UFC 261: Usman and Masvidal Look to Start New Era at Welterweight

Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal, UFC 261 face-off
Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal, UFC 261 face-off Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

Kamaru Usman has spent his entire championship reign testing his mettle against the division’s best, but MMA superstar Jorge Masvidal seeks redemption and revenge at UFC 261.

The gamesmanship of UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman is perhaps his most under-appreciated quality.  It is easy to step in when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  It is another to accept a change of opponents when you are already the defending champion and are taking all the risks.  But that is exactly what “The Nigerian Nightmare” did last summer in accepting a last minute change in opponents from Gilbert Burns to Jorge Masvidal.  He prevailed that night, and he is betting on himself again on Saturday in giving Masvidal another shot at the belt in order to give himself the biggest payday.

Keep in mind, this is a champion who is on one of the longest win-streaks in UFC history and has already added a solid trifecta of Masvidal, Colby Covington, and Gilbert Burns to his resume as title defenses.  That’s not to mention names like current top-ranked contender Leon Edwards, former champion Rafael dos Anjos, and former title challenger Demian Maia on his resume prior to winning the championship.  In a division loaded with talent, Usman stands head-and-shoulders above the competition with no signs of slowing down.  While there will be plenty left after Saturday, it would be disrespectful not to acknowledge the work he has already completed.

After nearly two decades as a professional, Jorge Masvidal has made it clear that he’s looking to get a return on his investment in the fight game.  At a time when his stock has never been higher and lucrative fights have been on the table, his gamble has paid off as he held out for the biggest fight possible to materialize.  The catch: he is now in a precarious situation.  A victory will indeed finish blowing open the doors to crossover stardom that he has been on the cusp of for over a year now.  A loss would be back-to-back failed attempts to wrest the belt from the current champion.  Furthermore, he’ll be left inactive with only two appearances in as many years.  Would it end the high demand to see him fight?  Absolutely not.  But very few fighters can survive such a skid without their drawing power taking a hit.

It would be remiss to not mention how Masvidal reached this point in the first place.  He has put on a masterclass in branding in the three last years, and combined it with several high profile victories.  His 2019 campaign that saw finishes of Darren Till, Ben Askren, and Nate Diaz to become one of the biggest stars in the UFC.  It has given him the power to call for an immediate rematch without the powers that be scoffing at the notion.  Already the owner of the silver BMF belt, an arrival at the summit on Saturday would be the culmination of one of the most grueling journeys in MMA.

The first fight proved what many knew before, and it has laid interesting intangibles out in the rematch.  For one, Usman was able to match the strength of Masvidal and keep him at the fence for the majority of the fight.  Secondly, Masvidal displayed an incredible advantage on the feet when he had space to work in the center of the Octagon.  Herein lies the question: Does the extended time to prepare for both men yield better results in the same areas?  With more time to prepare specifically for Masvidal, can Usman defend himself better on the feet and more effectively get him to the mat?  For Masvidal, can he avoid the grappling of Usman and do even more damage to score the finish that he appeared to miss by inches the first time.

A win for Usman is expected to lead to another rematch, this time against top contender Colby Covington.  A Masvidal victory is expected to yield more options, with Covington, the winner of Leon Edwards and Nate Diaz, Stephen Thompson, and potentially whomever he chooses.  Regardless, it is expected that the welterweight title picture will be no further to being sorted out in 2021 by years end than it is today.