Saturday’s UFC 261 featured two dominant performances from defending champions and a new defending champion reclaiming her belt.
Kamaru Usman has proven that he is still better off when he failed Jorge Masvidal, and Valentina Shevchenko made a case to be included in the GOAT conversation. Meanwhile, Rose Namajunas delivered all over again in a great moment.
ESPN reporters Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Phil Murphy respond to the card’s key moments in Jacksonville, Florida.
Helwani: Usman has proven that there is no one who is better
Jorge Masvidal doesn’t get stopped often which was another reason Kamaru Usman’s win was so impressive. Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
After Kamaru Usman beat his rival Jorge Masvidal in the main UFC 261 event – via a vicious right hand like we’ve never seen before – he told Joe Rogan he considered himself the best pound for pound fighter in the world.
And you know what? Well that Khabib Nurmagomedov has officially withdrawn, I think he’s right.
I don’t think I’m a prisoner right now. The man has a very strong case that is worth recognizing.
Let’s count the ways:
He has now won 18 straight UFC wins and 14 straight wins.
AND STILL !!! 👊🏿🌍🤴🏿 pic.twitter.com/RSpyKWvUkx
– KAMARU USMAN (@ USMAN84kg) April 25, 2021
He has the second best winning streak to leave a UFC career (14) behind Anderson Silvais 16 even.
He was so dominant that he now has to fight the guys he has already beaten again – Colby CovingtonNext up is he, whom he defeated in a classic in December 2019.
And perhaps most impressive of all? After all these fights, it still feels like he’s getting better.
Do you remember “30% Usman”? Do you remember “Snoozeman”? Who dares to call Kamaru Usman boring after his last two appearances?
You just can’t do that.
There was a time when fans – and to be honest, UFC President Dana White – felt they were playing it safe too often. This did not make Usman popular with the public.
But that is no longer the case. He just gave Masvidal his second TKO loss (in Masvidal’s 50th professional fight) and his first since 2008. Amazingly, the last time Masvidal was stopped was in 2009 when he was filed. In other words, it doesn’t happen often.
But thanks in large part to his recent work with Trevor Wittman in Colorado, who also led Rose Namajunas to an exciting win tonight, Usman has become one of the most versatile fighters in the world.
Hell, maybe the best.
I had published his last résumé on everyone, including Nurmagomedov.
And while I know that it bothered Usman in the past that he didn’t get the attention and love some of the other stars in the UFC got, I don’t think he should worry about that any more. His struggles speak nowadays. His star shines brightly. The best seems to be yet to come for “The Nigerian Nightmare”.
Life is good – certainly more of a dream than a nightmare – for the UFC’s new pound-for-pound king.
Wagenheim: Saturday’s pay-per-view was the kind of event that only the UFC can produce
Valentina Shevchenko had just painted another masterpiece, adding to a splendid portfolio of masterpieces. Arguably the most dominant of all combat promotion elite title belt holders, the UFC women’s flyweight champion had completely knocked out former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade, knocking her down seven times before she bled and left her from a dangerous, demoralizing position in the Mounted triangle finished 3:19 of lap 2.
Then Shevchenko, a 33-year-old in her prime and Kyrgyzstan’s largest export, started dancing. She always dances to indicate that she has once again extended her winning streak, spinning and spinning in the center of the cage. With this victory there are now seven victories in a row. It’s been a whole decade since Shevchenko lost to anyone except Amanda Nunes, the bipartisan champion and the goat of women’s MMA.
It was a great moment in the championship at UFC 261 on Saturday night in Jacksonville, Florida. And when it was over, the fans – yes, at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, the US’s first live audience at a UFC event in over a year, around 15,000 fans who resisted the pandemic – did not cheer up Exits to about the size they had just seen. No, they barely had enough time to take a few calming breaths before another pair of women entered the Octagon for another championship match.
And that was the moment of the night.
Rose Namajunas celebrates after knocking out Zhang Weili at UFC 261. Photo by Alex Menendez / Getty Images
In a highly anticipated battle between the strawweight champion and former champion, Rose Namajunas won the title back with a stunning headbutt in the first round that brought Zhang Weili and her winning streak to a standstill in 21 fights. The end came just 1:18 into the fight and Zhang protested an early interruption (it wasn’t like that) and Namajunas tearfully proclaimed, “I’m the best” (she weighs at least 115 pounds).
And guess what: There was still a main title fight to come.
This delivered the coup de grace of the evening when the welterweight champion, Kamaru Usman, struck Jorge Masvidal cold with a howitzer of his right hand and won his second victory over Masvidal in nine months. After beating Masvidal in both strike and grappling exchanges in the first round, Usman ended the show with a devastating ending at 1:02 a.m. in Round 2, shortly after Masvidal smiled at Usman after a punch. The champion then wiped the smile from his challenger’s face and secured his fourth title defense and 18th straight win.
That’s three championship fights with five fighters who are wearing or have worn title belts. They all compete under one roof in one evening.
This is what sets the UFC apart from all other organizations in sport. Boxing also delivers big fights, but spreads them out sparingly, usually only one at a time on the rare nights when the biggest in the game collide. This also applies to other MMA organizations that do not have the UFC’s duty roster and cannot load battle cards like on Saturday. This event was more like a full evening of NBA or MLB postseason games that included all the twists and turns and dramatic twists and turns.
Of course, not every UFC event is so transcendent. There’s a battle card practically every weekend, and in a few weeks the main event barely generates a wave in the top 10 of any weight class. But a night like Saturday delivers the “And there’s more!” Drawing of those old Ronco commercials on late night television where the deals were built until they sounded too good to be true. Except this product has fulfilled all of its promises.
Okamoto: Shevchenko is fighting his way into the GOAT conversation
Valentina Shevchenko continued her dominant reign. Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images
I already felt like this is the case with UFC 261, and Valentina Shevchenko’s performance only added to it: in MMA there is a fight for the female goat title.
It feels like the female goat topic is already preoccupied in many people’s minds. We refer to double champion Amanda nuns than the goat as if it is an absolute. As before, there is no one around the conversation. And of course I kind of understand. She is the double champion. It has mostly taken out the best names in two divisions. And most importantly, she has two wins against Shevchenko.
But I scored this second fight between Nunes and Shevchenko in 2017 for Shevchenko. One of the judges involved too. For Nunes it was a split victory and far from a final result. And don’t forget, this is a weight class where Nunes has a physical advantage, either. Shevchenko is the one who takes up the challenge of gaining weight every time she fights Nunes.
I’m not saying anything to take away what Nunes did, far from it. But I am just telling you, there is one case where Shevchenko is the greatest fighter we have ever seen.
Raimondi: Namajunas delivers again at the big moment
Chael Sonnen wonders about Rose Namajunas’ amazing knockout against Weili Zhang and apologizes for not previously recognized as one of the greatest of all time.
Rose Namajunas openly considered resigning after losing the UFC women’s strawweight title Jessica Andrade two years ago. She was open to psychological problems, especially the post-traumatic stress she suffered after the notorious Conor McGregor Bus attack in 2018. But on Saturday night, Namajunas once again proved she’s one of the toughest mental fighters in the UFC by delivering at another crucial moment.
Namajunas stopped Zhang Weili with a headbutt to reclaim the women’s strawweight title. When 2021 is over, Namajunas’ goal will be a knockout candidate for the year.
– ESPN MMA (@espnmma) April 25, 2021
Namajunas was the first female fighter in UFC history to regain a title she had previously lost. Andrade hit Namajunas over the head at UFC 237 in May 2019 – in a fight that Namajunas won -. At that moment it was unclear whether she would ever fight again. She said so herself. However, this was nothing new to Namajunas. She failed against it in her first title shot in 2014 Carla Esparza on the Ultimate Fighter Finale. Three years after this defeat, Namajunas eliminated Joanna Jedrzejczyk win the belt.
She did it again on Saturday night. Namajunas has two career knockout wins and both came into title challenges. There is no more coupling.
Murphy: Smith proves title hopes have not been fulfilled. Crutes stocks are still high
Anthony Smith’s perfectly placed kick that was rendered Jimmy Crute Smith’s title hopes, unable to fight due to a leg injury in the second round, have proven they still have life. This was his first headlined bout after setting a UFC record – for a non-champion – for seven major consecutive events. Smith is only 32 and this win will age well.
– ESPN MMA (@espnmma) April 25, 2021
For Crute, Jacksonville showed his appreciation for his willingness to fight on one leg. This image will remain with many people. Provided it rebounds – and smart matchmaking should make it easier – that loss will carry a cheap asterisk, much like Sean O’Malleys did to Chito Vera. And because the fight was competitive even before Crute’s injury, the UFC can hold the Smith-Crute 2 in your back pocket for a rainy day.
Many may find Saturday’s vacuum break unsatisfactory because no one wants an injury to end a fight. But the result is that Smith’s stock may go up, crutes may go largely untouched, and the appetite for transfer remains.