UFC 261 delivered in a big way.
The opening fight seemed to set the tone for the evening. The strawweight scrap between Ariane Carnelossi and Na Liang was short but action packed. By the time the main card rolled around, four fights had gone the distance and four ended before the second round came to a close.
The pay-per-view portion of the event flew by, even with three title fights at the top of the card. None of the fights on the pay-per-view portion of UFC 261 made it to the third stanza. As far as solid fight cards go, UFC 261 has to be near the top of the list of UFC events in 2021.
Valentina Shevchenko showed that those who claimed Jessica Andrade as the last tough title contender in the flyweight division might have been off base. Rose Namajunas surprised Weili Zhang — and I’m assuming many fans — with a head kick knockout. In the main event, Kamaru Usman showed Jorge Masvidal that he’s not a fighter to be doubted as he sent Masvidal to the mat with unexpected (at least to Masvidal) power.
As memorable as the title fights were, I’d be remiss not to mention the horror that was Chris Weidman’s leg snapping when Uriah Hall checked the first kick of their middleweight fight. The injury was frightfully reminiscent of the one Anderson Silva suffered when Weidman checked a Silva kick in 2013. If there is a small positive to take from the injury, it is that Silva recovered and fought for seven more years with the UFC.
Read on for the winners and losers from UFC 261.
UFC 261 took place Saturday at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. The main card streamed on ESPN+ pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ and early prelims on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass.
Kamaru Usman: Remember when folks thought Kamaru Usman was nothing more than a boring wrestler? For those who still hold that opinion, to borrow a phrase from Bomani Jones, “I’m inclined to believe you are a hater.” Usman has knockout wins in three of his past four fights. In 2019, he delivered a jaw adjustment to Colby Covington. Earlier this year, Usman stopped his former training partner, Gilbert Burns, and at UFC 261 he put Jorge Masvidal to sleep for a bit. In short, Usman is improving with each fight and that’s a scary proposition.
I’m not one to say Usman is the best welterweight in UFC history, but I will not deny he is heading down that road at a nice clip.
Rose Namajunas: Rose Namajunas showed a lot of movement early in her fight against Weili Zhang. However, every time she moved to strike with her hands, Zhang would counter with an inside leg kick. Namajunas then threw a kick of her own. Zhang moved back, expecting a low kick. A low kick was not what Namajunas delivered. Instead, a head kick blasted the champion to the mat. With her opponent hurt, Namajunas finished things on the ground. No one was more stunned with the outcome than Zhang.
Valentina Shevchenko: I’ll just post my notes here — Shevchenko’s combinations were fast and accurate, her counters were on point, her clinch work was immaculate, her takedowns were unstoppable and her ground strikes were nasty.
That about sums it up, no? If Shevchenko had any doubters before UFC 261, they should be silent now.
Uriah Hall: Uriah Hall has always seemed conflicted with his profession. It has always seemed to be a love/hate relationship with him. I think he’s someone who loves the competition, but hates the aftermath of that competition. The way his fight against Chris Weidman ended, with Weidman’s leg broken, had me concerned about Hall’s mental and emotional state in the aftermath of that grisly injury. Hall handled things incredibly well during his post-fight interview with UFC commentator Joe Rogan. The interview was a good start. We’ll see if how things turned out at UFC 261 will have a lasting effect on Hall.
Anthony Smith: UFC 261 marked the first time Anthony Smith had not fought in a main event in three years. Having gone 1-2 in his last three, there might have been some speculation the 32-year-old was on his way down the rankings. Smith paused that talk on Saturday night.
Smith’s jabs were on the mark throughout the first round. He reddened Jimmy Crute’s face with those strikes and then threw a leg kick that deadened Crute’s stem. When Crute couldn’t recover before the start of the second stanza, the doctor waved off the fight.
Randy Brown: Randy Brown had some trouble with the calf kicks of Alex Oliveira, but the momentum of the fight changed quickly when Brown dropped Oliveira with a nasty right hand. From there, Brown showed he’s capable of securing unconventional submissions when he forced the desperate tap with a one-armed rear-naked choke.
Brown then directed fans to his Twitch stream when asked about the bad blood between Brown and his opponent, which showed itself in the fight’s aftermath.
Brendan Allen: Brendan Allen, who is a former LFA middleweight champion, was on a seven-fight winning streak when Sean Strickland finished him in the second round of their November matchup. Allen had an impressive comeback on Saturday when he finished Karl Roberson via heel hook as the clock ticked down on the first round. At 25, Allen has a nice upside and with the middleweight division in a state of flux as some ranked fighters begin to age out, Allen is a fighter to watch.
Pat Sabatini: I grew up in Pennsylvania and wrestled through high school. I swear that if you asked a PA wrestler if they ever faced someone named Pat Sabatini they would have to think about it and the answer would probably come back as, “I think so.” Pat Sabatini is a wrestler’s name. With that, it was not a surprise to see Sabatini outwrestle Tristan Connelly for the first two rounds of this featherweight contest. He used a heavy and patient top game and put a premium on his positioning before going for submissions. Sabatini, who is a former Cage Fury Champion, looks like a fighter to watch in the 145-pound division.
Danaa Batgerel: It took Danaa Batgerel less than a minute to finish Kevin Natvidad and he did so with style. After he missed a kick, Batgerel stepped back, switched stances and landed a check hook right on the button. An excellent way to bring the early prelims to a close.
Kazula Vargas: Kazula Vargas, who has been a pro since 2011, used his experience to score a win over Zhu Rong, who was born in 2000. Vargas fought with a smart and controlled style to secure the win and never fell for the taunts of his opponent, who clearly wanted the opportunity to score with a big counterstrike.
Jeffrey Molina: Jeffrey Molina’s striking seemed slower and wider than Qileng Aori’s for the first five minutes of the fight. Molina also allowed Aori to push him to the fence with ease and control where the fight took place. When Molina opened up his boxing in the third round, he looked like a different fighter. He was loose and relaxed and controlled every aspect of the fight. If that was the planned for this fight it worked well. If Molina took control because his opponent faded and presented an opportunity, that could be a concern. This was a nice win for Molina and it showed he’s someone who can remain calm and focused throughout a 15-minute scrap.
Na Liang vs. Ariane Carnelossi: A short but energetic strawweight battle between Na Liang vs. Ariane Carnelossi kicked off UFC 261. The fight didn’t last long, but it packed a lot of action into the 6:28 it lasted. Liang and Carnelossi were active in their striking and grappling. Both women wanted a finish, but it was Carnelossi that got the stoppage when Liang ran out of gas early in the second stanza. The UFC could not have asked for a better fight to open the first event in front of fans in over a year.
Trevor Wittman: Trevor Wittman watched two of his fighters take home titles at UFC 261. The first was Rose Namajunas, who stunned Weili Zhang with a head kick to take the strawweight title back. The other was Kamaru Usman, who slept Jorge Masvidal in the second round of the main event to retain his title. If you saw the camera pan over Usman’s corner after the fight, Wittman looked as if it was just another day at the office. Wittman is the definition of “act like you’ve been there before.”
Jake Paul: By the sound of things, Jake Paul has become the most hated man in MMA without every competing in the sport. Paul was at UFC 261 and at times the fans at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena were more interested in heckling Paul than what was happening in side the octagon. Paul got what he wanted at UFC 261 and that was noticed and a bunch of free press. If fans want to hurt Paul’s feelings, they should just ignore him.
Jorge Masvidal: I have mixed feeling on the whole karma thing. However, when someone repeatedly mocks the punching power of the person they are about to fight and then goes out and gets knocked out cold by the person who allegedly has no power, well, those are the times when I think maybe there’s something to the notion of karma.
Jorge Masvidal got starched by Kamaru Usman in the main event of Saturday’s UFC 261. He handled the setback as well as could be expected, but the Masvidal of 2021 is not the Masvidal of 2019 as far as personality and popularity, and I expect he will be the subject of many memes and jokes in the days to come.
Jorge Masvidal 2: Masvidal wore a shirt into the arena that read “Free Alexis Vila.” Vila is in prison and is serving a 15-year sentence for second-degree murder in 2019. That shirt was not a great look for Masvidal or the UFC.
Weili Zhang: Weili Zhang’s title reign began with a quick knockout and it ended with a quick knockout. Rose Namajunas reclaimed the strawweight title with a stunning head kick in the early going of the first round.
Jessica Andrade: Jessica Andrade was sold as the last, best hope to dethrone Valentina Shevchenko. Andrade had nothing to offer the champ and Shevchenko disposed of the challenge with ease.
The question now becomes where does Andrade compete, strawweight or flyweight?
Chris Weidman: I struggled where to put this one, and don’t read this as a criticism of Weidman as a fighter, but more a reflection of the injury the man suffered during his brief fight with Uriah Hall. At 36, Weidman is going to have a long road to recovery. The injury could cost him his career. With that being said, the thought of Weidman returning to the cage should not be a concern right now. The focus should be on Weidman recovering well enough to enjoy life with his family.
We often dismiss or downplay the dangers of this sport — that’s one way we can enjoy what we see inside the cage — but the reality of the dangers of MMA is always one second away from raising its head.
Jimmy Crute: Jimmy Crute was far too willing to take multiple jabs directly to the face during the first round of his fight opposite Anthony Smith. He then took a leg kick that left his foot flopping around like a fish on a dock. With no options left, Crute took Smith down with ease. However, Crute couldn’t satisfy the doctor and the fight was waved off before the start of the second stanza.
Crute said if the doctor would have allowed the fight to go on, he planned to pull guard in the second round and work from there. It might have been interesting to see where that went since Smith’s takedown defense was not good in the first round.
Crute is only 25 and he’ll be back.
Alex Oliveira: Yes, we know Alex Oliveira loves his job, but he’s been submitted in the first round in back-to-back fights and is 2-5 since late 2018. With the UFC not scheduled to return to Brazil soon, UFC 261 might have been the last trip to the octagon for Oliveira.
Tristan Connelly: Tristan Connelly dropped from welterweight ahead of this fight, and he had little to offer against the wrestling of Pat Sabatini. The one good thing for Connelly was that he could still compete in the third round, which showed the weight cut didn’t cost him in the cardio department. With one featherweight fight under his belt, Connelly should look better in his next outing.
Rong Zhu: The UFC pointed out that Rong Zhu was the youngest fighter on the roster ahead of his fight opposite Kazula Vargas. Zhu’s inexperience became clear early in the fight. He relied far too much on his coaches during the contest and seemed more focused on entertaining than on fighting. The good thing about the attention Zhu paid to his coaching team is that it shows he’s willing to listen and learn. The bad thing is that the octagon during a UFC event is not the time to learn. Zhu needs more reps in the gym, and he needs to focus on his skills before he becomes an entertainer.
Qileng Aori: Qileng Aori looked good for 9:59 of his fight against Jeffrey Molina. Aori had crisp striking with good power and speed, and he kept Molina’s back to the cage as he controlled the fighting surface. He also showed some wrestling skills during the first two rounds. However, a knockdown at the end of the second stanza changed the tone of the fight. For the final five minutes of the contest, Aori kept his head still and allowed Molina to tee off with some impressive boxing. Aori has some promise and deserves another look, but the difference between his first 10 minutes and final five minutes in this fight was concerning.
Joe Rogan: The first fight hadn’t begun before UFC commentator offered his opinion on the looks of one of the fighters, “She’s a gorgeous woman,” Rogan commented. This left me to wonder, how that has any influence on the fight. Stay classy, Joe.
Judges: Early in the broadcast, UFC commentator Jon Anik made it clear to all that fighters might want to not let their fights got the judges as they delivered several wonky scorecards. Anik was not wrong.
UFC: The promo for the three African champions was bad. The voiceover had some quotes from the Toto song “Africa” was hard to listen to. If I could give the UFC advice it would be to hire an outside firm to do all the promotion for its African champs, if that was the first thing that came to mind, stop.
Sean O’Malley: Still in denial that he lost to Marlon “Chito” Vera, one has to wonder what O’Malley thought of the Smith vs. Crute finish.
Conor McGregor: It’s funny how fighters who have lost because of calf kicks seem to think they are a no skill technique.
Fans: With Chris Weidman laying on the canvas with a shattered leg, the crowd decided that was an appropriate time to break into a, let’s say anti-Jake Paul chant. The timing was in incredibly poor taste.
UFC: It’s hard to call the UFC’s first event with fans in attendance in more than a year a rousing success. If I’m considering the action in the cage. The event satisfied. If I’m considering the effect UFC 261 will have on fans, fighters, media, Florida and the public, it’s far too early to say the event was a success. We’ll have to track the growth of COVID-19 to see if the event was a success. As of now, with Florida near the top of the list in positive percentage of COVID-19 tests, UFC 261 stands as a risk.