The planes have landed, fighters are starting to leave quarantine, and the heat of the Abu Dhabi summer is palpable. It’s not the traditional setting for International Fight Week, but all eyes will turn to the Octagon this Saturday for UFC 251. UFC President Dana White went above and beyond in ensuring that the month of July will be full of violence and entertainment, renting out Yas Island for the entire month, dubbing it Fight Island, in order to provide a venue for fights while most of the world remains on lockdown. UFC 251 will be the first look that fight fans will get of the Octagon on Fight Island which, contrary to popular belief, is actually indoors and not located on the beach. The fighters will thank their lucky stars that the venue will have climate control, as the Yas Island forecast calls for temperatures ranging from 92 to 105 degrees for the duration of fight night. Saturday kicks off the first of three fight cards in an eight day span to mark International Fight Week. The fight card features three championship fights, six former or current UFC champions, and one baddest mofo. Before the fighters can throw down in the cage, let’s break down the biggest fights on the main card and find the key to victory for every fighter on the main card.
Welterweight Championship - (C) Kamaru Usman vs. #3 Jorge Masvidal
Kamaru Usman - Takedowns, Takedowns, And More Takedowns Usman is one of the best wrestlers on the UFC roster, and he has the pedigree to back it up. He won a Division II NCAA wrestling title in college and has landed 42 takedowns in his 11 UFC fights, including 12 in one fight against former Lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos. Getting the fight to the canvas will be key for Usman to keep his belt on Saturday night. Masvidal has only been taken down 26 times in his 24 fights that have been tracked by FightMetric (UFC and Strikeforce bouts). Taking down Gamebred will be no easy task, but Usman will have to do so in order to have the most success in this fight. While Usman has capable power on the feet, holding seven wins via KO/TKO, his standup pales in comparison to Masvidal’s 16 wins by the same method on top of Jorge’s creativity. Masvidal is much less of a threat on the mat, only holding two submission wins and none since 2013. Usman has the obvious edge in wrestling, so he needs to use it as much as possible come Saturday.
Jorge Masvidal - Stay Creative Masvidal has proven to be a fan favorite fighter for countless reasons. He boosted his status this week by accepting this fight on one week’s notice after top-ranked contender Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID-19. It will definitely be an uphill climb for Masvidal to win the title on such short notice, but it isn’t quite out of the question. As previously mentioned, Masvidal is one of the most dangerous strikers on the UFC’s Welterweight roster, earning each of his last five wins by the way of KO/TKO, including his record five second annihilation of Ben Asken with a flying knee right out of the gates. He quieted one marquee wrestler with creativity, and he can do it again on Saturday. In addition to, obviously, leading to a knockout finish, creativity also helps prevent the takedown, as it limits the patterns that many grapplers look for in order to shoot for the takedown. Usman has never been knocked out in his MMA career, but that may be how Masvidal walks out of the Octagon with the belt wrapped around his waist.
My Pick: I have to give Masvidal massive props for taking the biggest fight of his career on incredibly short notice. However, a matchup against Usman would have been an especially difficult matchup with a full fight camp. Fighting in a title fight on a week’s notice is a challenge by itself. The stylistic matchup does not stack the odds in Masvidal’s favor, either. Although Masvidal always stands a puncher’s, or knee-er’s, chance in any fight, Usman has the tools to dominate this fight. I’ll take Usman by decision
Featherweight Championship - (C) Alexander Volkanovski vs. #1 Max Holloway 2
Alexander Volkanovski - Fight Your Fight In their first matchup, and in just about every Octagon appearance, Alexander did an excellent job of controlling the pace of the fight. He has yet to be outstruck in any UFC to this point in his career. One way that he does this is by mixing up his strikes. In his first fight against Holloway, he nearly landed the same number of strikes to the head and legs of Holloway. This limited the Hawaiian’s offense and allowed Volkanovski to dictate the pace of the fight. Another way that he controlled the fight was by mixing in takedowns. While Alexander was 0-for-4 in the previous matchup between the two fighters, it gave Holloway something to think about. Max had to think about the takedown whenever he closed the distance, making him hesitant to do so. In order to retain his belt, we may see a carbon copy of his last performance, as long as it continues to limit Holloway’s production.
Max Holloway - Make It a Brawl While Holloway had his moments in the first fight against Volkanovski, it was pretty obvious that he lost the fight. Volkanovski controlled the pace and outstruck Max. For Max to regain his title, he will have to bloody up the gloves and turn this fight into a brawl. Max has landed over 100 strikes in every fight dating back to 2017, so he obviously has the stamina to maintain a relentless pace. In fact, he landed nearly 300 significant strikes when he put on a striking clinic against Brian Ortega before the doctor waved off the fight after the fourth round. Holloway has dropped two of his last three fights, but does not appear short on confidence heading into the rematch with Volkanovski. If he can make Volkanovski get involved in a Fight of the Night-worthy dogfight, it will be a real test of the champion’s cardio. I will also allow Max to utilize his signature fighting style and get comfortable, something that was missing in the first fight.
My Pick: This fight has so many intangibles coming in, making it probably the hardest to predict. They say that you can learn more from a lot more from a loss than a win. Both fighters had plenty of time to make adjustments, but Holloway had a lot more to fix. However, I believe that Holloway will fill in these holes with a different approach to start the fight. We will see him be more aggressive earlier in the fight, bringing the fight into his world of a brawl rather than the more technical striking of Volkanovski. I could be completely wrong with this one, but I’m rolling with Holloway by decision.
Bantamweight Championship - #3 Petr Yan vs. #6 Jose Aldo
Petr Yan - Find Your Range Early Yan has been an unstoppable force since entering the UFC. He has won six straight fights since his promotional debut in 2018, storming straight to a title shot. How has he been so successful? By sticking within his range and finding where he is comfortable early on in the fight. For example, he was able to drop Jimmie Rivera and Urijah Faber multiple times after being the first one to find his range. This will remain a key for Yan in what will be his first ever 25 minute affair. The earlier Yan can find his range, the more earlier he can begin to chip away at the chin of the 33 year-old Aldo. Aldo’s chin, which once seemed impervious during his prime, has begun to show some cracks, failing to hold up against the likes of Conor McGregor and Max Holloway. Yan will be another good test of how well Aldo’s chin will hold up at Bantamweight after his division debut loss against Marlon Moraes, so finding his range and tagging Aldo early will be key for Yan.
Jose Aldo - Drag The Fight Late Experience will be key for the former UFC and WEC Featherweight champion. He has been in a title fight 14 times, going the distance a remarkable seven times. Meanwhile, Petr Yan has never gone beyond the third round in his MMA career. Aldo needs to use this inexperience to his advantage. Aldo has never exactly been the model of fire fights in his UFC/WEC career, only crossing the 100 strike plateau once in a Fight of the Night performance against Chad Mendes. If Aldo can keep it close in the first few rounds, then turn on the jets as the fight clock ticks on, he has a great chance of exploiting the lack of championship experience of Yan.
My Pick: This story of this fight could very well be written in the first two rounds, even if there isn’t a finish. The later the fight goes, the more the tables turn towards the veteran Aldo. However, if Yan can mount enough successful offense early in the fight, maybe securing a knockdown, he may create an obstacle too large for Aldo to overcome later on in the fight. We have also yet to see how deep Yan’s gas tank is and if he has the stamina to keep an active pace for 25 minutes. While this hasn’t been proven, I believe that Yan has the cardio to maintain a high pace, allowing him to tag Aldo, which is why I’m going with Yan by 3rd Round KO/TKO
Strawweight - #1 Jessica Andrade vs. #2 Rose Namajunas 2
Jessica Andrade - Shoot The Takedown Why fix what isn’t broken? Andrade won the first fight after she slammed Namajunas to the canvas, causing the then champion to lose consciousness after landing on her head. Andrade looked to be the much larger fighter in their first fight, which wasn’t surprising considering she used to fight 20 pounds higher in the UFC at Bantamweight. She used that advantage to turn Rose into a human ragdoll with several high amplitude takedowns, including the one that ended the fight. There isn’t much a fighter can do once they are lifted into the air except brace for impact. Expect to see many more slam attempts from the Brazilian in this one.
Rose Namajunas - Keep Both Feet On The Mat I know, easier said than done. Especially when your opponent has at least ten pounds more muscle than you have come fight night. However, Namajunas was winning the first matchup until she was taken down onto her head. She was able to open up a cut over Andrade’s left eye in the opening minute and she dropped Jessica with a nice knee. In addition to this, several holes were exposed in Andrade’s standup in her first minute TKO loss to current champion Zhang Weili. If she can defend the takedown and continue the success that she had on the feet in the first fight, Namajunas will be on the path to victory.
My Pick: While Andrade won the first meeting between these two fighters, Namajunas proved to be the better striker of the two. This is the first time that we have seen Namajunas back in action since this loss while Andrade resoundingly lost the title in her last Octagon appearance. Just one small tweak to Rose’s fight night game plan, along with maybe a few extra protein shakes after stepping onto the scale, will allow her to take the good from her loss against Andrade the last time out into a decision victory for Namajunas this weekend.
That concludes my breakdown of the key fights on the UFC 251 fight card. This weekend on Fight Island should prove to be a great night of fights, but we will have to wait and see who will come out on top.