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The Red Corner: UFC 261 Preview

It’s finally time we see some belts go on the line this Saturday. And by belts, I mean three of them — because that is what UFC 261 boasts: three title fights and a sold-out crowd in Jacksonville, Florida, the first full-attendance sporting event since March 2020.

Welterweight royalty Kamaru Usman (18-1) will once again battle Saturday against a familiar foe. Jorge Masvidal (35-14), who holds the BMF belt, will step into the octagon to rematch the “Nigerian Nightmare” to headline the card. 

These two have met before. At UFC 251, Masvidal stepped in on six days’ notice to fight the champ. Usman delivered a dominant performance en route to a unanimous decision. Masvidal recently took to Twitter to refute the first matchup result, triggering Usman to call “Street Jesus” out. 

Usman has promised the rematch will be flawless, and that he will break Masvidal’s bones “like a chicken wing.”

How Usman can win: Usman can win this match handily if he once again embraces the clinch and rides his masterful wrestling to another UD. However, Usman has often been called a “boring champion,” and has personally vowed to break Masvidal. We know Marty’s wrestling is superior, but will his striking hold up against Street Jesus?

How Masvidal can win: If I’m Masvidal, I am so excited right now. Win or lose, he’s got an instant rematch after getting absolutely ragdolled the last time out. Further, Usman is none too happy with what Masvidal has been saying on Twitter, and has seemed to vow to keep the fight standing. If Usman wants to exchange in the pocket, that’s Masvidal’s territory. He can win if his striking is pure, and Usman commits to a brawl. 

Charlie’s Prediction: And Still: Usman via Decision

Peter’s Prediction: And Still: Usman via R3 KO/TKO

Regardless, the second five-round fight between Usman vs. Masvidal should be an exciting main event, although I am more looking forward to the other two belt fights this card boasts. 

Weili Zhang (21-1) is coming off an absolutely insane first title defense against Joanna Jedrzejczyk (16-4) back in March of 2020. Zhang went to war with the former strawweight champion to capture the UFC’s fight of the year. Zhang’s next opponent is also former strawweight royalty: Rose Namajunas (9-4).

Namajunas won the belt off of — and subsequently defended against — Jedrzejczyk in 2017 and 2018. “Thug” lost her belt to Jessica Andrade (21-8) a year later, but has since exacted her revenge on Andrade at UFC 251 in July. 

Zhang vs. Namajunas is going to be fireworks. Both have ludicrous intensity and serious power in their hands. Betting odds have Zhang as a two-to-one favorite, although I hesitate to back Zhang at such chalk. Namajunas wants her belt back, and she is prepared to take it. 

How Zhang can win: We’ve seen Zhang is extremely game. She went five insane rounds with Jedrzejczyk and left the fight completely beat up, but with the belt around her waist. She needs to be wary of Namajunas’ striking and pick her moves very carefully. Namajunas has a two-inch reach advantage, so Zhang needs to close distance and open her up with some short strikes.

How Namajunas can win: Zhang narrowly beat former champ Jedrzejczyk. Namajunas beat then-champ Jedrzejczyk handily via first round knockout. She then beat her via UD the next time out. I would trust Namajunas more on the ground, and her reach advantage means she can keep Zhang at a distance and handle her forward pressure.

Charlie’s Prediction: And New: Namajunas via R3 KO/TKO

Peter’s Prediction: And Still: Zhang via Decision 

The final title fight on this card is Valentina Shevchenko (20-3) against the aforementioned Andrade at women’s flyweight. Andrade just beat Katlyn Chookagian (15-4) in October, and her move up to 125 and near-instant title shot would seem peculiar, had Shevchenko not completely cleared out the division. 

Shevchenko’s reign as flyweight queen has lasted for nearly two and a half years through four title defenses. The only woman to beat Shevchenko in the last decade has been Amanda Nunes (21-4) at women’s bantamweight, although the second of those two fights was one of the most contentious decisions in UFC history. 

Shevchenko brings a masterful muay thai style with a strong combination of strikes from her hands, elbows and feet. This is Shevchenko’s division, and the UFC has had no choice but to throw former strawweight champions at her in the hopes the fight will be somewhat close. 

How Shevchenko can win: Just be herself. Shevchenko is one of the most dominant fighters in the women’s MMA game. Andrade was outstruck by Namajunas at UFC 251, which does not bode well for her chances against one of the best pure strikers in the sport. Shevchenko needs to stuff a couple takedowns and mix her strikes. There is a reason she is the biggest favorite on the entire card.

How Andrade can win: Andrade needs to somehow take Shevchenko down and throw up some Hail Mary submissions attempts. Andrade is pretty solid on the feet for a strawweight, but the extra 10 pounds means she will be pretty undersized against Shevchenko. Andrade is a great fighter, a former champion even, she just happens to be fighting a flyweight who could knock out a lightweight.

Charlie’s Prediction: And Still: Shevchenko via R1 KO/TKO

Peter’s Prediction: And Still: Shevchenko via Decision 

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