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UFC 261 predictions, preview, and analysis

UFC 239: Open Workouts Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to the pay-per-view (PPV) market — and to live crowds — with the UFC 261: “Usman vs. Masvidal 2” fight card this Sat. night (April 24, 2021) inside VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., with “Prelims” on both ESPN and ESPN+.

The championship tripleheader will be topped by the welterweight rematch between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal. “The Nigerian Nightmare” already beat back “Gamebred” by way of unanimous decision at UFC 251, but Masvidal somehow managed to convince the promotion that a full training camp will make a demonstrable difference.

We shall see.

Before that 170-pound do-over gets underway, UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko will look to continue her dominance against ex-strawweight champion Jessica Andrade. “Bate Estaca” stopped Rose Namajunas for the 115-pound strap but then lost it to Chinese juggernaut Zhang Weili.

Weili will now defend that title against the resurgent “Thug” on the UFC 261 main card.

Before we break down tomorrow night’s action, go ahead and take a look at what MMA whiz kid Patrick Stumberg had to say about the preliminary bouts, spread across the ESPN and ESPN+ networks by clicking here and here. Latest UFC 261 odds and a complete betting guide for all the “Usman vs. Masvidal 2” action can be located here.

Let’s (expletive) go!

170 lbs.: UFC Welterweight Champion Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman (18-1) vs. Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal (35-14)

Jorge Masvidal has been getting a lot of credit for conning UFC into granting him an immediate rematch, especially when the right fight for “Gamebred” was top contender Colby Covington, who is also coming off a loss to welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. But Masvidal probably didn’t have to campaign very hard when you consider his first go-round with “The Nigerian Nightmare” helped propel UFC 251 to more than a million PPV buys. In addition, Covington only wants to fight for the title and UFC hates Leon Edwards, so with Gilbert Burns getting whooped at UFC 258, there weren’t many obstacles in Masvidal’s path.

Apathy notwithstanding.

The talking point ahead of this five-round rerun is how Masvidal performed below expectations because he took the fight on just a few days notice, yet has failed to explain how a full camp — roughly six-to-eight weeks — is going to prevent him from getting taken down five times, like he was at UFC 251. Remember, “Gamebred” turns 37 in November and has 49 professional fights (and countless smokers) to his name ... am I supposed to believe another two months in the gym will magically grant him the power to pull the sword from the proverbial stone? He didn’t completely gas, he wasn’t rusty, his timing wasn’t out of whack, Usman is just a bad matchup for Masvidal — and most other fighters in the 170-pound division.

Besides, there’s a reason Masvidal has 14 career losses.

On the flip side of that coin, trying to get into a firefight with Masvidal is like trying to get into a wrestling match Usman, which is why “Gamebred” has been able to bust up similarly-styled foes like Donald Cerrone and Nate Diaz, among others. Usman is a wrestler first and a mixed martial artist second and won’t be standing in the pocket to prove his manhood or pick up a couple of more fans. Don’t forget that “The Nigerian Nightmare” also had a measly six days to prepare for UFC 251 after spending the entirety of his camp training for Burns. That’s why fans were forced to endure 25-minutes of foot stomps, wrestling, wall-and-stall, etc., and to be honest, I doubt we’ll see anything different on Sat. night.

And no, Usman isn’t running head first into any flying knees.

There’s not much Masvidal can do in camp to neutralize the champion’s strength, speed, and endurance, and there’s no reason to suggest the UFC 261 main event will end in favor of the challenger. That’s less of a knock on Masvidal and more of a testament to how dominant Usman has been (and will likely continue to be). His jab looked exceptional against Burns and he showed a champion’s heart, overcoming adversity and adjusting his gameplan to secure a path to victory. Masvidal may have a strong opening round, but once Usman settles into second gear it’s going to be a very long night for “Gamebred.”

Final prediction: Usman def. Masvidal by unanimous decision

125 lbs.: UFC Flyweight Champion Valentina “Bullet” Shevchenko (20-3) vs. Jessica “Bate Estaca” Andrade (21-8)

Jessica Andrade is like the Tasmanian devil inside the cage with her frenetic pace and punches in bunches. That kind of style can often overwhelm fighters with weak chins or perhaps those who struggle with composure, but crafty veterans and fighters with a champion’s mentality know how to weather the storm or in some cases, neutralize it altogether. “Bate Estaca” is currently competing in her third weight class and no fighter changes divisions that many times without good reason and well, Andrade does have eight losses, two of which came in her last three fights. That doesn’t make her any less of a threat, I just can’t see how this fight doesn't play out like her Joanna Jedrzejczyk loss at UFC 211, where the Brazilian spent 25 minutes running in circles getting pieced up by the superior striker.

Then again, maybe you’ll pick Andrade if you listened to the commentary team at UFC 255 last November, when Valentina Shevchenko lost every round to Jennifer Maia by a score of 10-8. Perhaps that’s the price of domination, something Jon Jones learned later in his career, because fighting smart or refusing to engage your opponent where they are the strongest means you’re losing, at least by today’s standards. There are no superlatives I can use to describe Shevchenko that we haven't already heard ad nauseam, thanks to her exceptional striking and underrated jiu-jitsu. If Amanda Nunes wasn’t a bantamweight, it stands to reason that “Bullet” would be a two-division champion right now, especially when you consider “Lioness” nearly lost to Shevchenko at UFC 215.

If we look at the numbers, Andrade is at a disadvantage like she is in most fights, but her four-inch height and reach disadvantages are even more perilous for this bout because she is facing one of the most lethal strikers in all of MMA. Shevchenko also boasts a takedown defense of 75%, so you can forget about those double-digit numbers “Bate Estaca” was racking up against another striker in the form of Tecia Torres. And while we’re talking about the ground game, Nunes is the only fighter to outwrestle Shevchenko in 11 trips to the Octagon. Unless “Bullet” fires and misses and gets caught in some early blitzkrieg, I just don’t see a path to victory for the Brazilian. The champ is just too dominant, too dialed in, and already proven successful against fighters who are far superior to Andrade.

Final prediction: Shevchenko def. Andrade by technical knockout

115 lbs.: UFC Strawweight Champion Zhang “Magnum” Weili (21-1) vs. “Thug” Rose Namajunas (9-4)

The way people talk about Zhang Weili it’s easy to forget “Magnum” has only registered five fights under the UFC banner, two of them with the 115-pound belt on the line. There were more than a couple of eye rolls when promotion president Dana White announced Weili — then ranked No. 7 — would be getting a title shot against Jessica Andrade at the UFC event in Shenzen. It turned out to be the right call as the hometown hero summarily destroyed “Bate Estaca” and beat the Brazilian at her own game, using a first-round bum rush to overwhelm the former bantamweight and pound her way to victory. What followed was her toughest opponent to date in Joanna Jedrzejczyk, a sensational five-round battle that established Weili as legitimate champion and not just an opportunistic bruiser. That’s what makes her the pick for this weekend’s title fight. Not to suggest Rose Namajunas is illegitimate, she’s already proved her mettle, we just needed to see more from the current champ after such a brief run through the strawweight ranks — and we did.

Namajunas has been competing for UFC twice as long and has twice as many fights as Weili, but her output has slowed to a near halt over the last three years. “Thug” has seen action just twice since her second win over Jedrzejczyk, splitting a pair of fights with Andrade, though no belt was on the line in their summer 2020 rematch. Many fans had that do-over on their “Fight of the Year” list and for good reason, but the amount of abuse Namajunas absorbed was troubling, especially when you consider the fact that Andrade was only 34% accurate and started to gas in the second half of the fight. Weili is just as aggressive as “Bate Estaca” but can maintain that pace for 25 minutes without compromising her precision. Remember, “Magnum” was actually more accurate in the championship rounds against Jedrzejczyk, though I’m sure it helped her target was a bloody beach ball growing from her opponent’s head.

Namajunas is ranked No. 1 in the division and for good reason. I think Weili understands that every charge will come at a price. “Thug” has great Muay Thai and a sneaky right hand, good enough to put Jedrzejczyk on her ass. Much has been made about her mental state — mostly by her — though I haven’t seen any evidence of how those lingering issues hinder her inside the cage, likely due to the adrenaline of being in a fist fight. Make no mistake about it, this is going to be a very difficult fight for the champion. The reason I’m picking her, assuming she doesn’t bully her way right into a Namajunas submission, is because of her insane output and power advantage. Namajunas is going to be able to counter fairly effectively early on and may even steal the first round or two, which will no doubt have the cageside commentary team creaming themselves. But once those significant strikes start to accumulate and “Magnum” finds a home for her power shots, Namajunas is going to get betrayed by her own body. A late stoppage would not surprise me.

Final prediction: Weili def. Namajunas by technical knockout

185 lbs.: Chris “All American” Weidman (15-5) vs. Uriah “Prime Time” Hall (16-9)

When I heard that Uriah Hall was getting a rematch against Chris Weidman, the first thing that came to mind was Tito Ortiz getting his rematch against Chuck Liddell. Hall didn’t get better than Weidman since they first went to war for Ring of Combat back in late 2010, he simply waited for the “All American” to fall apart. I know fans point to the Luke Rockhold drubbing as the turning point that ruined Weidman’s career, but I think getting his brains scrambled by Yoel Romero in his very next fight was the real killer. Either way, it’s been tough to watch the former 185-pound champion and no, I’m not marching in the “career turnaround” parade simply because Weidman scored a decision over Omari Akhmedov, a former welterweight. Let's face it, when an opponent lands clean, Weidman doesn’t get stunned and instinctively curl into the fetal position, he goes completely stiff like a sniper just took him out from the luxury box. That's a clear message from his body that he’s no longer cut out for hand-to-hand combat and he’s now facing a dynamic, accurate striker.

Hall was supposed to be the next big thing after scoring a handful of sensational knockouts on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 17, only to come up short in the finale when Kelvin Gastelum fearlessly charged forward and fought his own fight. That’s really the story of “Prime Time’s” career. Well, that and a near-fatal weight cut. If you give him some room to work, he looks like a world beater. Put him under pressure and close the distance and he’s lost at sea. After losing four of five, Hall went on to win three straight with two knockouts against opponents who are no longer employed by UFC. Anybody getting excited over his finish of Anderson Silva? Going yard in batting practice looks great in Tik Tok videos, but it’s what you do in the game that counts. So far, all I’ve seen is a flashy striker with great timing ... and not much else. Hall holds 10 victories inside the Octagon and only two of those opponents are still signed to the promotion and yet somehow we still have to pick Hall over Weidman.

Antonio Carlos Junior landed three takedowns against Hall and Weidman is a far superior wrestler. Unfortunately for “All American” fans, Weidman is still talking about winning world titles so he clearly doesn’t understand that his career is on life support and as a result, probably won’t perform that way. In the old days, Weidman could cover up and absorb the blitzkrieg before firing back some of his own, like he did with Vitor Belfort. Or he would simply walk through the spinning shit and rattle off right hands until his opponent was backed against the cage. It worked against Hall in their first fight and if Weidman wasn’t a middleweight house of cards, it would probably work in this fight, too. This, however, is not a trip down memory lane or a visit to fantasy land, it’s a predictions post, and I predict Weidman will charge out of the gate thinking he’s the same fighter who ran the table a decade ago, only to get clipped and slept by a “Prime Time” head kick.

Final prediction: Hall def. Weidman by technical knockout

205 lbs.: Jimmy “The Brute” Crute (12-1) vs. Anthony “Lionheart” Smith (34-16)

It’s been hard to get a read on where Anthony Smith sits in the light heavyweight division because so much of his career has been built on fighters who are either old (Mauricio Rua), shot (Rashad Evans), or in the midst of a career collapse (Alexander Gustafsson). Right now, the best thing we can say about “Lionheart,” who turns 33 in July, is that he wasn’t finished by Jon Jones when “Bones” started mailing it in a few years back. I thought Smith might be done after getting smashed by Glover Teixeira, which was followed by a lackluster loss to Aleksander Rakic, but a first-round submission win over the hot-and-cold Devin Clark — who remains unranked at 205 pounds — gave Smith a second lease on his combat sports life.

Standing in his way will be Jimmy Crute, who is sitting comfortably at No. 12 in the latest rankings. I always get a laugh when I hear his nickname is “The Brute” while simultaneously hearing he trains out of “Stewie’s House of BJJ.” Anyway, the 25 year-old Aussie was pegged as the future of the division after scoring a violent finish on Dana White’s “Contender Series” back in summer 2018. Crute went on to win four of his next five, with a slick submission loss to crafty veteran Misha Cirkunov the only blemish on his 12-1 record. Heading into this fight “The Brute” boasts back-to-back wins over Michal Oleksiejczuk and Modestas Bukauskas, both of which ended in the opening frame. Not exactly household names, but the sort of competition you would expect Crute to be facing at this stage of his career.

Whether or not you consider Smith a step up in competition may depend on how formidable you find “Lionheart” after his recent struggles. I’m not sure his disposal of Clark didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know and it’s hard to overlook a record that sports 16 losses, 13 of which came by way of knockout or submission. Crute is a -200 favorite heading into their 205-pound affair and that’s probably an accurate reflection of where he stands compared to Smith. That said, one thing we can never do is close the book on the former middleweight, who has the kind of experience and determination to end the fight at a moment’s notice. Remember, Smith has scored a stoppage in 31 of his 34 wins, a staggering finishing rate that makes him a problem for any opponent, including Crute. Picking “The Brute” by destruction is the safe (and probably smart) pick, but something tells me the wily “Lionheart” is laying a trap that Crute will be too bloodthirsty to resist.

Final prediction: Smith def. Crute by submission 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 at 6 p.m. ET, followed by 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+.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 261: “Usman vs. Masvidal 2” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here. For the entire UFC 261 fight card and PPV line up click here.

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