COVID-19 has been an absolute nightmare logistically for the UFC, but the plus-side is that the lack of available fighters has sometimes contained the pervasive inadequacy of top-end matchmaking; a fight like Rivera/Stamann came together because of the pandemic, and matchmaking that sensible wouldn’t have been guaranteed when the UFC had all the resources to make less sensible ones. To their credit, the welterweight title fight at UFC 251 was always strong, even if it wasn’t optimal; Gilbert Burns earned his title shot in full, with a snappy schedule that evoked that of old-time boxers, even if Leon Edwards had paid greater dues. However, this time, a cancellation forced the UFC to make a decision that was both logical and profitable, moreso than the original booking of the great “Durinho.”
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Jorge Masvidal had made the decision to get his worth from the UFC before fighting again, and that was a good decision; while his schedule since his resurgence (or, his resurrection) hadn’t been as strong as that of Burns nor of Edwards, Masvidal destroyed each opponent he’s had since 2018, and his growing profile granted him both legitimacy and leverage that most UFC contractors could only dream of. He had a shot at the champion in hand after UFC 239, but turned that momentum into a main-event at Madison Square Garden, and delivered so thoroughly that his legend only grew. It initially seemed that Masvidal overplayed his hand for a title fight afterward, which led to the perennially game Burns’ opportunity, but Burns’ withdrawal left the gamebred Floridian the last option if the UFC wanted their supercard.
Masvidal has stepped in admirably on a week’s notice, backing the persona of the fearless streetfighter that defined his rise, but the task in front of him is as formidable as anyone’s in MMA. Masvidal’s opponent on Yas Island is his exact opposite, a fighter who hasn’t gone through a resurrection because he’s never needed one; Kamaru Usman has been nearly flawless on his path to proving his position as a pound-for-pound talent, and the champion has a foil at UFC 251 that could prove career-defining. A win over Masvidal wouldn’t necessarily be Usman’s best (although it could be), but it has the potential to give the UFC’s paradoxical dark-horse champion the light he deserves.
A Challenger’s Nightmare
Before the Covington fight, the commentary team placed Usman’s situation as a prospect perfectly; he was the man who no one wanted to run into, because a prospect’s run ended with Usman and everyone knew it. Where the division is now – with no one in the top-10 willing to face anyone beneath that point – there’s a chance a fighter like Usman would never have gotten a shot until he was completely done. Luckily, Demian Maia and Rafael dos Anjos faced the scary prospect on the come-up; unluckily (for them, at least), it turned out exactly as bad a career-decision as the rest of the division feared. The most impressive thing about Usman isn’t necessarily any of his discrete skills to this point, although those were formidable enough for him to absolutely dismantle the champion in an all-time great underdog performance; what his last fight showed was that Usman the champion is still an improving quantity, and is testing himself as much as his opponent is testing him.
Usman’s primary skill is as an absurdly domineering wrestler; with the possible (and even that, perhaps not) exception of lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov, Usman has proven the most effective wrestler in the UFC. What’s most shocking about Usman’s skillset in that realm is that there’s a lack of any real limits; in comparison to the aforementioned Nurmagomedov, for instance, Usman is far better at completing takedowns in the open, and yet he’s no less talented a chain-wrestler against the cage, and the latter helps his monstrous clinch-game immeasurably. The latter is where Tyron Woodley ran into the most trouble (although it was far from being the only place); Usman had a number of options in the open to physically push Woodley to the fence, such as knee-tapping from the over-under to trip Woodley back, and his terrific bodylock played off his absolutely vicious bodywork from the over-under. Usman’s no worse from clinch-positions like collar-ties and he looked brilliant in transitions against Woodley (battering him with elbows reminiscent of one of his former opponents, Leon Edwards), but he’s at his best playing the threat of his wrestling off the damage of his clinch. Usman’s also a force on top, even in fights where his focus isn’t necessarily offense; he attacked the posts of Emil Meek very well, he ruined Woodley every time Woodley hit the floor, and even the formidable grappling of Rafael dos Anjos didn’t really slow him.
That said, the physical pressure of Usman’s clinch/wrestling is one thing, but the question for a wrestler is always how they get to positions in which they can wrestle; Usman’s a monstrous-enough athlete that he could probably be as reckless as he wants and still grab his man, but Usman’s striking has developed a great deal to find safer and smarter entries despite his athletic margin. Usman has solid footwork as a pressurer, he’s not a polished-enough striker to consistently cut the cage with his strikes (although he has before) but he’s measured moving forward and can feint his opponents back; what he uses most to create openings, though, is the jab. Against both dos Anjos and Woodley, Usman could force his opponent to the fence (or, in Woodley’s case, allow Woodley to exist on the fence on his own) and use the jab to draw out their reactions, then change levels; this was especially useful for Woodley, whose reaction to anything was a huge right and the jab got Usman behind his shoulder. Usman can do things like shifts to push his opponents back when he feels no danger (as he did against RDA), but his jab and footwork carry most of the weight; the reason is that he’s not terrific defensively in longer exchanges, although he’s growing to be a capable offensive-boxer.
The Covington fight showed both of those things; Usman seemed to make a concerted effort not to wrestle or clinch a man who was probably at least somewhat-susceptible to both, and kickboxed with a volume-kickboxer to a TKO win. Usman did get hit quite a lot, as his defensive poise against Woodley was at least somewhat the nature of Woodley as a boxer (or, rather, the lack of that nature), but he showed some absolutely thudding bodywork and some solid counterpunching against an opponent who was more enthusiastic than threatening on the inside. It was a showing that proved that Usman was working on his areas of weakness, which was arguably an even better sign than him just pushing Covington into the clinch and razing him; Usman is still only eight years into his professional career, and even in the places where he’s raw or unpolished, he’s dangerous and increasingly poised.
Bred For Game
Jorge Masvidal hasn’t followed on the claim that he made right after the fight that heralded “The Resurrection,” a nasty second-round knockout of the solid Darren Till; Masvidal claimed to want to fight the best in the world rather than those who called him out, but the fights afterwards were against two questionably-legitimate top-10ers who (in some fashion) called him out. It’s difficult to say that leaning into the market didn’t work for Masvidal, who’s now a top-2 star in the company, but it has also made him a bit more polarizing as a fighter than he arguably ought to be. Some have been convinced that he’s a pound-for-pound tier talent on the basis of his meteoric rise alone, while others seem to think that he’s still the .500 journeyman he used to be – only this time bolstered by a bit of luck with matchups. Neither is fully true, but while the motivations are incorrect for the first, it’s certainly closer to true; Jorge Masvidal might have gotten to the spot where he is with his mouth and with his highlight reel – but behind the persona and despite some rough patches, there was always a slick technician just waiting to break out, and now he has.
Masvidal’s calling-card, both during his lightweight tenure and his early welterweight run, was largely that he didn’t have one; for a good while, Masvidal embodied the curse of the well-rounded fighter who would accept any fight that his opponent brought him, and could hang in any phase but never felt the need to force his best one. He got edged out of a couple close decisions at lightweight, outright robbed of at least one (against Al Iaquinta), and then went on his run at 170. Even there, though, Masvidal’s struggles persisted; he kept grappling exchanges going against Demian Maia and lost the fight for trying to choke him, and the fight against Stephen Thompson was just catastrophic. Masvidal got the credit of being the best grappler Maia had faced in MMA, according to the man himself, and yet he lost a winnable fight because he couldn’t not attack Maia where he was best despite showing all the skills to just cut the wrestling exchanges off at the knees. The same thing hasn’t been tested since, but Masvidal also hasn’t self-sabotaged or allowed a fight to slip away on urgency since that fight with Thompson. With all that said, there’s a reason for Masvidal’s unerring confidence in every phase, and it is that he is extremely good in every phase. The difference between the Masvidal of old and the Masvidal of new was that old Masvidal probably would’ve held off Askren’s wrestling and beaten him up in the clinch, beating Askren in Askren’s fight, where the new Masvidal just didn’t suffer Askren a second more than he had to.
In the open, Masvidal is a brilliant and rounded striker, both a superlative boxer and kicker for the division. As a boxer, Masvidal’s best tool has historically been his jab, which plays terrifically into his unique grasp of rhythm as a striker; Masvidal is a smart and skilled combination-puncher, who’s very good at drawing out his opponent’s reactions or taking advantage of defensive patterns. However, Masvidal’s grasp of rhythm doesn’t just manifest in his jab, as seen in his bout against Darren Till; against a much longer fighter who seemed to have Masvidal in some serious trouble early, Masvidal eventually figured out how to cover distance in big shifting flurries as he threw off the counterpuncher by feinting him into complete uncertainty. Masvidal’s skill as a boxer is complemented by his skill as a kicker, where he isn’t quite as highly-regarded but probably should be; the fight to watch there is against Donald Cerrone, who not only ate big switch-kicks to the gut that were followed immediately by Masvidal’s punching-combinations, but also couldn’t get a kick off without Masvidal parrying it and blasting him for his trouble. Masvidal can kick off both legs, he consistently feints off his lead-leg (leading to a stance that looks more like a Thai than anyone else in MMA), and he’s very diligent at both using his kicks to create opportunities and at keeping the same thing from happening to him. That he’s proven a genuine power-puncher at 170 helps immensely, too.
The concern in an Usman fight is takedown-defense and the clinch, and the good news for Masvidal isn’t just that he won’t necessarily concede those areas of the fight like he used to, but that he’s quite good at both. As mentioned earlier, Masvidal does have good instincts as a wrestler, even though he’s not always the best at committing to disengaging; however, where Masvidal does deal a great deal of damage is as a clincher, where he wrecked both Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone (and even Cezar Ferreira, years ago). The fight against Kamaru Usman, however, will likely be the ultimate test of both Masvidal’s ancillary skills and his decisionmaking in using them.
UFC 251: Usman vs. Masvidal is tonight!
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- Usman vs. Masvidal 🏆
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Conclusions and Capping
Masvidal deserves a great deal of respect as a fighter for the skillset he’s developed and for his newfound ferocity in using it, and as a competitor for taking a fight like Usman on a week’s notice; that said, Usman seems difficult enough for Masvidal in normal circumstances that one has to question whether this fight was worth taking for Masvidal without full preparation. For all of the ways in which Masvidal made life hard for Demian Maia in the wrestling, the fact remains that Maia did get the sort of fight he wanted; Masvidal’s a good wrestler but at this stage, it seems that it’d take an Aldo or a Whittaker to completely deny a wrestler as versatile as the Nigerian. Masvidal seems more poised to give Usman resistance in the clinch than the skilled-but-small dos Anjos or the large-but-inert Woodley did; however, Usman not only has an athletic margin here (as he does over everyone), he’s proven persistent enough to wear on even the ones who can hold him off for a bit in the clinch, and Usman’s freakish indefatigability means that holding him off isn’t enough for the attempts to stop. Masvidal is very good on the outside, but Usman isn’t just a capable pressurer, he has enough of a threat in open-space that he can enter and finish without the fence or just physically shove Masvidal into the fence.
If Masvidal has a shot (and he certainly does), it’s in open-space, where Usman conceded a fight last time; Masvidal has both offensive-craft and firepower, which makes him more dangerous to exchange with than both dos Anjos (who had the craft but not the power) or Woodley (vice versa). Usman could win a fight in the open if the takedown threat seriously gets to Masvidal, but that’s where Masvidal has his shot to exploit the developing nature of Usman’s pocket-game. That said, Usman’s not just durable and improving, but he’s historically quite smart, and he knows where each fight favors him; expecting an unforced error from him is generally a fool’s errand. This would be a very compelling fight in a vacuum, and it’s arguably still more compelling than the slated Burns bout, but the nature of the circumstances for Masvidal make it a bit wider than it should. Masvidal is a real threat; however, Kamaru Usman is a problem.
UFC 251 Prediction: Usman via TKO5, cap Usman at -200.
Long-time MMA fan. Catch my (incomplete) betting history at betmma.tips/sriramsays.