UFC 251 started with a bang and ended with a dominant one-sided performance. Between those two contests, fans got to see an impressive submission win, a nasty knockout from an unorthodox competitor making his promotional debut, a rising star continue to work her way up the rankings, a former champion avenging a knockout loss, a new champ being crowned and a controversial title defense. Overall, the first card on “Fight Island” was a good one.
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In the main event, Kamaru Usman defended his welterweight title with a grinding decision victory over Jorge Masvidal. The co-headliner saw Alexander Volkanovski successfully defend his featherweight title against former champ Max Holloway. In the third title fight on the UFC 251 card, Petr Yan put a beating on ex-featherweight title holder Jose Aldo to score a stoppage win to capture the vacant bantamweight crown.
Kamaru Usman: Usman dominated his welterweight title fight against Jorge Masvidal. He used his clinch and wrestling skills to grind down Masvidal over 25 minutes. It would have been silly for Usman to engage Masvidal on the feet and so he didn’t do that.
Usman made an excellent point after his win. Masvidal was training for this fight, even if he took the fight on short notice. Usman was not training for Masvidal — not at all — he was preparing for Gilbert Burns. As such, he took the bigger risk in accepting this fight. To reduce that risk, Usman fought a smart fight and he left “Fight Island” losing one round on one scorecard. With that, the welterweight championship remained in his hands.
Max Holloway: Holloway definitely closed whatever gap there was between himself and Alexander Volkanovski. He looked much better in the rematch than he did in the first meeting between these two. Alas, the improvements he made, which included a more varied striking approach and more octagon control, were not enough to get him the win. Despite two flash knockdowns, Holloway was on the wrong end of a split decision.
It will be interesting to see where Holloway goes from here, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him stay at 145-pounds and getting another shot at Volkanovski.
Petr Yan: Yan’s plan was great. He stood just out of range of Jose Aldo for most of the first 15 minutes of the matchup. Yan took what Aldo offered during the first three rounds. Some of what Aldo offered were some nasty strikes, including some heavy body blows and leg kicks. Yan was more aggressive in the fourth round. This was a smart plan. As Yan surged, Aldo faded. As aggressive as Yan was in the fourth round, he was even more pugnacious to start the fifth stanza. After an early knockdown, Yan never took his foot off the gas. He assaulted Aldo on the ground with strikes, landing 113 total strikes in that round, while Aldo landed one. The referee stopped the assault at the 3:24 mark of the fifth round. With that, Yan claimed the vacant bantamweight crown.
Jessica Andrade vs. Rose Namajunas: Wow, what a fight. The two former UFC strawweight champs delivered a memorable matchup in their second meeting. Andrade, who relies on her power, added a lot of head movement and upper body movement to her game plan in the rematch. Namajunas, who said she was not all-in for the first fight, was dialed in for this one.
Andrade’s movement seemed to give Namajunas some trouble in the early going, but once she found her range, Namajunas used her length to land her jab. Andrade’s wide hooks also left her open for snapping counters from her opponent.
Namajunas was bloodied in the third round. Her eye was swollen, her nose seemed broken and blood ran from her nose into her mouth. If Namajunas was going to break, it was then. She didn’t.
This was an excellent scrap and it would be hard to say that one fighter was a “loser.”
Amanda Ribas: Ribas did what was expected of her in the opening fight of the pay-per-view card. She easily ran over Paige VanZant, submitting her opponent at the 2:21 mark of the first round with a belly down armbar.
Ribas is a supremely talented fighter who has a high upside, but the UFC set up this fight to give her a win and send VanZant into free agency with a bad defeat. Ribas did not let the UFC down.
Ribas is a fun fighter to watch and she is comfortable on the mic and entertaining in interviews. She looks like she could be an enormous star in the UFC.
Jiri Prochazka: The first thing I noticed about Prochazka was that he wore socks and sneakers to the octagon, which is something you don’t see that often. The second thing I noticed about Prochazka was that he was a bit of a weirdo in his style and movement. He also showed no fear of the hands of his opponent, Volkan Oezdemir, which is not something we see all that often considering Oezdemir entered the contest with 12 knockout wins. Prochazka’s approach paid dividends when he scored a nasty second-round knockout win. It’s always exciting when someone makes noise in the 205-pound division in their promotional debut. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes next for Prochazka, considering Oezdemir was ranked No. 7 at the start of the fight.
Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos vs. Muslim Salikhov: I hoped that Zaleski and Salikhov would deliver a wild striking battle. They did not. Instead, the two welterweight strikers seemed a bit reluctant to open things up during their matchup. That fact, most likely based on the fear that one mistake could end up with a knockout loss, made for a more technical battle. With that, fans were treated to a tense 15-minute scrap.
Salikhov got the split-decision nod here. He landed at a higher percentage, but his output was 50 significant strikes lower than his opponent. Salikhov needs to up his offense as he climbs the rankings or he could find himself on the wrong end of decision like the one we saw here.
Makwan Amirkhani: Amirkhani has always flown a bit under the radar. That might be because he doesn’t fight all that often. That’s a shame. He is a talented competitor with a good personality and someone who enjoys entertaining the fans. He did just that at UFC 251 when he sank in a nasty anaconda choke that put his opponent, Danny Henry to sleep. As a bonus, Amirkhani seemed very concerned about his opponent until he regained consciousness.
Leonardo Santos: Santos moved his UFC unbeaten streak to six straight fights with his win over Roman Bogatov, but he paid a high price. He nearly finished Bogatov via strikes in the second round, but referee Marc Goddard let the fight go on after Santos positively unloaded on Bogatov, outstripping him 75 to 27 in the second stanza. Santos seemed to run out of gas after his striking onslaught. Santos did a nice job negating the takedowns of Bogatov, stopping 10 of 11 attempts. The third round was a horror show for Santos, who ate low blows and an illegal knee. Writing off the third round because of the illegal techniques, let’s slide Santos into the winners here.
Zhalgas Zhumagulov: A former Fight Nights Global flyweight champ with wins over Ali Bagautinov and Tyson Nam, Zhumagulov had a slow first round, but he picked things up a bit in the second round of his matchup against Raulian Paiva, which was Zhumagulov’s UFC debut. He also seemed to figure out how to deal with the height and reach disadvantages he faced against Paiva in the second stanza.
Zhumagulov did not get the win, but he could have. I think he’ll have a better handle on things in his next UFC bout. He could have had UFC jitters here. He also could have struggled to switch things up considering his past three fights have all been five rounds. A solid UFC debut from Zhumagulov.
Jorge Masvidal: When Masvidal had time and space, he did pretty well with his striking against Kamaru Usman. The problem with that is Usman gave him very little time and space. Masvidal also did a pretty good job fighting off Usman’s takedowns early, but Usman had more success in the third, fourth and fifth rounds when he scored four takedowns on 10 attempts.
Masvidal might lose some casual fans after UFC 251, but those folks weren’t going to stick around for the long term.
Jose Aldo: The UFC might have gifted Aldo the chance to win the vacant bantamweight title coming off a loss, but for three rounds he looked like he had a chance to win that title. He did a wonderful job mixing up his strikes, especially with heavy leg kicks and nice punches to the body, but he fell victim to his gas tank. When the bout entered the championship rounds and Petr Yan put the pedal to the floor, Aldo could not keep up. Aldo landed a mere 16 total strikes in the fourth and fifth round, while Yan scored with 169 total strikes before he finished Aldo at the 3:24 mark of the final stanza.
Leon Roberts: Roberts is usually a good referee, but he really let Jose Aldo take a lot of unnecessary damage. If we use Anthony Smith’s fight with Glover Teixeira as a guide of doing just enough to keep a fight from being stopped, Aldo did not do that. Roberts should have waved it off much earlier.
Paige VanZant: VanZant was a +600 underdog to Amanda Ribas, who came in as the -900 favorite. Those odds seemed pretty much on the money as Ribas ran over VanZant, who had nothing for Ribas. The fight was the last scrap on VanZant’s UFC deal. She said her plans are to explore free agency. It will be interesting to see if her setback to Ribas will affect her ability to land a good deal.
Volkan Oezdemir: Oezdemir was favored over Jiri Prochazka in their light heavyweight bout. The former UFC light heavyweight title challenger staggered the promotional newcomer a few times, but it was Oezdemir who got knocked out.
Oezdemir is now 2-4 in his past six outings. Oezdemir has relied on his striking to get by. That might not be enough if he wants to work his way back up the light heavyweight rankings. Oezdemir is now at a crossroads. He needs to become a more well-rounded fighter if he wants to hang with the top-ranked 205-pound fighters
Danny Henry: UFC commentator said that Henry had worked on anaconda choke defense for his bout against Makwan Amirkhani, but that drilling proved ineffective as Amirkhani choked Henry unconscious in the first stanza.
Roman Bogatov: I don’t really know what to say about Bogatov. He entered his fight against Leonardo Santos with a 10-0 record. He showed good pressure and good recovery after almost being finished in the second round. However, he also landed two low blows and an illegal knee and probably should have been disqualified. If I’m the UFC, I don’t know if I give him a second shot and if I do, I tell the referee about this fight and keep Bogatov on a very short leash.
Vanessa Melo: Melo might have fought for the last time in the UFC. Not only did she come into UFC 251 five pounds overweight, she struggled to establish any type of offense and was on the wrong end of a lot of strikes and did not land many of her own.
Alexander Volkanovski: I thought Volkanovski’s team would have had a new plan for him in his rematch with Max Holloway. If there was one, I didn’t see it. That doesn’t mean Volkanovski fought poorly. He didn’t, but he didn’t show any new wrinkles against Holloway. Perhaps there was difficulty training during the pandemic or maybe his team felt the plan from their first meeting was solid enough to work a second time. That it did, but it was incredibly close.
Volkanovski said he wanted this fight to erase any doubts he was the legit featherweight kingpin. That didn’t happen and if the fight did anything it left more questions.
Marcin Tybura and Maxim Grishin: This was a long 15-minute heavyweight fight. Tybura and Grishin spent more than a round of fight time against the fence in what the UFC broadcast kindly labeled as “clinch control” for Tybura. Grishin gets a pass on this, his UFC debut, because he usually fights at light heavyweight, but this was not an exciting fight.
Raulian Paiva: Paiva entered his flyweight contest against Zhalgas Zhumagulov as the No. 14 ranked flyweight. Unfortunately, he missed weight by three pounds. Paiva had a good first round. He used his height and reach advantage to do well with his striking, but he missed more than he landed and he was taken down twice during the bout. If Paiva can learn to use his reach and height better, he could move up a shallow division.
Karol Rosa: Rosa dominated her fight against Vanessa Melo. She was well over 50 percent in significant strikes landed and did a good job of limiting Melo’s output. When Rosa got her opponent on the mat, she easily controlled Melo. Rosa seemed to slow a bit in the third round and ran out the clock against the cage, so cardio could be a concern. The win was her second in two UFC fights.
Davey Grant: Grant used a good arsenal of strikes. He missed up his targets well and kept his opponent Martin Day guessing throughout the fight. He also showed good takedowns and jiu-jitsu. Grant’s skills should have landed him among the winners, but his affinity to keep his hands low and leave himself open for counters means I need to see him compete against better quality opponents before he gets the nod as someone to watch. With that said, Grant scored a nasty knockout.
Martin Day: Day was on the defense for most of the first two rounds of his fight against Grant. When he turned up the aggression in the third stanza, he showed a speed advantage in his striking. Had he been more aggressive early, he might have been more successful.
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