The difficulties while attempting to return live sports to the forefront during a global pandemic have been prevalent, yet the UFC remains busy in these summer months. On Saturday, it might just be delivering fight fans the best card of the entire year despite everything currently going on in the world.
Emanating from Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, UFC 251 will feature a trio of title bouts atop the card and a loaded pay-per-view main card. In the first of four UFC cards in 14 days on what is being called Fight Island by the promotion, this one fills the role normally occupied by International Fight Week in Las Vegas.
But things took an even more dramatic turn over the weekend when Gilbert Burns, originally slated to challenge Kamaru Usman for the UFC welterweight title, pulled out after testing positive for COVID-19. So what did UFC do to counteract? Add BMF champion Jorge Masvidal and an already great card just got that much better.
With so much star power and intriguing bouts on the card, there are plenty of key storylines to pay attention to before the fighters enter the Octagon. Let's take a closer look.
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1. Seriously, how cool does Masvidal look after all of this?
Already entering the Octagon with more street cred than any other as a former backyard, bareknuckle fighter turned crossover star and UFC anti-hero, Masvidal accepted his first title shot on just six days' notice. And he flew to Las Vegas for his second coronavirus test in as many days. And he flew from there to Abu Dhabi, where he'll prepare on short notice to fight at what is expected to be 6 a.m. local time this weekend. Did I mention he twice turned down the fight for less money and raised his value by taking a public stance against fighter pay only to see UFC come to him on Saturday? This is epic, this is gangster. This is "Gamebred," who has the opportunity some 17 years into his pro career to climb the mountain of immortality by becoming a real UFC champion at 35 (and not just the ceremonial BMF kind). Should Masvidal, who must first shed 20 pounds, pull off the unexpected as an underdog, it would be in the most unique of circumstances possible, which is apropos for the former journeyman who came out of nowhere to author a fighter-of-the-year campaign in 2019.
2. Volkanovski must do the improbable (again)
An expert in timing and footwork, it wasn't as if Volkanovski pulling an upset of featherweight champion Max Holloway in December was outside the realm of impossibility. In fact, the diminutive Australian, who was riding a 17-fight win streak coming in, had become somewhat of a trendy upset pick. Yet it's one thing to imagine him dethroning a fighter with such a legendary resume in Holloway and actually seeing it happen. Volkanovski utilized leg kicks and awkward movements to disarm Holloway early before holding off a late rally to win a close decision. He ended Holloway's incredible 14-fight win streak within the division and bested the fighter the UFC had already declared was the greatest at 145 pounds in history. But Holloway reminded everyone in his post-fight interview that the loss wouldn't break him and that, at 28, he was still young and improving. Anyone can lose on any given night in the UFC and the talent level separating the true elites from one another is insanely small. Volkanovski was able to stifle Holloway the first time and almost talk him out of dictating the terms of the fight like he traditionally does. Doing so a second time in the same manner just isn't realistic against a fighter this good. And should Volkanovski look to trade with Holloway on even terms, it's hard to imagine him having similar success. Expect this to be the true test of whether Volkanovski is a cerebral wizard worthy of royalty or just another knight who was valiant in battle at the perfect time.
3. The curious case of Jose Aldo's muted legend
Remember those days that Aldo, the 33-year-old Brazilian star, was unbeaten for nearly a decade and the decided greatest featherweight to ever walk the earth? It's not that the fight game necessarily forgot that. It is, however, interesting to consider how much Aldo's 13-second loss to Conor McGregor in 2015 and the fact that he was never given an immediate rematch sort of muted how we look at him historically. No, you can't go too far down the list of naming the top 10 fighters to ever step foot in the Octagon without naming Aldo. Anyone with a pulse recognizes he's a future Hall of Famer and UFC royalty. But Aldo rarely gets mentioned anymore in the elite upper room of MMA G.O.A.T.'s that includes the likes of Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre. Which brings us to Saturday's vacant bantamweight title bout where Aldo will take on rising Russian destroyer Petr Yan. For all of the talk surrounding how much Aldo doesn't deserve the title shot in such a deep division being fresh off a loss in his 135-pound debut against Marlon Moraes, no one is talking about what happens if he wins. Although it has become a trendy achievement in recent years, the two-division champion club within UFC remains an exclusive one. A win for Aldo could be the perfect boost to a still-growing resume that doesn't always get the love it deserves.
4. The long journey back for Rose Namajunas
To show how deep UFC 251 truly is, a pairing between former women's strawweight champions Namajunas and Jessica Andrade -- which could headline many shows -- has flown under the radar. But for the 28-year-old Namajunas, one could argue there has never been more pressure on her than this fight to declare which direction her career is headed. In 2018, Namajunas became the breakout star many tabbed her to be four years earlier when the 115-pound division was originally created on "The Ultimate Fighter." Namajunas twice defeated reigning champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and appeared to have evolved into one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world during a dominant first round against Andrade in May 2019. All it took was one mistake, however, for things to unravel as Namajunas failed to tuck her neck and was knocked out when Andrade slammed her on her head. Not only did "Thug Rose" openly contemplate retirement in the aftermath, she later postponed a scheduled rematch against Andrade in early 2020 following the death of two family members due to COVID-19. With a heavy heart and much at stake, there's no telling what version of Namajunas we will see in this dangerous rematch. But make no mistake, should Namajunas win, an opportunity to regain her belt against current champion Weili Zhang might not be far off in what could be an instant classic between top performers.
5. The Paige VanZant experiment could end this week
The 26-year-old VanZant, once hailed as the next Ronda Rousey due to her crossover appeal, will enter the Octagon for the final fight of her current UFC deal when she faces rising women's flyweight contender Amanda Ribas. Considering Ribas enters as an astronomic -800 favorite, according to William Hill Sportsbook, it's not hard to assume UFC is ready to cash PVZ out. Although she has shown promise at times, VanZant (8-4) never quite lived up to the hype. She has lost three of her last five and has often sounded as if her foot is halfway out the door of the sport. The final straw appeared to be her constant public complaints about fighter pay and the fact that she claims to have made more in one season as a cast member on ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" than she did in her entire UFC career. Should this be the end of the marriage, VanZant will still likely draw offers from rival promoters given her brand appeal. But it's no surprise UFC is doing her no favors with Ribas (9-1) who is unbeaten in the Octagon and shaping up to be a future title challenger.
Who will win Usman vs. Masvidal, and how exactly will each fight end? Visit SportsLine now to get detailed picks on every fight on Saturday's UFC 251 card, all from the accomplished expert who's up almost $21,000 and has nailed 12 straight main events.