Ladies and gentlemen, it’s fucking island time.

Following three months of anticipation – the UFC is headed to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi this Saturday for the first of 4 events in two weeks, the unbelievably stacked, fan friendly UFC 251 is upon us.

Many of you are likely familiar with the marquee matchups, so I will be giving my two cents on how the three title fights will go down, and a handful of fighters to keep an eye on down the card. Let’s jump in.

The Headliners 

Kamaru Usman vs Jorge Masvidal for the UFC Welterweight Championship 

In a strange series of events, the most commercially viable fight the UFC could book without involving Conor McGregor happened by accident – 6 days from Fight Night.

In the midst of a contract dispute, Jorge Masvidal bailed from a title fight with Kamaru Usman earlier this year over revenue share of PPV purchases. In his place, Brazilian top contender Gilbert Burns took the fight after a dominating performance over Tyron Woodley in late May. 

Usman v Burns was scheduled as the main event, but a positive COVID-19 test from Burns forced him to withdraw. Without a headline bout and a week removed from the event, the UFC returned to the negotiation table and got the deal done, reviving Usman v. Masvidal for July 11th.

Serving as the main event in the midst of three title fights, the bout has unquestionably high expectations.

How it will play out:

Surface level optics could generate the opinion that Kamaru Usman (16-1 Career, 11-0 UFC) has a vast advantage over Jorge Masvidal (35-13 Career, 12-6 UFC) in the bout. 

Usman enters this fight on a 15-fight win streak and a flawless record inside the octagon. Masvidal has dropped three of his last four losses in decisions against grapple-first opponents, whereas Usman has a NCAA Wrestling Championship to his name. Usman also has displayed toughness and finishing ability as well, earning a grueling TKO victory over Colby Covington in December.

To add, Usman has been in training camp for this fight continuously, where Masvidal, who was at a 4th of July BBQ a week ago when he took the fight, is headed halfway across the globe without his coach, MMA mastermind Mike Brown who tested positive for COVID. The deck seems pretty stacked, right?

Not so fast.

Masvidal is the definition of a tough veteran. His bout with Usman will be his 49th professional fight, not including all of the YouTube broadcasted street fights he dominated through the duration of his teen years.

Masvidal always brings three deadly elements to the table when he fights: toughness, conditioning, and show-stopping power. His 5-second KO over wrestling specialist Ben Askren last year depicts his ability to neutralize fighters who take chances with risky takedowns. The four losses in his last 11 fights were all extremely close decisions, three of which were competitive affairs against grappling specialists. Being able to scramble out of any position and stay tough for 25 minutes will pose unique tests for Usman, and makes for a wild fight.

My thoughts? This one is gritty, back and forth, high octane combat. I believe Usman’s cage control and pressure will steal him close rounds, winning a close decision that will result in an inevitable rematch.

Alexander Volkanovski vs Max Holloway 2 for the UFC Featherweight Championship

A common story arc we often see in the fight game – a dominant champion loses his throne to a worthy challenger, and immediately gets another chance to regain his status as title holder.

Max Holloway (21-5 Career, 17-5 UFC) leads the UFC’s featherweight division in division wins, knockouts, and longest winning streak, establishing him to many as the greatest 145 lbs fighter of all time before his 28th birthday.

However, his fight at UFC 245 last December stopped the Hawaiian phenom in his tracks, relinquishing his title to Australian bruiser Alexander Volkanovski (21-1 Career, 8-0 UFC). While the fight was moderately back and forth, Volkanovski controlled the contest with lots of volume and pushing a pace on Holloway, earning him the victory and the title. Justifiably so, the UFC immediately booked the rematch between them on fight island.

My thoughts on the fight 

Ethically, it is probably wise to mention that I am unapologetically a Max Holloway fanboy. I’ve never been a fight fan who has had a ride or die fandom for specific individuals, but Holloway has been far and beyond my favorite since his origins in the UFC in 2012I may approach this one with some bias.

With that said, I think I can make an objective case for Max Holloway winning the title back. If you saw Holloway vs Volkanovski 1 last December, you can see where Volkanovski outshined Holloway by controlling the distance all five rounds and taking advantage by landing in volume during flurries.

Volkanovski is 5’6, 5 inches shorter than Holloway, but strangely maintains a longer reach and is extremely talented at using it. You can see in the first go around, this really fucked with Holloway, who has made a career using his length to stick and move, ultimately breaking down opponents over rounds. 

Holloway can get dirty and a fight, close the distance and win bouts in a phone booth atmosphere, and my prediction is that will be the adjustments he makes on fight night. I expect to see an aggressive Holloway blitz Volkanovski over a long duration. I’m not suggesting Volkanovski can’t handle that pace, he has stellar counter punching and could make Max pay, but I’d expect to see a high volume war with Holloway emerging victorious.

Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo for the vacant UFC Bantamweight Championship

Following his stoppage over Dominick Cruz, bantamweight champion and 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist Henry Cejudo decided to lay his gloves down, take his trophies and hit the road to retirement. Even when champions leave the business, the show must go on, and fight island will showcase Russian destroyer Petr Yan (14-1 Career, 6-0 UFC) squaring up with UFC Legend Jose Aldo (28-6 Career, 17-5 UFC/WEC) for the vacant championship.

I will say, when the UFC booked this fight I was a bit confused by Aldo getting a shot at the belt. Aldo’s only fight at 135 lbs was last December where he lost a controversial decision against contender Marlon Moraes. I would have expected an immediate rematch, but instead Moraes has been passed over and Aldo, with more name recognition from his legendary past, gets tapped for a shot at gold.

What to Expect

It is never a spectacular idea to bet against a fighter in a championship fight with as much championship experience as a fighter like Aldo. In his 15 fights in the UFC, his first 11 were all title fights. This is far from his first rodeo and that needs to be considered. However, Aldo is behind the 8 Ball in so many factors in this contest, a path to victory seems beyond challenging.

To start, the cut to 135 lbs is a mammoth for Aldo. In his early years, he developed kidney stones getting down to 145 lbs and now he is older and dropping even more weight. His first fight at 135 lbs was his loss to Moraes to December, and many suggested his struggle to match Moraes’ pace may have transpired from the exhaustion of a brutal weight cut. 

This is Aldo’s second run at 135, but this time he has to fight for 25 minutes as opposed to 15, fly 7300 miles from Rio to Fight Island and live, compete in 114 degree weather, against a fighter who’s skill set lines up against him perfectly in Yan.

Not to be discouraging, but with Yan’s forward aggressive style and ability to close fights out late, it is hard to see anything occurring besides a mauling of Aldo. If you think I’m off target, DM me – I genuinely am struggling to see Aldo’s path to victory.

Fighters To Watch

Amanda Ribas

The first fight on the PPV features a top prospect that I have been hyping since her UFC arrival a year ago. Brazilian rising star Amanda Ribas (9-1 Career, 3-0 UFC) has a real opportunity to jump from prospect to household name, taking on wildly popular Paige VanZant (8-4 Career, 5-3 UFC) on the UFC’s biggest stage.

Ribas is the epitome of a well rounded fighter. A high level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and the daughter of a world class Muay Thai instructor, Marcelo Ribas, she has 9 career wins, 3 knockouts, 3 submissions, and 3 decision victories. At 26 years old, her move up to 125 lbs could be a great launching point for fame if she can defeat VanZant.

Paige VanZant has made a name for herself outside the cage as much as inside of it. Her run on Dancing With The Stars and Chopped has expanded her fan base beyond fight fans, and her opponents recognize that a win over her while the world watches is a great starting point to stardom.

VanZant’s best attribute is her ability to take damage and move forward. Never been knocked out, VanZant is a fan favorite who isnt afraid to fight through cuts and broken bones, many talented fighters have had way tougher fights than they expected because VanZant won’t quit. 

Ribas should shine on the ground in this fight. VanZant has dropped two losses via submission,  both rear naked chokes which Ribas specializes in. I would expect her to win via submission in the 2nd.

Jiri Prochazka

The UFC has unquestionably been the home of premier MMA in the last 15 years, and though time, many of the most exciting narratives involve a dominant fighter from an overseas organization taking a chance amongst the UFC’s best.

The last fight on the prelims tomorrow will feature UFC newcomer Jiri Prochazka (26-3-1 Career, 0-0 UFC), leaving his throne at Rizin, Japan’s top MMA promotion, to make his UFC debut against Volkan Oezdemir (17-4 Career, 5-3 UFC).

Prochazka has been tossed to the deep end for his first day on the job. Oezdemir is an 8-fight veteran who has fought for a UFC Title less than two years ago. An extremely steep hill to climb for a UFC debut.

The organization knows Prochazka can handle it, though, of his 26 career wins, 23 have been by way of knockout, 25 of 26 wins have been finishes, and has won 21 of his last 22 bouts (his lone loss was avenged in a rematch). He has beaten UFC veterans such as CB Dollaway and Fábio Maldonado, and sports an 80” reach with no joke power. I think he is going to make a huge splash against an established name.

Can’t Miss Fight – Andrade v Namajunas 2

My fight of the night prediction goes to the rematch between former UFC Champions Jessica Andrade (20-7 Career, 11-5 UFC) vs. Rose Namajunas (8-4 Career, 6-3 UFC). 

The first fight last May was a title fight, Namajunas was defending her strawweight title against a surging Andrade in her native Brazil. Namajunas started strong, but in the second round Andrade delivered a devastating slam on Namajunas’ neck for a KO victory. 

Andrade lost the belt to current champion Weili Zhang in her first defense, and this rematch marks the return from losses between two contenders at 115 lbs. The slam from Andrade was far from a fluke, but the abrupt ending in a high tempo fight left fans questioning how things could have transpired if Rose wasn’t rendered unconscious.

The rematch gives us that second look. Namajunas is undefeated in rematches, and the adjustments she makes to extend the success from the first round in their first fight could lead to a slugfest. This is a coin toss prediction here, take your pick.

Predictions

Main Card (7pm PST, PPV)

Usman def. Masvidal (Decision)

Holloway def. Volkanovski (Decision)

Yan def. Aldo (TKO)

Namajunas def. Andrade (Decision)

Ribas def. VanZant (Submission)

Prelims (5pm PST, ESPN) 

Prochazka def. Oezdemir (KO)

Salikov def. Dos Santos (KO)

Amirkhani def. Henry (Submission)

Bogatov def. Santos (Decision)

Early Prelims (3pm PST, ESPN)

Grishin def. Tybura (Decision)

Zhumagulov def. Paiva (Decision)

Rosa def. Melo (KO)

Day def. Grant (Decision)

Enjoy the Violence.

(Poster seen above drawn by @Dosbrak on Instagram)