Saturday's UFC 261 featured two dominant performances by defending champions and one new titleholder who reclaimed her belt.
Kamaru Usman proved he is still getting better when he knocked out Jorge Masvidal, and Valentina Shevchenko made a case to be included in the GOAT conversation. Meanwhile, Rose Namajunas delivered once again in a big moment.
ESPN reporters Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Phil Murphy react to the key moments from the card in Jacksonville, Florida.
Helwani: Usman proved there's no one better
After beating his rival Jorge Masvidal -- via a vicious right hand, the likes of which we've never seen from him before -- in the main event of UFC 261, Kamaru Usman told Joe Rogan that he considers himself the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
And you know what? Now that Khabib Nurmagomedov has officially retired, I think he's right.
I don't think this is me being a prisoner of the moment. The man has a very strong case that is worth recognizing.
Let us count the ways:
He's now won 18 consecutive overall and 14 straight in the UFC.
AND STILLLLLL!!! 👊🏿🌍🤴🏿 pic.twitter.com/RSpyKWvUkx— KAMARU USMAN (@USMAN84kg) April 25, 2021
He has the second-best winning streak to start a UFC career (14) behind Anderson Silva's 16 straight.
He's been so dominant, he now has to fight the guys he's already beaten again -- Colby Covington, who he defeated in a classic back in December 2019, is next.
And perhaps most impressive of all? It still feels, after all these fights, like he's getting better.
Remember "30% Usman"? Remember "Snoozeman"? Who dares call Kamaru Usman boring after his last two performances?
You simply can't.
There was once a time where the fans -- and let's be honest, UFC president Dana White, too -- felt like he played it safe way too often. This did not endear Usman to the public.
But that is no longer the case. He just handed Masvidal his second TKO loss ever (in Masvidal's 50th pro fight) and his first since 2008. Amazingly, the last time Masvidal was stopped was in 2009, via submission. In other words, this doesn't happen often.
But thanks in large part to the recent work he's done with Trevor Wittman in Colorado, who also guided Rose Namajunas to a thrilling win tonight as well, Usman has turned into one of the most well-rounded fighters on the planet.
Heck, maybe even the best, too.
I'd put his recent resume up there with anyone's, including Nurmagomedov's.
And while I know it has bothered Usman in the past that he didn't get the attention and love that some of the other stars in the UFC received, I don't think he should worry about that anymore. His fighting is doing the talking these days. His star is shining bright. The best appears yet to come for "The Nigerian Nightmare."
Life is good -- certainly more dream than nightmare -- for the UFC's new pound-for-pound king.
Wagenheim: Saturday's pay-per-view was the kind of event only the UFC can produce
Valentina Shevchenko had just painted another masterpiece, adding to a splendidly bulging portfolio. The UFC women's flyweight champion, arguably the most dominant of all the fight promotion's elite title belt holders, had absolutely mauled former strawweight champ Jessica Andrade, taking her down seven times before bloodying her up and finishing her from a dangerous, demoralizing mounted triangle position at 3:19 of Round 2.
Then Shevchenko, a 33-year-old in her prime and Kyrgyzstan's greatest export, started to dance. She always dances to signify that she has once again extended her winning streak, twirling and twirling at the center of the cage. With this win, it's now seven victories in a row. It's been a full decade since Shevchenko has lost to anyone but Amanda Nunes, the two-division champ and the GOAT of women's MMA.
It was a magnificent championship moment at UFC 261 on Saturday night in Jacksonville, Florida. And when it was over, the fans -- yes, there were some 15,000 pandemic-defying fans inside VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, the first live U.S. crowd at a UFC event in over a year -- did not head for the exits, gleefully buzzing about the greatness they had just witnessed. No, they had barely enough time to draw a few calming breaths before another pair of women entered the Octagon for another championship fight.
And that turned out to be the moment of the night.
In a highly anticipated clash of strawweight champion vs. former champ, Rose Namajunas regained the title with a stunning first-round head kick that crumbled Zhang Weili and her 21-fight winning streak. The end came just 1:18 into the bout, leaving Zhang protesting what she said was a premature stoppage (it was not) and Namajunas tearfully proclaiming, "I'm the best" (she is, at least at 115 pounds).
And guess what: There still was a title fight main event to come.
That one delivered the evening's coup de grace, as welterweight champion Kamaru Usman knocked Jorge Masvidal out cold with one howitzer of a right hand, earning his second victory over Masvidal in nine months. After getting the better of Masvidal in both striking and grappling exchanges throughout the first round, Usman closed the show with a crushing finish at 1:02 of Round 2, moments after Masvidal had smiled at Usman after absorbing a punch. The champ then wiped the smile off his challenger's face, securing his fourth title defense and 18th consecutive victory.
That's three championship bouts featuring five fighters who wear or have worn title belts. All competing on one night under one roof.
That is what separates the UFC from all other organizations in sports. Boxing delivers big fights as well but doles them out sparingly, typically just one at a time on those rare nights when the greatest in the sport collide. That's also the case for other MMA organizations, which do not have the roster depth of the UFC and cannot load up fight cards like Saturday's. This event was more like a full evening's slate of NBA or MLB postseason games, encompassing all the twists and dramatic turns.
Not every UFC event is so transcendent, of course. There's a fight card practically every weekend, and some weeks the main event produces barely a ripple in any weight division's top 10. But a night like Saturday delivers fans the "And there's more!" draw of those old Ronco infomercials on late-night TV, in which the offers kept building and building until they sounded too good to be true. Except this product delivered on all of its promises.
Okamoto: Shevchenko fights her way into GOAT conversation
I already felt like this going into UFC 261, and Valentina Shevchenko's performance only reinforced it: There is a battle for the title of female GOAT in MMA.
It feels like the topic of female GOAT is already wrapped up in the minds of many. We refer to double champ Amanda Nunes as the GOAT as if it is an absolute. As in, there is no one even remotely close to the conversation. And I kind of understand it, of course. She is the double champ. She's taken out the best names in two divisions, dominantly. And most importantly, she has two wins over Shevchenko.
But, I scored that second fight between Nunes and Shevchenko back in 2017 for Shevchenko. So did one of the judges involved. It was a split decision win for Nunes, and far from a definitive result. And also don't forget, that's in a weight class where Nunes holds a physical advantage. Shevchenko is the one taking on the challenge of moving up in weight every time she fights Nunes.
I'm not saying any of this to take away what Nunes has done, far from it. But I'm telling you right now, there is a case to be made that Shevchenko is the greatest female fighter we've ever seen.
Raimondi: Namajunas delivers once again in big moment
Rose Namajunas openly contemplated retirement after losing the UFC women's strawweight title to Jessica Andrade two years ago. She has been open about mental-health issues, specifically the post-traumatic stress she suffered following the infamous Conor McGregor bus attack in 2018. But once again on Saturday night, Namajunas proved she is one of the most mentally tough fighters in the UFC by delivering in another crucial moment.
Namajunas stopped Zhang Weili with a head kick to regain the women's strawweight title. When 2021 is up, Namajunas' finish will be a candidate for knockout of the year.
Namajunas became the first female fighter in UFC history to regain a title she lost previously. Andrade slammed Namajunas on her head -- in a bout Namajunas was winning -- at UFC 237 in May 2019. At that moment, it was unclear if she would ever fight again. She said so herself. This was nothing new for Namajunas, though. She failed in her first shot at the title, in 2014 against Carla Esparza on the Ultimate Fighter Finale. Three years after that loss, Namajunas knocked out Joanna Jedrzejczyk to win the belt.
She did it again Saturday night. Namajunas has two career KO victories, and both came in title challenges. It doesn't get any more clutch than that.
Murphy: Smith proves title hopes aren't finished; Crute's stock still high
Anthony Smith's perfectly placed kick, which rendered Jimmy Crute unable to fight in the second round because of a leg injury, proved Smith's title hopes still have some life. This was his first non-headlining fight after a UFC-record -- for a non-champion -- seven consecutive main events. Smith is only 32, and this win will age well.
For Crute, Jacksonville showed its appreciation of his chest-pounding willingness to fight on one leg. That image will stick with a lot of people. Assuming he rebounds -- and wise matchmaking should facilitate that -- this loss will carry a favorable asterisk, much like Sean O'Malley's to Chito Vera. And because the fight itself was competitive before Crute's injury, the UFC can hold Smith-Crute 2 in its back pocket for a rainy day.
Many may find Saturday's stoppage dissatisfying in a vacuum because no one wants to see an injury end a fight. But the outcome is Smith's stock rises, Crute's could remain largely unaffected and an appetite for rebooking remains.