This weekend, Jorge Masvidal steps up on six days’ notice to take on welterweight champion Kamaru Usman in the main event of UFC 251. The fight is one fans have been anticipating for months following Masvidal’s career-making 2019, in which the 35-year-old knocked out Liverpool’s Darren Till on English soil, nearly decapitated the previously undefeated Ben Askren in a record-setting five seconds, and beat up fan favourite Nate Diaz until the ringside doctors had seen enough.
Of course, Masvidal’s late arrival in the picture this week – after original contender Gilbert Burns was forced out of the main event with coronavirus – makes the contest all the more intriguing, but so does the fact that ‘Gamebred’ will be without head coach Mike Brown, who also tested positive for Covid-19.
If that’s not enough to sell this fight for you, there’s also the factor of it headlining UFC’s first ever ‘Fight Island’ event on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. Okay, the setting might be short of the sand and palm trees that some fans had hoped for (the photo you will find below is not of the ring that will be in use this weekend), but the location is nevertheless an added element that could come into play.
On top of that, there are two other title fights: Max Holloway rematches Alex Volkanovski, the man who dethroned him in the featherweight division in December, and Petr Yan squares off against Jose Aldo for the vacant men’s bantamweight strap.
Former UFC welterweight Dan Hardy, from Nottingham, England, knows a thing or two about competing in a title fight. Here, the fan favourite and now-commentator helps us to answer the biggest questions ahead of UFC 251...
Who benefits more from Masvidal taking the fight on short notice – ‘Gamebred’ or Usman?
DH: I think what we have to bear in mind is that – with the global pandemic – nobody’s training has been as they would like it. Usman’s been moved over to [coach] Trevor Wittman and has been working with [UFC interim lightweight champion] Justin Gaethje, and I’m sure he’s just as limited with his training partners as Masvidal has been. Also, there’s the fact that Usman’s been preparing for Burns, who’s a very, very different fighter to Masvidal.
I don’t think Masvidal’s been sitting back and waiting for the opportunity to come, I think he’s been preparing, knowing full well that withdrawals happen – especially with the pandemic. With the experience that Masvidal’s got as well, a training camp at this point is more about timing than preparation for a specific individual, and it’s about bringing your conditioning up to support what you want to do in the fight.
All those things are within Masvidal’s capability; I feel like he’s going to be ready and prepared. With the number of fights he’s had in his career, you’ve got to expect him to have taken plenty of short-notice fights in the past.
Who wins, and how?
DH: I think the tough test for Usman really is to figure out how he gets his hands on Masvidal, because – although Masvidal might not have the same kind of big, swiping power that Burns has got – he’s a precision striker. He’s a sniper. If you’re Usman, you’ve got to try to walk your way through that fire and that’s when it gets very challenging. I feel like Masvidal might be operating on a level that Usman’s not quite encountered yet when it comes to the striking game.
But I feel like once Usman gets through the danger of the striking range with Masvidal, he’s into his game. He’s clinched up against the fence, he’s working to wear Masvidal out and beat him up on the floor. That said, I always give someone the benefit of the doubt when their fight IQ is higher than their opponents, so I can see lots and lots of ways for Masvidal to win this one.
I think the safest choice would be Usman by decision. I’m a daydreamer, though, I’ll be honest, so I’m also thinking Masvidal might get the stoppage in the championship rounds.
What’s next for Burns?
AP: Firstly, it’s great that he seems to be doing better after testing positive. With that in mind, he’ll already be thinking ahead to his next fight and how, unfortunately, it might not actually be a title shot.
Burns is on a six-fight win streak and his last two victories came just two months apart – both during the Covid-19 crisis. His willingness to step up, and the fact that he earned huge wins over Demian Maia and former champ Tyron Woodley in doing so, meant that very few people dared to deny his right to face Usman this week. But then Masvidal showed up, and the response to his arrival reaffirmed the cult of personality and its importance in UFC. That’s not a criticism of Burns, but this fight week became almost twice as big when Masvidal stepped in.
And if ‘Gamebred’ leaves Abu Dhabi with the belt, the likes of Conor McGregor and friend-turned-rival Colby Covington will come calling, potentially shoving Burns out of the picture.
If Masvidal wins, I’d reorganise Burns vs Usman as a non-title bout. If Usman wins, I can see Burns paired up with Covington in a No1 contender’s fight.
How can Holloway prise his featherweight title back from Volkanovski?
DH: Holloway went into that first fight, I think, expecting to encounter a different opponent to what he actually saw. It was a very intelligent gameplan from Volkanovski, very well thought-out, and the kind of thing I would expect from [coach] Eugene Bareman at City Kickboxing. Volkanovski kept changing the looks he was giving Max, chopping into that lead leg with low kicks, and interrupting Max’s timing.
I think this time around, Max might actually get the Volkanovski he was expecting the first time around: someone who comes to close distance and take him down. That might actually play into Max’s hands better. But the onus is on Max to do something different; he’s got to be uncharacteristic and start faster.
Max learns in the first round, tests in the second, then beats you in the third, fourth and fifth. He’s had five rounds now to study Volkanovski, so I’m hoping he can put some of that to good use. The difference between them the first time was 20 strikes, I think, and a few takedown attempts. With five percent more effort, Holloway might have stolen it.
He won’t feel that the difference from the first fight will be insurmountable for the rematch. I think Max is gonna be more aggressive and Volkanovski is gonna try and wrestle more.
How will the location affect the fighters?
AP: Considering the fights will be taking place inside of what appears to be a tented arena, which is reportedly pretty cool temperature-wise, there’s no need for fighters to fear the blinding Abu Dhabi sun or any stray, windswept sand.
It seems that the space where the fights will be held was designed to neutralise the temperature and humidity of Yas Island, so don’t expect the competitors to be struggling for breath or sweating any more than they normally would.
The main card will be starting at 6am local time, however, which might be a bit of a trip for the fighters. They’ll have no doubt used this week to adjust, though, so the struggle not to go to sleep in the Octagon shouldn’t amount to anything more than the usual slips, rolls, bobs and weaves.
Watch live UFC, boxing, Premier League and FA Cup football on BT Sport in July contract free with a BT Sport Monthly Pass for £25 per month. Coverage of UFC 251 starts from 10.30pm on BT Sport 1, Saturday 11 July.