UF-Sea 251 from Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, kicks off Saturday with what is scheduled to be a slate that features three title fights. It took some deft last-minute dealing by the UFC to sign Jorge Masvidal to fight Kamaru Usman after the premier “Fight Island” main event was jeopardized when Usman’s original opponent, Gilbert Burns, was pulled due to COVID-19.
Masvidal originally had been negotiating for the opportunity to fight Usman but was unable to reach agreement with the UFC in contract talks. That was then, however. Now it appears likely that this main event will go off, with testing of fighters in Abu Dhabi still to be cleared.
Let’s dig into the championship bouts.
Kamaru Usman -295 vs. Jorge Masvidal + 250, welterweight (170-pound) championship
Masvidal, 35, took this fight on six days’ notice, which seems insane. Yet Masvidal has been fighting professionally since 2003 and in high-octane “fight club”-type competitions for years before that.
Just based on his pedigree and history, I view Masvidal as more prepared for a short-notice fight than anyone in the organization now or previously, Gracie family excluded.
Masvidal makes up for being a touch undersized for the division with catlike movement, a savant’s fight IQ, precision striking and true killer instinct. He was preparing for Usman before the negotiation snafu, and he reportedly has remained in the gym since then, which I believe is true — to an extent.
Masvidal needs to employ movement, quickness and unpredictability early and often to keep the forward-pressing Usman at distance. In space he might use kicks, strikes, knees and elbows to try to catch the advancing champion.
Masvidal lands 4.33 strikes per minute and will need to use that volume to pepper Usman and gain points, but I don’t believe he’ll have the cardio to execute that plan for a full five rounds because of the short notice.
I’m left with the impression that Masvidal needs another strategic approach, as used against Darren Till, or even another gimmick, like his KO of Ben Askren, or he’ll eventually be dominated on the mat by Usman.
Usman defends his title on short notice, too, for Masvidal brings very different tools to this tussle than did Burns. With a full camp, physical advantages of an inch of height and 2 inches of arm and leg reach plus the unrelenting pressure wrestling he employs, Usman earns the position of heavy favorite. Usman’s striking has been steadily improving, and though Masvidal has fluidity, speed and precision, Usman will use forward pressure and power striking.
Usman’s plan will be to eliminate any space for Masvidal — smother him, bully him up against the fence and then to the floor for top control. Usman’s size, devastating ground attack and ability to sustain high effort for 25 minutes separate him from most other fighters in the division.
Masvidal has been doing this for years and has made it clear he needs to get paid after compiling a 35-13 professional record. In my judgment, notoriety, riches and private jets seem at least part of Masvidal’s motivation after all the years he served pioneering this sport. And in this bout, he is the beneficiary of being in a win/win situation.
If Masvidal gets smoked, he goes from critic to savior for the UFC and still gets compensated in future marquee bouts. If he defeats Usman, his burst becomes even brighter.
There’s no implication that Masvidal won’t give everything he has. I believe he’ll use every ruse he is aware of and will utilize every advantage he can muster to defeat Usman. But I believe Masvidal might be effective for only a short time before Usman’s physicality takes over.
Total in this fight: 4.5 -110 Pick-’em either side.
Lean to Over
Alexander Volkanovski -225 vs. Max Holloway -195, featherweight (145-pound) championship
This is an immediate rematch of a December fight for which Volkanovski traveled from New Zealand to wrest the featherweight belt from then-champion Holloway in Las Vegas.
Volkanovski was once a 200-plus-pound rugby player with legs as thick as tree trunks. Now he’s a 145-pound fighter with legs as thick as tree trunks.
Volkanovski has a pronounced wrestling base and a brown belt in BJJ. He trains at New Zealand’s famous City Kickboxing, a gym whose fighters possess tremendous confidence, led by Volkanovski himself and Israel Adesanya. Volkanovski’s striking is power-based, diverse and abounding, making him a truly complete mixed martial artist.
Almost immediately after earning his first victory against Holloway, Volkanovski asked for a rematch, which is a sure sign of extreme confidence — and a good deal of strategy.
At 28, Holloway is three years younger but has endured such damage that he’s every bit as old in fight years as Volkanovski. Holloway is 6 inches taller yet earns no premium without also having a reach advantage, as Volkanovski has a 2-inch reach edge. Holloway relies on stand-up striking, and it will be interesting to see what if anything he changes.
Holloway had been featherweight champion for years and ruled in dominant fashion. He has faced only the truly elite fighters of his division through his last 10 fights back to 2015, plus a grueling battle with Dustin Poirier at 155 pounds.
In the first fight, Volkanovski’s bludgeoning leg attack forced Holloway backward early, then into the southpaw stance, where he showed effectiveness later in the fight. But by then the damage had been done.
Holloway has a difficult choice Saturday. Does he force this fight onto the champion with elbows, knees and a faster, more aggressive attack? That seems necessary, since he started so slowly in the first bout. Or does he adjust at all and just offer a more focused Max Holloway?
I see little Holloway can do to reverse the outcome of the first fight other than to flush his opponent when he’s aggressively advancing to engage. Volkanovski winning in a more decisive fashion in this rematch seems the reasonable conclusion.
Total in this fight: 4.5 Over -225/Under + 195
Petr Yan -235 vs. Jose Aldo + 200, bantamweight (135-pound) championship
Yan arrives with a good deal of hype and a boatload of fighting background to back it up. He’s a Russian master of sport in boxing and mixed martial arts, and those awards don’t come without extensive experience and abundant blood, sweat and tears.
Yan spent months in Brazil at Also’s camp, further developing his trade in MMA on a Russia-Brazil exchange. These men know one another and have battled previously.
Aldo needs little introduction. To this day he is recognized as the GOAT in the featherweight division, but the reality is that Aldo’s reign was years ago and this fight takes place in the lower bantamweight division for the 33-year-old warrior.
Aldo still possesses world-class fighting ability, but it’s apparent that his treasure of experience has come with tremendous attrition. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that the young, hungry lions are making their presence known to the old guard attempting to hold their positions. I regard Aldo as old guard and Yan as one hungry lion.
Aldo, who lands 3.47 significant strikes per minute, is desperate to be champion once again. Yan, at 5.65 significant strikes per minute, is focused on gaining the recognition that goes with being champion. He’s hungry.
(This fills the open parlay with Poirier -200 and pays 1.14u. Take Yan now)
Total in this fight: 2.5 Over -180/Under + 155
Last week the price on this fight’s Over 2.5 opened -101. By the time I could react to this price, it was priced Over -145.
These two 135-pound combatants will go after one another, but it could resemble two flies fighting in a Mason jar as I envision a stand-up battle in a 30-foot cage. This fight going into the championship rounds seems a wise position.
Pass for now.
Raulian Paiva -185 vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov + 160
Paiva, 24, travels from Brazil to face a veteran of the Russian regional scene in Kazakhstan’s Zhumagulov, who has defeated UFC-caliber fighters. At 31, the shorter, more explosive Kazakh fighter has a real chance to negate Paiva’s size and reach advantages with grit and grappling.
Zhumagulov + 160 (half)
Price is acceptable, so take .50 units now. This could evolve into a full-unit wager pending weigh-ins.
Total for this fight: Over -250/Under + 225
Many of these fighters, from 14 countries, arrive at “Fight Island” after undergoing altered plans, changed camps and varying corner people, so the weigh-ins at 10 p.m. PST Thursday are of the utmost importance. I do expect some surprises, and often surprises offer betting advantages.