The excitement Jorge Masvidal injected into UFC 251 when he replaced Gilbert Burns in the main event on Fight Island appeared ready to erupt in the first round Sunday morning, when the challenger came out aggressively, but champion Kamaru Usman knew success depended on focus and patience.
Those aren’t traits of an exciting fight, but they combined to help Usman secure a unanimous decision victory over Masvidal, who had less than a week to prepare. Some will argue the outcome would have been different if Masvidal had more time to prepare, while others are tired of hearing excuses when Usman wins.
The lack of fireworks might have disappointed some fans tuning into the first of four cards on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, but the card still provided plenty of compelling storylines.
Did Alexander Volkanovski really deserve that split decision over Max Holloway?
Was Petr Yan’s performance enough to entice Henry Cejudo out of retirement?
Has Rose Namajunas returned to form? What will Paige VanZant’s legacy in the UFC be if she does end up leaving the promotion?
ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi break down UFC 251.
Helwani: I hope this doesn’t seem like I’m taking anything away from Usman, because I really don’t want to, but my biggest takeaway is Masvidal gassed out. And I can’t help but wonder if they just would have booked this fight from the beginning, would he have been in better shape? I think so. Masvidal doesn’t typically gas out, and he looked really good early on. I scored the first round for Gamebred. But in the end, Usman did what he had to do to win. Was it pretty? Not really. Will it gain him new fans? No. But that doesn’t matter right now. He got the win against his bitter rival, and now Usman can move on with his life. Here’s hoping the UFC has Usman fight the winner of Leon Edwards vs. Gilbert Burns next, while Masvidal runs it back with Nathan Diaz.
Murphy: Remember when COVID-19 forced Gilbert Burns from UFC 251? We marveled when the UFC secured Jorge Masvidal, a more in-demand fill-in, but oddsmakers made Kamaru Usman a heavier favorite. It turns out there’s a reason those casinos are so big. And it turns out the better fight was what we originally had.
Bad blood sells pay-per-views; it does not guarantee fireworks when the cage door shuts. Masvidal did not have an answer for Usman, and no one would vote the main event as Fight of the Night.
It’s hard not to feel disappointed this failed to entertain like Conor McGregor’s feud against Nathan Diaz or Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz or any other great, heated rivalry. Usman-Masvidal proved a stylistic mismatch bereft of memorable moments.
Thankfully, waiting in the wings is a challenger riding a wave of momentum with a skill set more suited to counter Usman’s strengths. Book the former Mundial champion Burns for the fall, then we’ll see the greatness and versatility of Usman more thoroughly displayed.
Okamoto: It was not a fun fight to watch. I think everyone would agree with that. But how much am I going to hold that against Usman? Not at all. Zero. It’d be easy to say this was Usman’s chance to really gain new fans and go out and make this an entertaining fight — but that would also be a ridiculous thing to say. He had a clear path to victory here, and he took it. Just about every time there was space between these two, Masvidal was getting the better of it. Why would he willingly engage in that? Usman’s most recent fight, against Colby Covington, was one of the most entertaining of 2019, and where did that get him? Usman still went into this one ceding most of the attention to Masvidal. Usman had a ton to lose in this fight. Had he lost to Masvidal on six days’ notice, it would take a whole lot to come back from that. I would have liked to see a more exciting fight, like everyone else, but I don’t blame Usman at all for the game plan he utilized.
Raimondi: It was a fairly predictable outcome, with Masvidal coming in on short notice. Masvidal came out firing early, and I thought he won the first round. He landed hard, pushed the pace and, for the most part, kept Usman off him. With a full training camp, there likely would have been more of that. But with Masvidal only signing to fight one week ago, Usman was able to take control with his grinding style in the second round and pretty much keep it the rest of the way through. With a legitimate training camp, Masvidal has better cardio and can keep his substantial explosiveness for much longer. I’d like to see them have a rematch down the road. Take nothing away from Usman. Maybe if Masvidal came in under ordinary circumstances it would have gone down exactly the same way. Usman is fantastic — one of the best in the world pound-for-pound. But there are some unanswered questions here in my mind.
Helwani: I thought it was a really close, fun fight. I scored it 3-2 for Holloway. I thought Holloway won the first and second rather convincingly, and then I thought Volkanovski won Rounds 3 and 4. Round 5 was a close one, but I scored it for Holloway. Worth noting: All three judges agreed with me on Rounds 1 through 4, while two had the fifth for the Aussie. Tough break for Holloway, who I thought looked really good early and made solid adjustments since the first fight. Speaking of adjustments, I thought Volkanovski made great ones after it was clear Holloway got the best of him early on. In the end, not a robbery, just a really, really close fight.
Murphy: Asking, “Who won the 25 minutes?” and “Who won each of the five rounds?” yields different answers.
Holloway’s body of work was more convincing; Volkanovski won three of the five stanzas. The fight was too close to call it a robbery. A case can be made for either fighter, particularly in the decisive third round.
Debate will center on the judges themselves. In an empty arena, they’re no longer influenced by a crowd. But if they’re within earshot of commentary, opinions could just as easily be swayed.
I feel for Clemens Werner, the judge whose scores were read last. This was only his fourth UFC event and his first championship bout, according to MMADecisions.com. His inexperience — even with a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the fight — will lead some to question his credentials, and with it the legitimacy of Volkanovski’s win.
Okamoto: I thought they reflected what happened. They were as close as you can get. Split decision, all 48-47. Either way that decision went, people were going to disagree. Not a robbery at all — even though you knew that word was going to get thrown around afterward. The first two rounds I thought were pretty clearly Holloway. Two knockdowns. The fourth round was clearly Volkanovski, in my opinion. The third and fifth were very close, as I watched live. You take all that into consideration and you might have split scores. It’s tough that Holloway has to drop to 1-3 in his past four fights after a loss like this. It makes it feel like he has fallen further than he really has. And for the record, I did score it for Holloway. But guys, we have to stop using the word “robbery” every time there’s a close fight. There are robberies from time to time in this sport; this wasn’t one of them.
Raimondi: It was an extremely close fight. No robbery on the cards whatsoever. It truly could have gone either way. I actually had Volkanovski winning 48-47. I had Holloway winning the first two rounds and Volkanovski winning the final three. The final three rounds were closer than the first two, though. Holloway definitely won the first two, and if the judges had him winning one of the final three, I would have totally understood. MMA is not a sport like many others. There’s no final, cut-and-dried score at the end, with one team having more points than the other. It’s called “judging” for a reason. It’s imperfect and inexact. I can understand why some people will be upset, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
Helwani: Yes, absolutely. But not quite yet. I want to see Aljamain Sterling get his title shot next. I think he has earned it, especially after his win over Cory Sandhagen last month and his current winning streak. With Cejudo playing the hard-to-get game at the moment — and not doing a great job at it, I might add — Sterling deserves it. Then have the winner face Cejudo next year. I firmly believe Cejudo will come back at some point, and I’d love to see him fight Yan. Truly. But not yet. The division is on fire right now and could use some fresh matchups. Keep it going this way. Plus, Yan and Sterling have a legit beef, so the buildup will be very fun.
Murphy: I want to see Henry Cejudo fight for a belt again, because he is among the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. Petr Yan, a deserved champion, has nothing to do with that desire.
If the barrel had run dry at bantamweight, perhaps there would be more desperation to see Triple C back in the UFC. But the 135-pound weight class is among the deepest in the sport. Yan’s first title defense could just as easily come against Marlon Moraes — originally scheduled to face Yan in June in Kazakhstan — or fast-rising Aljamain Sterling. A step behind those active options, former champ Cody Garbrandt seems to be rejuvenated under Mark Henry’s striking tutelage, and Sean O’Malley is arguably the hottest prospect in the sport. It’s shaping up to be an exciting 12 to 24 months up and down the bantamweight ladder, with or without Cejudo.
The former champ certainly adds to that rich menu of options. It feels inevitable we’ll see him challenge for a belt again. In the meantime, it’s refreshing to see new names get their shot.
Okamoto: Let me preface this by saying I am down to see Cejudo come back whenever. He is on the short list for the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world right now. Of course I want to see him compete. If you’re a fan of this sport, you want to see the best, and that undeniably includes Cejudo. But to answer the question more specifically: no. Why? Why would Cejudo retire and give up his belt, only to come back immediately to face the first dude who wins it? In that case, shouldn’t he have just, I don’t know, not retired? I do believe Cejudo will be back when it makes the most sense. When is that? I’m not sure. I think we’ll know it when we see it. But for right now, Yan is the new champ — let him be that. And Aljamain Sterling deserves a title shot.
Raimondi: Of course. I don’t think many people — outside of his haters — wanted to see Cejudo retire in the first place. One of the reasons he stepped away, I’d imagine, was because of a lack of big-name contenders at bantamweight. The 135-pound division is very good. It’s one of the deepest in the UFC at the top. But in terms of big-money draws, they weren’t there. That’s why Cejudo kept calling out people such as Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz. He was looking to add to his legacy by facing legends and making some money in the process. After Yan’s performance at UFC 251, you have to believe Cejudo’s competitive juices are flowing. Cejudo can come back and become a two-time champion versus an extremely worthy contender. Aljamain Sterling should not get passed up again for a title shot, but of course, a Cejudo comeback would be great for the division.
Helwani: While her face was banged up afterward, make no mistake about it: It was a great night at UFC 251 for Rose Namajunas. She clearly won the first two rounds, in my opinion. She exorcised the demons of her loss to Jessica Andrade in May 2019, and she reasserted herself as one of the best strawweights in the world. Did Namajunas have a round quite like the first round of their first fight last year? No. But she was darn close. She is one of my favorite fighters to watch because of her crisp and fluid striking, and it was great to see her back in good form. Now, it got dicey in the third, no doubt about it, but Namajunas weathered the storm and got a well-deserved win. I wouldn’t mind seeing her fight Zhang Weili next after a victory like that.
Murphy: “Thug” Rose picked up where she left off — thankfully, aside from getting picked up and slammed down.
At UFC 237, Namajunas put on a striking clinic before Jessica Andrade abruptly ended the show with an unforgettable slam KO. Namajunas’ opening exchanges at UFC 251 proved time away from the Octagon provided the ever-desired “rest without rust.” Namajunas looked sharp enough to press current champion Zhang Weili. Namajunas’ best avenue to getting back the belt is the approach similar to that taken by Joanna Jedrzejczyk in her Fight of the Year-caliber loss to Zhang. I imagine oddsmakers would project a fairly even fight, with Zhang as a slight favorite, influenced by some vulnerably shown by Namajunas in the third round against Andrade.
Okamoto: I thought it was absolutely phenomenal for 10 minutes, clearly. The last five minutes, Jessica Andrade roughed her up. But that’s all right, as far as I’m concerned. Let’s not pretend Andrade isn’t an elite, former world champion herself. Andrade went into “desperation” mode — as Namajunas called it — and Namajunas ended up wearing some of it in the end. Fine. Namajunas still looked like perhaps the best 115-pound fighter in the world in the first and second rounds, and she dug deep and survived the third round when she needed to. When Namajunas is on, there aren’t many fighters in the world I’d rather watch. And she’s only 28. The sport is better when she is active. Now with all that said, I don’t think this performance has to send Namajunas immediately into a title fight. Personally, I’d be in favor of seeing the rematch between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk and having Namajunas fight the winner.
Raimondi: She really didn’t lose a step. It was pretty impressive to behold. Now I actually thought Andrade did better in this fight than the first one (prior to the slam knockout, of course). But Namajunas looked really smooth on the feet. Her jab was popping, and her movement was slick. So much of her game is predicated on timing and rhythm, yet it never seems like ring rust creeps in, no matter how long she was out and for what reason. Namajunas, to me, still has a chance to be a big star in the UFC, if she chooses to be. “Thug Rose” has things more dear to her than fame — like urban farming. But let’s face it, skill for skill, Namajunas might still be the best in what has become a really solid strawweight division.
Helwani: First off, smart money says that was VanZant’s final fight in the UFC. She rolled the dice and, unfortunately for her, lost. I suspect she’ll now join her husband, the undefeated Austin Vanderford, in Bellator. I know Bellator is interested in her services, but one wonders if her stock dropped a bit after that performance. That’s the risk with fighting out a contract. But she ultimately wasn’t happy and had to do it, in her opinion. That said, despite the fact the contract ended on this note, I don’t think it’s fair to say her UFC run was a total waste. Her four UFC losses came against tough fighters (Rose Namajunas, Michelle Waterson, Jessica-Rose Clark and Amanda Ribas). Nothing to scoff at. VanZant’s record inside the Octagon is 5-4, and while none of her wins came against elite competition, she was always game and made the most of her run. Next for her is another arm surgery, which she knew she would have to undergo before this fight, and then free agency.
Murphy: VanZant’s early UFC success generated a marketing push that set expectations beyond what she ever reached. While PVZ benefited immensely from her popularity — landing on “Dancing With the Stars” objectively boosted the bank account — that brought greater scrutiny when results became inconsistent. It’s fair to acknowledge losses, but schadenfreude felt excessive from a subsection of fans and fighters when VanZant faltered.
I will remember VanZant as somebody who brought the fight. It is rare for any strawweight or flyweight to have seven of nine fights end in finishes. She also had underrated toughness. In a lopsided loss to Rose Namajunas — which doesn’t look as bad in retrospect — there were several exit ramps PVZ could have taken. Bloodied, she pressed on. VanZant refused to tap in a loss to Michelle Waterson. Recent years were hampered by a broken arm suffered in a loss to Jessica-Rose Clark, a fight that went all 15 minutes despite the injury.
Five wins in nine Octagon appearances won’t land VanZant in the Hall of Fame. But she made fight cards better, period. As far as where she’ll go next, that’s easy: She will almost certainly join her husband in Bellator.
Okamoto: History will probably remember VanZant’s time in the UFC as more of a “marketable fighter” than a real fighter, which I think is extremely unfair; but it’s the reality I see for her. VanZant’s popularity and name recognition always exceeded what she had accomplished in the Octagon, and because of that, I think it’s just natural for a lot of people to discredit what she did. How many times over the course of VanZant’s career did we hear things like, “How long will she fight? She’s got so many other options. She should just go to Hollywood.” And how many times did VanZant respond — either directly saying it or through her actions — that she is and was always a fighter first? The only women VanZant lost to in the UFC were Amanda Ribas (who is looking like a future contender), Michelle Waterson (a 115-pound mainstay), Rose Namajunas (a former champion) and Jessica-Rose Clark (against whom she broke her arm). VanZant was a fighter in the UFC, even if she also was a marketing tool. And I’m guessing she will go to Bellator MMA.
Raimondi: From 2014 to 2016, the future looked incredibly bright for VanZant. She was winning fights, lost a war against Rose Namajunas (who later became strawweight champion) and was granted a spot on “Dancing With the Stars.” At the time, she was one of the most popular female fighters in the UFC. After the show, she returned with a jumping kick knockout over Bec Rawlings and it seemed like a star would be born. Since then, though, she has lost three of four and has dealt with injuries and weight-cutting issues.
VanZant certainly did not live up to her potential, but she’s still only 26 years old. This is an MMA world where Jorge Masvidal became a true mainstream star at 34 years old, 16 years into his career. In all likelihood, VanZant will end up in Bellator with her husband, Austin Vanderford. There, she will be given the opportunity to rehab her career. It should be fun to watch.
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