenko went about getting herself into a decisive position. She isolated Andrade's left arm with her legs and leaned her body weight on her right arm, rendering her immobile in a crucifix while pelting her with punches and elbows from her own free right side.

    Referee Dan Miragliotta saw enough and stepped in at 3:19 of the second round.

    It was Andrade's first loss in two fights at 125. She moved up after losing her belt to Zhang Weili and dropping a rematch to Rose Namajunas.

    "We were expecting to keep the fight standing a little more," she said. "Back to the drawing board. Get better. Keep working and come back to fight again."   

Loser: Untimely Brutality

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    Uriah Hall wanted no part of a celebration.

    Instead, the veteran knelt on the mat with his back to stricken foe Chris Weidman, who had just sustained an injury that no opponent—regardless of rivalry—wants to see.

    The former middleweight champ launched a right kick that struck Hall in the left leg, but Weidman immediately screamed in pain as his lower leg appeared to cleanly break, and he tumbled to the floor.

    Cageside physicians immediately entered, and Weidman was taken away on a stretcher.

    Hall was named a TKO winner due to injury after just 17 seconds.

    A replay was shown twice in the arena, and the crowd gasped at the gruesomeness of the injury, particularly as Weidman lurched forward and his leg flopped sickeningly under him.

    It was a rematch of a bout from 11 years ago when Weidman gave Hall the first loss of his career.

    "I got nothing but respect for Chris Weidman," he said. "It's crazy how we ended up here again. I wanted to put on a great performance. I hope he's OK. I wish the family well. I know they're watching.

    "I hope he can come back."    

Winner: Light Heavyweight Fountain of Youth

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    Maybe everything that's old is new again, after all.

    Anthony Smith looked like a clinical definition of a shot fighter in a pair of brutal losses early in 2020, but his business trip to northeast Florida—and perhaps a side junket to the nearby Fountain of Youth—was revelatory in the opposite direction.

    The 32-year-old former title challenger at 205 pounds took on surging 25-year-old slugger Jimmy Crute in the opener to Saturday's pay-per-view card and looked like the one climbing the ladder on the way to a first-round stoppage in their scheduled three-rounder.

    He was noticeably loose on the walk to the cage, giving away a hat to a fan and gesturing to the crowd with a huge smile as Crute, who'd arrived first, stalked in his corner.

    Once the fight began, Smith controlled distance in the first round with a sharp jab and withstood Crute's attempt to reply with powerful leg kicks. Ironically, Smith triggered the end with a hard kick of his own, landing behind Crute's left knee and rendering the leg nearly useless.

    The Australian wobbled to his stool at the end of the round and then was examined by a cageside doctor before the start of the second. He nearly fell while trying to walk to the center of the cage, and the fight was instantly waved off—allowing Smith to solidify his No. 6 ranking with his 35th professional win.

    "I've always been a good kicker. I just haven't been setting it up enough," he said.

    "[Crute] was going to want to [continue] no matter what. But even if we went to the second round, he wasn't going to take too many more kicks to that leg."

    Crute admitted as much when he talked to Rogan, saying he'd have just gone to the mat and pulled full guard if he'd been allowed to continue.

    It was Smith's second win since the two-fight skid, following a first-round stoppage of Devin Clark in November.

    "We're just building," he said. "Even at 32 years old and 51 fights in, I'm still out here getting better."    

Loser: Midcard Malaise

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    Maybe the buzz wore off.

    Or the air-conditioned chill in the arena took hold.

    Whatever the reason, the middle portion of the 13-bout show failed to deliver nearly as much violence—or even sustained action, for that matter—than the four early preliminary fights beforehand or the five more that arrived after the pay-per-view went live at 10 p.m.

    In fact, a video board appearance of Jacksonville-bred football hero Tim Tebow drew the loudest positive reaction of the roughly two-hour stretch, which was more often dotted by boos and inactivity in the cage and an even louder negative response to the split-decision win awarded to Dwight Grant over Stefan Sekulic in their middleweight bout.

    Philadelphia featherweight Pat Sabatini won a desultory unanimous decision over Tristan Connelly in a three-rounder, followed by Brendan Allen's late first-round submission defeat of Karl Roberson.

    In that one, the fighters were locked up and appeared ready to take their one-minute break before the arrival of the second round, but Allen locked in a heel hook during the scramble and drew Roberson's tapout with five seconds remaining.

    Even the final fight of the quartet—a quick-but-eventful duel between welterweights Alex Oliveira and Randy Brown—was briefly overshadowed by the arrival of YouTuber-turned-boxer Jake Paul and a subsequent "F--k Jake Paul" chant. Paul defeated former UFC fighter Ben Askren in the boxing ring last Saturday in Atlanta.

    Paul was briefly confronted by Cormier, which restarted the chant.

    Incidentally, Brown won by locking in a one-armed rear-naked choke and submitting Oliveira in 2:50.

    "In all the time I've been commentating, I've never seen that," broadcaster Joe Rogan said. "It was beautiful."

Winner: Violent Precision

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    He was already the first Mongolian to record a UFC victory.

    He's now the author of his country's most impressive stoppage win.

    Bantamweight Danaa Batgerel became the leader in the clubhouse when it came to the night's top finish, landing a clinically precise left hook that dumped Kevin Natividad to his knees and led to a 50-second win in their scheduled three-rounder.

    "He looked right down the barrel, saw the shot and landed it," former UFC double-champ Daniel Cormier said. "In terms of drawing it up and then executing it, you couldn't be better."

    Batgerel landed a kick with his right leg and an overhand right punch, and then took a step back as Natividad charged forward and walked right onto the shot that dropped him. A follow-up barrage of ground strikes yielded only a few lands, but it was enough to bring an intervention from referee Herb Dean.

    "I saw the shot and felt like it was the right time and I did it," said Batgerel, who's won two straight in the opening round after losing his UFC debut by decision. "I heard the crowd, and I understood, and I was very happy. I was happy I finished in the first round, just like I did before, so it's the same feeling.

    "I'm very excited to do the next one. I don't want to wait a long time."

Loser: Training-Wheels Fights

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    If Jeff Molina wanted an easy mark for his UFC debut, he didn't get one. But by the time 15 grueling minutes with "Mongolian Murderer" Aori Qileng were complete, he seemed plenty happy anyway.

    The U.S.-born child of Colombian immigrants earned a consistently violent three-round decision over his flyweight foe in the second bout on the early prelim show, bringing a gradually filling arena to its feet with two knockdowns and numerous impactful combinations.

    He won the scorecards 29-28, 29-28 and 29-27, and immediately staked his claim to a post-fight bonus when greeted in midcage by Rogan.

    "Fifty motherf--king G's, baby," he said.

    A frenetic Molina landed 210 strikes to 125 for Qileng, including the two shots that dropped his 27-year-old foe. A ridiculous 130 of those came across the final five minutes, which proved decisive given that two of the judges had the fight even entering the last round.

    "He's tough as nails," Molina said. "I felt like the jitters were real, but I got over it. I've been doing this since I was 14 years old."

Winner: Normalcy

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    Let's be realistic. The fighters themselves weren't important.

    It could have been any pair of MMA foes—men or women, experienced or novice, heavy or light—entering the cage Saturday night to kick off the early prelim portion of UFC 261.

    As a pre-show hype video ended with a simple "welcome back," the house lights dimmed and music began for the ring walks of strawweights Liang Na and Ariane Carnelossi, and sound had feel.

    And by the time a perpetually tuxedoed Bruce Buffer arrived in the center of the Octagon, removed his mask and barked his trademark "We are live!" at 6:20 p.m., it was a good thing the roof's integrity wasn't in question.

    Because even in a not-yet-full building, it was a chill-worthy moment.

    And as Rogan grabbed the mic a few minutes later to interview the winner—Carnelossi by second-round TKO, by the way—the wildness had taken full effect.

UFC 261 Full Card Results

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    Main Card

    Kamaru Usman def. Jorge Masvidal by KO, 1:02, Round 2

    Rose Namajunas def. Zhang Weili by KO, 1:18, Round 1

    Valentina Shevchenko def. Jessica Andrade by TKO (punches), 3:19, Round 2

    Uriah Hall def. Chris Weidman by TKO (injury), 0:17, Round 1

    Anthony Smith def. Jimmy Crute by TKO (kick), 5:00, Round 1



    Randy Brown def. Alex Oliveira by submission (rear-naked choke), 2:50, Round 1

    Dwight Grant def. Stefan Sekulic by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)

    Brendan Allen def. Karl Roberson by submission (heel hook), 4:55, Round 1

    Patrick Sabatini def. Tristan Connelly by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)


    Early Prelims

    Danaa Batgerel def. Kevin Natividad by TKO (punches), 0:50, Round 1

    Kazula Vargas def. Rong Zhu by unanimous decision (30-26, 29-28, 29-28)

    Jeff Molina def. Aori Qileng by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-27)

    Ariane Carnelossi def. Liang Na by TKO (punches), 1:28, Round 2