UFC 261 predictions


Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

For its first domestic event with a packed house in the COVID-19 era, its indisputable that the UFC is giving fans a reason to show up.

The VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville will be rocking on Saturday night with an energy that the UFC APEX and even Fight Island couldn’t provide and while we can continue to debate the safety protocols of the UFC and the state of Florida, none of that matters to Dana White as he continues his march towards regular business operations come Hell or high water.

The UFC 261 main event is an oddity on paper, as welterweight champion Kamaru Usman has granted a rematch to Jorge Masvidal, the man he beat by unanimous decision just nine months ago on in Abu Dhabi. Usman’s first win over Masvidal was a workmanlike affair over an opponent who took the fight on less than a week’s notice. The outcome left many wanting more, including Usman himself as he demanded another chance to fight Masvidal. Masvidal hasn’t fought since losing to Usman, so getting another title shot is just found money for the “BMF” champion.

Two more compelling title fights lead the lineup, as Zhang Weili goes for her second defense of the strawweight championship in her first appearance since her unforgettable five-round battle with Joanna Jedrzejczyk in March of last year. She faces former titleholder Rose Namajunas, one of the most proven finishers at 115 pounds.

Going for her fifth straight title defense is the indomitable Valentina Shevchenko. “Bullet” was tested at times by Jennifer Maia in her most recent fight, but still walked out with a convincing decision. Now she takes on former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade, a fearsome slugger who has won fights in three weight classes.

Also on the main card, Chris Weidman looks to build upon his first win in three years when he faces Uriah Hall in a rematch from September 2010, and light heavyweight contender Anthony Smith puts Jim Crute to the test.

What: UFC 261

Where: VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.

When: Saturday, April 24. The four-fight early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET. A four-fight preliminary card follows at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available to watch through ESPN+.


Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal

Jorge Masvidal will do better this time.

That’s a “duh” statement if there ever was one, given the factors working against Masvidal in the first fight. I don’t care how talented and experienced you are, stepping into the cage with the best welterweight on the planet with less than a week to properly prepare is going to negatively affect anyone’s performance. Not to mention having to cut weight on such short notice. As far as excuses go, Masvidal has some good ones for putting on a lackluster performance in his first go-around with Kamaru Usman.

Usman didn’t exactly blow the cage doors off with his victory either. He controlled Masvidal for five rounds, but were fans justified in expecting more given his advantages? That there’s any doubt he’s superior to Masvidal explains why he was so eager to give “Gamebred” another shot at his belt.

It’s a gamble and one that could pay off if Usman finishes Masvidal. The champ showed that he could take a licking and keep in ticking in his title defense against Gilbert Burns, eating a few hard shots before smoking Burns in the third. He won’t want to invite a brawl with Masvidal, but you have to think Masvidal has more respect for his power now. Look for both men to use the first two rounds to feel each other out before cranking up the output in the third.

Usman’s wrestling is still going to be a problem for Masvidal. Even if Masvidal can keep himself off the cage, he’ll find his attempts to push the pace stifled by the threat of Usman’s takedowns. There are few fighters in MMA as complete as Usman and it’s that versatility that’s his biggest edge over Masvidal. As battle-tested as Masvidal is, I see Usman dictating where the fight goes in this one.

We’ll get a more entertaining and competitive fight on Saturday, but the result should be the same.

Pick: Usman

Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas

Can we just take a moment to appreciate what an outstanding matchup this is?

There are few strawweights capable of putting forth the kind of fight that Joanna Jedrzejczyk gave Zhang Weili, but Rose Namajunas is one of them. She’s made amazing strides as a striker in her 13 pro bouts and it’s entirely possible she sticks and moves her way to a win over Zhang. If you can out-strike Jedrzejczyk, you can out-strike anyone—which I guess that applies to both women.

Power is the biggest difference here, though Najamunas has enough pop in her fists to get the attention of Jedrzejczyk and Jessica Andrade, so it’s not as if Zhang can just walk right through her. Fortunately for Zhang, she combines that power with outstanding speed and technique, which makes her arguably the best standup fighter in the division.

Namajunas has a great submission game, but those attempts will have to come in scramble situations or if she manages to stun Zhang. Zhang is a good wrestler and if Namajunas forces a takedown attempt, she risks taking damage and Zhang has no problems generating power in short range.

Zhang is the real deal and I expect her to add another former champion to her hit list on Saturday.

Pick: Zhang

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade

Jessica Andrade is a threat to finish anyone at three different weight classes, but it’s nothing Valentina Shevchenko hasn’t dealt with before.

People need to keep in mind that Shevchenko has gone a total of eight rounds with Amanda Nunes. She knows how to deal with power punches. Now Andrade is a different beast who has a bit more speed than Nunes, but again, Shevchenko has been in there with Jedrzejczyk and Holly Holm, so dealing with accurate, technical strikers hasn’t been much of an issue for her either.

Give Andrade a puncher’s chance for sure, not to mention the fact that she’s a threat to finish from minute one to the final bell. Namajunas found this out the hard way in both encounters with Andrade, losing to a “Bate Estaca” slam in the first fight and escaping a scary third-round flurry in their rematch. She’ll take the fight to Shevchenko for five rounds.

She just won’t win. Shevchenko’s technique and approach are so flawless, it will take more to beat her than muscle and heart, two things which Andrade has in abundance. Look for the champion to eat the occasional shot, but otherwise escape danger over and over again as she picks Andrade apart en route to a decision win.

Pick: Shevchenko

Uriah Hall vs. Chris Weidman

Uriah Hall is rolling and I like his chances of him keeping his streak going against Chris Weidman.

While this is as much of a striker vs. grappler matchup as it was when the two first fought over a decade ago, they’ve both rounded out their games considerably. Hall has developed excellent takedown defense and strong clinch technique, while Weidman added on to his All-American wrestling skills by adding a deadly submission game and some impressive striking. The latter of those skills hasn’t been as evident as his chin has failed him the latter stages of his career.

It’s that deteriorating durability that has me most concerned for Weidman’s chances of picking up a second win over Hall. Hall can be frustratingly patient, but when he gets his hands going, he’s a sniper and you can’t expect Weidman to last long on the feet with him. Hall’s speed advantage will go a long way towards countering Weidman’s wrestling.

Weidman’s best bet is to take Hall down and grind out a decision. He’s capable of doing it, but Hall is tough to keep on his back and Weidman will have to show a better gas tank than he did in his grueling win over Omari Akhmedov. If he falters at all, Hall will pounce.

Hall by second-round knockout.

Pick: Hall

Anthony Smith vs. Jim Crute

This one isn’t going past the first round.

If Anthony Smith is supposed to be a gatekeeper, he obviously didn’t get that memo as he took out Devin Clark in his most recent outing with a triangle choke. Next up is Jim Crute, a talented Australian who just turned 25 in March. He’s bounced back nicely from his only loss with two first-round finishes.

Unsurprisingly, the younger Crute is the better athlete, but Smith is no slouch. He’s just as likely to catch Crute with a KO blow coming in as Crute is to rush Smith for a fast finish. Let’s see if Crute has the patience to wait for Smith to make the first mistake. In the event of a stalemate, I prefer Crute’s movement to Smith’s, so if it comes down to winning on points I favor Crute in that scenario.

But no, this is going to be a quick, mean, and dirty fight, which makes it tough to pick a winner. I’m going with Crute because I think he’s the real deal and a future title contender, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him fall to a veteran who has already competed for the title.

Pick: Crute

Preliminaries

Randy Brown def. Alex Oliveira

Dwight Grant def. Stefan Sekulic

Brendan Allen def. Karl Roberson

Pat Sabatini def. Tristan Connelly

Kevin Natividad def. Danaa Batgerel

Rong Zhu def. Kazula Vargas

Aori Qileng def. Jeff Molina

Ariane Carnelossi def. Liang Na

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