UFC 261 is upon us, and it’s going to be an exciting one. The card features three title fights and will happen in front of a sold out arena in Jacksonville, Florida, which will certainly add to the adrenaline-pumping action.
Here’s our preview and predictions for the three big fights on the main card.
Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal
The main event is a rematch of Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal’s UFC 251 title fight on July 12, 2020. That fight, which Masvidal took on short notice, ended in a near-shutout, with two judges scoring it 50-45 for Usman and one giving the fight a 49-46 score.
That fight saw Usman control the pace for most of the fight, using his strong wrestling and patience to keep Masvidal at arm’s reach and avoiding danger for the most part. The stats are telling, as Usman 263 of 341 total strikes, and 94 of 151 significant strikes. He also took Masvidal down 5 out of 16 attempts, and he held control for 16 minutes and 38 seconds of the 25-minute bout.
Masvidal landed at a decent clip, hitting 88 of 157 strikes (66 of 125 significant strikes), but never really did any damage to the champ.
In all honesty, it doesn’t feel like a lot is going to change in the rematch. While Masvidal has two submission wins on his record, he does the most damage on the feet. Unless Usman gets reckless, he’ll be able to avoid taking major damage from Masvidal again while using his wrestling to take control of the fight.
Both fighters looked stoic in the weigh-ins, but it feels like we’re just going to get a replay of the initial bout. I’m picking Usman to win via a decision.
Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas
The co-main event, in my opinion, will be the most exciting fight in the main card.
It’s hard to find enough praise for straw weight champ Zhang Weili. The deadly striker has run roughshod over all over her opponents with her powerful striking and her unbreakable will. Her last fight, which took place against Joanna Jędrzejczyk on March 7, 2020, was one for the ages. It was, in my opinion, Fight of the Year. That brutal war saw both women unload all they had on each other, and by the end of the fight Jędrzejczyk had one of the scariest looking hematomas of all time on her forehead.
Here’s a look at that last fight:
The fact that Zhang took all of Jędrzejczyk’s best shots shows you just how tough she is, considering that her Polish opponent is one of the deadliest standup fighters that’s fought in the UFC. The last time Zhang in an MMA bout was through a decision on her debut in 2013. Since then, she’s reeled off 21-straight victories including five in the UFC.
“Thug” Rose Namajunas presents an interesting opponent for Zhang primarily because the former strawweight champ owns a pair of victories over Jędrzejczyk as well. Her first win came via TKO in the first round, and she followed up with a unanimous 49-46 decision.
While Namajunas lost her title after that fight to Jessica Andrade (who is also fighting at UFC 261), she avenged the loss with a split decision win on the undercard of UFC 251.
Like the current champ, Namajunas is a skilled technical striker who isn’t afraid to stand and fight. What’s got to be seen is whether she can withstand Zhang’s power. I predict that Zhang gets the knockout in the championship rounds after a hard-fought start to the fight.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade
Former strawweight champ Jessica Andrade won her flyweight debut via first round TKO in October, but it’s quite a jump in opponent quality from Katlyn Chookagian to Valentina Shevchenko. Chookagian is actually a common foe for both, as Shevchenko also finished her via TKO, albeit in the third round in February last year.
There’s a pretty big difference in records between champ and challenger though. Andrade began her MMA career in September 2011, and has compiled a 21-8 record in that timespan.
Shevchenko was already a veteran then, and had an 8-1 record after a win in April 2011. In that time span, she’s gone 12-2 and has only tasted defeat to the greatest female fighter of all time: Amanda Nunes.
Andrade is a strong striker, but doesn’t have anywhere near the precise and technical skill that Shevchenko possesses. In addition to her 23-3 MMA record, the Kyrgistani champion also has an astounding 57-2 record in kickboxing and is 2-0 in boxing. The champ is an absolute monster on the feet, and has the ability to switch angles to counter Andrade’s hard-charging style.
The odds are firmly stacked against Andrade, and for good reason. While the challenger is a tough cookie, she doesn’t have enough to pose a serious threat to Shevchenko. I predict a decision win for the current champion.