The UFC will take another big step toward normalcy this weekend, with a UFC 261 pay-per-view event in Jacksonville, Florida, in front of a full capacity crowd.
It's pretty interesting this landmark event will feature a welterweight title fight main event between Kamaru Usman (18-1) and Jorge Masvidal. (35-14). That's the exact same matchup that headlined another landmark moment last July -- when the UFC made its debut in the now-famous Fight Island over in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Why did the UFC go back to this matchup to serve as headliner in such a major spot? Especially because the first meeting was very one-sided in Usman's favor?
The answer lies in Usman's record. He has already beaten the UFC's official No. 1-ranked contender in Colby Covington. He has beaten the No. 2-ranked Gilbert Burns, as well as the No. 3-ranked Leon Edwards. And oh, would you look at that, there's Masvidal at No. 4, whom he has obviously taken out as well.
When you're as dominant as Usman has been -- 13 consecutive wins -- you get a strong say in the direction of your career. Usman probably could have chosen any of these four to fight next, and he specifically requested Masvidal.
Some, including Masvidal, would say it's for the money. This matchup offers Usman the highest upside in a PPV split, because Masvidal is the most popular man in the division. The champ hasn't denied that was a factor, but he has also said his win over Masvidal is the only one against these top contenders that doesn't sit well with him.
"Honestly, I don't think I broke him, the way I wanted to break him," Usman told ESPN. "When you're in there with that opponent, there's such an intimate moment where only you and that guy know what's going on. Only you and that guy know how hard he hits you. Only you and that guy know how hard I'm going at home. And with Masvidal, I don't think I fully broke him the way I wanted to. With everyone else, I know when I broke them."
It's a tale of two wildly different perspectives on the same July fight. Usman wasn't happy because he believes he can finish Masvidal, while Masvidal believes he felt everything Usman had to offer and cannot lose to the man if he's given a full camp to prepare. Masvidal took the first matchup on six days' notice, due to a late withdrawal by Burns.
Who's correct? That's the beauty of the fight game. We'll find out. But either way, the fact the UFC is revisiting this matchup again, in a premier spot, shouldn't surprise us. There's good reason to believe, even if the result is another win for Usman, it will look completely different.
In addition to the main event, Zhang Weili will return for the first time since her 2020 Fight of the Year candidate against Joanna Jedrzejczyk to defend her strawweight title against former champ Rose Namajunas, who also has a history of delivering on big nights. And Valentina Shevchenko, one of the most dominant women in MMA, will defend her flyweight title against ex-strawweight champ Jessica Andrade.
Kamaru Usman (c) vs. Jorge Masvidal 2
By the numbers
15,000+: Fans are back at UFC 261 with more than 15,000 fans expected to be in attendance.
13: Usman's current win streak, which is tied for the second-longest streak ever
50: Number of professional fights for Masvidal, as of Saturday night. It will also be Masvidal's 20th UFC fight
47: Takedowns for Usman, third-most among active welterweights
5: Takedowns for Usman against Masvidal in their previous fight
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
Five vs. five
Kamaru Usman's most recent results
Win: Gilbert Burns (TKO3, Feb. 13, 2021; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Jorge Masvidal (UD, July 12, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Colby Covington (TKO5, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Tyron Woodley (UD, March 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Rafael Dos Anjos (UD, Nov. 30, 2018)
Jorge Masvidal's most recent results
Loss: Kamaru Usman (UD, July 12, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Nate Diaz (TKO3, Nov. 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Ben Askren (KO1, July 6, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Darren Till (KO2, March 16, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Stephen Thompson (UD, Nov. 4, 2017)
A look back: Usman beats Masvidal at UFC 251 but doesn't finish him
Film study: Gilbert Melendez on Jorge Masvidal
How Zhang Weili's unorthodox striking throws off opponents
On Unlocking Victory, Gilbert Melendez breaks down Zhang Weili's striking and what makes her different.
And the winner is ...
"I really think it's going to go a lot like the first time. I'm a big fan of how Usman is able to come up with the perfect game plan for everyone he fights -- he never fights the same way twice. He's really good at figuring out what his opponents' weaknesses are. I think that's actually why it's really bad for Masvidal, because now Usman's been able to prepare for him." -- Angela Hill, UFC strawweight
Zhang Weili (c) vs. Rose Namajunas
By the numbers
81: Percentage of Zhang's fights in which she got a finish, which includes 10 wins by knockout and seven by submission
4: Strawweight finishes for Namajunas, tied for the most in UFC division history
6.38: Zhang's significant strikes per minute, the fourth-highest rate in strawweight history
1: Namajunas hopes to become the first woman to hold the same title on multiple occasions.
Five vs. five
Zhang Weili's most recent results
Win: Joanna Jedrzejczyk (SD, March 7, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Jessica Andrade (TKO1, Aug. 31, 2019; Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Tecia Torres (UD, March 2, 2019; Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Jessica Aguilar (SUB2, Nov. 24, 2018)
Win: Danielle Taylor (UD, Aug. 4, 2018)
Rose Namajunas' most recent results
Win: Jessica Andrade (SD, July 11, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Jessica Andrade (KO2, May 11, 2019)
Win: Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UD, April 7, 2018)
Win: Joanna Jedrzejczyk (TKO1, Nov. 4, 2017)
Win: Michelle Waterson (SUB2, April 15, 2017)
Film study: Gilbert Melendez on Zhang Weili
Shevchenko's kicks can keep Andrade away
On Unlocking Victory, Dominick Cruz displays how Valentina Shevchenko can avoid Jessica Andrade's power and pressure.
And the winner is ...
"I think Weili will win, but Rose has a lot of strong weapons. Rose has good power for the weight. She's long. She seems to be improving all the time, so it's kind of like, what Rose will we see? What has she improved? I would put my money on Weili, but Rose has the tools to make this competitive. Weili is as game as they come, mentally strong, and will put the pressure on her." -- Mike Brown, coach at American Top Team
Women's flyweight championship:
Valentina Shevchenko (c) vs. Jessica Andrade
By the numbers
6: Flyweight wins for Shevchenko, tied for the most in division history
1: Andrade is the only woman in MMA history to have a win in three divisions
15: Finishes for Andrade out of her 21 victories. Eight have come by knockout, seven by submission.
5: This will be the fifth title defense for Shevchenko.
Five vs. five
Valentina Shevchenko's most recent results
Win: Jennifer Maia (UD, Nov. 21, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Katlyn Chookagian (TKO3, Feb. 8, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Liz Carmouche (UD, Aug. 10, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Jessica Eye (KO2, June 8, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UD, Dec. 8, 2018; watch on ESPN+)
Jessica Andrade's most recent results
Win: Katlyn Chookagian (KO1, Oct. 17, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Rose Namajunas (SD, July 11, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Zhang Weili (TKO1, Aug. 31, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Rose Namajunas (KO2, May 11, 2019)
Win: Karolina Kowalkiewicz (KO1, Sept. 8, 2018)
Film study: Dominick Cruz on Valentina Shevchenko
And the winner is ...
"Valentina is one of the most complete fighters and truest martial artists in the game. If you had to coin a martial artist, Valentina is so high on that list. She leaves no stone unturned. I think she's going to be more than prepared for Andrade's strength and close-quarter fighting. I think Valentina will win wherever the fight goes, because Valentina has shown she's a great grappler, too. The way Andrade beat Rose Namajunas, I don't see her doing that to Valentina." -- Sayif Saud, coach at Fortis MMA
How to watch the fights
Watch the PPV and all other fights on ESPN+. Get ESPN+ here.
Watch the prelims on ESPN, ESPN Deportes or ESPN+. Download the ESPN App | WatchESPN | TV
Don't have ESPN or ESPN Deportes? Get instant access.
Purchased the fight on your phone and want to stream on your TV? Find out how here.
There's also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.
Saturday's fight card
ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET
Welterweight title fight: Kamaru Usman (c) vs. Jorge Masvidal
Strawweight title fight: Zhang Weili (c) vs. Rose Namajunas
Women's flyweight title fight: Valentina Shevchenko (c) vs. Jessica Andrade
Middleweight: Uriah Hall vs. Chris Weidman
Light heavyweight: Anthony Smith vs. Jimmy Crute
ESPN/ESPN Deportes/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Welterweight: Alex Oliveira vs. Randy Brown
Welterweight: Dwight Grant vs. Stefan Sekulic
Middleweight: Karl Roberson vs. Brendan Allen
Men's featherweight: Patrick Sabatini vs. Tristan Connelly
ESPN2/ESPN Deportes/ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET
Men's bantamweight: Danaa Batgerel vs. Kevin Natividad
Lightweight: Kazula Vargas vs. Rong Zhu
Women's flyweight: Aori Qileng vs. Jeffrey Molina
Strawweight: Liang Na vs. Ariane Carnelossi
Three more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. UFC 261 is the eighth fight card in the promotion's history in which three title belts are on the line, and the fifth in which there is a reigning champion in all three title bouts. Only once did all three championships change hands -- at UFC 217 in November 2017. That night in New York, Georges St-Pierre took the middleweight title away from Michael Bisping, TJ Dillashaw dethroned Cody Garbrandt at men's bantamweight and Rose Namajunas won the strawweight crown from Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
2. Before the title fights, there will be a rematch more than 10 years in the making, when middleweights Uriah Hall and former champ Chris Weidman meet again. The two competed against each other in the Ring of Combat organization in September 2010, with Weidman winning by first-round TKO. Hall is riding a three-fight winning streak, while Weidman has lost five of his past seven fights.
3. The PPV opener is a light heavyweight matchup between former title challenger Anthony Smith and the No. 1 fighter in ESPN's ranking of top fighters under age 25, Jimmy Crute. Smith is 2-3 in past five fights but nonetheless represents a step up in competition for Crute, whose past three wins have come in the first round.