UFC 251 Preview

The UFC gave us one week off to catch our breaths but it’s full steam ahead for UFC 251 on ‘Fight Island’. Will it be on the beach? Will it be inside? Who cares! I’m here to concentrate on the action that takes place inside the octagon and boy oh boy what a night of fights we have.

From top to bottom this card is stacked. I want to pay extra close attention to the three title fights at the top of the bill though, so let’s get right to it!

Kamaru Usman (16-1-0) vs. Jorge Masvidal (35-13-0)

Well, this fight is happening…… hopefully! What a whirlwind the last couple of days have been. This bout was supposed to be contested by Gilbert Burns and Kamaru Usman but a positive COVID 19 test for Burns saw Jorge Masvidal step into the mix. Suddenly this card has gone from great to a phenomenal. Now could we see more changes along the way? Quite possibly, but fingers crossed that this fight holds up after everything that has gone down. 

The champion Usman, a Nigerian immigrant to the United States, moved to Nebraska aged 7. He wrestled in state and also spent some time at the Olympic training center in Colorado, honing his skills – so he brings vast wrestling credentials into the encounter. 

‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ picked up his first loss in only his second professional fight. Since that fight he has been undefeated in competition. He made a name for himself on the regional scene before entering into Season 21 of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ house. 

Usman, who then represented the Blackzillians but now trains out of Boca Raton in Florida with Jorge Santiago and Henri Hooft. Hooft is not is his corner for this fight. He decided to step aside from the original scheduled bout between Usman/Burns as he trains both of those fighters. Trevor Whitman has been brought in as a striking coach for the champ for this fight. In his last bout with Colby Covington he showcased his striking abilities. The body of work that a striking coach Hooft brought to Usman was quite clear to see. It seems that Usman is looking more confident in his skills each fight that goes by.

His first notable victory was against Damian Maia. He had another good victory over Rafael dos Anjos where he famously claimed he was only performing at 30 percent. Usman set younger wagging when won the title off Tyron Woodley in massively impressive fashion. That brought him to his first title defense where he knocked out rival Covington in impressive fashion in the 5th round. A fight that he was losing on many unofficial scorecards. 

It will be interesting to see if his time working with Whitman this camp will bring something new to the table. While the stand up game was his main focus for the previous bouts I wouldn’t be surprised to see him implement a heavy wrestling game plan here. Masvidal has the ability to put your lights out wih his striking skills. Usman will be fully aware of that and needs to be if he is to get his hand raised this weekend. 

What a year it has been for Masvidal. Even more, what a career it has been for ‘Gamebred’. His family, like the Usmans, were also immigrants, who came from Cuba into the US.  He started off his fighting career alongside the likes Kimbo Slice in the back yards of Miami.

Transitioning from the streets to the cage looked easy to the self proclaimed ‘Street Jesus’. He picked up impressive KO wins over Joe Lauzon and Yves Edwards early on in the regional scene, fighting regularly at lightweight.

Brief stints at Sengoku, Bellator and Strikeforce followed before the American Top Team fighter made his way to the UFC ranks. Once in the UFC Masvidal found himself taking two steps forward and one step back in his fighting career. But that all changed with impressive victories in a three fight win streak that has found him in a position to be challenging for UFC gold for the first time. 

Winning six of his last eight bouts has helped propel Masvidal in superstar status. Going over to London and stopping Darren Till on home soil helped that cause. Getting into it with Leon Edwards backstage afterwards helped more – the birth of the 3 piece and a soda. 

When ‘Gamebred’ came up against Ben Askren there was a lot of back and forth going into that bout. But much less in the fight itself. Famously, Masvidal came out with a 5 second KO of the year which sent everybody wild. Thus we had the birth of the BMF title when Jorge and Nathan Diaz fought to be crowned to ‘Baddest Motherfucker’ on the planet. 

That doctor stoppage win for Masvidal looked to set up this fight with Usman and after the bout being on, then off they finally settle the score in Abu Dhabi. Obviously the big news coming into the fight is Masvidal taking the match-up on 6 days notice. It’s hard to know how that will affect the ‘BMF’ champion. That won’t be known until the actual fight. 

We’ve seen in the recent past, Michael Bisping coming in on short notice and being victorious when he beat Luke Rockhold for the middleweight strap – he even admitted it himself that the short notice helped him. Bisping though fought a guy in that was going to stand and bang most of the fight. Usman won’t fall into that trap.

Masvidal is a gangster for taking this fight. He comes in on 6 days notice with 20 pounds to cut. Also the heat will be a factor for this fight and for the rest of the fights on the card too. I wonder how his cardio will hold up in the thick Yas Island air. Masvidal is not a guy who is known to gas out.

The ATT star could come firing and go balls out for the finish early in the fight. I feel the longer this fight goes the less of a chance that we see a new champion. Is Usman going to trade blows in this fight the same as he did in his last bout? I really can’t see it. Masvidal might need to stuff takedowns throughout the fight. The threat of takedowns sometimes throws fighters off their gameplan. This will open up the striking of Usman but that’s dangerous territory.

Usman, the reigning champion will not shy away from testing himself on the feet here all the same. I would expect him to level change quite often and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t attempt at least one takedown each round. It will be the job of Masvidal to sprawl and brawl. Constantly defending takedowns will tire you out and get you off your game. Staying off the cage will be pivotal if ‘Gamebread’ is to take home gold.

Constantly attempting takedowns and failing will tire out a fighter too. Usman will need to mix his striking into his wrestling. Masvidal has been getting the help of some high class wrestlers. We’ve seen the man from Miami do some work with fellow countryman Yoel Romero. Masvidal himself says he is in shape and always stays in shape. There is a big difference between being in shape and being fight ready. 

I’m super pumped for this fight. For a lot of people, the heart says Masvidal. He deserves this so much. With such a great story and after having a 20+ year career it would be the final feather in the cap for him to pick up gold. Usman will have other ideas. He is a very powerful fighter in all aspects of the game. I feel that Usman takes this fight by using his wrestling and taking home a decision. 

Alexander Volkanovski (21-1-0) vs. Max Holloway (21-5-0)

At UFC 245 Alexander Volkanovski became the first Australian born UFC champion. He defeated Max Holloway in a unanimous decision victory. That put a halt to a 12 fight win streak Holloway had going into the featherweight bout.

Holloway has fought the who’s who at 145 pounds and fully warrants this rematch. The Hawaiian is a longer, rangier type fighter. In comparison to the champions short stocky stature, this aspect makes the fight a super interesting contest. The first bout between the two was a very technical affair.

One major factor in the first scrap between two warriors was the power advantage. That went to Volkanovski. His use of leg kicks throughout the bout worked wonders – but mainly in the early stages – and it basically won him the fight as it took out Holoway’s best assist in taking out his movement.

Calf kicks have become a real game changer in Mixed Martial Arts. We are seeing more and more finishes with the technique. When it is utilized to full effect there isn’t much you can do to stop it. It is certainly something the former champion will have to figure out if he is win gold once more. How can he implement this into his gameplan? Well, I feel he can if he can control the center of the octagon.

In the first fight, Volkanovski started off on the front foot and maintained control of the center of the octagon for most of the fight. He did start to slow towards the end but not as much as to say that he ran out of gas. It was an intense high paced bout throughout and I expect much of the same for this rematch. Whoever gets on the front foot will be the frontrunner in the winning of this bout.

Skillswise both fighters are similar. Max’s ability to often switch stances makes him very hard to read on the feet. You can’t use that weapon if you don’t have proper strength and movement in your legs, simple as. Holloway will need to figure that out. I don’t feel he has the ability to knock out the champion. If he fights a smart fight and starts checking kicks he can get this to a decision and get the nod from the judges.

Volkanovski, defending his title for the first time will be looking to do much of the same this fight. Landing those heavy leg kicks from the get go, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That tactic worked so well for the Aussie in the first fight between the two. Quick explosion’s in and out. Whether it be leg kicks or swift counters over the top.

I can see this being a close fight. I think the champion has enough to take the strap back home to Australia. It’s going to be a cracking fight.

Petr Yan (14-1-0) vs. Jose Aldo (28-6-0)

Well Jose Aldo kind of fell into this title shot pretty undeservingly so. That has to be said. His last bout, which he lost at bantamweight to Marlon Moraes, was controversial in many people’s eyes, but not mine. He rightfully lost a split decision to his fellow Brazilian and all seemed lost for the former featherweight king. Luckily for Aldo, Dana White and the UFC tend to lean more on the side of entertainment more so than legitimacy nowadays – so here we are.

All that being said, this is a belter of a fight and a true test to see what caliber of skills that Petr Yan possesses. Yan does most of his preparation over at Tiger Muay Thai Gym in Phuket, Thailand. He is quiet comfortable fighting southpaw or orthodox and his Thai boxing style really shines through. In his last bout against Urijah Faber, Yan lived up to his nickname ‘No Mercy’ quite well. He picked Faber apart and dominated the former WEC champion with ease.

Petr would have been expected to win that bout but nobody has managed to put Faber away like that before. Given that it was in the latter stages of Faber’s career, I still felt it was impressive from Yan. He’s got a tight defence while on the feet. He likes to lull his opponents into his slow hypnotic pace before exploding into combinations. Yan is dangerous in the clinch and more so coming out of the clinch. Jose Aldo will have to be on high alert for on Saturday night.

Yan who hails from Omsk, Russia is undefeated in his UFC career so far. He has only the one professional loss on his record – that to Magomed Magomedov in 2017 which he avenged one year later. He has picked up notable wins over Douglas Andrade, John Dodson and Jimmie Rivera. If the Russian were to win in Yas Island, he would become the 6th UFC champion to come out of Europe.

Jose Aldo is the man standing in his way. The Brazilian, fighting only for the second time in the bantamweight division, gained his legendary status at featherweight. Aldo gained somewhat of a cult following in WEC where he was beating the likes of Cub Swanson, Faber and Mike Brown. Aldo went on to become one on the best featherweights on the planet and racked up record title defences amongst other accolades before that success came to a crashing halt when he faced of against Conor McGregor.

Surrounding two title losses to Holloway, Aldo has picked up only three victories since that defeat at UFC 194. In wins over Frankie Edgar, Jeremy Stephens and his last victory over Renato Moicano we did see flashes of brilliance from the former champion.

Aldo now finds himself on a two fight skid with losses against Marlon Moraes and Alexander Volkanovski but somehow Henry Cejudos’ decision to retire and vacate his bantamweight title has opened up the door for Aldo to step in here against Yan.

The Brazilian has somewhat a similar style to Yan in which he fights in his own unique Muay Thai style. An Aldo of old focused heavily on leg kicks to best his opponents might work well here. We’ve only seen flashes of that in his most recent fights. Aldo brings in some great takedown defense and crisp striking. He is a black belt in BJJ but he does tend use that all that much.

It will be interesting to see if the Brazilian starts this fight guns ablazing and goes after Yan. If he does that we who knows? He might clip him and finish him. If he goes after Yan and fails to put him away I feel Aldo may get finished. What I expect to see is a patient Aldo, one who will be very shot selective.

Aldo may feel he can out-point the #3 ranked bantamweight here. He is capable of doing that on Saturday night. I’m wondering does Yan mix in his wrestling to keep Jose guessing? Can the Russian maintain his high pressure, forward moving gameplan? I believe Petr Yan can do both and will do both in this fight. I expect it to be a primarily stand up battle and I expect the early stages to be very competitive.

An Aldo win here would be historic for the Brazilian. I feel that this is Yan’s time. He’s got the youth and the skills to get the job done here. Aldo possess fight ending power and Yan has been hit before in previous fights so that’s something to think about. Overall I feel Yan puts the squeeze on Aldo here and gets the win by late stoppage or decision. It’s going to be a phenomenal fight.

Starting us off on the main card Paige VanZant (8-4-0) goes up against divisional newcomer Amanda Ribas (9-1-0). VanZant is fighting out the last fight on her contract and it’s going to be a tough one. Ribas has racked up four wins since entering into the UFC ranks. Her wins over Mackenzie Dern and Randa Markos at strawweight were impressive. It will be interesting to see how she handles the jump up in weight. This fight is set up for her to go in and make her name off Paige VanZant’s stardom. In what is a pretty noncompetitive 125 pound division expect to see Amanda Ribas’ name high up the rankings in the next year.

A fight that is going somewhat under the radar is Rose Namajunas (8-4-0) vs. Jessica Andrade (20-7-0). This is a rematch of their UFC 237 bout and it’s going to be a belter of a fight. Andrade slammed herself to victory whilst taking the UFC strawweight title off ‘Thug Rose’ in the first encounter. Andrade went on to lose the title one fight later when she was bested by Weili Zhang – the last outing by the Brazilian.

Namajunas on the other hand she has not been seen since that big knockout loss to Jessica. She will be looking to right that wrong in her career on Saturday night. A win for either fighter here could give them a crack at the title. When ‘Thug Rose’ is on her game she is very hard to beat. She is a far superior striker that Andrade and once she keeps it on the feet she should get the job done.

If you are thinking of just catching just the main card portion of this card you should think again. The prelims section of this card are stacked with talent. Volkan Oezdemir (17-4-0) vs. Jiří Procházka (26-3-1) is a barn burner. Procházka, from Czech Republic is the former RIZIN light heavyweight champion. He brings in serious power and has 23 knockouts in 26 fights. Pretty impressive. He has not got an easy task squaring off against Oezdemir. The Swiss man has 12 finishes in 17 fights he too like to get his opponents out of there quick. Hence his nickname ‘No Time’.

Makwan Amirkhani (15-4-0), who has train with John Kavanagh at SBG fights Scotland’s own Danny Henry (12-3-0). Brazil’s Leonardo Santos (17-3-1) makes the walk to fight undefeated Russian Roman Bogatov (10-0-0). Former PFL fighter Maxim Grishin (30-7-2) makes his debut against Marcin Tybura (18-6-0). The full fight card can be seen below.

Main Card

Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal (welterweight title)
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway (featherweight title)
Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo (vacant bantamweight title)
Jessica Andrade vs. Rose Namajunas
Amanda Ribas vs. Paige VanZant


Prelims

Volkan Oezdemir vs. Jiri Prochazka
Muslim Salikhov vs. Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos
Makwan Amirkhani vs. Danny Henry
Roman Bogatov vs. Leonardo Santos


Early Prelims

Maxim Grishin vs. Marcin Tybura
Raulian Paiva vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov
Vanessa Melo vs. Karol Rosa
Martin Day vs. Davey Grant

UFC 251 is on this Saturday night July 11 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Enjoy the fights folks!

Ian O'Neill is a Kilkenny man living in Canada. You can catch him on Twitter most of the time talking all things MMA. Follow me on Twitter and on Instagram @ioneillmma.