By Omar Bartra
UFC 251 kicks-off the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s stint on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, July 11, a series of events aptly named and promoted as “Fight Island.”
UFC has three title fights scheduled and I will break down, give my predictions and provide additional information on the fighters competing to become world champions ahead of this weekend’s fights.
The Bantamweight belt is the first of three World Championship bouts following “Triple C” Henry Cejudo vacating the title with his retirement. Former UFC Champion José Aldo is considered the greatest Featherweight, 145 pounds, of all time. However, Aldo will attempt to continue his run at Bantamweight, 135 pounds, by winning the title. Standing in his way is 27-year-old up-and-comer, Petr Yan. Yan enters the fight confident that his long winning streak will not be broken this Saturday.
Aldo is a legendary figure in the sport. His boxing, head movement and dreadful leg kicks are beautiful to witness. Aldo defends at an incredible 91% of his opponent’s takedowns throughout his career. However, if the fight ends up on the ground, Aldo will not be left without options when you consider his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Andre Pedianeras and his 2004 World Cup Jiu-Jitsu Championship.
I’d recommend checking out Aldo’s fight against Renato Moicano at UFC Fortaleza in early 2019. Here you can see a perfect example of all of Aldo’s skill and famed “killer instinct” to overwhelm his opponents into wilting when he senses they are hurt.
Yan exploded onto the MMA scene and really shows off the younger generation of fighters. Aldo had already defended his belt seven times, albeit at a weight class above 145 pounds at Featherweight, before Yan had made his debut in Siberia in December 2014. Yan made his UFC debut in 2018 against fan favorite Teruto Ishihara, whom he finished via knockout in the first round. Yan hasn’t lost since 2016 and is on a nine-fight win streak, three via KO. He has fought many respectable big name opponents like Former Title Challenger John Dodson, Jimmie Rivera and all-time great Urijah Faber.
Yan achieved the official rank of Master of Sport in boxing from the official Unified Sports Classification System of the USSR and Russia. His striking is very polished, power is evident and his kicking game is impressive as well as having trained in Taekwon-Don for most of his life. The only hole in his game is grappling while holding 87% takedown defense. Yan has conceded two takedowns to Dodson, a former 125-pound fighter, much smaller than Aldo who has fought as high as 155 pounds. To familiarize yourself with Petr, I’d recommend watching his fight against Faber, earning him an opportunity at the Bantamweight championship.
Bantamweight Title Prediction
Aldo’s experience and striking defense serves as a huge threat to Yan. Aldo has claimed victory in 11 of 14 UFC/WEC title fights, seven of which have gone all five, five-minute rounds. Petr has gone five rounds only once, the only loss of his career. I believe Aldo’s size, movement and leg kicks are too much for Yan. Not to mention if Aldo decides to use his grappling ability, something not seen since the Chan Sung Jung fight in 2013.
Yan is making a huge jump from the bottom of his division to the number three fighter in the world. I believe Yan is being slightly rushed into this title shot and while he has potential to become a champion in his career, he needs to improve before that and this fight will be a big learning experience. My prediction is an Aldo victory by KO/TKO in either the fourth or fifth round after hard fought early rounds.
The second championship fight taking place on Saturday is a rematch between current champion Alexander Volkanovski and the man he dethroned last December, Max “Blessed” Holloway. Alexander had a clear and decisive victory over Holloway and this fight stands to see if Holloway can make adjustments to reclaim the belt he held for three years.
Holloway is very unique in that he had no huge accolades before he began his MMA career outside of being an amateur kickboxer around his high school years. The pride of Hawaii earned a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and while that is impressive, it does not measure up to his peers at such a high level. Holloway has submitted experience grappler Andre Fili and Cub Swanson with a guillotine submission.
Nobody expected the evolution of Holloway after splitting his first six fights as the youngest fighter on the roster at the time. He has won 12 straight fights, finishing 10 while climbing the ranks to become champion. His success is due to his creativity and ability to use his height and reach. Holloway is a very entertaining fighter to watch due to his personality and incredible fighting ability. One fight alone does not do the skill of Holloway justice, so I recommend this short video showcasing a few of his different finishes throughout the years.
Volkanovski is riding one of the longest win streaks in MMA today, an undefeated streak of 18 straight fights dating back to 2013. Volkanovski was a South Coast Rugby League MVP while training MMA to stay in shape. He was a Greco-Roman wrestler and won a national title when he was 12-years-old. Volkanovski is a mixture of two skills resulting in one of the best pressure fighters in all of MMA. The most important tool I believe in his fighting style is the usage of leg kicks. He uses his leg kicks to throw his opponents off balance in the pocket reminiscent of Justin Gaethje, but without the recklessness. He carefully places his kicks to put his opponents in disadvantageous positions and this video showcases the latter half and striking accuracy.
Featherweight Title Prediction
While I believe Holloway has a chance to win this fight if he makes necessary adjustments to deal with leg kicks and pressure of Volkanovski, if the rumors are true and he has been training on Zoom with his coaches because of the quarantine, it definitely is not a good look. Volkanovski is an incredible athlete with tremendous skill. With 2019 Coach of the Year Eugene Bareman in his corner, I believe that they will be prepared for any situation that is presented to them. Holloway was very uncomfortable due to the stylistic match up in their first meeting. Things may change, but my belief is that Volkanovski will defend his 145-pound title for the first time this Saturday. This will be a much closer fight this time around, but I predict a decision victory for the defending Aussie champion.
The main event of Saturday’s card was originally supposed to be Kamaru Usman versus surging contender Gilbert Burns, but COVID-19 derailed those plans. However, many people believe that his replacement leads to a better fight, or at least a better spectacle. Jose Masvidal stepped up to the plate and is challenging the scariest man in the division on six days’ notice.
Masvidal is entering this bout as the fighter with the most experience, entering their first title match with 48 fights. Usman enters the fight as nothing short of a dominant force in the Welterweight, 170 pound division and a clear favorite in this fight. The rivalry between Usman and Masvidal has been growing for so long and it finally comes to an end this weekend. The fact that fans and the fighters have only had a week to adjust to this long awaited fight has only created more excitement and hype behind this incredibly important fight in the entire UFC.
Masvidal’s history is well known to most, beginning with features in YouTube brawler Kimbo Slice’s Miami backyard brawls, fighting older and larger men like Kimbo’s own protégé Ray. Masvidal wrestled in high school and was involved in the striking game since he was young. He lived and trained in JuCo wrestling and with Pac-10 division champion Colby Covington for eight years and continued to train with high level MMA fighters and strikers at American Top Team, one of the best gyms in the country.
For this fight, Masvidal has trained with four-time NCAA finalist and three-time champion wrestler Bo Nickal, who has high praise for Masvidal’s wrestling. It’s no surprise considering he has trained with fellow Cuban Yoel Romero at almost an 80% takedown defense. Gamebred’s career resurgence has been in large part due to boxing coach Paulino Hernandez, who at the time was on the Cuban Olympic team for Boxing and Taekwon-Do.
Masvidal credits much of his recent success to realizing that he needs to finish his fights when he took time off to be on the South American game show “Exatlon Estados Unidos.” His career has been riddled with split decision losses and close fights where he says he coasted to the finish. Since his return and “change of mindset,” Masvidal has had three knockout finishes, one of which being the fastest knockout in UFC history.
Darren Till was the number one contender at the beginning of 2019, but Masvidal took the fight and showcased his new mindset and killer instinct in a fight that showcases his skills.
Usman began his MMA journey in 2012 after a successful career as an amateur wrestler, amassing a record of 53-3 in high school and becoming an NCAA Division II All-American and champion. He had only six professional fights before making it to the Ultimate Fighter television show for a chance to make it into the UFC. After winning the show, he has amassed a 10 fight winning streak in the UFC, as well as now being on the short list of Ultimate Fighter winners to become a UFC champion.
An interesting addition to Usman’s training camp is the fact he left his normal gym, Hard Knocks 365, because Burns trained there as well. He moved to the Grudge training center which houses fighters like former women’s champion Rose Namajunas, who also fights on this card, and new interim lightweight champion, Justin Gaethje.
Head coach Trevor Wittman has one of the best minds in the sport and his mind forms incredible game plans which lead to great upsets, such as Namajunas beating the greatest women’s strawweight of all-time, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, and Gathje beating the Boogeyman of the lightweight division in Tony Ferguson.
Usman is a smothering fighter with an uncanny ability to use wrestling and striking mix ups in the clinch to hurt, overwhelm and drown his opponents in the barrage of attacks or takedowns. He absolutely decimated champion Tyron Woodley to take the belt because of his style and Woodley’s inability to adjust. He also managed to defend all 15 of Demain Maia’s takedowns in their fight showing his grappling ability against one of the best the MMA world has ever seen.
He also managed to run through Rafael Dos Anjos by out striking and taking him down an incredible 12 times. Usman managed to finish Colby Covington, who was also 15-1 at the time, in the fifth round. Normally I would not recommend a five-round fight to familiarize with a fighter, but this fight came in second place for best fight of last year and showcases the abilities of Usman explained as a nightmare for the fighters of the division where he currently reigns as king.
Welterweight Title Prediction
This fight will not be easy for either of these fighters. Stylistically, it seems to be a nightmare on the surface for Jorge Masvidal, who primarily is a striker. However, with his wrestling experience, I feel like he can keep the fight standing in the early game and finish Usman with his far superior striking. The longer the fight drags on, the more likely Usman is to win, not just for the fact that Jorge is taking his fight on seven days’ notice and did not have a proper training camp, but Usman’s style is much more tailored to longer fights. My prediction is Masvidal by first or second round via TO/TKO.
Featured image by Omar Bartra.