2021’s inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) pay-per-view hits the ESPN+ airwaves this Sat. night (Feb. 13, 2021) when undisputed welterweight champion Kamaru Usman looks for his third successful title defense against fellow Henri Hooft acolyte Gilbert Burns.
The five-fight main card will also see mixed martial arts (MMA) wunderkind Maycee Barber return from a gnarly knee injury against striking menace Alexa Grasso. Elsewhere in the lineup, Kelvin Gastelum attempts to halt a three-fight skid at Ian Heinisch’s expense, Andre Ewell looks to keep his winning streak alive against Chris Gutierrez, and Julian Marquez faces Maki Pitolo in what could be an absolute slobberknocker.
Our usual main card guy had to fake his own death after betting everything on the Chiefs last week, so I’m on duty once again. As always, you can find ourUFC 258 “Prelims” predictions here and here, the odds breakdown here, and Andrew Richardson’s artisanal analysis right here.
Let’s roll ...
170 lbs.: Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman (17-1) vs. Gilbert “Durinho” Burns (19-3)
Random, unasked-for factoid about me: I get genuinely sad when extremely promising fighters fail to live up to their potential. For a while there, it looked like that would be the case with Burns. Despite being built like a refrigerator and boasting heinous natural punching power alongside some of the best grappling credentials in the sport, “Durinho” hit a 3-3 skid that saw him outclassed on the feet by Rashid Magomedov, out-wrestled by Michel Prazeres, and knocked silly by Dan Hooker.
It’s been genuinely heartening to see him finally put it all together at Welterweight, and he’s certainly earned this title shot with dominant wins over tough customers like Gunnar Nelson, Demian Maia, and Tyron Woodley. Unfortunately, that just makes it all the more tragic that he’ll fall short.
Besides no longer having to shed the weight of an average-sized dog before fight night, Burns’ recent success has largely come due to embracing the grind. Newfound cardio and upgraded takedown prowess have turned him into a suffocating presence, even without the ludicrous size advantage he enjoyed at 155 pounds. That said, trying to suffocate Usman is a fool’s errand, as the champ’s enormous strength, superior wrestling pedigree, and bottomless gas tank allow him to take control of any grappling exchange.
That leaves Burns two options: crush Usman on the feet or pray Usman initiates takedowns of his own to attack submissions from the bottom. Neither are particularly feasible. Burns hits plenty hard, sure, but so have a lot of Usman’s victims, and it’s hard to get a good striking rhythm going against a guy who can smother you against the fence for several minutes at a time. Plus, Usman’s chin has yet to fail him, while Burns has been clipped on more than one occasion.
As far as Plan C, Burns isn’t as scary from his back as he is from the top. Prazeres found plenty of success grinding him out, and he’s far from the only one to put the Brazilian on his rear. If Usman decides drag Burns to the mat and burn some clock, there’s not much the latter can do about it.
Burns has the tools to decisively exploit the slightest opening, but the workmanlike Usman isn’t likely to give him many. Grinding clinch work and conservative top control defuse the explosive challenger and keep the champion atop the throne.
Prediction: Usman def. Burns via unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Maycee “The Future” Barber (8-1) vs. Alexa Grasso (12-3)
I’m not sure whether this matchmaking implies supreme confidence in Barber’s abilities or a desire on the UFC’s part to cash out. Grasso would be a handful even at the best of times; she’s had some rough losses and took a while to really get her footing in the Octagon, but recent efforts have finally revealed the high-octane boxing attack that brought her so much success in Invicta. Though rapidly improving, Barber still relies more on tenacity that technical proficiency to get things done on the feet, which just won’t cut it here.
Barber’s key to victory, then, lies in her destructive ground-and-pound, as Grasso’s ground game has failed her in the past. She’ll have to actually put Grasso on her back to use it, however, and that’s far more easily said than done. That “persistence over technique” approach applies to her wrestling as well, and considering the sorts of difficulties one of the division’s best takedown artists in Carla Esparza had when trying to take Grasso down and keep her there, that bodes ill.
This matchup is a referendum on what, if any, improvements Barber’s made during her time on the shelf; if the one we’ve seen so far in the Octagon shows up, Grasso will shut down her wrestling and eat her alive on the feet. We’ve seen Barber dramatically improve her game in short periods of time before, like when she went from struggling with JJ Aldrich to obliterating Gillian Robertson, but extrapolation is a dangerous game. Whether or not Barber’s knee is fully recovered, Grasso boxes her up for a wide decision.
Prediction: Grasso def. Barber via unanimous decision
185 lbs.: Kelvin Gastelum (16-6) vs. Ian “The Hurricane” Heinisch (14-3)
A three-fight losing streak is a three-fight losing streak, but is it crazy to say that Gastelum’s current skid isn’t particularly damning? Lengthy, skilled strikers like Israel Adesanya and Darren Till were always going to give him issues, and while getting instantaneously heel hooked is always a bad look, Jack Hermansson is a top-10 middleweight with the skills to tap black belts, so it’s not like Gastelum’s suddenly a chump or anything.
If he can’t beat Heinisch, on the other hand, then it’s time to worry.
That’s not meant to demean Heinisch’s abilities, of course; he’s a solid wrestler with a great gas tank and some sneaky power in his hands. He’s just the sort of fighter Gastelum, who’s the far sharper boxer of the two, should be able to defeat at this stage. Heinisch doesn’t have time to properly put the pace on Gastelum in a three-round firefight, hypothetically leaving him at the mercy of a superior striking technician without an ace up his sleeve.
As long as Gastelum can keep it on the feet, this is his fight to lose. That is, of course, far from a given; he’s the naturally smaller man and Heinisch regularly racks up double-digit takedown attempts. “Hurricane” isn’t particularly adept at finishing those takedowns, though, and he’ll spend every moment in between getting boxed up.
If Gastelum hasn’t genuinely lost a step, he’s got the skills to punch through Heinisch’s heavy swings and shut down any attempts at turning it into a slog. He leans on heavy combinations to get back in the win column.
Prediction: Gastelum def. Heinisch via unanimous decision
140 lbs.: Andre Ewell (17-6) vs. Chris Gutierrez (15-3-2)
This last-minute matchup, which replaces Pedro Munhoz vs. Jimmie Rivera on the main card, was originally a Prelim, and as such I wrote it up in that format. As someone who promotes reuse and recycling, it would be hypocritical of me to redo it, so enjoy.
Ewell kicked off his Octagon career with a short-notice upset of Renan Barao, only to lose two of his next three to Nathaniel Wood and Marlon Vera. He enters the cage this Saturday having won two straight, however, taking competitive decisions over Jonathan Martinez and Irwin Rivera in 2020. Though the shorter man by an inch, he’ll enjoy an eight-inch reach advantage.
Gutierrez had the misfortune of facing Raoni Barcelos in his inaugural Octagon appearance, but got back on track with decisions over Ryan MacDonald and Geraldo de Freitas alongside a brutal leg kick finish of Vince Morales. He had to settle for a draw last time out, surviving a 10-8 first round to dominate Cody Durden on the feet and even up the scores. He’s knocked out seven opponents and submitted one other.
Awful kind of the UFC matchmakers to finally let these two show their stuff without fear of takedowns. This figures to be a pure striking battle between the offbeat dynamism of Ewell and the vicious kicking game of Gutierrez, one that figures to go poorly for “Mr. Highlight.”
Speaking as a genuine fan of Ewell’s, his flash belies an apparent inability to really take over a kickboxing match, and he really can’t afford to let Gutierrez get settled and start teeing off on his leg; once that movement goes, he’s mincemeat against a more technically sound and destructive striker. Ewell might find some early success with lengthy punching flurries, but Gutierrez’s debilitating attack will eventually get him to hold still long enough to really pour on the hurt.
Prediction: Gutierrez def. Ewell via third-round technical knockout
185 lbs.: Julian “The Cuban Missile Crisis” Marquez (7-2) vs. Maki “Coconut Bombz” Pitolo (13-7)
I had high praise for Pitolo’s offensive prowess in my 2019 New Blood writeup and still maintain that the guy can be an absolute menace when given room to operate. Unfortunately, it’s become clear that while he’s excellent as the hammer, he’s not much as the nail. Technically inferior but highly tenacious attackers like Callan Potter and Impa Kasanganay managed to overwhelm him on the feet, and those descriptors certainly fit Marquez.
Between his limited reach and relatively basic kickboxing, Marquez is nobody’s idea of an elite striker, but a ludicrously durable chin and consistent refusal to take a step back make him extremely difficult to dissuade from his pursuit. If Pitolo were able to control the tempo, consistently get Marquez to the fence, and really let his combinations and body work go, he’d take “The Cuban Missile Crisis” apart. Marquez is just too damn hard-headed, literally and figuratively, to let that happen.
To his credit, Pitolo does have a couple things going for him, namely Marquez’s 2.5-year layoff and underwhelming ground game. Though I don’t have any way to refute or minimize the former, I can say that Pitolo’s wrestling hasn’t been particularly effective in the Octagon and that Marquez’s front chokes could very well give “Coconut Bombz” pause after Darren Stewart caught him in one last year.
There are a lot of question marks in this one, but Marquez’s ostensible ability to exploit the same weaknesses that have sunk Pitolo before have me leaning his way. Marquez returns with a bang, setting the pace and steadily overwhelming Pitolo for a late finish or wide decision.
Prediction: Marquez def. Pitolo via unanimous decision
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 258 fight card on fight night, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC 258: “Usman vs. Burns” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.