UFC 251 has a new main event. After clearing many logistical hurdles over the weekend, Jorge Masvidal will step in on less than a week's notice to face welterweight champion Kamaru Usman in Abu Dhabi on Sunday morning (Saturday night stateside). Both sides agreed to terms to the deal on Sunday and were flown to Las Vegas for their initial COVID-19 test. Both passed and are expected to board private jets to Yas Island on Monday, according to Ariel Helwani.
Masvidal will get the main event slot many thought he deserved in the first place. With 48 career fights under his belt, Masvidal would serve as the fighter with the most MMA appearances before receiving his first title shot.
Shortly after the news of the agreement broke, UFC president Dana White posted a hype video to Twitter which seemingly confirmed that he was able to secure the new blockbuster main event.
White joined SportsCenter shortly after the news was announced to explain how the matchup came to be in such a short amount of time.
"If you look at the 20-year history [of UFC], this kind of stuff happens. When you get into negotiations for fights, these things happen. Gilbert Burns has been on a tear and was consistently fighting, and wanted to continue to fight and was the No. 1 contender, so Gilbert Burns made sense," White said. "Obviously Masvidal has become a massive star over the last year and a half, and that's the fight that the people want to see so when Burns fell out, we got in a room and figured Masvidal out."
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The inaugural Fight Island card saw its original headliner fall apart Saturday when top contender Gilbert Burns pulled out of a shot at Usman's title after testing positive for COVID-19. Masvidal, the ceremonial BMF champion, was the opponent UFC originally targeted for Usman before negotiations went sideways and Masvidal began a public protest over fighter pay.
Masvidal (35-13) spent his July 4th holiday undergoing the first of what would be multiple coronavirus tests while negotiating the fight, per photos released on social media by his manager, Malki Kawa. The 35-year-old brawler rose from journeyman status in 2019 with a trio of stoppage victories which earned him global fame and Fighter of the Year honors.
Among the major hurdles facing the proposed fight are the logistics of how the fighters would safely arrive in the United Arab Emirates amid quarantine protocols in such a last-minute scenario. Usman (16-1) did not board a chartered UFC flight which carried fighters, trainers, media and promotional personnel upon hearing the news of Burns (19-3) pulling out.
In the event the fight does not take place, the original co-main event of featherweight champion Alexaner Volkanovski taking on former titleholder Max Holloway in a rematch would take top billing. The card also includes a vacant bantamweight title bout between Petr Yan and former featherweight king Jose Aldo.
Usman-Masvidal was the fight that initially made the most sense for the division and the one fans most preferred. It also offers a potential dramatic contrast in styles with the explosive striking of Masvidal against the suffocating wrestling of Usman.
Masvidal originally claimed he was offered half of what he made last November in defeating Nate Diaz and turned the fight down. Reports surfaced that, following his social media outburst, he was then offered the Usman fight again at the full purse he made against Diaz and turned it down a second time.
The red-hot Burns was able to leap Leon Edwards in the rankings and accepted the opportunity thanks, in large part, to his six-fight win streak and recent victories over Demian Maia and former champion Tyron Woodley. Burns also received criticism publicly from Masvidal and Diaz, who accused him of only getting the fight because he was willing to take short money.