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UFC 251: Fight By Fight

We Run Down The First Fight Island Extravaganza, Top To Bottom
KAMARU USMAN VS. JORGE MASVIDAL
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Champion Kamaru Usman searches for his second consecutive successful title defense as he puts the welterweight strap on the line against BMF titleholder Jorge Masvidal in a blockbuster championship clash that now serves as Saturday night’s main event.

Last year was a breakout campaign for Usman, who claimed the title with a dominant win over Tyron Woodley in March and followed it up by finishing Colby Covington late in the fifth round of their clash at UFC 245. The Nigeria native has now won 15 consecutive fights, including all 10 of his appearances inside the Octagon, and continues to show new wrinkles and previously unexposed depth to his repertoire with each contest.

The bout against Covington was particularly illuminating as Usman showed his toughness, heart, and tenacity in the midst of his first real back-and-forth battle since arriving in the UFC. Locked in a close fight heading into the final round, the champion pressed forward and put away the game challenger, silencing his critics and solidifying his place atop the division at the same time.

Masvidal, who jumped at the opportunity to replace Gilbert Burns when the streaking Brazilian was forced out of this weekend’s championship main event late last week, also had his breakout campaign in 2019.

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The 18-year veteran kicked off the year with a second-round knockout victory over Darren Till in London, followed it up with a five-second, flying-knee knockout of Ben Askren, and then wrapped the year up by claiming the BMF title in a one-sided beatdown of Nathan Diaz. On top of that, he introduced several new phrases into the MMA lexicon, including “three piece and a soda,” “super necessary,” and “Street Jesus.”

Besides the animosity between these two, what makes this matchup so compelling is the contrasting styles they bring to the cage. Usman is all about pressure and putting his opponents on the canvas, drowning them with takedowns, mat returns, and a pace that few are able to match. Conversely, Masvidal has traditionally been a counter fighter with exceptional takedown defense, though he’s been more aggressive with his striking as of late.

Each believes they are the best fighter in the world. Each sees the other as an imposter masquerading as an elite competitor. Each has a genuine dislike for the other.

Saturday night might not settle all their differences, but it will determine who will lead the way for the welterweight division in the second half of 2020 and beyond.

ALEXANDER VOLKANOVSKI VS. MAX HOLLOWAY
UFC 251: Volkanovski vs Holloway - Preview
UFC 251: Volkanovski vs Holloway - Preview
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Last December, right before Usman squared off with Covington and retained his welterweight title, Alexander Volkanovski walked into the Octagon and ended Max Holloway’s reign atop the featherweight division.

This weekend, right before Usman squares off with Burns, Volkanovski will walk into the Octagon aiming to maintain his place atop the 145-pound weight class as former champion Holloway looks to return the favor.

As he started climbing towards the top of the division, Volkanovski maintained he was a bad matchup for Holloway and that he would be the one to end his run as champion. That he did it was impressive enough, but how he did it is what really stood out.

Right from the jump, the Australian was on the attack, battering Holloway’s lead leg and pressing forward behind constant offensive output. He never gave the champion a moment to catch his breath or lead the dance, resulting in a unanimous decision win that pushed his UFC record to 8-0, his winning streak to 18, and made him the new UFC featherweight champion.

The loss was Holloway’s second of 2019 and his first in the 145-pound weight class since his August 2013 meeting with Conor McGregor, but by no means should anyone think for a minute that “Blessed” has suddenly fallen off. In between his failed bid to claim the interim lightweight title at UFC 236 and his loss to Volkanovski, the 28-year-old handily defeated Frankie Edgar at UFC 240, delivering a vintage Max Holloway performance built on clean, technical striking and the kind of pace and output that has suffocated a number of elite competitors over the years.

Now fueled by the desire to reclaim his title and place atop the division, don’t be surprised to see a more aggressive version of Holloway this time around; one who isn’t content on letting the Australian control the cage and initiate so many of the exchanges.

Holloway has already done the “immediate rematch” thing once before, replicating his UFC 212 victory over Jose Aldo with a similarly impressive showing six months later, while this is new territory for the new champion. It’s always difficult to forecast how a sequel will play out, but one thing that I can say with certainty is that like their first encounter, this one should be gripping from start to finish as well.

PETR YAN VS. JOSE ALDO

The third of this weekend’s three championship bouts takes place in the bantamweight division, where Russia’s Petr Yan battles Brazilian legend Jose Aldo for the vacant title.

Yan has been as good as advertised over the course of his first two years on the UFC roster, racking up a 6-0 record that includes victories over John Dodson, Jimmie Rivera, and Urijah Faber. He’s the type of fighter that prompts you to move to the edge of your seat the second he steps into the cage and keeps you there throughout by constantly pressing forward, wading into the fray with full confidence that he’s going to get the better of any exchange that transpires.

Aldo was initially scheduled to challenge Henry Cejudo for the bantamweight strap, but the COVID-19 lockdown dashed those plans, prompting Cejudo to face and defeat Dominick Cruz, and then exit stage left.

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It’s going to be interesting to see how this one plays out as Aldo is at his best when offering speedy counters and low kicks that halt his opponent’s advances, but letting Yan get off first could be a recipe for disaster.

Will the streaking Russian ascend to the throne in the thrilling bantamweight division or will the wily veteran become the eighth fighter in UFC history to earn championship gold in two different weight classes?

JESSICA ANDRADE VS. ROSE NAMAJUNAS
Free Fight: Andrade vs Namajunas
Free Fight: Andrade vs Namajunas
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The first non-title fight on the main card just so happens to be a rematch of a championship fight from last spring, one that saw Jessica Andrade end Rose Namajunas’ reign atop the strawweight division. After initially being slated to happen earlier this year, the highly-ranked women will finally run it back this weekend.

Andrade has competed just once since her first encounter with Namajunas and it lasted all of 42 seconds as she was bum-rushed by Zhang Weili the instant their championship clash began last August in Shenzhen, China. Just 112 days after experiencing the highest of professional highs, the Brazilian with big power was dealing with a whirlwind loss that had to have left her head spinning.

Now, close to a year after that setback, Andrade is back to renew acquaintances with Namajunas in a bout that could very well determine the next title challenger in the 115-pound weight class.

Saturday’s bout will be Namajunas’ first since her initial encounter with Andrade. While most people remember the high amplitude slam that ended their first meeting, Namajunas dominated the first round of her first meeting with Andrade, working behind a swift jab and sharp footwork, and actually successfully defending the challenger’s first attempt to hoist her into the air and send her crashing to the canvas.

The way that first bout at UFC 237 played out is the same thing that makes this rematch so intriguing, as Namajunas looked tremendous right up until the point where Andrade successfully navigated her way inside and looked to use her strength. The blueprint for success remains the same on both sides, as it will once again come down to who is able to dictate the terms of engagement.

AMANDA RIBAS VS. PAIGE VANZANT

Saturday’s pay-per-view kicks off in the flyweight division, as streaking rising star Amanda Ribas squares off with the returning Paige VanZant in a clash that is sure to set the tempo for the remainder of the main card.

The 26-year-old Ribas made her promotional debut at the end of June last year, dominating Emily Whitmire on the ground and forcing her to tap to a rear-naked choke two minutes into the second round. Since then, the Brazilian has added decision wins over Mackenzie Dern and Randa Markos to push her record to 9-1 overall and establish herself as one of the top emerging talents on the roster.

It’s been a long, frustrating couple of years for VanZant, who suffered a broken arm in her January 2018 loss to Jessica-Rose Clark, returned a year later to secure a submission win over Rachael Ostovich, but hasn’t fought since after dealing with further fractures to her arm. Still just 26 herself, VanZant is 2-2 since competing on Dancing with the Stars and 5-3 overall inside the Octagon, making this a crucial matchup as she looks to re-establish herself as a potential threat in the flyweight division.

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Not only is this an important bout for the returning VanZant, but it also should have an impact on the title chase in the 125-pound weight class. Given champion Valentina Shevchenko’s dominance and the wide open state of the rankings beyond the established contenders, the winner of this one could easily vault into the Top 10 with a dominant effort and position herself for a marquee assignment in the second half of 2020.

VOLKAN OEZDEMIR VS. JIRI PROCHAZKA

The final bout of this weekend’s preliminary card is a crackerjack of a fight in the light heavyweight division as former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir welcomes Jiri Prochazka to the UFC.

Oezdemir’s time in the Octagon has been a series of runs: he won three straight to earn a title shot; lost three straight, starting with said title shot, to make people question his place in the division; and has since rebounded with consecutive victories over Ilir Latifi and Aleksandar Rakic to solidify his place in the Top 10. Additionally, the 30-year-old from Switzerland is a great example of how quickly people forgot about the particulars of a fight and focus exclusively on the result, as the last of his three-straight setbacks was a highly debated split decision loss to Dominick Reyes last March.

How different would people feel about “No Time” if he were the first to defeat Reyes and entered Saturday’s bout on a three-fight winning streak?

Prochazka’s arrival is a moment hardcore fans have been waiting some time for, as the 27-year-old from the Czech Republic has been an absolute wrecking machine of late and one of the top fighters competing outside of the UFC for quite some time. He arrives in the promotion on a 10-fight winning streak and having won 15 of his last 16 appearances, including avenging that solitary defeat, with notable victories over Jake Heun, Mo Lawal, Fabio Maldonado, and CB Dollaway.

On paper, Prochazka looks like someone who could march into the Octagon on Saturday night and instantly establish himself as a title threat with a blistering effort against Oezdemir, which is what makes this such an amazing addition to this weekend’s card.

Will the established veteran hold his ground and turn back the newcomer or will Prochazka announce his presence with a statement victory in his promotional debut?

ELIZEU ZALESKI DOS SANTOS VS. MUSLIM SALIKHOV
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Every fight card has that one bout that flies a little under the radar with the masses, but real heads know it has legitimate Fight of the Night potential. This welterweight clash between Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and Muslim Salikhov is that fight at UFC 251.

Dos Santos had his seven-fight winning streak snapped last summer by Li Jingliang, but wasted little time getting back on track with a victory over Aleksei Kunchenko earlier this year. The Brazilian had scored three straight finishes prior to his loss to “The Leech” and is one of those unheralded talents whose earlier victories have aged really nicely.

The 36-year-old Salikhov lost his promotional debut towards the end of 2017, but has since rebounded with three straight victories, including registering two wins in seven weeks to close out last year. Known as “The King of Kung Fu,” the Wushu Sanda expert has devastating power and a wealth of experience, which combine to make him an intriguing figure on the fringes of the Top 15.

The welterweight division is always flush with talent, and breaking into the rankings is perpetually difficult, which is why fights like this carry far greater significance and importance than many often recognize. Both dos Santos and Salikhov have their sights set on greater opportunities later this year, and that should result in the fans being treated to a dynamite contest when they square off on Saturday night.

MAKWAN AMIRKHANI VS. DANNY HENRY

A pair of European featherweights get in on the action on Fight Island here as “Mr. Finland,” Makwan Amirkhani, faces off with Scotland’s Danny “The Hatchet” Henry.

Amirkhani split a pair of appearances in 2019, showcasing his grappling skills by submitting Chris Fishgold in his first bout of the year before starting quickly, fading hard, and ultimately getting finished by Shane Burgos at UFC 244 in November. The talented and charismatic 31-year-old is just 2-2 over his last four outings following a blistering 3-0 start to his UFC tenure, and needs a return to that early form if he hopes to avoid being swept under by the surging wave of talent currently ascending the featherweight ranks.

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Only making a single appearance each of the last three years has made it difficult for Henry to develop any momentum, but make no mistake about it — he’s an intriguing figure in the 145-pound weight class. After outworking Daniel Teymur in their Fight of the Night-winning joint UFC debuts in July 2017, the 31-year-old staggered, then submitted, Hakeem Dawodu in his sophomore showing before losing to Dan Ige in his lone fight of 2019.

The featherweight division has never been more flush with talent or more competitive than it is right now, so it is imperative for both Amirkhani and Henry to bounce back from their recent setbacks and start building positive momentum.

LEONARDO SANTOS VS. ROMAN BOGATOV

On a card that includes three title fights, a championship rematch and a couple other contests carrying obvious divisional significance, this lightweight pairing between Leonardo Santos and Roman Bogatov is one of the most intriguing of the bunch.

Santos is a 40-year-old Brazilian with outstanding jiu-jitsu and sneaky power in his hands. He’s completely unassuming, and because he’s fought sporadically over the last three-and-a-half years, it’s easy to forget that he’s undefeated in the UFC and riding a five-fight winning streak. This isn’t some “beat a bunch of guys no one remembers” run of success either, as Santos has bested Efrain Escudero, Anthony Rocco Martin, Kevin Lee, Adriano Martins, and Stevie Ray in consecutive bouts heading into Saturday’s event.

Unbeaten in 10 professional fights, the 29-year-old Bogatov makes his promotional debut after a three-fight run atop the lightweight division in M-1 Challenge. After winning the title by unanimous decision, Bogatov earned finishes in each of his two successful title defenses, most recently besting former UFC competitor Mickael Lebout last August.

Despite all his success, people can’t seem to stop casting Santos as an overachiever who seems to catch all of his opponents on bad nights, which makes him either the luckiest fighter on the roster (unlikely) or a dark horse to watch in the talent-rich lightweight division. While he arrives on Fight Island with a chance to further prove himself as a potential contender, Bogatov has the opportunity to end his decade-long undefeated streak and pick up a signature victory in his UFC debut.

MARCIN TYBURA VS. MAXIM GRISHIN
Marcin Tybura (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Marcin Tybura (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

Heavyweights hit the cage in this one as divisional staple Marcin Tybura welcomes newcomer Maxim Grishin to the Octagon for the first time.

A fixture in the division for the last five years, Tybura has been hit-and-miss during his first 10 UFC appearances, registering five wins and five losses. He’s looked very good in some instances, but struggled in others, including his 59-second loss to Augusto Sakai last fall in Vancouver. Tybura bounced back from that rapid defeat with a unanimous decision victory over Serghei Spivak earlier this year and heads into Saturday’s preliminary card pairing with the Russian new arrival searching for consecutive victories for the first time since 2017.

A pro since 2008, Grishin isn’t your typical UFC rookie, as the 36-year-old Russian will be making his 40th appearance when he steps into the Octagon this weekend in Abu Dhabi. He’s competed exclusively at light heavyweight for the last several years, including compiling a 4-0-2 record in six appearances under the PFL banner, but has the frame to handle fighting at heavyweight and even holds an early-career victory over current UFC contender Alexander Volkov.

Grishin is a well-rounded, seasoned fighter and precisely the type of experienced competitor who could use a short-notice opportunity like this to instantly establish himself as someone to watch in either the heavyweight or light heavyweight divisions going forward.

RAULIAN PAIVA VS. ZHALGAS ZHUMAGULOV

With a new flyweight champion to be determined later this month, everyone in the division is jockeying for position, including Brazilian prospect Raulian Paiva and newcomer Zhalgas Zhumagulov, who square off Saturday early on the preliminary portion of the card.

Paiva is one of those fighters who might have fallen under the radar after dropping each of his first two appearances inside the Octagon, but the 24-year-old is definitely someone folks are going to want to be checking for going forward.

Those initial losses came by split decision against Kai Kara-France and as a result of a cut against Rogerio Bontorin, both of whom currently reside in the Top 10. Last time out, Paiva showed his potential, registering a second-round stoppage victory over Mark De La Rosa. Gigantic for the division at five-foot-eight and brandishing a 69.5-inch reach, the still-improving Contender Series graduate has the potential to become a factor in the division in the not too distant future.

Seven years Paiva’s senior and sporting a 13-3 record overall, Zhumagulov gets the opportunity to test himself against a ranked opponent right out of the chute in his UFC debut. The 31-year-old from Kazakhstan holds victories over current UFC fighter Tyson Nam and former title challenger Ali Bagautinov, and could establish himself as one to watch with a victory over Paiva on Saturday.

Will the promising youngster add another win to his resume or will the veteran newcomer extend his winning streak to five with a triumphant debut?

KAROL ROSA VS. VANESSA MELO
Karol Rosa (Photo by Zhe Ji/Getty Images)
Karol Rosa (Photo by Zhe Ji/Getty Images)

Brazilian bantamweights who were previously slated to meet each other in their home country last year will instead meet in the Octagon this weekend as Karol Rosa and Vanessa Melo finally face off at UFC 251.

The last 15 months have been a whirlwind for Rosa, who had two regional bouts, including a proposed scrap with Melo, cancelled prior to her UFC debut against Lara Procopio, and has watched bouts against Julia Avila get penciled in without ever coming together since then. Riding a tidy three-fight winning streak, the 25-year-old UFC sophomore had won her previous five fights inside the distance before going to the cards and coming away on the happy side of a split decision verdict against Procopio, and will look to get back to her finishing ways when she faces off with Melo on Saturday.

After earning a call to the Octagon on the strength of a five-fight winning streak, Melo has found the competition in the UFC to be a little tougher through her first two appearances, dropping unanimous decisions to both Irene Aldana and Tracy Cortez. She registered a couple quality wins during her days on the regional circuit, including a victory over fellow UFC fighter Molly McCann, so it will be interesting to see if Melo will be able to get back to her winning ways in this clash of Brazilian competitors this weekend.

DAVEY GRANT VS. MARTIN DAY
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Saturday’s fight card kicks begins in the 135-pound weight class as Davey Grant welcomes Martin Day back to the Octagon.

The 34-year-old Grant was a finalist on Season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter, but has been limited to just four appearances since then due to myriad injuries. He fought twice in 2016, splitting a pair of bouts with Marlon Vera and Damian Stasiak, lost to Manny Bermudez in the summer of 2018, and got back into the win column with a split decision nod against Grigory Popov last November. A good dude who has exhibited tremendous heart and perseverance throughout his unique eight-year stint on the UFC roster, a victory on Saturday would give Grant his first two-fight run of success since his days on the regional circuit.

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Day came up short in his bid to secure a contract on the first season of the Contender Series, but rebounded with three straight victories to earn a chance to compete in the Octagon. He made his promotional debut towards the end of 2018, dropping a split decision to Liu Pingyuan before missing all of 2019 due to injuries. Now healthy and eager to get back in the win column, the 31-year-old returns looking to start UFC 251 off with a bang.

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