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UFC 251: Usman vs Masvidal main card preview

UFC 251 is almost here, and we’re gonna get a good look at a mighty healthy card that could be an all-time banger.

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What was already a spectacular event has been made even more intriguing at the top—to build UFC 251 into a must-watch main card. It’s a five-fight PPV with three title fights, including Alexander Volkanovski’s rematch with Max Holloway for the featherweight belt and a fight for the vacant bantamweight title between Jose Aldo and Petr Yan. We’re getting fight fans primed for everything, right here, except the main event.

Alexander Volkanovski vs Max Holloway

Volkanovski (21-1) made it to the UFC in 2016, and strung together a few rock solid wins on his way to discombobulating Chad Mendes and decoding Jose Aldo and Max Holloway. Constant pressure, keeping his opponents on their back foot while disrupting their rhythm and movement, cutting off angles and outworking them in the clinch has paid dividends for the Aussie.

It’s a strategy that flustered Aldo to the point of making him gunshy, and broke past the mid-range against Holloway. Once inside, the ‘Great’ manages to land damage to the head and body effectively, mixing that up with leg kicks on the way in and overwhelming opponents with that rugby strength.

Holloway is in a strange position. Losing his title to Volkanovski seemed like a real heartbreaker for him, especially in a close fight where he seemed flustered at not making the kind of progress he’d hoped for. Now he’s in a rematch he claims he didn’t even want, trying to work his way back to the crown. Slick boxing and great use of range gets you very far in a game like this, and with Holloway’s penchant for turning up the volume late in fights or as soon as an opponent is hurt, he’s got a certain recipe to fall back on. Problem is there was no real Plan B for the ways the new champ was able to shut him out.

So maybe his team has figured out what to improve this time around. For a fighter of Max’s caliber it seems both possible and likely. The problem now lies in executing that plan. Pandemic life reportedly has Max training remotely via Zoom sessions with no sparring. It’s a claim that Volkanovski is most certainly not buying, but it still could be a massive challenge for Holloway regardless of his opponent’s expectations. While the bout isn’t expected to contain a lot of grappling, fans will almost certainly see lots of feints, mixups, and battles for positioning inside during clinches. This should be a technical delight to watch.

Petr Yan vs Jose Aldo

Petr Yan (14-1) did some marvelous work over at ACB. Whether it was luring opponents into swinging fistic duels, where he could switch things up with superior technique, or just outclassing his quarry in every aspect—be it groundfighting or striking. Throughout his young career it’s been clear that he’s a special kind of fighter. This is the odd talent that wasn’t just ready for the UFC, but ready to jump into the deep end and hang with the big dogs immediately. Wins over John Dodson and Jimmie Rivera were good, but it was the obliteration of fan-favorite Urijah Faber that really got people’s attention.

OK, sure—a win over an older Faber shouldn’t have gotten him more respect than a win over Rivera, but that’s the world we live in. The point is that he finally beat a name that got fans realizing maybe this dude really is that good. And he is!! The only reason he didn’t get a title fight sooner is the longstanding logjam of challengers in the bantamweight division, created by Cejudo, Cruz, and Dillashaw.

And while it’s reasonable to suggest there are other more deserving conders than Jose Aldo (28-6) this could also be construed as the UFC giving the former featherweight king the respect he earned for a long and dominant career—while also offering him an opportunity to win another title. It does come with an extra beit of weirdness, however, considering he lost his debut in the bantamweight division to Marlon Moraes on the scorecards. While many (myself included) believe he should have gotten the nod, it’s not a great look for booking a vacant title fight. But perhaps it’s just a sign the UFC agrees with fans who felt Aldo got cheated, and in the end they’ll do what they want anyway.

All that aside, Yan could get to the top of the mountain with his hard striking, sharp counters and beautiful accuracy. He can wrestle, defend submissions, and has very good cardio. On the other hand, Aldo still has a very versatile striking arsenal despite not relying on his leg kicks as much as he used to.

What can we expect? Another striking showdown, with Aldo employing superior footwork as long as he’s not pressured to move back too much, and doesn’t get cracked by Yan’s bunkerbusters. Aldo may be older and fighting at a lower weight class, but his weight cut looked much better this time around and he appears to be in good spirits. Maybe he’ll have the hang of things this time. But he’ll need to mind every last detail, because Yan is the last guy to make mistakes against at bantamweight. Aldo should be competitive here, but Yan has clear reasons to be the favorite.

Jessica Andrade vs Rose Namajunas

Much like Rose vs Joanna 2 was a close and competitive firefight between two elite talents, fans shouldn’t expect this to be a repeat of the first encounter between Andrade and Namajunas. ‘Bate Estaca’ (20-7) never gets enough credit for fighting smart, utilizing her boxing effectively with feints and hand traps, or forcing opponents to work while moving backwards. She also doesn’t get enough credit for improving her wrestling, being a submission threat, or her varied strikes on the ground. Winning via slam for a championship didn’t help improve that image, nor did her subsequent quick loss to Weili Zhang. Still, that KO feels like an outlier, much the same as Rose getting knocked out was.

Rose Namajunas (8-4) has perfected her defensive wrestling and submission defense, and worked from her past as an effective pest in the striking department, to being the one that knocked out Joanna ‘Former Champion’ at a time when Jedrzejczyk looked almost invincible. Andrade will have to worry about counters here, and pace herself to not get caught off-guard by Rose’s striking or surprise submission attempts. Training with Trevor Wittman (and being a sometime training partner of Valentina Shevchenko) does a lot for a woman like that, and we should be seeing another extended technical duel on this card.

Paige VanZant vs Amanda Ribas

VanZant (8-4) gets a bit of an unfair knock for some of her losses and shortcomings, when she’s never claimed to be among MMA’s elite in the first place. Injuries have been a problem for some time, but she has managed to get some good wins Bec Rawlings, Alex Chambers and Rachael Ostovich. The problem has been getting over the hump to another level of opposition. She’s ended up with losses to Rose Namajunas, Jessica Rose-Clark and Michelle Waterson in the process.

Amanda Ribas (9-1) is a talent on the rise, and yet another possible stumbling block for Paige. Have you seen her Judo? Ed Gallo has, and you can see him break down just how damn good Ribas is with it.

This isn’t the usual wrestle-boxer with some BJJ that will double-leg you, this is a prime prospect, albeit one that’s been somewhat overlooked. Still Ribas has strong reasons to be seen as the favorite here. Her striking is patient and composed, her leg kicks have a great snap to them, her overall game is coming together nicely, and she’s not what most women are used to in her division. Wins over submission aces Emily Whitmire and Mackenzie Dern were great, and a win over a power wrestler like Randa Markos adds another wrinkle. Opponents aren’t going to outgrapple her easily, because the better ones in the division have already tried. Maybe Paige can find success with her kicks and drowning Amanda with volume, but that’s a tall order. My advice? Watch this to see where a future title contender gets a win over a notable name and makes herself visible to the casual fans.

UFC 251’s main card starts at 10:00pm EST, and will be streaming exclusively on ESPN+.