Among fight fans and observers, it's known UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and "BMF" titleholder Jorge Masvidal are elite fighters. Usman is the weight class kingpin and while Masvidal was previously unable to claim that title in their first fight, the pair are not headlining a marquee pay-per-view event at UFC 261 by promoter generosity.
However much star power, buyrates and ticket sales factor into the UFC's decision to place fighters on cards or coveted slots, Usman and Masvidal have also made the UFC's decision making process a bit easier based on their abilities.
Welterweight, globally, is a premier weight class. Find a small promotion in the middle of nowhere and chances are some of their welterweights will be the best the promotion has to offer. It is as deep as it is dangerous. The athletes not only all have good cardio, but crippling power and physical wrestling to boot.
Now imagine being two of the best that weight class has to offer anywhere in the world. To hold or compete for a UFC welterweight title requires the sort of skills many other similarly positioned fighters in other weight classes cannot match.
Yet, after their first meeting at UFC 251, the world didn't get an opportunity to see either bring their talents to bear. Masvidal took the fight on a week's notice and was badly drained by the weight cut process, to say nothing of the improper prep. Usman was in good condition, but he fought conservatively in dealing with a last-minute opponent switch.
So, what, specifically are the fighters good at and what makes them special? First, some numbers.
Usman's efficiency and workrate is extraordinary. Usman scored 130 significant strikes and 12 takedowns against Rafael dos Anjos in 2018, according to Michael Carroll of the official UFC stats-based service FightMetric. He became just the second fighter in UFC history to connect with 100 or more significant strikes and 10 or more takedowns in a single UFC fight. The only other fighter to have done that was Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos at UFC 155.
As for Masvidal, Carroll says he statistically stands out for his power at welterweight. Masvidal lands 0.81 knockdowns per 15 minutes of fighting at 170 pounds. At 155 pounds, it's just 0.15. Masvidal knockdown ratio at welterweight is 8:2. It's just 1:3 at lightweight.
These numbers only tell part of the story, however. There's depth, nuance and creativity the numbers can't speak to by themselves. In the interest of completeness, I spoke to coaches and analysts to get a better sense of why both Usman and Masvidal have become premier fighters in a marquee division.
Dan Hardy, MMA analyst: "He knows how to apply his wrestling to get the result he wants. Oftentimes, when Khabib [Nurmagomedov]'s taken someone down, he's taking them down, up against the fence, where he puts them into that cycle immediately. But I think Kamaru knows how to force someone to work when they don't want to. He allows people to work back to their feet. The more I watch the Leon Edwards flight, the more I feel like Kamaru is giving him small opportunities, small spaces to start making some ground, get back to his feet, and then he'll start taking him down again. It's like an intentional fatiguing cycle is what he puts people in, whereas he did that to Emil Meek all the way through the first two rounds.
"In the third round, he started taking him down away from the fence. And he also did the same thing against Masvidal, as well -- take him down against the fence, allow him to get back up, take him down a couple more times, force him to work. But then, when he actually wants to control somebody, taking them down out in the open, it forces them to deal with his wrestling or jujitsu. Most of the time, he's able to just nullify people with that. He's quite strategic, how he applies it. Khabib is almost always up against the fence and I think his takedowns are wherever you want to go, but I think Usman's far more directed with it."
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Eric Nicksick, Xtreme Couture coach: "I think if you were to watch a conductor to an orchestra where he kind of knows where all the beats in all the music, where it kind of needs to go and where does it fit in. When you watch him fight a five-round fight stylistically he understands when he needs to put pressure on, when he needs to release pressure, when he needs to wrestle, all of the little things that he does. I think it's his fight IQ and his situational awareness that makes him the best. Really, to me, top to bottom in all of the divisions, he's one of the best with what I've seen with his fight IQ."
Din Thomas, MMA coach: "He uses his body length to his advantage. He's very long, so he's able to tie you up in areas where most guys probably can't. He can get a lot of coverage over your body, so he uses his length well, especially up against the fence, he creates a tripod up against the fence where he's pushing you in and he's standing back so far that it's like he's getting a lot of leverage on his drive."
Why his wrestling wins
Thomas: "He's really calculated about when he takes shots. He doesn't do anything unless he calculates it. And I think that's very intelligent of him, and that shows his awareness and his fight IQ, but he uses his wrestling well. He takes the right shots at the right time and he's long, and he's hard to deal with for those reasons.
It's just body type, too. Because Khabib's a little bit more compact, he can be a little quicker, and he's a little bit quicker than Usman. Usman's not that quick of a guy, but because he's a little bit longer and a little bit slower, he has to tie you up a little bit more and immobilize you a little bit more. But don't get me wrong, he's got a system in place. He knows exactly what he wants, there's no guessing of what he wants to do next, he knows exactly what he wants."
Nicksick: "I think he's strong, but here's the thing that's great about him. It's durational. It lasts. He's there all five rounds. I don't think you see a drop-off in his strength from round one to round five. That's what's important to understand about Kamaru Usman, is that he can give you that same type of pressure in round one as he can in round five, whereas we think guys will fade or if that type of pressure, like that pressure release, that wrestling, guys tend to fade off especially in a three-round fight. You're looking and they're going to be dog tired. It looks like, to me, Kamaru Usman feeds off of that stuff. He likes to break guys in the room, he likes to break guys in the cage when he fights, and you see him get better in rounds four and five.
Nicksick: "I think what he does a very good job [of] is the way he incorporates his striking in his level change. He strikes very well, but when he feints the level change, it kind of keeps guys guessing on the hand motion. And really, to me, when he gets attached to you it's almost like guys are trying so hard to sprawl or so hard to disconnect that he allows you to do so, which we call like a "pull pop." Some of the better striking that you see Kamaru Usman have is once he gets attached in that break off element. It's almost like a guessing game when you watch the way he wrestles because you watch the guy's hands and it's kind of the way that motion of the up and down goes with them. I think that he is one of the best ones to do it because he's never really lost sight of what got him here, and that has been his wrestling, but his striking now only compliments really well. It's because he blends it so well with the up-down level change.
Ground and pound
Hardy: "His ground and pound is very strategic to force people to move. It doesn't really try and damage people as such. He landed one really good elbow against Masvidal as soon as they landed. But then after that, there wasn't really a great deal of space for him to strike. Masvidal was quite wily, and he would much rather opt for control over the opportunity for his opponent to scramble. So, fatigue's got to be evident in his opponent before he really starts to open up."
Thomas: "If you look at Usman's last fight against Gilbert [Burns], Gilbert was an absolute threat to him, and I knew Gilbert would be a threat to him. In fact, I thought Gilbert, from a skill perspective, if you were to lay their skills out on a table and measure them, Gilbert is a better fighter than Usman. He's faster, he's a far better striker, he's better on the ground, maybe not in wrestling, but skill for skill, Gilbert's a better fighter.
Gilbert had Usman hurt in the fight, [but] Usman still came back and knocked him out. So that performance, I think he showed a little bit of everything. He showed patience, he showed durability, he showed adversity and killer instinct, the ability to finish. And he got all those in against a guy who was probably better than him skill for skill. That, to me, is his best fight."
Brandon Gibson, JacksonWink coach: "It's going to be similar to the first fight in many ways. I think we're going to see this fight play out against the fence. I think Masvidal is going to have better cardio to find areas where he's able to blitz when he's getting backed up. But I think Usman is going to be able to wear him down, dictate the pace, find takedowns up against the fence, find lots of body work. And maybe be able to hold him down on the ground a little better this time."
Thomas: "I'd say he's a very slick boxer who kicks very well. He doesn't necessarily have a kickboxing style, he has a really good boxing style, and he also kicks well. The majority of [a kickboxer's] combinations would probably incorporate kicks. It would be one, two, kick and then another punch. And they stand a little taller and they may not move as much unless it's American-style kickboxing, but it's more so punches and kicks in combinations.
"What Jorge does well, which is different, is he's more of a boxer. Most of his combinations when he's throwing in combination are going to be hands, and his stance is going to be a little wider. His legs, he's going to be a little bit lower. He's going to deliver his hands, and then when he's done, or separately, he'll throw kicks. That's a little bit different."
Nicksick: "I think he's evolved so well. When you go back and watch him and you break this guy down when you see what he was when he first started in the Strikeforce era, the Bodog era, he was just that. He was kind of that backyard good guy, good boxer, serviceable wrestling, things of that sort. But then you go and fast forward and you go back and watch the Darren Till fight and you watch him hitting switch crosses and switch hooks and setting traps and angles and doing all those little things that I think a very, very experienced fighter can only do. That part of his maturation in his career is how good he's gotten over time and credit to his camp and those guys. Those guys have constantly evolved and been on the cutting edge of what's going on in MMA and I think that's a testament to Jorge Masvidal and where he's at.
Gibson: "Masvidal is going to be a hard guy to showcase [striking power] on, though. He is extremely hard to just hit clean."
Hardy: "It's going back to his career at 155, but the performance that always stood out to me was him against Rustam Khabilov. It was a three-round fight. He was up against it all the way through the fight, and in that third round, he was really starting to wear on Khabilov. Now, the scrambles in that flight were incredible. It was like two squirrels fighting over a nut. He would not accept being taken down. He scrambled and scrambled, but every time he got an opportunity, he would punish him for it. He would elbow him and he would knee him. He would light him up with uppercuts and anything else that he could throw at him, which kept him safe in the process of defending takedowns. It was unfortunate for him, because he got caught with a spinning heel kick in that fight and knocked down.
Hardy: "I think the measurement of it, you know? There's something quite beautiful about watching him measuring his opponent. We saw it obviously in the Darren Till fight, and there's a moment in that fight which... I've watched it a few times recently, and it stood out to me is, it's something that you would see an old time pro do to a beginner in the gym, where they see an opening a couple of times, and they show them the opening without actually hitting them with anything. He just hangs his left hook out there for a moment just to read Darren Till's movement, and be able to figure out what he was going to do if he did throw his actual left hook, see where his head was going to be. He was playing patterns and games all the way through that.
I think it's far more easy to understand someone that's an excellent grappler. If you can manipulate someone with wrestling, it's an obvious thing for most people to watch, even if they don't understand wrestling, because they understand the mechanics of one person manhandling somebody else. But when it isn't striking, it's almost entirely hands-off, and that's when it's very easy to underestimate people and what games they're actually playing. As good as Kamaru Usman's straight striking is, I think Masvidal's play of range is going to get ... he's going to make him really work for the punches that he lands. Masvidal finds other ways to get tells out of Kamaru Usman so he can set up his counters and make sure he's defensive and he's safe. There's a lot going on in Masvidal. It's very easy to underestimate the older games that he's playing when he's standing in front of you."
Mastery of range
Gibson: "He's a master of dictating that range and finding that point right past kick range where he's able to blitz in with his boxing. He's able to switch stances and find his flanks. And find unorthodox angles to land those big momentum shots.
"[He's] smooth. He has good eyes. He's good at making guys miss by a centimeter, as opposed to missing by a big distance. He's fluid. He has great fundamentals, but his eyes are so sharp."
Power at welterweight
Thomas: "Maybe just more comfortable not having to cut weight. When you get a little heavier, you can sit down or you feel like you could sit down on your punches a little more. So he was being heavier, just sitting down on his punches more, because I'm sure he didn't necessarily get stronger, his technique didn't get better, but I think he's just able to sit down a little bit more on his shots and have a little bit more faith in his ability to do damage when he does connect."
Gibson: "I think the key from his power comes from momentum when he decided to blitz. I think when he's stationary, he's an average powerful welterweight. I think when he gets his feet under him, starts closing the range of finding those angles and putting guys on their heels, he's able to generate a lot more power. He's exceptional at welterweight. I think the knockout of Darren Till, to me, is my favorite Masvidal strike. That was one where he was able to really generate some power through his movement and footwork and range."
Turning defense to offense
Nicksick: "He's just trying to slide out of punches or roll with punches just enough, but he also wants to make sure he stays in the pocket so he can counter you back. You might give a little to take a little more. Some of those things you might see that might be grazing him or brushing him a little bit is kind of by design. He wants to still be in the pocket. He doesn't want to get too far out. Especially when you slide too far out you're leaning in on your crosses and leaning back in on your punches to counter. He's just a hair outside of it. He's getting touched, but he's not getting hit hard. He's always there. You never seen the guy getting finished so he obviously is durable and he does just a good enough job to make sure he's not getting hit clean."
What he must do to win
Nicksick: "He really needs to make sure that he minds the geography and [doesn't] backs himself up to the cage or the barrier. I definitely think cage control is going to be very important for Masvidal in this fight, but also I think location of strikes. What I mean by that is I think you want to start your combinations about chest level. That's going to negate a lot of those level changes and shots. I wouldn't go with throwing knees. Those knees can get caught and turned into takedowns just as well. When you strike, you want a jab high lows and aim a lot of your power shots to the cross. Once you establish where the chest is, and I think you can always come back and work your way back up to the head. But I think anything combination wise with the striking, I'm going to aim everything kind of center mass first and foremost."
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