Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal face off at UFC 261 this Saturday, April 24, 2021 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. The card is also expected to feature a women’s strawweight title fight between Weili Zhang and former champion Rose Namajunas, as well as a women’s flyweight title fight between Valentina Shevchenko and Jessica Andrade.
One sentence summary
David: The rare rematch nobody asked for, yet have happily accepted.
Phil: That Ben Askren KO must be ageing super well for Masvidal to get another title shot, huh?
Record: Kamaru Usman 18-1, Jorge Masvidal 35-14
Odds: Kamaru Usman -440, Jorge Masvidal +350
Introduction to the fighters
David: Usman is falling into what welterweight, unlike other divisions, has been able to do every now and then: the production of dominant champions. The difference here is that I don’t think the UFC cares, or is particularly invested in Usman as the WW figurehead. This matchup right here doesn’t even feel deliberate. It just feels arbitrary. Like the UFC simply said to themselves ‘who’s up next on the welterweight sheet? Edwards? Covington? Whatever. Just do Usman vs. Masvidal again.’
I don’t have a major gripe with the fight. The alternatives weren’t exactly mandatory, and even though Edwards needs to be fighting for the title, mf’ing close your damn hands! This isn’t the step Usman needs to take in order to further establish himself as a WW great, but it’s not gonna hurt either. Masvidal, for however he got here, remains a technical yet dangerous opponent.
Phil: Ah, the legendary foresight of the UFC brass. They have a legitimate heir to GSP’s era of dominance at welterweight, and here they are trying to ruin all the goodwill he may have won with an exciting win by putting him right back against a fan favourite that he ground out the last time they fought.
It may not matter, in the end; Usman may not be resonating with fans in the same way that GSP did, but he is similarly ‘That Guy’ in his division—where it is simply hard to find someone that you could favour to beat him. Thus the weird gimmick matchups (and Masvidal remains infinitely more dangerous than, say, Dan Hardy) are similarly forgivable, because you just want to see greatness be great. To an extent, anyway. I don’t think we need to see a trilogy if Usman wins.
David: Masvidal is here because matchmaking made a magic show of his skills at a time when his skills were otherwise lacking in magic. It’s amazing what the fastest KO in UFC history and a belt grafted out of a Pulp Fiction joke will do for public perception. Make no mistake. Masvidal is a talented fighter whose image undersells the complexity of his game. For the longest time, he was an underrated fighter beating prospects in their prime (Lauzon, Edwards, Kitaoka). It’s fitting that a career arbitrarily stuck in the shadows would end up superficially in the spotlight. More power to him.
Phil: Masvidal is clearly at the cashing out stage. In some ways, its hard to begrudge him. He had a long, immensely tough, immensely frustrating MMA career where he was forever denied that key step-up moment. Robbed against Iaquinta, flash-dropped by Khabilov, tapped by Imada... wherever he went he was one of the most technical, skilled fighters on roster. Then all his bad luck turned around, with a couple of viral finishes of Till and Askren, and that “BMF” bout against Diaz.
Now he has his own tequila, is starting his own bareknuckle promotion, and is surprisingly one of the UFC’s biggest stars. He has the leverage to jump straight back into a title fight after a pretty dismal showing the last time out. I get it. It’s just a shame that other fighters (like Leon Edwards) get screwed over by Masvidal suddenly reaching that new tier of popularity.
What’s at stake?
David: Even though a win may not move the needle on Usman’s status among champions, it’ll certainly put him in the discussion.
Phil: Standard ‘big upset’ stuff. Masvidal winning would be a Lawler-esque validation of a long and tough career. Usman? At this point it’d just be another notch on an already extremely impressive streak.
Where do they want it?
David: Usman hasn’t changed a whole lot. He penetrates with a strong, if somewhat rote, jab, crashes in with a lot of singular offense, and gets the fight to the ground. What’s starting to shift is his movement. Against Burns, he started to land on the move, which is a nice wrinkle added to what is a rudimentary, but very proficient striking attack.
In addition, Usman can just press Masvidal against the fence, land footstomps, elbows, eat minor shots with his cinder block head, and neutralize Masvidal’s otherwise most dangerous game (at range). Usman is old school like that. That’s part of the charm in seeing him face off against an old school firebrand.
Phil: I do think Usman has shown some improvements in his open space kickboxing in recent bouts. He’s still not a fluid defensive striker by any measure, but he has developed a confident, dangerous jab, and is now switching stances and using his footwork to pull back into counters. This could feasibly work well for him should he back Masvidal into the fence again and try to set up more damage than clinch exchanges. Masvidal has been flummoxed by southpaws before, and Usman could disrupt his shifts with his own stance changes. However, the basic directional dynamic remains: Usman is good at pushing people back into the fence! Masvidal (and basically everyone else at ATT) is pretty OK with being pushed back into the fence!
David: Yes, I think this really is a boring rematch, but there’s still fun to be had. Unlike Burns, Masvidal doesn’t have the kind of abrupt firepower to catch Usman with something unfamiliar. Masvidal’s game is built on a technical curve from body kick entries into striking combinations, but the consistency sometimes phases in and out.
What makes Masvidal interesting is that whatever he’s doing, he does it without fear: whether it’s gleefully throwing heaters at Nate Diaz, or apathetically waiting around against Paul Daley. Sure his confidence doesn’t always manifest in ideal, or effective ways, but everybody loves fight swagger, and that’s how Masvidal got here.
Phil: I think the main thing which potentially makes this fight more interesting is that Masvidal’s toolset is deeper than he allowed it to be the first time around. The major missing piece in their first fight was his jab, which has long been lauded as one of MMA’s best. At lightweight, Masvidal was a titan who often jabbed downwards, fighting from an upright stance with jabs and kicks up the middle against people who were almost always a good deal smaller than him.
In his concession to the welterweight move, Masvidal has been shifting and weaving more to land his shots, and leaping over space against opponents who have size parity or advantage. I think it serves him well to utilize more of his old toolset, even if he’s worried more about the distance between the two: jabs, body kicks. He doesn’t have to be level changing like Frankie Edgar out there.
Insight from past fights
David: A lot of things are going on in terms of the tactical interplay, but the thing that Masvidal would be wise to focus on is his sense of urgency and ability to explode for entries. Usman, for all of his strengths, is still something of a plodding fighter. It’s hard to believe anybody might be stronger than him, but he does lack explosive speed. If Masvidal stands a chance, it’ll be by being as quick on the draw as possible, and turning Usman’s slow reactions against him.
Phil: I will say, that as soon as Usman switched southpaw in their first bout, Masvidal immediately got caught up in a handfight and shelled. I’m not a big stance switching advocate, but I think it would genuinely be a decent approach from the champion.
David: Does Cuba and Nigeria have the kind of bloodthirsty history that Lithuania and China have? Well, no.
Phil: Both have reasons for looking a bit flat last time out: Masvidal had the short notice, and Usman had the added pressure of facing an opponent that he hadn’t prepared for, who had been making memes out of his opponents with one strike. Hopefully both men come with a bit more confidence this time around.
David: Not much to say. Masvidal would have to come in with a drastically different approach to stand a chance, and he’s never actually shown a drastically different approach despite spending an eternity in this game. Kamaru Usman by Decision.
Phil: There are a bunch of what-ifs and possibilities, but it basically boils down to: Usman is still fairly hittable, can Masvidal knock him out early? If he can’t, then Masvidal has just never been a consistent round-winner, whether due to apathy, or a judge-unfriendly style, or a combination of the two. He would have to be a truly nuclear finisher for me to favour him given the directional dynamics of the bout, and historically he hasn’t been one. Kamaru Usman by unanimous decision