UFC 251 main card: Preview and predictions

Dana White and his UFC just keep delivering for sports fan during the Covid-19 epidemic. Just two months after delivering an amazing card at UFC 249, White has come back with another stunner with UFC 251.

This fight takes place on the scenic “Fight Island” on Yas Island in Abu Dabi. Even a last minute Covid-19 diagnosis could derail what is looking like one of the best UFC cards, top to bottom, in quite some time. Read on for a preview and prediction for each main card fight.

Kamaru Usman (16-1) vs. Jorge Masvidal (35-13), Welterweight

Jorge Masvidal is definitely a fighter who’s stock is soaring. That stock rose even higher when he stepped in to fight Kamaru Usman on very short notice after the similarly rising Gilbert Burns was forced to withdraw after he tested positive for Covid-19. Usman vs. Masvidal is a fight that many fans wanted to see and thought should happen, anyway.

Usman, the UFC Welterweight champion, has blazed through his competition, winning 15 consecutive fights dating back to December of 2013. Over his last four fights, Usman has disposed of top contenders Colby Covington, Tyrone Woodley, Rafael Dos Anjos, and Demian Maia. Even after facing this top competition, the former Division II NCAA All-American and National Champion has called Masvidal the best opponent that he has ever faced.

Masvidal, a +300 underdog, has won three in a row, scoring victories over Darren Till, Ben Askren, and Nate Diaz. His fight with Diaz earned Masvidal the symbolic UFC BMF (Baddest M****rF****r) title. Masvidal has earned Performance of the Night honors in two of his last three fights, including recording the fastest knockout in UFC history by stopping Askren in an insane five seconds. Whereas Usman got his MMA start by wrestling at an amateur level, Masvidal began his career by street fighting at a young age before beginning his formal training.

This fight will be one of contrasting styles. Masvidal’s best chance at victory will be to keep the fight standing, hoping that Usman feels that he has something to prove by trading punches with him. Usman will look to take the fight to the mat and ground and pound Masvidal. This may not be difficult for Usman as he averages 3.4 take-downs per fight, twice as many as Masvidal. Additionally, Usman has a 100% take-down defense compared to Masvidal’s 78%. Additionally, Usman lands slightly more significant strikes per minute than Masvidal (4.6-4.3) and absorbs less significant strikes per minute (2.2-2.9). What gives Masvidal a chance in the fight is that he is peaking at the right moment. The 35 year old out of Miami has won three straight against quality competition, all by knockout. The time of those fights have totaled eight minutes and ten seconds.

Prediction: Usman is a smart fighter and will stick to what he does best, take-down, ground and pound. Masvidal can only defend against the take-down for so long and once he gives in to a take down, Usman will score in bunches. Usman, decision.

Alexander Volkanovski (21-1) vs. Max Holloway (21-5), Featherweight

The number seven ranked overall pound-for-pound fighter, Alexander Volkanovski enters this fight as the Featherweight Champion, having won 18 fights in a row dating back to December of 2013. The 2019 Breakout Fighter of the Year has won back-to-back decisions, one against José Aldo and one against his current opponent, Max Holloway. The 31 year-old Australian and -210 favorite began his fighting career by training in Greco-Roman wrestling to keep in shape for his semi-pro rugby career.

If it feels like Holloway has been around forever, it’s because he has. Even though he is only 28, Holloway has been fighting since 2010 and between January of 2014 and December of 2018 put together a thirteen fight UFC win streak (tied for the longest in UFC history). Holloway has faced some questions about his training leading up to this fight. Citing travel restrictions and the health of family members, Holloway has chosen to train for the fight via Zoom instead of traveling to his typical gym in Hawaii. This means that Holloway has done no sparring leading up to the fight.

In their first fight, Vokanovski came in with a definitive game plan that he carried out to perfection, stinging Holloway with leg kicks and defending Holloway’s offense, particularly in the late rounds when Holloway came on strong. Conventional wisdom says that Volkanovski will attack this fight with a similar plan. The question is, has Holloway learned and adjusted from the last fight? This battle will likely stay vertical with neither fighter being a big take-down artist. Both fighters have very similar striking stats with Holloway landing slightly more significant strikes per minute (6.7-6.2) and defending at a slightly better clip (62%-59%). Volkanovski is more accurate with his significant strikes landing 57% to Holloway’s 44%.

Prediction: It is tough to defeat a great fighter in back-to-back fights and Volkanovski will need to make some tweaks to his game plan to do so. For his part, Holloway needs to show that he has an answer for Volkanovski’s disruptive leg stikes, and can do so with an altered training plan and no sparring. That is an extremely tall order. Vokanovski, decision.

Petr Yan (14-1) vs. José Aldo (28-6), Bantamweight

Petr Yan comes into this fight riding an impressive nine fight win streak, including a Performance of the Night knockout of Urijah Faber at UFC 245. The 27 year old Russian has recently called out the now retired former Bantamweight Champion Henry Cejudo for ducking him. With the vacant title on the line in this fight, Yan gets his chance to become the champion without fighting Cejudo and enters the fight as a -220 favorite.

Aldo, a 16 year MMA veteran and ten year UFC fighter enters this fight having lost four of his last six fights. The choice of Aldo to fight for the vacant title seems to be a bit of a lifetime achievement award for the 33 year old Brazilian. In his last fight, Aldo lost against Marlon Moraes in a fight that many thought that Aldo won. The man that many consider to be the greatest featherweight of all-time looks to overcome his controversial loss to become only the fifth two-division champion in UFC history.

This fight is very likely to stay vertical as both fighters have historically been beasts on their feet. Both have extreme power and speed. Aldo would be wise to rediscover the leg strikes that helped him build his impressive resume when he was younger. Yan delivers 5.7 significant strikes per minute while absorbing only 3.2. Aldo strikes at a 3.5 rate while absorbing 3.2. It should be noted that those numbers includes his younger, more dominant days. We could see afight entering the championship rounds at a 15 to six or seven significant strike advantage for Yan which will be trouble for Aldo.

Prediction: Yan is the younger, fresher fighter entering his prime. Aldo is a former great who’s career is on the downside. I expect this to be closer than the Faber fight was for Yan, but with the same result. Yan KO/TKO.

Jéssica Andrede (20-7) vs. Rose Namajunas (8-4), Women’s Strawweight

Jéssica Andrede enters her rematch with Rose Namajunas coming off a loss in her last fight after winning four in a row, a run that included four Fight or Performance of the Night awards. Since the loss of her championship title, Andrede has since taken a bit of a break from the Octogon, going eleven months without a fight.

Rose Nomajunas was on top of the world after defeating Joanna Jędrzejczyk for the Women’s Strawweight Championship in 2017 and then defeating Jędrzejczyk by decision in the rematch. In her first fight against Andrede, Namajunas was winning the fight convincingly before holding on to a kamura for a bit too long and getting slammed on her head and knocked out. The 28 year old out of Wisconsin has gained five of her eight victories by submission. Despite losing in the first fight between the two, Nomajunas enters the fight as a -200 favorite.

Both fighters are very well rounded and can keep the fight standing or take it to the mat. Nomajunas will look to use her superior speed and three inch reach advantage to keep Andrede at bay. Andrede has a strong chin and has shown that she can take some punishment. Namajunas has the ability to look for submissions when she gets into trouble, neutralizing her opponents’ strengths. Andrede has power that can end a fight at any moment and will look to use it.

Prediction: Plain and simple, Nomajunas got caught in the last fight between these two despite handling Andrede up until that time. It could happen again, of course, but “Thug Rose” knows what to look out for and stay away from this time. Nomajunas, decision.

Amanda Ribas (9-1) vs. Paige VanZant (8-4), Women’s Flyweight

Amanda Ribas enters her first UFC pay-per-view event as a massive -950 favorite over Paige VanZant. The 26 year old out of Brazil has won four fights in a row, including all three of her UFC fights. Ribas has improved with each fight, even as she has stepped up in competition.

VanZant was once seen as the future of the Women’s Strawweight division, but has seen her star fade due to losing three of her last five fights. Inactivity has removed VanZant’s name from any championship conversations as she has not fought in eighteen months due to multiple arm fractures. The 26 year old out of Oregon has, however, parlayed her MMA career into appearances on Dancing with Stars and a Food Network cooking competition, along with modeling contracts with Nike and others.

VanZant is known for her grappling, but Ribas may be even better, despite moving up in weight class. VanZant will look to keep this fight vertical and use her striking accuracy to her advantage. Ribas has a better takedown average (2.0-1.3) and VanZant has only defended 35% of takedowns. Ribas will look to take this fight to the ground and get a submission.

Prediction: There is just nothing that VanZant does better than Ribas. In addition, VanZant has endured a long layoff. This fight will not be close. Ribas, submission.

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Leroy Travers

Follow my coverage of Lacrosse (College and MLL) as well as Georgetown Hoyas Basketball, the Washington Redskins, and most other sports here on the MSB. Living in neighboring Sussex County, Delaware, I have been a huge Maryland Sports fan for almost 40 years. Follow me on Twitter @el_travs, and on Instagram @Letrav.

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