Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to ESPN+ pay-per-view (PPV) with a vengeance this Saturday (April 24, 2021), bringing three title fights to VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
UFC 261’s main event sees Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman rematch rival Jorge Masvidal, who enters the fight with a full training camp after previously falling on short notice. In addition, all-action women’s Strawweight champ Zhang Weili takes on former titlist Rose Namajunas and Flyweight queenpin Valentina Shevchenko meets one-time Strawweight champion Jessica Andrade.
We’ve got nine “Prelims” undercard matches this time around, five on ESPN+/Fight Pass and four on ESPN+/ESPN. Let’s dig into that first batch ...
135 lbs.: Batgerel Danaa vs. Kevin Natividad
Mongolia’s Batgerel Danaa (8-2) — who defeated future UFC contender Kai Kara-France in his third professional fight — saw a three-fight win streak come to an end in an entertaining but unsuccessful Octagon debut against Alatengheili. His next effort proved quite a bit more successful, as he leveled The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): “Latin America” veteran Guido Cannetti with a vicious left hook.
He stands an inch taller than “Quicksand” at 5’7.”
Kevin Natividad (9-2) put together a five-fight win streak to earn a spot in the Octagon, knocking out three of his opponents in the process. Though a COVID-19 diagnosis scrapped a planned debut against Brian Kelleher, he made his first UFC walk a month later against Miles Johns, who knocked him out with an uppercut.
He has knocked out five pro foes and submitted one other.
This is a genuine sleeper contender for Fight of the Night, a clash between two close-quarters bruisers with enough wrestling chops to mix things up if needed. This will likely come down to durability, which seems to be on Batgerel’s side. Indeed, the Mongolian is as tough as they come, while Natividad is coming off a nasty knockout loss and once got stopped in nine seconds.
Natividad has a shot if he can consistently get his takedowns going, but Batgerel’s no slouch at keeping it standing, so Natividad will likely be forced to trade hands. Expect an absolute slugfest with an abrupt ending as Batgerel turns out the lights.
Prediction: Batgerel via second round technical knockout
155 lbs.: Rodrigo Vargas vs. Zhu Rong
Rodrigo Vargas (11-4) capped off a 7-1 run with an 18-second head kick knockout of UFC veteran Mike De La Torre to secure a place in the Octagon. “Kazula” continues to chase his first promotional victory, however, dropping a decision to Alex da Silva and illegally kneeing his way to a disqualification loss against Brok Weaver.
All but one of his pro wins have come inside the distance, seven by form of knockout.
China’s Zhu Rong (17-3) enters the cage this Saturday having won 10 straight since a 2018 loss to Guilherme Cadena. He last saw action in Jan. 2021, knocking out Bideliya for the ninth stoppage of his current streak.
He’ll enjoy three inches of height and a slight bit of reach on Vargas.
I tab Rongzhu as the most promising of the new Chinese signings — he’s remarkably polished and dangerous at just 21 years old. That said, this is far from a walkover, as his tendency to get backed against the fence seemingly opens the doors for Vargas’ takedowns. While Rongzhu has solid takedown defense and knows how to get up off his back, it’s not infeasible that Vargas could run out the clock with conservative top control.
That’s a pessimistic view, admittedly; however, at the end of the day, Rongzhu is still the far more dangerous striker and has the tools to shut down Vargas’ grappling offense. Rongzhu’s power and engine allow him to control an increasingly one-sided striking match as his sprawl-and-brawl breaks down Vargas.
Prediction: Rongzhu via unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Qileng Aori vs. Jeff Molina
Qileng Aori (18-6) enters the cage this Saturday having won 10 of his last 11 and avenged the lone defeat in that span. His current six-fight win streak also saw him claim the WLF W.A.R.S. Bantamweight title in 2019.
The “Mongolian Murderer” fights for the first time in 15 months.
Jeff Molina (8-2) went from 1-2 as a professional to 7-2 in the span of three years, resulting in a Contender Series opportunity against Fury FC champ Jacob Silva. Molina would up out-striking Silva over three impressive rounds to secure a UFC contract despite the lack of a finish.
“El Jefe” has submitted five professional foes and knocked out two others.
Unfortunately for my attempts at analysis, I couldn’t find any footage of Aori’s fights since 2018. Based on what I’ve seen, he looks like a stalking puncher with a habit of throwing from the hip, which should give the highly mobile Molina plenty of opportunities to land his counters. While Aori is the bigger hitter, his defensive lapses make it likely that Molina lands the more telling blows.
Aori could very well have made considerable strides these last few years, so writing him off is a bad idea, but the stylistic matchup is too far in Molina’s favor for me to pin my hopes on that possibility. In the end, Molina picks him apart at long range for a comfortable decision.
Prediction: Molina via unanimous decision
115 lbs.: Liang Na vs. Ariane Carnelossi
China’s Liang Na (15-4) ran into future standouts like Liliya Shakirova, Juliana Velasquez, and Mariya Agapova before putting together her current 6-1 run. She last saw action in Jan. 2021, catching countrywoman Liu Mengnan with the fifth armbar of her professional career.
Twelve of her 13 professional finishes came in the first round.
Ariane Carnelossi (12-2) put a debut loss to Amanda Ribas behind her with 12 consecutive wins, eight of them by form of knockout. Her efforts set up a UFC clash with Angela Hill, who defeated the Brazilian via cut stoppage.
This will be the first fight for “Sorriso” in 19 months.
Like Aori, I couldn’t find any fights of hers more recent than 2018, but Liang appears to be one of the most single-minded submission artists you’re likely to see in the modern era. She’ll shoot within seconds, even pulling guard if she has to, before chasing armbars, chokes, and heel hooks with reckless abandon. Unfortunately, her style has consistently fallen short against capable opponents, and the ultra-violent Carnelossi definitely fits the bill.
Liang surprising “Sorriso” with a quick-kill submission isn’t totally out of the question, but between Carnelossi’s power and takedown defense, she’s far likelier to get smashed on the feet or pounded out from guard while looking for armbars. Either way, Carnelossi polishes her off early.
Prediction: Carnelossi via first round technical knockout
135 lbs.: Jamey Simmons vs. Johnny Munoz Jr.
Jamey Simmons (7-3) — who’d won five of six coming in — made a three-week turnaround to face Giga Chikadze on short notice. Though bold, the move failed to pay off, as Chikadze puts him away with a head kick and ground-and-pound late in the first round.
He steps in for Mark Striegl on one month’s notice.
After nearly one year on the sidelines, Johnny Munoz Jr. (10-1) stepped up to fight Nate Maness on short notice in Aug. 2020. Though he managed to dominate the opening round on the mat, he ultimately ran out of steam, allowing Maness to turn the tables and walk away with the decision.
His pro finishes are split 6:2 between submissions and (technical) knockouts.
Simmons’ first UFC fight pitted him against a significantly larger and exponentially more seasoned striker. His second pits him against a world-class submission artist with some wrestling chops of his own.
Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail.
To Simmons’ credit, he’s fighting someone closer to his size this time and has a shot if Munoz’s cardio issues flair up again. Unfortunately for him, it’s unlikely this even lasts long enough for that to come up. In short, Munoz wraps up his neck in the opening round.
Prediction: Munoz via first-round submission
Four more UFC 261 undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including CFFC Featherweight champ Pat Sabatini’s UFC debut. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 261 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN2/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 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.
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