UFC 261
Mandatory Credit: Chris Unger – Zuffa LLC

Academic. One way of describing Kamaru Usman’s performance in a night chocked full of standout displays at UFC 261. Usman may have stolen the show with his shocking second round bludgeoning knockout of challenger, Jorge Masvidal, however, Valentina Shevchenko, and in particular, Rose Namajunas were firmly on the heels of the welterweight pacesetter.

Housing a full crowd of fans for the first time since UFC 248 last March, Jacksonville, Florida welcomed a sold-out capacity at the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena, and while there may be some recency bias incoming, I can’t remember an event from top to bottom that delivered like UFC 261, both in terms of shocks and performances. 

With a five-fight main card rounding out a hugely entertaining, rather fast-paced preliminary section, we’ve got to send out our best wishes to former middleweight champion, Chris Weidman first and foremost. 

Tasked with besting TUF victor, Uriah Hall for the second time in his career, the Baldwin native suffered one of the most grotesque injuries we’ve ever seen inside the promotion’s Octagon. Attempting literally his first significant offensive output of the night, Weidman loaded up with a right low kick, which was checked by Hall — immediately snapping Weidman’s right tibia and fibula.

Stepping back and putting weight onto his right leg, Weidman, visibly gasped right away, falling to the canvas as referee, Herb Dean jumped to action and separated the two. Catastrophic. 

Immediately placed on a stretcher with his right leg secured in a compression sleeve, Weidman underwent successful surgery on Sunday morning, in which a steel rod was placed in his leg to realign his fibula and tibia.

Weidman revealed that doctors explained to him that a timeframe of eight weeks will have to be taken into account before he can walk without the aid of crutches and that a period anywhere between six to twelve months will have to be taken away from active training. Wishing Weidman a speedy and thorough recovery.  

Personally, I firmly believed Jessica Andrade would pose the biggest problem to Valentina Shevchenko’s reign as flyweight queen. Well, how wrong was I? Whilst I maintained Shevchenko would still remain the undisputed 125-pound best, I expected Andrade’s dogged, uber-aggressive approach to cause the Kyrgyzstan native some early concern at least. Again, how wrong was I? 

Arguably, Shevchenko dealt with Andrade easier than any prior challenge at flyweight, apart from her debut outing against Priscila Cachoeira. Assuming mounted-crucifix in the second round, Shevchenko notched yet another successful defence via a barrage of slicing elbows. Straightforward as you like. 

Apart from Usman’s knockout of Masvidal — which we’ll get to later on, Namajunas’ dethroning of Zhang Weili was absolutely spectacular. Becoming the sole woman in promotional history to reclaim a championship lost prior following failed attempts by both Ronda Rousey and Joanna Jedrzejczyk — I’m not sure Namajunas, Trevor Wittman, Pat Barry, or co could have drawn up a better display.

Whipping a technically brilliant left high-kick, disguised expertly, Namajunas dropped the incumbent with the shot, heavily, before following up with a pair of hammerfists. Despite protests from Weili afterward, credit is due to Keith Peterson for his timely separation. “I’m the best in the world“; the words chanted by Namajunas as Bruce Buffer busted a gut during pre-fight announcements. It’s hard to argue that now. 

Whilst predicting Usman’s ability would prove too much of a gap to ascend for Masvidal again, I doubt very many envisioned the fashion in which Usman would knock the Floridian back for the second time in a year.
To put things into perspective, Masvidal has been finished just four times now in fifty professional fights, two via submission losses to Toby Imada and Paul Rodriguez. Prior to Saturday, his sole knockout loss came against Rodrigo Damm back in 2008.

It’s the fashion in which Usman laid out Masvidal which is utterly arresting. Springing into range with a feint off that punishing left jab, Usman punched through the American Top Team staple with what only be described as a hammering right hand, snapping Masvidal’s head back forcibly. Smelling blood firmly in the waters, Usman closed the show academically with five particularly brutal hammerfists. It’s clearly a gap too large to gazump for the BMF champion, who must switch attention completely away from the Auchi punisher completely. 

We’ve already got some potential pairings next for the championship partaking sextet — as well as some obvious matchups all but signed, sealed, and delivered, however, join me below nevertheless as I play matchmaker.

Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington II

Promotional leader, Dana White appears to be fixated, to say the least in regards to a welterweight championship rematch between Usman and former interim titleholder, Colby Covington. Still to this day, the outspoken and brash Clovis native has been the only contender to Usman’s throne, or even his promotional-perfect record to push him to his absolute limit. 

We’ve seen Usman forced to a fifth and final round against the Californian back in the main event of UFC 245, finally dispatching Covington after a pair of final frame knockdowns. In the time since, Covington has firmly split ties with trainers in Coconut Creek, Florida — while Usman has taken his considerable talent to ONX Labs in Colorado alongside mastermind head coach, Wittman. 

The improvements, particularly Usman’s ability to find killer, fight-altering, at least blows has been evident so far in three full camps under Wittman’s tutelage, and despite fighting just once since his knockout loss to the champion, Covington turned in a dominant, pace-pushing, usual wrestling and smothering win over former champion, Tyron Woodley in September. This one books itself handily, and likely for late summer or early autumn. 

Jorge Masvidal vs. Nick Diaz:

There are a few factors you’ve got to consider when next approaching Masvidal with a return fight in mind. His age; the Miami native turned 36-years-old in November, and is likely, off the back of Saturday’s loss, on the home stretch of his storied career. His current form; that’s two straight, completely one-sided losses to Usman — with championship spoils on the line in both. And lastly, his marketability; He’s still retained the BMF championship despite those two blemishes against Usman, and with his persona, you can still bill him in relatively high regard.

Enter, Nick Diaz. The Stockton fan favourite appears to be on the cusp of a comeback for the first time since 2014 — and this time it seems closer than ever. In attendance on Saturday, Diaz, the elder brother of Masvidal’s past opponent, Nate, was set to meet with the above-mentioned, White backstage afterwards, with discussions revolving around a possible return opponent sure to come up at some stage. 

The suggestion of a return against the streaking, uber-prospect, Khamzat Chimaev is not a matchup I can get behind. What’s purpose does it serve by throwing Diaz to an incoming force like the AllStars MMA trainee in his first outing in seven years? And while I’ve no doubt Diaz would accept that fight, you’ve got to be careful with how you welcome him back to the Octagon.

Appearances against the likes of the Matt Browns, and the Robbie Lawlers of the division immediately spring to mind for me, even the Carlos Condits despite his recent turn of fortune, and the Dan Hardys, but it’s a pairing with Masvidal — with BMF championship spoils up for grabs which really make sense next. 

Rose Namajunas vs. Yan Xiaonan – Carla Esparza Winner

White appears to be interested in booking a potential immediate rematch between Namajunas and Weili, and if we overlook the clear intent to capitalise on Weili’s exposure in Asia, it’s quite obvious that’s not a performance that warrants an immediate rematch.

Make no mistake about it, however, I definitely want to see Namajunas vs. Weili II in the future — or if it pans out as Weili vs. Namajunas II even, but as of right now — the Monday morning following UFC 261, that shouldn’t be on the horizon right away. 

Namajunas has prior history with inaugural strawweight best, Carla Esparza, unsuccessfully challenging for the inaugural crown against her all the way back in December of 2014. Suffering a third round rear-naked choke to the Team Oyama standout — Namajunas may hold spoils now, but Esparza is one win away from earning another shot at 115-pound honours.

Drawing Weili’s compatriot, the streaking, Yan Xiaonan on May 22nd. at UFC Vegas 27 — the victor is surely on the doorstep of a title challenge. 

Esparza has won four consecutively, and despite the close nature of those three most recent triumphs, she continues to pile up wins. For 31-year-old promotional-perfect talent, Xiaonan she’s notched notable Octagon wins over former Invicta FC strawweight best, Angela Hill, as well as one-time title challengers, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Claudia Gadelha. 

Marketing-wise, I’d imagine the promotion would have pushed the button on Weili vs. Xiaonan in a heartbeat if presented the opportunity come the end of May for a return to China in the not too distant future. But if they hold off on an immediate rematch of Namajunas and Weili, they can continue to build Xiaonan and let Weili reestablish herself once more — in a bid to pair the two in the future again. I’m sure the marketing players at the UFC will be all over this strawweight title picture following UFC 261.

For Weili, her next outing is going to come down to timing, which is incredibly important in this scenario. Do they book a rematch between her and the above-mentioned Jedrzejczyk next? In my opinion, no. You’ve got to be careful when pulling the trigger on matchups sometimes. 

My strawweight outlook would appear as follows. Namajunas vs. Xiaonan – Esparza winner. Jedrzejczyk vs. Marina Rodriguez, and Mackenzie Dern vs. Tatiana Suarez for the time being anyway. Also, whoever decided to boo and jeer Weili needs to have a stern word with themselves.  

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy – Joanne Calderwood Winner

I mean, we’re fast approaching familiar territory here, and not for the good of the UFC flyweight division. Valentina Shevchenko is just so many levels above her competition no matter where the fight lands, that she’s running through contenders quicker than contenders to build up the skills to pose a credible threat. I thought Andrade was firmly going to present that credible threat. however, that failed to pass. 

We’re close to that territory with Amanda Nunes at bantamweight, and as far as the featherweight division is concerned, that could be knocked on the head by the time the summer has come and gone. 

It’s a question of what’s next for Shevchenko, and while I was initially all for a trilogy clash between herself and Nunes, I’m not sure if that’s something I really want to see anymore now. As White pointed out, let them have their own legacy. 

Former Invicta FC bantamweight best, Lauren Murphy meets with Joanne Calderwood at UFC 263 on June 12th. — and the next challenger is likely to emerge from that matchup. It really is as simple as that, unless Shevchenko plans to move to bantamweight in the future. You keep the ball rolling, and while it’s bouldering through contenders with relative ease — what else can we do?

Jessica Andrade vs. Jennifer Maia II

Back in December of 2012 under the Samurai FC banner in Curitiba, Brazil — two future world champions would share the battleground. Jessica Andrade and Jennifer Maia, former UFC strawweight champion, and former Invicta FC flyweight gold holder, respectively, clashed to a unanimous decision — with the latter emerging with the victory.

Andrade made relatively short work of one-time title chaser, Katlyn Chookagian to earn Saturday’s title showdown with Shevchenko, and while I still believe she’s got a rugged and tarnishing approach to her output to really cause problems at 125-pounds, a rematch with Shevchenko doesn’t go too far different based on what we saw Saturday.

Maia was relatively competitive with her wrestling, especially early against Shevchenko back in November in her failed attempt to pry the title away — due to her natural physique and stature, and an all-Brazilian affair with Andrade gets the victor back in amongst the title picture — which is incredibly bleak already. 

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