It’s usually bad news when a main event falls apart a week before a planned show, however when Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID-19 it ended up being the best thing that could’ve happened for UFC 251.
That’s because Jorge Masvidal was named his replacement and now challenges reigning welterweight champion Kamaru Usman on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
It’s shades of when Michael Bisping stepped up on short notice to fight rival Luke Rockhold for the middleweight title or when Nate Diaz replaced Rafael dos Anjos and took on Conor McGregor to ignite the most profitable rivalry in UFC history.
UFC president Dana White said Friday that UFC 251 is trending towards being one of the most successful events the company has ever hosted.
This Usman-Masvidal rivalry has become quite heated in recent months. Usman has been downplaying Masvidal’s ability, calling him a “.500 fighter” and “a journeyman” even though Masvidal has twice as many wins as Usman does professional fights. There was also an incident at a Super Bowl media event in January.
All that has resulted in a tremendous amount of buzz, so with that in mind here’s a closer look at this anticipated grudge match.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Nickname: The Nigerian Nightmare
Fighting out of: Boca Raton, Florida via Auchi, Nigeria
Weight: 170 pounds
Arm reach: 76 inches
Leg reach: 41 inches
Average fight time: 16:40
MMA record: 16-1
UFC record: 11-0
Notable wins: Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington, Rafael dos Anjos, Leon Edwards
Notable Accomplishments: UFC welterweight champion; The Ultimate Fighter season 21 winner; three UFC post-fight bonuses (one Fight of the Night, two Performance of the Night); 2010 NCAA Division II wrestling champion; three-time NCAA Division II All-American wrestler
Fighting out of: Miami, Florida
Weight: 170 pounds
Arm reach: 74 inches
Leg reach: 39.5 inches
Average fight time: 12:53
Background: Boxing, street fighting
MMA record: 35-13
UFC record: 12-6
Notable wins: Nate Diaz, Darren Till, Donald Cerrone, Ben Askren, Michael Chiesa, Joe Lauzon, KJ Noons, Yves Edwards
Notable Accomplishments: Fastest KO in UFC history (UFC 239 vs. Ben Askren); six UFC post-fight bonuses (two Fight of the Night, four Performance of the Night); won the unofficial BMF title for being the “baddest (expletive)” in MMA when he beat Diaz at UFC 244
The narrative that Masvidal is stepping into a title fight on a mere six days’ notice is technically correct, yet it’s also misleading. It’s not as if Masvidal has been sitting on the sidelines ever since beating Nate Diaz in November. The 17-year MMA vet had been preparing to fight Usman in July for much of 2020. It was only when his contract negotiations with the UFC went off course roughly one month ago that he altered his training schedule.
During Masvidal’s public spat with the UFC, Burns was given the title shot but even when it was Burns’s face on all the UFC 251 promotional images and videos, Masvidal was staying in shape, training and helped Dustin Poirier prepare for his recent five-round scrap with Dan Hooker
The short notice weight cut was the biggest obstacle for Masvidal, who said he weighed 192 pounds on July 4 which meant he has to lose more than 20 pounds in less than a week.
Both men made championship weight when they stepped on the scale Friday. Usman was his shredded self and Masvidal had a smile on his face as they both came in at an even 170 pounds.
If anything, Usman deserves just as much credit, if not more, for accepting a new opponent on short notice considering the contrast in styles. Burns is short, stocky and a high-level submission artist whereas Masvidal poses an entirely different set of problems – particularly on the feet.
Masvidal is listed as roughly a two-to-one underdog on the betting lines, which might be a disservice to his immense skill set.
Sure, Masvidal began his fighting career as a backyard brawler with Kimbo Slice in Miami, but make no mistake “Gamebred” has evolved into one of MMA’s most intelligent and dangerous strikers.
Masvidal sets traps on the feet better than most, he has finishing power in both hands, strong body kicks, devastating elbows from the clinch and, in case you forgot, explosive creativity that can send you to the shadow realm at a moment’s notice.
ONE YEAR AGO.
— UFC (@ufc) July 6, 2020
Usman showed in his most recent fight that he’s no slouch when trading shots. He landed 175 significant strikes on Colby Covington at 48 per cent accuracy at UFC 245 and got a late, albeit somewhat controversial, fifth-round stoppage win. He also landed 336 total strikes against Tyron Woodley when he won the title.
Overall, though, Usman only has two wins via strikes since debuting in the UFC.
If Usman goes toe-to-toe with Masvidal the way he did against Covington in December, he’s putting himself at a disadvantage. Usman secures 50 per cent of his takedown attempts for an average of 3.44 takedowns per 15 minutes. If he can maintain that average at UFC 251, it could be a long and gruelling night for Masvidal. If Masvidal can’t keep his back off the fence then it plays right into Usman’s strength but imposing one’s will on Masvidal is easier said than done.
Masvidal has 78 per cent takedown defence and even when he is taken to the floor he’s great at getting back to his feet via scrambles or wall-walking. He has been training with three-time NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion Bo Nickal to work on his wrestling and that should pay dividends against Usman.
Here’s a video from Jack Slack breaking down some of Masvidal’s most effective techniques.
IS THE BMF TITLE ALSO ON THE LINE?
The BMF title is less about wins and losses and more about how a person fights and carries himself. Since Usman goes the distance in the vast majority of his fights and he wins by grinding out most of his opponents with wrestling, he hasn’t necessarily fallen into that BMF category. His performance against Covington changed a lot of minds, though, and if he has a similar performance against Masvidal then we might have to reconsider what truly constitutes a BMF.
White confirmed this week to TMZ that the BMF belt won’t be on the line, only Usman’s gold.
“It is not on the line,” White said. “Usman wants it to be on the line so bad, he will not stop texting me saying, ‘I don’t understand why this belt isn’t on the line. This guy’s running around saying he’s the BMF champ. I want to squash it all. He’s not going to win my title, and I’m going take his BMF belt.’ Believe me, Usman has not stopped terrorizing me about this.”