UFC 251: Usman and Masvidal’s Insane Road to Fight Island

UFC Fight Island
Fight Island. Photo: UFC

In the most anticipated event in many years, 2019 breakout star Jorge Masvidal is stepping in on six days notice to take on the dominant welterweight champion Kamaru Usman at UFC 251.

The fact that Jorge Masvidal is stepping in on six days notice to fly to Abu Dhabi and fight for the welterweight title on Saturday is perhaps one of the most incredible and improbable turns of events in MMA history.

In other words, it’s par for the course in 2020.

Masvidal’s rift with the UFC is well-documented by now.  The long-time veteran could not come to terms with the UFC in terms of pay after putting together a campaign that had many naming him the Fighter of the Year in 2019.  Despite great anticipation for the fight between himself and Usman, the two sides simply could not come to a deal and the promotion moved on to surging contender Gilbert Burns to headline the landmark “Fight Island” event.  As has also been well-chronicled, Burns ended up testing positive for COVID-19 prior to heading out to Las Vegas and Masvidal would soon be seen getting tested himself and igniting fan interest that he might be stepping in under the most unlikely of circumstances.  By Monday evening, Masvidal was on a flight to Yas Island and the most exciting welterweight match-up of 2020 was official.

A victory for “Gamebred” would cap off one of the most impressive career swings of the past decade.  A professional since 2003, Masvidal’s career has seen him do everything from fight in backyards alongside Kimbo Slice, compete for the Strikeforce lightweight title, headline the first ever Bellator event, to now being one of the most popular stars in the UFC.  All the more notable is that in 2018, Masvidal was on a two fight skid.  Unable to get a fight and coming off an injury that had him out of action more than a year, he was nowhere on the radar of title contenders in the welterweight division.  After a deep run on the Spanish language reality show Exatlon, Masvidal finally returned to stop former title challenger Darren Till in Liverpool and followed that up with the historic Knockout of the Year over Ben Askren in July.  Masvidal’s rebrand from fringe contender into the fan-favorite dubbed “Street Jesus” was completed last November when he defeated Nate Diaz for the one of a kind “Baddest Motherfucker” championship belt.

If Masvidal’s road to the title was full of setbacks and pitfalls, then Kamaru Usman’s has been a slow simmer until he finally popped with the best performances of his career.  Winning The Ultimate Fighter in 2015, Usman worked his way up the rankings with a nine fight win-streak in the UFC that saw him turn back opposition such as former champion Rafael dos Anjos, Leon Edwards, and Demian Maia.  In his tenth UFC fight, he finally challenged for UFC gold and claimed the title with a lopsided decision victory over longtime champion Tyron Woodley last March.  Finally after having built his resume for years in one of the deepest divisions in mixed martial arts, Usman had announced himself as arguably the top welterweight in the world.

But while claiming the title was a seminal moment, his stock grew by entering arguably the biggest grudge match of his career against the polarizing Colby Covington.  “Chaos” provided the perfect foil to the more soft-spoken Usman, and the fight ended up being one of the most anticipated of 2019.  The match-up itself delivered with the two trading blows for the entire fight before Usman finally stopped Covington late in the fifth.  Considering that Usman has already notched a victory over perennial contender Leon Edwards, Masvidal represents the last hurdle in clearing the previously established top contenders in the division in less than two years as champion.

Stylistically, an early blitz from Masvidal is predicted considering the short notice he had for the bout.  To his advantage, he is among the best strikers in the welterweight division and a battle on the feet has always favored him against Usman.  The key for the welterweight champion will be to work his way inside behind a disciplined defense.  While nothing would be sweeter than a quick finish, he has all the tools to drag the fight into deep waters where an exhausted Masvidal is expected to be far less of a threat.  Keep in mind, Masvidal has admitted as much that he has had to cut 20 pounds in one week prior to making it to Saturday’s contest.

An Usman victory would set the stage for two likely scenarios: A rescheduled match-up with Gilbert Burns or a rematch with top contender Leon Edwards.  A Masvidal victory would likely create even more opportunities considering his star power with names like Conor McGregor, Colby Covington, and the aforementioned Edwards and Burns all being in play.