The big fight feeling was back in the hearts of the 15,000 fans who were treated to a championship triple header as a part of UFC 261 at Jacksonville’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Health Arena. The first fully sold-out indoor sporting event stateside since the start of the pandemic yielded no shortage of dull moments despite the five-fight main card only giving us less than 21 minutes of total cage time. That is third all-time regarding shortest card total fight time. Defending champions went 2-1 on the night with Kamaru Usman and Valentina Shevchenko adding another defense to their respective dominant reigns as champion, and sandwiched in between was the Rose Namajunas show, as she was successful in being the first female UFC fighter to regaining a belt that was one rightfully hers.
The reason the title fights came so early into the night was a result of top prospect Jimmy Crute and former champion Chris Weidman succumbing to injury in their only rounds of action, with the former champion Weidman gruesomely breaking his leg with the first kick he threw. Here’s a recap of the rollercoaster ride of fights from Jacksonville:
Kamaru Usman def. Jorge Masvidal via second-round KO (1:02)
The narrative of Kamaru Usman being a boring fighter is tired and must be put to sleep. Usman knocking out Jorge Masvidal in Saturday night’s main event was the first time the veteran Masvidal has ever been finished inside the UFC octagon and just the second time in his career, which spans over 50 professional fights. For Usman, the champ has been met with a barrage of boos throughout fight week, as the challenger Masvidal was fighting with the Florida faithful behind him as he returned to his home state for UFC 251. Usman’s path to retaining went through pairing his wrestling alongside investing in the body jab early, getting Masvidal to keep his guard low which led to the eventual right-hand finish in the early moments of the second. The champion now has a pair of knockouts in 2021 with his first coming back in February against former teammate Gilbert Burns. The transformation of Usman becoming a finisher can be directly tied to his decision to team up with Colorado-based striking coach Trevor Whittman, and by teaming up with him was able to add a stern jab to an already outstanding wrestling background. The 33-year-old Usman has now rattled off 17 straight W’s and is closing ground and as of today has cemented himself on the Mount Rushmore of UFC welterweights.
As Usman looks ahead, it appears what lies ahead is yet another rematch against a man he had previously beat, as UFC President Dana White already hinted that Colby Covington is coming up the track. Usman handed Covington a broken jaw in his TKO win back in December of 2019 in a fight in which White publicly stated as one of his personal favorites in recent memory. If that is what next for the Nigerian Nightmare, it is evident that there aren’t many options left which put Usman at a crossroads. With Usman now “lapping” the competition as he puts it, it’ll be interesting to see how many fighters he grants another chance, and with his good friend Israel Adesanya the champion at middleweight, it is unlikely a move to 185 is in the cards. With all, the fanbase should start to give this guy the credit he well deserves because with all these factors, who knows how many times we will get to see Kamaru Usman in the UFC.
Rose Namajunas def. Weili Zhang via first-round KO (1:18)
“I’m the best” is the affirmation Rose Namajunas was seen repeating to herself during Bruce Buffer’s pre-fight introductions. She was likely repeating that affirmation longer than it took her to prove it to the Jacksonville crowd on Saturday. Rose Namajunas was able to absorb seven inside leg kicks before closing the show with a kick of her own, surprising the champion with a left high kick, ending both her 20 fight win streak and title reign in the process. Namajunas with the win on Saturday put a storybook ending to what was a difficult road back to gold. Namajunas at one point contemplated retirement after her initially losing her title by devastating slam, losing multiple family members to COVID-19 leading up to UFC 251, then successfully avenging her title loss to Jessica Andrade at that same event in a non-title bout which saw her suffer a nasty broken nose. The now two-time champ is also the youngest in the promotion at just 28 years old and with coaches Trevor Whitman, and fiancé UFC vet Pat Barry they now return to the drawing board with the intentions of making the entire division smell the roses of her success. As for what’s next for Thug Rose, one can doubt Weili gets an immediate rematch due to the quick finish and with Namajunas already holding two wins over Joanna Jędrzejczyk, look for the winner of the May 22 matchup of Yan Xiaonan versus Carla Esparza to potentially be next for the new champion.
While Namajunas glowed in the Sunshine State on Saturday, we now saw the chapter close on the first Chinese UFC title reign. Weili was booed most fight week for God knows what reason, especially coming off of a legendary performance against Joanna Jędrzejczyk 14 months prior. The decision to boo her leading up to the fight was nothing short of head-scratching and cast a little bit of a dark cloud over the co-main event especially with the Stop Asian Hate movement that has been in the headlines in recent months.
Valentina Shevchenko def. Jessica Andrade via second-round TKO (3:19)
While Namajunas won the belt in breathtaking fashion, it was Valentina Shevchenko who was able to get the job done in dominating fashion. Jessica Andrade looked like a viable contender in her 125-pound debut against Kaitlyn Chookagian this past summer and the former strawweight champion was assumed to have a chance to dethrone the champ. But you know what happens when we assume, don’t you? Despite it being the longest of the championship triple-header, it was evident that it was the least competitive one. Valentina Shevchenko dominated the former strawweight championship Andrade from pillar to post Saturday, clearly having a size advantage landing all seven of her takedowns, having over five minutes of control time, and landing 90/97 strikes before getting the fight stopped from strikes from the mounted crucifix position. Shevchenko pitched the equivalent of a perfect game on Saturday, and with her and Amanda Nunes clearing out their respective division’s many fans are clamoring at the possibility of a third meeting between the two. Nunes has the upper hand winning the first two meetings by decision, with the second one being the more controversial of the two. Although it will not be next with Nunes already booked to defend her bantamweight title against Julianna Peña on August 7, and contenders like Lauren Murphy at 125 a possibility for Shevchenko a potential trilogy might not be next but could be on deck.
Uriah Hall def. Chris Weidman via first-round TKO (0:17)
History repeats itself, and boy did it on Saturday night in gruesome fashion. Uriah Hall became the first fighter in UFC history to win a fight in which he did not land a single strike as the first kick he threw snapped his leg in half. This was the second leg snapping fight that Weidman was a part of his UFC 168 title fight against Anderson Silva saw Silva snap his leg against him. To make things even weirder, Uriah Hall was a fighter coming off Season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter that was often compared to Silva and was even the last person to beat him in the UFC defeating him on Halloween of last year. This match was supposed to be a rematch over a decade in the making, a fight where both New York natives fought in Atlantic City in a regional circuit bout with Weidman handing Uriah Hall his first pro loss. With all that being said, Hall now got a relatively unsatisfying win while we don’t know where the 36-year-old Weidman goes from here. One victory that can’t be quantified was how Uriah Hall handled the post-fight fallout with absolute class. Hall’s calmness and respect was shown when getting interviewed by Joe Rogan was similar to how he did when he defeated Anderson Silva and made an uneasy moment a little bit easier to digest from a viewer’s standpoint.
Anthony Smith def. Jimmy Crute via first-round TKO (5:00)
The walk to the cage from Anthony Smith perfectly captured the magnitude of the moment with the return of fans. The former light heavyweight title challenger was seen grinning from ear to ear and fully taking in the over 15,000 that were in attendance in Jacksonville. While it lasted, Smith did a great job of putting his jab in the face of the upstart Aussie Jimmy Crute, which ended up accounting for 76 percent of his offense in his five minutes of action. When Smith decided to switch up his levels and look to the low leg kick was when we saw the beginning of the end. Late in the first round as Smith threw a leg kick, we saw another leg injury this time when Jimmy Crute was wobbled by the kick and despite being compromised was able to take down Anthony Smith three times in the latter half of the round. In between rounds, it was the doctors who decided to step in and call the end of the bout. While it lasted, Smith’s effective usage of the jab was outstanding, and appeared to use his extensive experience to outclass the 25-year-old. Smith now has a pair of finishes to improve on his turbulent 2020, which saw the Nebraska native fend off a house invasion, and a pair of losses to top contenders Glover Teixeira, and Aleksander Rakić. Smith is now trending in the right direction and with another big 205-pound matchup coming next week as Dominick Reyes fights Jiri Prochazka there is a possibility, he could be next for the winner.
(Cover Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)