UFC 261 Real or Not: Usman-Masvidal is the right fight, and Masvidal will be ready

UFC 261 seems to be about giving people what they want. Welterweight champ Kamaru Usman wanted his next defense to be against Jorge Masvidal, and he got it. Masvidal wanted another crack at the title, and he got it.

And fans wanted to return to a live UFC event, and they got it.

UFC president Dana White announced Monday on Twitter that UFC 261 will feature three title fights, including Usman-Masvidal 2, Valentina Shevchenko putting her women’s flyweight title on the line against Jessica Andrade and Zhang Weili defending her strawweight title against Rose Namajunas. The event will be held in VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., before an expected capacity crowd of 15,000 fans.

After beating Gilbert Burns on Feb. 13, Usman called out Masvidal for a rematch of their July 11, 2020, bout. Usman won by unanimous decision, although Masvidal took the fight on six days’ notice. Will things be different with a more complete camp for Masvidal?

And was this the right fight to make, instead of having Usman defend against Colby Covington or Leon Edwards?

This will be Zhang’s first fight since her epic split decision win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk on March 7, 2020. She’ll face a fighter in Namajunas with a complete arsenal of skills who will be looking to regain her title.

Shevchenko was challenged more than expected by Jennifer Maia on Nov. 21, 2020, before pulling out the unanimous decision. Did Jessica Andrade learn something from that fight that could help her dethrone the champ?

ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim break down what’s real from what’s not.

Usman vs. Masvidal 2 is the right fight for the division

Okamoto: Real. If you disagree, I hear you. I know you’re out there, and you’re not wrong.

  • “We just saw this fight eight months ago, and it wasn’t competitive.” True.

  • “Masvidal hasn’t done anything since.” No, he has not.

  • “A rematch between Usman and Colby Covington would be far more competitive.” I tend to agree.

  • “Leon Edwards is far more deserving.” OK, there aren’t that many of you saying the last one, but I’ll say it because it’s true.

These are all reasons not to make Usman vs. Masvidal 2. But at the end of the day, this was still the fight to make.

First of all, it’s the one the champion wanted — which doesn’t make it a slam dunk, but when the champion has already beaten nearly every top option for an opponent, his opinion does matter.

Masvidal really was deserving of a title fight in 2020. Negotiations fell through, the UFC moved on, and then (as we all know) he got the opportunity on six days’ notice. And even though I don’t think he came off the couch to take that fight, the fact remains that it was not a proper lead-up to a UFC title fight.

Masvidal has paid his dues over the course of an entire MMA career, and I’m not mad that he now has a true UFC title fight booked. I want to see him with a fair opportunity at a UFC championship.

Had this title shot gone to Covington, I certainly would not have complained. I would have been happy with that as well. But once the champion himself called for Masvidal, it wasn’t hard to see where this was going. By the way, I do hope Covington vs. Edwards is the next fight announcement we get at 170 pounds.

A full camp will make the difference for Masvidal

Helwani: Is this a full camp though? Usually you get more than a month and a half to prepare for a title fight. That’s not me making an excuse for Masvidal already, but this is still short notice in my books. Obviously not as short notice as last July, but still short notice.

Also, Masvidal was just in Colombia for rehab on his body, so you have to wonder what kind of shape he’s in. I’m assuming he wouldn’t agree to this fight if he didn’t feel good enough to go out there and win, but it’s not ideal, once again.

Still, I suspect the fight will be closer than the last time out because (A) they fought before and (B) Masvidal had to cut an obscene amount of weight in a short window before that fight. That should mean more energy, especially in the later rounds.

So yeah, I think it’ll be closer, but does he ultimately win? Too soon to say.

Jessica Andrade will learn from Jennifer Maia’s performance against Valentina Shevchenko and dethrone the champ

Raimondi: I love this fight. I really think Andrade will be the toughest test for Shevchenko so far. Andrade has huge power in her hands, excellent durability and the kind of aggressive, power-based wrestling that could give anyone fits. And Maia did lay out somewhat of a blueprint on how someone might be able to beat Shevchenko.

With all that being said, I’m going to say not real. I think Andrade will be the most competitive opponent for Shevchenko — not named Amanda Nunes — yet. She has the one-punch knockout ability to keep Shevchenko honest on the feet and the strength and grappling ability to grind Shevchenko out, at least temporarily. The question is if she can do that over five full rounds, because Shevchenko is very difficult to finish. If Nunes couldn’t do it, I don’t think Andrade can. The best bet for Andrade is to try to rack up round wins and hope for the best when the fight goes to the judges.

If I’m being completely honest here, we’re kind of grasping at straws, right? Maia had success against Shevchenko, but she won only one round out of five when she was able to get Shevchenko down. And even that round Maia barely won. Shevchenko was never in any kind of real trouble.

Can Andrade put Shevchenko in danger? She does have more impactful striking than Maia, but she’s also smaller and shorter. Shevchenko will have a reach and leverage advantage. It’s not like Shevchenko is a bad grappler or wrestler, either. She has submitted top talent, including Julianna Peña, who has very good wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

The most likely scenario in this fight is Shevchenko prevailing once again. But there are so few potential contenders who can really challenge the dominant Shevchenko. The Kyrgyzstan native is one of the greatest female fighters in combat sports history, not just MMA. She’s a multiple-time Muay Thai world champion. Shevchenko is the epitome of excellence. So, any time someone comes along and is a worthy contender like Andrade many people want to believe she can stop the great “Bullet.” In reality, though, Shevchenko is still a level above the field, and that doesn’t seem like it will change any time soon.

Rose Namajunas’ all-around skill set and reach advantage will help her regain her strawweight title from Zhang Weili

Wagenheim: The reach advantage is minimal, just a two-inch difference, which amounts to an inch at the end of each fist’s punches. Even that can be the difference between connecting on the button and just missing, sure, but how often do fighters get to face someone with the exact same reach as them? The good ones adjust. Zhang’s last opponent, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, has a slightly longer reach than Namajunas, and it didn’t overwhelm the champ. So I don’t believe reach will be a deciding factor.

But that all-around skill set of Namajunas? That is a very real factor. The former champ has the footwork and hand speed to attack from all angles with punches, kicks and takedowns. And if she gets you on the canvas, she is going to make your life miserable. Namajunas presents threats everywhere the fight might go, and she is good at determining where it goes and when. This will be a tactical challenge for Zhang, more so than either of her previous title fights.

So does that mean we’re about to have a new/old champ? I really have no idea. Sorry for the cop-out, but we’re trying to weigh Zhang, who is unflappable and appears unstoppable, against Namajunas, who has the most well-rounded game in the division and is tough as nails. Is it unrealistic to expect this title bout to measure up to Zhang-Jedrzejczyk, which was 2020’s fight of the year? I say we’re looking at a classic here. My X factor: Zhang has not fought since that Jedrzejczyk bout a full year ago, and Namajunas last competed in July. As is the case in many fights during pandemic times, it comes down to who has been able to maintain the focus to be sharp on the night that matters.

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