At UFC 251 on 11 July, Kamaru Usman retained his welterweight title against Jorge Masvidal, who had stepped in to compete at the first Fight Island event on six days’ notice following the withdrawal of Gilbert Burns with coronavirus.
In the co-main event, Alexander Volkanovski also secured a decision victory to leave Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island with his championship still wrapped around his waist. Admittedly, his rematch with former titleholder Max Holloway was a much closer affair than the bout it preceded.
Elsewhere, Petr Yan beat former featherweight champion Jose Aldo with a fifth-round stoppage to win the vacant men’s bantamweight title, and former strawweight champions Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade went head to head, with ‘Thug Rose’ emerging the victor by split decision.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Here are the bouts to make following last Saturday’s card:
Burns is on a six-fight win streak and his last two victories came just two months apart – both during the Covid-19 crisis. His willingness to step up, and the fact that he earned huge wins over Demian Maia and former champ Tyron Woodley in doing so, meant that very few people dared to deny his right to face Usman at UFC 251. Coronavirus dealt a cruel blow to the Brazilian just days out from the card, however, costing Burns his main-event spot and opportunity at the title. Thankfully, he seems to have already recovered, and UFC president Dana White suggested he will be next for Usman.
This is the right call; while Masvidal’s late arrival at UFC 251 increased the hype around the event massively, that was more down to ‘Gamebred’s star power than his chances of taking the belt from Usman. Burns, a jiu-jitsu specialist who has honed his hands recently, is actually a much tougher stylistic match-up for the incumbent 170lbs champion than Masvidal ever was. Usman’s entire game is built around wrestling – both grappling against the fence and in terms of securing takedowns. In Burns, however, he’d have a foe who would be at his most dangerous once taken down, giving Usman quite the cause for concern.
There’s also the added wrinkle of both men sharing the same head coach and having trained together on numerous occasions.
Masvidal was seemingly drifting through his career until his 2019 ‘Resurrection’, which saw the American KO Liverpool’s Darren Till in London, eviscerate Ben Askren’s undefeated streak in a record-setting five seconds, and batter and bloody fellow fan favourite Nate Diaz until ringside doctors stepped in. Throughout this run of bouts, a newly focused Masvidal made increasing mentions of going after the welterweight title, and after his defeat by Usman, he immediately made it clear that his upcoming path must be one that takes him back to a shot at the belt.
At 35 years old, time is not on his side, meaning his next bout or two need to be against top-five fighters – the kind of opponents over whom wins would warrant another crack at Usman, or whoever holds the strap in the near future. Colby Covington, Masvidal’s former-best-friend-turned-rival, is the perfect choice. There is scorching heat between the two, so the hype would be seismic, but Covington is also arguably the second-best 170lbs-er in the world right now, as he proved when he so nearly overcame Usman in December before being finished late in the fifth and final round of the pair’s title fight.
Another option would be Masvidal vs Conor McGregor, which would be the biggest fight the UFC could make right now. But McGregor has said he is retired, and even if no one really believes him, there’s a good chance he doesn’t get back in the Octagon all too soon. That doesn’t chime well with Masvidal’s ever-ticking body clock.
First thing’s first: There’s no clear next bout for the defeated Holloway. Even if you think he beat Volkanovski at UFC 251, that’s not what the result says, and so he’s left in no-man’s land – a third clash against the champion seems unlikely and the contenders below him in the rankings are already paired up. So ‘Blessed’ is best off waiting to see how other results pan out.
And that last thought applies to Volkanovski, too, though with a little more clarity; the Australian’s next defence should come against the winner of Rodriguez vs Magomedsharipov, a contest that’s scheduled for 29 August. The Russian is ranked No2 in the featherweight division, while Rodriguez is ranked No5. Zabit is 18-1 and is on a 14-fight win streak, while his Mexican opponent is 13-2 and in good form.
The winner of that clash will be a worthy contender, especially if Zabit shows (for the first time in career) that he can sustain his versatile, entrancing offence over more than three rounds.
This is perhaps the easiest bout to decide upon. Yan is the newly crowned champion of the men’s bantamweight division and looked spectacular against a very game Aldo, while Sterling’s recent first-round submission victory over Cory Sandhagen was inspired. In fact, many fans feel that latter fight should have been for the vacant strap, not Yan’s match-up with Aldo.
Yan is 15-1 and undefeated in 10 bouts, while Sterling is 19-3 and has won his last five. The winner of this fight would truly be the undisputed king at 135lbs, a title that doesn’t quite feel fitting for Yan just yet.
Namajunas lost the women’s strawweight title to Andrade last spring in a fight in which she dominated the then-challenger before being dumped on her head. It was a cruel way for ‘Thug Rose’ to drop the belt, but part of the sport. Regardless, she righted that wrong at UFC 251 when she outpointed the Brazilian in a competitive fight, and the most sensical match-up to make for Namajunas is a title fight against Zhang. In fact, it’s the most appropriate fight for the Chinese champion, too.
Zhang took the title from Andrade in just 42 seconds last August, and her first defence came earlier this year in a barn-burner against former titleholder Joanna Jedrzejczyk – quite possibly the fight of the year. Namajunas holds two victories over Jedrzejczyk, and although a rematch between Zhang and the Pole has to happen at some point, it doesn’t have to happen next. So – when it’s safe to do so – Namajunas should take on Zhang in the champion’s home country to really capitalise on the latter’s star power with a readymade title fight.