2020 has been one of the strangest years in modern memory. The Covid-19 pandemic has swept across the world, dominating every media channel, and every cerebral cortex available too. Sports have naturally taken a backseat as every country scrambled to ensure the safety and security of its population, economy and infrastructure services. As on the whole, the R rate started to slow, UFC President, Dana White, married to his contractual obligations and love for fights, decided it was time for the UFC to be the first major sports organisation to get back on the road.
Due to Covid-19, the UFC had been on an extended break Saturday, March 14th (UFC Fight Night 170), was the last fight prior to the UFC closing its doors. That night saw Charles Oliveira continue his storm up the 155lb rankings with a submission win over Kevin Lee. The UFC then proceeded to cancel the 7 events, eventually returning contentiously with UFC 249, in Jacksonville Arena, Jacksonville, Florida. Whilst this card, holding two title fights, one of which a Fight of The Year Contender in Ferguson vs Gaethje, who both did their part to remind fans of what they had been missing. Standing in front of each other in an empty room for almost 25 minutes, providing the only percussion; the sound of 4oz’s or so of leather surrounding their fists breaking each other’s facial bones and tearing skin, the UFC did not come out unscathed either, warranting plenty of criticism in regards to fighter safety, quarantining and testing.
What is Fight Island?
Rumblings of a Fight Island began almost straight after UFC249, with what started out as a marketing ploy to hark fans back to Enter The Dragon, quickly became a reality when the UFC brass saw the excitement it has garnered. The official announcement came on ESPN from Dana White, detailing the 4 cards that will be held on UFC Fight Island (Yas Island, Abu Dhabi). The first of which we will breakdown here, UFC 251: Usman vs Masvidal. The UFC, since then have made vast improvements, developing a rigorous testing strategy for anyone competing on UFC 251. Fighters must undergo quarantine and testing before they board a flight to Fight Island, upon arrival they will be tested and quarantined again, testing will occur again pre and post-fight, and then again before they leave the island. A welcome evolution to fighters I must say.
UFC 251 itself has had its issues, this card was originally announced as Usman vs Burns, but #1 contender Gilbert Burns, unfortunately, tested positive for coronavirus before getting on the flight to Fight Island. The new extremely rigorous testing regime paying dividends immediately. Who better to step in and save the card than Street Jesus himself? Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal. There is a book to be written on this man. For context, The UFC wanted to match Usman and Masvidal originally, but due to financial negotiations failing, they moved onto Burns. But, in their time of need, the UFC returned to Masvidal, who agreed to take the biggest fight of his life, on the other side of the world, on 6 days’ notice, with the testing regime to get through, and the weight cut to go through shows the calibre of the man.
UFC 251 Preview
Welterweight Title Fight – Usman vs Masvidal
With the context of the fight given above, let’s dive into the detail.
Kamaru Usman (16-1, 11-0 UFC) is coming into this fight on a 15-fight winning streak, one of the most dominant performance from a challenger in a title fight and coming a war against the polarising, Colby Covington in the first defence of his title. With a game built heavily around the wrestling prowess that took him to 2 NCAA Division 2 finals, winning his 2010 appearance. To his credit we have seen him grow his striking skills vastly since his UFC debut against Hayder Hassan, under the tutelage of Henri Hooft. Whilst his finishing rate is low during his UFC tenure, (3 finishes in 11 fights) make no mistake he puts a beating on people, dragging people into the deepest of waters and drowning them there, his pace is second only to his gas tank.
Usman is at this point, King of the Welterweights and rightly so.
Enter in his advisory, Jorge Masvidal (35-13, 12-6 UFC) made his name on the streets of Florida fighting in people’s backyard with nothing but his bare knuckles. Poetry is written often in MMA, and nothing is more poetic in that Jorge gets this fight on such short notice. He became famous on the YouTube backyard boxing scene by taking a same day fight against Kimbo Slice protégé known only as “Ray” whilst sitting in a McDonalds drive thru.
If he wins on Saturday, his self-claimed resurrection will be complete. Masvidal comes into this fight after three incredible finishes, going to English star Darren Till’s backyard and finishing him in devastating fashion with a 2nd round KO (handing Till his first ever KO loss), to running across the cage and blasting Ben Askren into the bleachers with a flying knee in the first 5 seconds of the very first round.
He finished his current 3-piece meal with a win over Nate Diaz in the BMF title bout, opening a horrendous cut over the Stockton natives’ eye, forcing the doctor to step in between rounds and call a halt to the bout. Masvidal’s style is built on excellent take down defence, honed with years of practice with fellow Cuban Yoel Romero, allowing him to access and implement his Latin American style of boxing, blended with all the tools he learnt on the street. A great gas tank, and a formidable will to boot.
Jorge is, by his nickname, as game as they come, a veteran in the sport of MMA and one of the OG’s of fighting full stop, whilst he may not have a college wrestling title to his name or an amateur belt, he has the utmost respect of his fellow fighters and combat sports peers, and that speaks for itself. Kamaru, lives up to his nickname of The Nigeran Nightmare, when the cage door is closed on these two, you do not want to miss it. Will “The Nightmare” wake Street Jesus from his march to heaven?
Featherweight Title Fight – Alexander Volkanovski vs Max Holloway 2
An immediate rematch for the ex-champion in this one.
The first fight took place as the co-main to the afore-mentioned war: Usman vs Covington, at UFC 245, back in December of 2019. Alexander Volkanovski executed a perfect game plan that night to halt the Blessed Express at the Shellharbour City native’s station. Alex used a mixture of feints, counter striking and pressure to interrupt the Champion building up the steam we are used too and utilising his own pressure-based combination striking. Alexander showed why he was called The Great on that cold night in December.
Gracefully Alexander granted Max an immediate rematch, and we get to see what happens this time around.
Volkanovski (21-1, 8-0 UFC) comes into this fight undefeated in the UFC and riding a 16-fight win-streak total. His only loss coming in only his 4th fight all the way back in 2013. Alex has an incredible story, in another life he played professional rugby, weighing in at a portly 241lbs (109 kg). It is insane to think he now makes 145lbs (65.7kg) for his current career. The performance to take the belt from Max is the level at which we are beginning to expect fighters hailing from Coach Eugene Bareman, Head Coach of New Zealand’s fastest rising gym City Kickboxing, (home to Middleweight Champion “The Last Stylebender” Israel Adesanya, Dan Hooker (LW), Kai Kara-France (FLW) and Brad Riddell (LW)) to put in. Volkanovski’s confidence will be at an all-time high, having wins over one of the greatest featherweights ever in Jose Aldo, a KO over Chad Mendes and the previous performance over Max, the ball is in Max’s corner to re-write the wrongs from the first fight.
Max “Blessed” Holloway (21-5, 18-5 UFC). Max Holloway is one of the greatest personalities in MMA right now. A devoted and loving father of Mini Blessed Holloway, a patriotic Hawaiian native, fashion icon and incredibly humble yet fierce competitor is some of the sides of the dodecahedron that make up fan favourite Holloway’s personality. We must remember that this man entered the UFC with 3 professional fights, which is almost unheard of for his time of entry (debut in 2011) at the ripe age of 20. 7 of his first UFC fights included ex-interim champion Dustin Poirier, ex-two weight World Champion Conor McGregor and FW veteran Dennis Bermudez.
We watched this kid grow into a man in the toughest way possible. Fed to the wolves, and not only does he come through it all to make the top 15, then top 5, but to then clean out every single competitor in the division. Taking the heads of legends like Cub Swanson, Frankie Edgar, Jeremy Stephens, Anthony Pettis, with two marquee stoppage wins over Jose Aldo, arguably taking the greatest featherweight of all time title from Aldo and placing it atop the head of the driver of the Blessed Express himself.
If you want to know what Max Holloway is about, go and watch the final round of his fight with Ricardo Lamas and either of his fights with Aldo.
The regular style of Holloway we have become accustomed too is that of pressure striking, forcing his opponents to carry the weight of his fists, keep them guessing, and overwhelm them into wilting and eventually caving to his pressure. What makes this fight so interesting is that we get to see what adjustments Max can make to alter the result from the last fight, and the counter to those adjustments from Alex and his camp. This is the two highest-level practitioners in the Featherweight division going at it again. Affirmation vs Redemption. Salivating.
Vacant Bantamweight Title Fight – Petr Yan vs Jose Aldo
This fight has war written all over it. No fight that includes all action fighters Petr Yan and Jose Aldo can result in anything other than fireworks. Ex-Bantamweight Champion Henry “Triple C” Cejudo bowed out as King of the Mountain after his demolition of title contender and analyst Dominic Cruz back in May leaving a power vacuum at the top of the division, Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling were chomping at the bit for the #1 contender spot. The UFC however, decided to take Yan and go in a different direction, making him vs Aldo. Aldo is a future Hall of Famer, arguably the GOAT at his previous weight class of 145lbs, and having come off a controversial loss in his BW debut to fellow contender Marlon Moraes in their clash back in December the title matchup came with its own criticisms. Whilst it is not the usual style of the UFC to give a fighter a title shot coming off a loss, this is the ESPN era, and what makes sense is not always what happens.
Petr Yan (14-1, 6-0 UFC) is the definition of intense. Hailing from Russia, he has the profile fits the stereotype upon him. Pressure striker, incredible footwork from his Russian boxing style, an iron chin, a wrestling pedigree and a demeanour that will strike fear into the bravest of men. For all his ferocity, there is a superior technician in the engine room, Petr is a master of range management, his work entering and exiting the pocket to land his strikes is beautiful to watch. Three of his six UFC outings have resulted in a finish, none more brutal than the win that took him to this title shot, the head kick KO of legend Urijah Faber.
Jose Aldo (28-6, 18-5 UFC/WEC) held the Featherweight title for ten years, across WEC and the UFC. He is notorious for the damage he dealt Urijah Faber’s legs, his flying knee KO of Cub Swanson, the destruction of Chad Mendes in their first fight and plenty more. His style is the epitome of the Chute Boxe schools in his native Brazil, his takedown defence is one of the best of any MMA fighter we have ever seen, and he uses this to set up the precise, ruthless, violent striking he serves in dazzling variety.
MMA, however, can be an extremely cruel game, Jose Aldo becomes the butt of jokes on the internet post his quick and shocking loss to Conor McGregor in 2015. Whilst I would not argue against you picking Conor in this fight, to win inside 13 seconds with the first shot landed would have been a difficult sell to any hardcore MMA fan. His move to Bantamweight was deemed a risky one, being on the tail end of his career, and having been dealt heavy damage in his losses to Holloway, he looked good against Marlon Moraes, arguably winning that fight. Here he will be looking to get back on track in a big way by winning the BW crown in only his second fight in the division.
Petr Yan is seen by many as the future, Jose Aldo is as veteran as they come, nothing to prove to anyone. Will we see a passing of the guard, or will we see Jose rise back to greatness?
Women’s Strawweight – Jessica Andrade vs Rose Namajunas 2
I could write an entire essay on these two fighters, how this fight came to be in the beginning, how poetic in a cruel way the end came to fruition and what I expect to happen in the rematch, but I will do my best to keep this concise.
Jessica Andrade (20-7, 11-5 UFC) took all the marbles in the first meeting between these two fighters, KO’ing Rose by a slam, and winning the UFC Strawweight title in the process. She is a berserker of a fighter, trusting in every moment of the fight that she has the power to put away her opponent. She sprints into the pocket at any chance that she can fabricate and throws with reckless abandon, all the power she has, generally in the form of hooks and overhands. Whilst this has served her well with 7 KO/TKO’s, she also has a very legitimate ground game with 7 Submission wins to her name. Her recent losses have only come against the best, in the current champion Weili Zhang and ex-champion Joanna Jedrzejcyzk.
On the other side of the cage, is possibly the water to Jessica’s fire. Thug Rose Namajunas (8-4, 6-3 UFC) is an enigma. She seems in every sense equal portions of a young, vulnerable fighter, but the other side is one of the strongest, fiercest women we have seen grace the sport. The best example of this is her title win against Joanna Champion, after handing a lethal KO to the champ, she gets on the mic in tears offering only that she wishes to be good to people, and wishes that everyone else adopt the same mantra.
Outside of training with one of the best coaches in the game Trevor Wittman, you could find Rose with her partner and ex-fighter Pat Barry walking her dog, Mishka, or tending to her farm. Rose is as every bit technical as she is ferocious, her entry to MMA saw her win with a viral flying armbar submission in only her second fight. Since then we have seen her use her grappling roots to secure three submission wins by her favoured Rear Naked Choke, but what is the most impressive of Rose’s technical evolution is how well she has adopted Trevor Wittman’s excellent style of striking. Footwork based, she picks her shots, waits for her chances and breaks rhythm better than we have seen in a woman outside of Joanna Champion.
Rose is a phenomenal fighter, but can she right the wrongs from the first performance to turn her loss against Jessica into a win, or will Jessica manage to get a repeat and finish Rose?
Woman’s Flyweight – Amanda Ribas vs Paige VanZant
I have some odd feelings about this fight, this feels to me like the UFC are showing its teeth abit. Paige VanZant has been vocal about wanting to test free agency amongst monetary issues with the UFC, and as the UFC does when they wish to punish someone – they have given Paige the toughest fight possible in her current ranking circumstances.
Amanda Ribas (9-1, 3-0 UFC) looks every part of a title contender if not a winner. She throws everything with bad intentions, and in a division where you do not see many stoppages outside of the grappling realm, holds 3 finishes by KO/TKO. Precise boxing is a style that Paige has struggled with in the past and I wonder if she will struggle here again.
Paige VanZant (8-4, 5-3 UFC) you could argue has been dealt a rough hand in her UFC tenure, she entered a shallow division back in 2014 and has faced stiff competition since, including ex-champion Rose Namajunas, and title contender Michelle Waterson.
She is someone that is an extremely easy sell for the UFC, well spoken, attractive and happy to be in the public eye. However, I do not feel like she was given ample time to develop her skills to match the stardom the trajectory her outside of the cage personality had her on. Her viral win over Bec Rawlings came in the middle of 3 losses, two submission and one unanimous decision loss in which she toughed out a broken arm suffered in the first round. This is something that Paige has in bags, toughness.
Here we have a common archetype playing out, the UFC feeding a fighter they seem to want to no longer do business with to a young, hungry killer in Amanda Ribas. Can Paige re-write that storyline and end her contract with the UFC on a big win?
UFC 251 Preliminary Card
- Volkan Oezdemir v Jiri Prochazka – Light-Heavyweight
- Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos v Muslim Salikhov – Welterweight
- Makwan Amirkhani v Danny Henry – Featherweight
- Leonardo Santos v Roman Bogatov – Lightweight
- Marcin Tybura v Maxim Grishin – Heavyweight
- Raulian Paiva v Zhalgas Zhumagulov – Flyweight
- Karol Rosa v Vanessa Melo – Women’s Bantamweight
- Davey Grant v Martin Day – Bantamweight
In a world that feels like it couldn’t weirder, Dana White decided to bring us his own version of the thunder dome in Abu Dhabi, and honestly, we couldn’t be happier!
So let’s kick back, relax and enjoy a pivotal night in combat sports history.