UFC 251: The biggest takeaways and questions ahead of the Kamaru Usman-Jorge Masvidal main event

In a shocking turn of events, Kamaru Usman will defend the UFC welterweight title against Jorge Masvidal in the main event of UFC 251 this Saturday night on Fight Island. After Gilbert Burns was removed from the main event early Saturday, the UFC, which had been unsuccessful in negotiating a deal with Masvidal over the past few months, ultimately crafted an agreement to make one of the biggest fights possible a reality.

While the fight is now on the books, multiple hurdles still remain prior to the two stars meeting in the Octagon. The fighters will travel to Las Vegas before departing on a charter plane to the venue. They will need to pass additional COVID-19 tests in both the United States and upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, plus a third test after Friday’s weigh-ins.

If all goes as planned, one of the UFC’s biggest stars in Masvidal will get an opportunity to capture a real UFC title for the first time. Sure the “BMF” champ has that belt, but this is a different type of gold. Usman will be defending against a different type of fighter, one that he does not know as well as Burns, his former training partner.

How do we see the fight playing out? Does this deal mean Masvidal is back on good terms with the UFC after publicly critiquing them over the past few months? Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim discuss the latest news.

What is your biggest takeaway from Masvidal being added to UFC 251?

Helwani: It’s hard to choose just one. First, it’s just so crazy that the fight we all thought was going to happen (and wanted), then died, got brought back to life on a week’s notice. Pure madness. What a sport. But I guess when you’re the BMF champ you’re built for things like this. Can you imagine if Masvidal finally wins the UFC belt under these circumstances? He started two decades ago in the backyards of Miami, then grinded for 17 years, sees his popularity explode last year, wins the Fighter of the Year award, then is sidelined for most of 2020 and now he is days away from realizing a dream of being UFC champion. No one could have scripted this, but it is very fun. Here’s hoping both fighters pass the multiple COVID-19 tests and protocols coming their way and we finally get to see this grudge match play out in less than a week.

Okamoto: I’m surprised it came together, but I probably shouldn’t be. The UFC and its athletes have shown time and again this sport can be incredibly nimble when it needs to be. The UFC has been willing to step on the gas, roll the dice, and every other metaphor you can think of during this pandemic — and its athletes are almost always ready to jump at an opportunity. To be honest, I wish I could see this fight with a full build-up. I wish I could see it after both Usman and Masvidal have had full training camps, preparing for each other. But it’s no secret Masvidal has been training regularly, even during his contract dispute with the UFC, and Usman is obviously ready to go. This is the fight the sport wanted this entire time — it’s just a weird way to get to it. But hey, that’s 2020. And by the way, it’s great news the UFC and Masvidal are (at least for now) back on good terms. I will be interested to see if Masvidal will continue championing for better conditions for all athletes, even after his recent issues with the UFC have been resolved.

Raimondi: Hopefully Masvidal got paid what he wanted originally for this fight, and then some. Usman vs. Masvidal was the planned fight all along, the one many fans were hoping to see in early July for the welterweight title. But Burns was tabbed when Masvidal and the UFC couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Now, the two sides have a deal. Why didn’t it work out the first time, when Masvidal could have had a full training camp and Usman could have been preparing for Masvidal and not Burns? In the end, the fans will get what they want. Usman vs. Masvidal is a bigger headliner on Fight Island than Usman vs. Burns. That’s a positive thing. Masvidal should be reaping the reward of coming in on short notice, though.

Wagenheim: Desperately enlisting as a main-event substitute, the very fighter who should have been there in the first place is a delicious twist of fate. Is it really necessary, though? Usman vs. Masvidal is a red-hot fight, but considering the stakes — establishing who’s the UFC’s best welterweight — wouldn’t it be better to have both competitors enter the Octagon at their best? I’m just not a fan of hastily arranged late-replacement championship bouts. Too many questions can linger. And besides, UFC 251 was built to withstand loss, even loss of a main event. Look at what remained intact: two title bouts and a clash of former champs. That would have been a formidable enough fight card. Then, in a couple of months, give us Usman and Masvidal bolstered by full fight camps. We would have waited.

Who is taking the bigger risk: Usman or Masvidal?

Helwani: Usman. He’s been preparing for Burns this whole time, while Masvidal was on the outside looking in, just plotting. Sources say Masvidal never stopped training even once the fight went to Burns, so one would suspect he’s in good shape. Also, considering he is taking this fight on a week’s notice, Masvidal really has nothing to lose at this point. All the pressure is on Usman.

Okamoto: I wouldn’t say either is taking a bigger risk, honestly. This was always the fight to make. You can certainly make an argument that Masvidal is taking a risk, by accepting it on short notice — but he’s been in the gym training. He’s (presumably) getting the money he wanted for this fight. If he loses, he’s still a “BMF,” taking a title fight on seven days notice, flying to Fight Island. It’s all a great story for Masvidal, win or lose. And I guess you could argue that Usman is taking a risk, but he’s the champion. He’s always at risk. Any loss is massive, because it comes with the loss of a belt. But Masvidal is a much bigger name opponent than Gilbert Burns would have been. There’s more upside now for Usman, in terms of raising his stock. I don’t look at this fight as a risk for either guy, I look at is as opportunity.

Raimondi: Usman, and there’s no doubt about it. If Masvidal loses, not only does he get paid, but he has the built-in — and very legitimate — point that he came in on a week’s notice. Masvidal is the type of guy to not even make that as an excuse, but anyone watching will understand what’s going on. It’s a win-win for Masvidal. The best-case scenario is that he dethrones Usman and becomes welterweight champion in one of the most incredible stories in UFC history. If he loses? Well, he didn’t have a full camp and didn’t know he was going to Abu Dhabi until a few days prior.

How do you see the fight playing out?

Helwani: Usman should take the fight to the ground, while Masvidal should keep it standing. Masvidal’s wrestling is underrated and Usman’s striking has improved, so it will be interesting to see who will be able to negate the other’s strengths. I don’t suspect we’ll see a finish here. I think it goes the full five rounds. Worth noting, too, since it will likely be very humid over there by the time these two fight.

Okamoto: I believe Masvidal will make it competitive. He’s too experienced, too intelligent, just too good for me to think he’ll get blown out, even under these circumstances. I think the first and second rounds could be very tense. Usman will likely believe he has the wrestling edge and he’ll want to find out for sure, but cautiously. If Usman is able to secure a takedown early though, that’s the one scenario I could see the fight getting away from Masvidal quickly. If he comes out of the first round tired and roughed up from Usman’s ground game, it’s going to be very hard to turn that around in the Abu Dhabi heat, without a real camp.

Raimondi: With an opponent he has not trained for, I could see Usman relying a lot on his wrestling. That would be the most logical play for him and the place where he has the marked advantage over Masvidal, who is an electric striker. I don’t see Usman spending too much time — at least not by choice — with Masvidal in open space. I can see a lot of Usman pushing Masvidal up against the fence like how he did with Tyron Woodley last March. Smothering. It’ll be up to Masvidal to figure that out and get opportunities to land big shots in the stand up.

What do you do with Gilbert Burns?

Helwani: Have him fight Leon Edwards to determine the true No. 1 contender at 170. That’s what should have happened from the beginning. It should have been Usman vs. Masvidal and Burns vs. Edwards. It’s very unfortunate that this happened to Burns, however, this has happened before. If he waits for the winner, he’d likely have to wait several months. That’s not ideal. Here’s hoping he gets well soon and then fights Edwards in the near future.

Okamoto: If Masvidal were to win, you never know what he’s going to say or who he’s going to call out — because at that point, he might have the ability to call his shot. He will have hit that rarefied air of becoming a legitimate superstar AND a UFC champion at the same time. He could (and probably will) call out Conor McGregor, and the sports world would eat it up. He could say he wants to grant Nate Diaz a rematch of their BMF title fight in November. He could fight his former friend and roommate, Colby Covington, and that would sell very well. I don’t think he’d be calling out Burns, even though that’s who should get the shot. If Usman wins, I believe it’s obvious Burns would get the next shot. For now, Burns should get healthy and see what happens on Fight Island. It’s hard to say what’s next for him until we see what happens on July 11.

Raimondi: There are options. Burns is still red-hot, coming off wins over Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley. Burns could fight Colby Covington in August at the UFC Apex. That would be a legitimate Fight Night main event, maybe even the co-main event of UFC 252. Or Burns could wait until the UFC heads back to Abu Dhabi — maybe September or October? — and fight Leon Edwards. Those are fantastic fights. Unless the UFC has guaranteed Burns the next title shot after Usman vs. Masvidal. If that’s the case, Burns can get some much-needed rest. He’s been a busy guy.

Do you think this signals Masvidal and the UFC are back on good terms and he’ll stay active even if he loses?

Helwani: To a degree, yes. I’d like to think so. Of course, who knows what happens if he wins. He’ll then have a lot more power and leverage on his side and it will be interesting to see how he uses that, but all sides seem happy with how this played out and are in good spirits. That’s great news considering the ugliness of this past month.

Okamoto: Not necessarily. It’s impossible to know for sure, until we hear from Masvidal himself. Only he knows if he’s truly happy with his contract. The financial impact of him winning or losing this fight is probably pretty massive. Like I said earlier, if he wins, he holds a lot of cards, and he’ll be in high, high demand. If he loses — and particularly, if he loses bad — he’s still a bigger draw than the vast majority of the UFC’s roster, but his ability to demand “super money” for “super fights” would take a big hit. Keep in mind, it was basically yesterday the UFC was willing to move on from Masvidal in the welterweight title picture. If he loses at UFC 251, I could certainly see a world in which the two sides disagree again on what he’s worth.

Raimondi: Too soon to say that. It’s certainly a good sign that this is happening for both parties involved. But depending on the result of this fight and what the plan is next for Masvidal they could come to another impasse. In a world where Masvidal becomes UFC welterweight champion after taking the fight on short notice, it would lift Masvidal’s star to unforeseen heights. You’d imagine, if that were to go down, Masvidal would be asking for enormous money for his first title defense. We’ll see.

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