KAMARU USMAN VS. JORGE MASVIDAL
Nine months after colliding on short notice, Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal meet for a second time with the welterweight title once again hanging in the balance, only this time, both the champion and challenger have had ample time to prepare.
Usman earned his third successful title defense earlier this year, steadying himself after getting wobbled early to secure a third-round stoppage win over his former teammate and training partner Gilbert Burns. Now a perfect 13-0 in the UFC — three back of tying Anderson Silva’s record for consecutive victories inside the Octagon — “The Nigerian Nightmare” sought out this second meeting with Masvidal in hopes of silencing his talkative rival once and for all.
Following a breakout campaign in 2019 where he registered the fastest knockout in UFC history and claimed the BMF title with a third-round stoppage win over Nathan Diaz at UFC 244, the 36-year-old veteran stepped in for Burns last summer at UFC 251, venturing to Fight Island to challenge for championship gold on a week’s notice. Though he came up short, Masvidal has remained ever confident that things would go differently if he had proper time to prepare, and now “Gamebred” gets the chance to back up those words.
The fact that Usman is making a quick return to the Octagon speaks to his commitment to being an active champion and his confidence not only against Masvidal, but in his skills as a whole, and gives him a chance to take an early lead in the Fighter of the Year race should he retain his title this weekend. For Miami’s Masvidal, this is the chance to finally capture the one thing that has eluded him throughout his career — a major championship — and further add to his legend.
ZHANG WEILI VS. ROSE NAMAJUNAS
The strawweight title is up for grabs as reigning champ Zhang Weili puts her belt and her 21-fight winning streak on the line against former titleholder Rose Namajunas in the penultimate fight of the night.
After blitzing her way to the top of the division with four victories in 13 months, Zhang used her lone appearance of 2020 to etch her name in the history books, combining with Joanna Jedrzejczyk to deliver arguably the greatest female fight of all-time at UFC 248, landing on the happy side of the split decision verdict to retain her title. The powerful Chinese champion had a fractured training camp for that fight and still was able to rise to the occasion in the deciding fifth frame, so it will be interesting to see what she brings to the table this weekend following a much more stable training camp.
Namajunas returned for the first time since losing her title last summer, running it back with Jessica Andrade and walking away with a split decision victory to establish herself as the No. 1 contender in the 115-pound weight class. This is a quicker return to action than the 28-year-old has made in recent years, which speaks to her level of focus and desire to return to the top of the division.
Can the current champion continue her reign, or will the former titleholder halt her lengthy winning streak and begin her second stint sitting on the strawweight throne?
VALENTINA SHEVCHENKO VS. JESSICA ANDRADE
The first of the three title fights slated to close the show at UFC 261 takes place in the flyweight division, as Valentina Shevchenko looks to earn her fifth consecutive successful title defense as she takes on former strawweight queen Jessica Andrade.
Shevchenko has been so dominant in her flyweight career that losing a round to Jennifer Maia last November at UFC 255 prompted observers to begin questioning if the pack of contenders were starting to close the gap on the champion. Now fully recovered from the knee injury that delayed her second appearance of 2020, “Bullet” will look to quiet any talk of her ceding ground to her challengers by extending her winning streak to seven with a victory over Andrade on Saturday.
After rallying but coming up short in her rematch against Namajunas in July, Andrade moved up a division in October and made an instant impression, stopping former title challenger and divisional mainstay Katlyn Chookagian with a hellacious body blow late in the first round. Now the 29-year-old Brazilian looks to add to her impressive resume by becoming the second female fighter to win championship gold in two weight classes.
This is the matchup everyone has been waiting for since Andrade announced her move to flyweight, and her efforts against Chookagian only upped the ante. Both of these women are elite competitors, but with very different styles and approaches, and how this one plays out is sure to have a lasting impact on their respective legacies and determining where they stand in the pantheon of all-time greats.
URIAH HALL VS. CHRIS WEIDMAN
More than a decade after their first meeting and a couple months removed from when they were initially set to run it back, veteran middleweights Uriah Hall and Chris Weidman will finally face off a second time in the final non-title fight of this weekend’s pay-per-view main card.
Hall comes into UFC 261 on arguably the best run of his UFC career, having earned three straight victories, capped by an emotional fourth-round stoppage victory over Anderson Silva last Halloween. The former Ultimate Fighter finalist has found a home at Fortis MMA in Dallas, and if he can continue his current run of success with a win over Weidman, the 36-year-old could put himself on the short list of potential title challengers in the 185-pound ranks heading into the second half of the year.
Weidman snapped a two-fight skid last summer with a unanimous decision victory over Omari Akhmedov following a one-off appearance at light heavyweight. The former middleweight titleholder is just 2-5 over his last seven fights dating back to his loss to Luke Rockhold, but believes his move to South Carolina will serve as a catalyst for a return to championship form.
This matchup comes together at the exact right time for each man, as this pairing represents the precise type of victory both Hall and Weidman need in order to solidify their place in the division and take another step forward in pursuit of title contention.
ANTHONY SMITH VS. JIMMY CRUTE
Saturday’s main card slate begins in the 205-pound weight class as former title challenger Anthony Smith squares off with Jimmy Crute in a fight that should be all-action from the outset.
The former title challenger Smith suffered consecutive losses to Glover Teixeira and Aleksandar Rakic to begin his 2020 campaign, prompting some introspection from the thoughtful, 50-fight veteran. He returned to the Octagon in late November, registering a first-round submission win over Devin Clark, and looks to build on that momentum here by halting the rise of the Australian contender.
A member of the Contender Series Class of ’18, Crute has earned four wins and four stoppages in five UFC starts thus far, rebounding from his first career loss in September 2019 with consecutive first-round finishes over Michal Oleksiejczuk and Modestas Bukauskas. Widely regarded as one of the top young talents on the UFC roster, the 25-year-old has a chance to catapult himself into the title conversation with a victory over Smith on Saturday.
Smith and Crute have 46 career victories between them, 40 of them coming by way of stoppage, while 14 of their combined 17 career setbacks have occurred inside the distance as well. Each is “must-see TV” on their own, and combined, they make for a killer start to what should be an explosive and exhilarating pay-per-view on Saturday night.
ALEX OLIVEIRA VS. RANDY BROWN
Welterweights close out the prelims as veteran stalwart Alex Oliveira makes his 20th trip into the Octagon in a clash with “Rudeboy” Randy Brown.
Oliveira has been a constant presence in the middle of the 170-pound weight class for the majority of his UFC tenure, serving as a reliable litmus test for all those looking to climb the ranks and ascend towards the Top 15. The 33-year-old Brazilian made three appearances in 2020, earning victories over Max Griffin and Peter Sobotta before getting submitted by newcomer Shavkat Rakhmonov at UFC 254.
Now in his sixth year on the UFC roster, Brown has developed a reputation as a consistently entertaining fighter while amassing a 6-4 record inside the Octagon, including wins over Bryan Barberena and Warlley Alves. The 30-year-old Queens native has faced quality competition throughout his run and if he can get back into the win column with a victory over Oliveira on Saturday, it will set him up to make a run at the Top 15 in the second half of the year.
DWIGHT GRANT VS. STEFAN SEKULIC
Dwight Grant and Stefan Sekulic meet in this clash of welterweights looking to get back into the win column in their first appearance of 2021.
The 36-year-old Grant has been limited to just four appearances since graduating from the Contender Series in the spring of 2018, sandwiching victories over Carlo Pedersoli Jr. and Alan Jouban between losses to Zak Ottow and Daniel Rodriguez. This will be his second appearance since joining forces with the Alliance MMA crew in San Diego, so it will be interesting to see what improvements and adjustments “The Body Snatcher” and his team have made with another eight months of working together ahead of this weekend’s contest.
Sekulic made his promotional debut all the way back in September 2018, dropping a unanimous decision to Ramazan Emeev on short notice in Moscow. The 29-year-old Serbian finally returns to action this weekend, eager to recapture the form that eight victories in nine fights and an 11-2 record overall prior to signing with the UFC.
KARL ROBERSON VS. BRENDAN ALLEN
It’s a battle of entertaining middleweight finishers and Contender Series graduates as Karl Roberson and Brendan Allen square off on the preliminary portion of this weekend’s fight card.
Roberson, who earned his place on the UFC roster with a 15-second knockout of Top 10 light heavyweight Ryan Spann on the third episode of the annual talent search, had his tidy two-fight winning streak snapped by middleweight contender Marvin Vettori last time out. Now 4-3 inside the Octagon, the former kickboxer hopes to avoid the first two-fight skid of his career as he returns to action against Allen.
Now training out of Sanford MMA in South Florida, the 25-year-old Allen had his seven-fight winning streak snapped last time out in a short-notice, catchweight clash with Sean Strickland. After starting his UFC run with consecutive victories over Kevin Holland, Tom Breese, and Kyle Daukaus, “All In” will be looking to re-establish himself as a rising star in the middleweight division with a return to the win column here.
PATRICK SABATINI VS. TRISTAN CONNELLY
Newcomer Patrick Sabatini welcomes Canadian veteran Tristan Connelly back to the cage and into the featherweight division in this intriguing pairing that kicks off Saturday’s televised prelims.
The 30-year-old Sabatini was slated to make his debut towards the end of February, only to have his opponent, Rafael Alves, miss weight by a staggering 11.5 pounds, resulting in the fight being cancelled. A two-time CFFC featherweight champion, Sabatini carries a 13-3 record with 11 finishes into his first UFC appearance this weekend.
A pro since 2010, Connelly made his UFC debut at home in Vancouver in September 2019 and made the most of it, registering an upset win and Fight of the Night honors in a welterweight clash with Michel Pereira. Fully healed following neck surgery, “Boondock” now drops down two divisions to compete at featherweight for the first time in more than five years as he looks to extend his overall winning streak to six.
DANAA BATGEREL VS. KEVIN NATIVIDAD
The bantamweight division has yielded the second-highest finishing rate in the UFC so far this year and this pairing between Danaa Batgerel and Kevin Natividad has the potential to add to those totals this weekend.
The 31-year-old Batgerel registered his first UFC victory last March when he lit up veteran Guido Cannetti with a left hook three-minutes and a tick into the opening round of their UFC 248 encounter. Currently training with the team at Jackson Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it will be interesting to see what kind of development “Storm” can show as he makes the walk to the Octagon for the third time this weekend.
UFC 261 FREE FIGHTS: Jessica Andrade vs Katlyn Chookagian | Rose Namajunas vs Joanna Jedrzejczyk 1 | Zhang Weili vs Jessica Aguilar | Kamaru Usman vs Gilbert Burns | Valentina Shevchenko vs Jennifer Maia | Jorge Masvidal vs Donald Cerrone
Called into UFC duty for the first time last fall, Natividad had his debut delayed, and when he did finally make his first foray into the Octagon on Halloween, he landed on the business end of a third-round uppercut finish against Miles John. Now the 28-year-old looks to recapture the form that produced five straight wins ahead of his UFC call-up as he squares off with Batgerel on Saturday.
There have been a dozen stoppages through 17 bantamweight fights thus far in 2021, while Batgerel and Natividad have a dozen finishes from a combined 17 wins, so there is a high probability that this one ends inside the distance, and it’s almost guaranteed to be exciting for as long as it lasts.
KAZULA VARGAS VS. RONGZHU
Mexican veteran Kazula Vargas looks to snap a two-fight skid as he welcomes Chinese prospect Rongzhu to the UFC.
The 35-year-old Vargas won seven of his last eight fights prior to arriving in the UFC, including wins over current UFC middleweight Jordan Williams and seven-time UFC competitor Mike De La Torre, but has suffered setbacks in each of his first two trips into the Octagon thus far. After dropping a decision to Alex da Silva in his debut, Vargas lost his sophomore appearance by disqualification after hitting Brok Weaver with an illegal knee.
The 21-year-old Rongzhu arrives in the UFC with a 17-3 record and having won 10 straight under the WLF banner. Like his countryman Sumudaerji, Rongzhu has garnered a ton of experience at an early age and now looks to parlay that into immediate success at the highest level in the sport.
One of these men will leave Las Vegas with their first UFC victory in hand, but will it be the seasoned veteran or the promising newcomer?
UFC 261 Embedded: Episode 1
UFC 261 Embedded: Episode 1
AORIQILENG VS. JEFF MOLINA
It’s a battle of newcomers in the bantamweight division as Aoriqileng and Jeff Molina share the Octagon on Saturday night.
Aoriqileng went the distance with current flyweight contender Kai Kara-France in 2017 and has won 10 of 12 since, including six straight heading into his debut this weekend. Training out of the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai, the 27-year-old from Inner Mongolia has earned four stoppages during his current winning streak and is a wild card addition to the 135-pound ranks.
A member of the Glory MMA & Fitness crew from Missouri, Molina earned his way onto the roster with a unanimous decision win over Jacob Silva last summer on the Contender Series. He’s won seven straight after starting his career with a 1-2 record, earning six straight finishes prior to his appearance in the APEX back in August.
The bantamweight division has become one of the most active, competitive, and deep weight classes in the organization and it will be interesting to track how these two newcomers progress following their debut clash this weekend.
LIANG NA VS. ARIANE CARNELOSSI
Chinese newcomer Liang Na looks for her fifth consecutive victory as she takes on Brazil’s Ariane Carnelossi.
“Dragon Girl” is a 24-year-old finisher, brandishing a 15-4 record with all 15 of her victories coming inside the distance. Of her four losses, three have come against established international names, including fellow UFC fighters Liliya Shakirova and Mariya Agapova, as well as Bellator flyweight champ Juliana Velasquez.
Carnelosi made her promotional debut in September 2019, suffering a third-round stoppage loss against Angela Hill, and she’s been champing at the bit to get back into the Octagon ever since. Prior to her debut, “Sorriso” had won a dozen consecutive contests, including a victory over Contender Series grad Gloria de Paula, and she’ll look to get back to that winning form as she welcomes Liang to the UFC.