UFC 261 is slated for a rare triple-title night, and that usually offers matchups with different odds profiles. In this case, we have two established champions as steep favorites and only one title matchup with more playable odds.
We’ll get to all three title fights, but first let’s hunt for better value further down the card. Consider Saturday’s main card opener between light-heavyweights Anthony Smith and Jimmy Crute. Smith has spent the last few years at the top of the division facing elite talent, while Crute is a newcomer, now on a winning streak that could catapult him up the ranks with a win over a former contender like Smith.
Jimmy “The Brute” Crute could be a highlight reel in the making. The Australian has deep fight game roots, and at 4-1 in the UFC, he finished opponents in each of his wins with strikes or submissions. At 25, Crute could just be getting started, and this test against a veteran like Smith is an excellent gauge of Crute’s potential.
On paper, Smith profiles as a brawler. He has good offense, but at the sacrifice of defense. And against a younger, dangerous power striker, that means Smith is likely to eat some heavy shots if he tries to get too aggressive on the feet. While Smith has famously been tough throughout his career, that does come at a cost. He has taken 774 head strikes in his UFC career, fourth among active light-heavyweights. If he takes just 17 more in this fight, he’ll take over second place on that unfortunate list, behind only Mauricio Rua. That feels like a dangerous setup should he decide to go toe to toe with Crute.
This suggests Smith might opt for the ground game. However, Crute has proven to be the far more aggressive and dominant grappler. He spends two of every five minutes of fight time controlling opponents on the mat and already has two submission finishes in his short UFC career. Smith’s paltry takedown defense of just 50% is unlikely to stand up to the onslaught of Crute’s offensive wrestling, as he attempts more than one takedown for every minute he’s on his feet. Crute’s clinch control is also strong, and that could be a setup for more takedowns.
While the standup game looks more even, Crute’s youth, durability and power make him a threat if the fights stays there for long. And on the ground, Crute could have a big advantage in control time. As a justifiable favorite with multiple paths to victory, Crute is worth a price of -200 or even more.
Women’s strawweight title
Now back to the title fights. Of the three title challengers, the betting market is currently giving Rose Namajunas the best shot at an upset. Her odds have slowly crept from + 140 to + 170 and could conceivably go higher. But on paper, at least, this battle against Weili Zhang looks like a coin flip, making the price on Namajunas worth a small stab. Her boxing is excellent, and she’s a scrappy grappler.
Defending champion Zhang turned in a memorable and brutal striking performance against former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. And while statistically she’s strong on offense, her defense is much worse than Namajunas’. “Thug Rose” is also a stronger striker than some of Zhang’s previous opponents, meaning Zhang could get tested more than ever. It could be a very close fight, and that means dog or pass.
Women’s flyweight title
In the co-main event, Jessica Andrade moved up a weight class to earn a shot at “the Bullet,” Valentina Shevchenko. Andrade has always been a strong and aggressive fighter. But taking on a much larger veteran, one who has handled everyone she’s faced with the exception of women’s GOAT Amanda Nunes, is a tough step up.
The fighters have nearly identical wrestling and grappling metrics, which could cancel out and force a striking duel. The size difference should be noticeable, and that creates an uphill battle for Andrade against someone who is elite on the feet and on the ground. Shevchenko should pull off a decision, and she’s safe for parlays.
And finally, the main event is a rematch between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal. Usman’s price has climbed from -335 to -420 already with no signs of stopping. Apparently the betting market paid a lot of attention to the last fight between the two, even if Masvidal is ignoring it.
In their first fight, Usman did exactly what Usman does: He applied pressure and changed levels. In four rounds he spent several minutes in control, and that will likely be his plan again. The big question is whether Masvidal will do a better job defending takedowns with a longer training camp to buy him enough time to let his hands go.
In his last fight, Usman overcame some heavy shots from challenger Gilbert Burns, surviving to turn the tide and eventually finish Burns. But those moments at a distance suggest Usman’s days of invincibility could be numbered if he faces someone who can counter with power. Masvidal fits that profile, but his takedown defense doesn’t give him much time to work with. Masvidal can’t outwork or overpower Usman for five rounds, so his only real path to the upset is a sudden KO. That’s a hedge for anyone too exposed backing Usman.
Expect more of the same, even if Masvidal does find a few good moments. Usman should end up on the ground and on top, winning enough rounds to keep his title, and hopefully face a fresh face in Stephen Thompson for his next defense. If the steep odds on the final two fights aren’t worth playing, consider a parlay of Usman, Shevchenko and Namajunas-Zhang Over 1.5 Rounds for a nearly even return.