UFC is ready to get back to business. Dana White and company are packing up shop and heading east to host their first event in the U.S. with fans in attendance since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic over a year ago. And they are going big. UFC 261 is filled with intriguing fights from top to bottom and includes a trio of title fights atop the marquee. The biggest is a welterweight title grudge match between champion Kamaru Usman and challenger Jorge Masvidal from a year ago that saw Usman grind out a decision victory.
With the UFC wanting to go big for its return to action in front of a packed house, there's no shortage of storylines worth following this week. That's why we've selected the five best worth monitoring as the card inches closer to commencement. Let's take a closer look at those starting with the challenger in the main event.
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1. Jorge Masvidal's meteoric rise fizzling out?
Let's give credit to where it's due: No one could've predicted Masvidal would return from a 16-month layoff in 2019 to become the fighter of the year and an overnight celebrity. His transformation from journeyman to legitimate title contender was fueled by a trio of knockouts and an unwavering level of confidence. Yet whether it's fair or not to criticize him, something has happened to Masvidal in the year that followed. His star has dimmed considerably. Some of that has to do with how lifeless his UFC 251 loss to Usman was last July. Even though Masvidal had the built-in excuse of a short training camp after taking the fight on short notice to save the card, he seemed to lean too heavily into it once Usman began to have his way inside the cage. At 36, time appears to be running out on Masvidal's elite window. It's not that a second loss to a fighter as great as Usman would see Masvidal return to being just another name. He's too wild of a character for that to happen. But one could argue the 3-1 underdog will need a victory (or at least come close to securing one in defeat) should he hope to retain anything close to the pop culture grip he had on the sport during 2019.
2. Usman might exit this fight as P4P No. 1
On one hand, it sounds crazy. Yet Usman, who is riding a 17-fight win streak entering the fourth defense of his 170-pound title, just might have found a window of perfect timing to make a claim as the pound-for-pound best in the game. He would need to defeat Masvidal a second time, of course, and this time following a full camp for his opponent. But an even larger P4P leap for Usman isn't out of the question given the recent upheaval atop most lists thanks to Khabib Nurmagomedov's retirement, middleweight champion Israel Adesanya's loss to light heavyweight king Jan Blachowicz and Jon Jones' combination of inactivity and near-defeats. Usman would likely need to dominantly stop Masvidal to complete the transaction yet the steady evolution of his striking under new trainer Trevor Whitman has gone a long way in adding to Usman's dominance.
3. What kind of role might Rose Namajunas' political stance take on her title bout?
As a former women's strawweight champion, Namajunas has long been best known for the statements she has made inside the cage with her fighting above anything controversial or combative with her words. In fact, she famously stood stoic in the face of Joanna Jedrzejczyk's insults about her mental health ahead of their first fight before taking a public stance against unprofessional decorum between opponents. But Namajunas, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. before she was born after fleeing communist Soviet rule in Lithuania, came under fire in recent weeks when she spoke publicly about her motivation to defeat Zhang, UFC's first Chinese-born champion, as a way to protest communism. Although Namajunas claimed her words weren't personal against Zhang, her repeating of an old anti-communism slogan "better dead than red" was received poorly by the general public, as was her public assumptions regarding Zhang's political beliefs. Whether or not that ends up swaying the Jacksonville crowd or the online sentiment towards either athlete come fight night remains to be seen. But as it pertains to the co-main event, it will be interesting to see whether the controversy becomes a source of extra motivation for Zhang following a 13-month layoff fueled by the pandemic and whether or not Namajunas goes on to regret injecting such a combative storyline into the fight's narrative should she end up facing defeat.
4. 'Thug' Rose should be considered a live underdog
Despite having just two title bouts in the UFC on her resume, it has to be considered that the 31-year-old Zhang has only exceeded the lofty expectations the promotion had for her upon making her Octagon debut in 2018. Zhang was vicious in running through Jessica Andrade in just 42 seconds to win the title and her first defense against Jedrzejczyk, a five-round war that Zhang won via split decision, just might have been the most exciting and brutal women's fight in the sport's history. Yet the betting odds for this fight are interesting mostly because Namajunas, the former champion who yielded her title to Andrade in 2019 after being violently slammed on her head, has proven on her best nights as a professional that she's among the best in history. Namajunas, currently a +160 underdog, has the size, length and technical prowess on her feet to potentially be a handful for Zhang, which is why this matchup is so anticipated. Not only does Namajunas hold the advantage on the ground as a submission expert, her understanding of range as a boxer and the threat of her power has the potential to slow down Zhang's forward progress in a way Jedrzejczyk couldn't. Namajunas also appeared to have put the demons that followed her in the loss to Andrade (and the subsequent whispers of a possible retirement) behind her by walking through hell in Round 3 of a bloody split-decision win over Andrade in their rematch last July.
5. Jessica Andrade the last, best test for Valentina Shevchenko
Since moving back down to her natural weight of 125 pounds and commandeering the UFC women's flyweight title in 2018, Shevchenko's title reign of four defenses has been nothing short of dominant. Sure, Shevchenko had trouble trying to finish a stubborn Jennifer Maia last November. But she was never in trouble during the fight and has retained a one-sided grip over the division. Luckily for fight fans, Andrade's decision to move up from flyweight has provided the weight class with the only compelling matchup, at least on paper, it is bound to see anytime in the near future. Andrade, who dismantled former title challenger Katlyn Chookagian in her flyweight debut last October, has at worst a puncher's chance of upsetting Shevchenko as a 3-1 underdog on Saturday. At best, she might prove able to give Shevchenko fits due not just to her power, but her incredible chin and proven history of staying dangerous deep into fights even if she's down on the scorecards. Either way, should Andrade come up empty, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the top 10 at 125 pounds will end up finding odds this close given how incredible Shevchenko's future Hall-of-Fame run continues to be.
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