UFC 268: Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington rematch tops the best main card of the year

NEW YORK -- To say the UFC is ending 2021 with a bang is an understatement.

The UFC has two pay-per-view events left, and each could be considered the best card of the year. But for my money, nothing beats the UFC 268 main card this Saturday at Madison Square Garden. Two title fights, both highly anticipated rematches. A lightweight No. 1 contender fight. An obvious Fight of the Night candidate.

Of course, everything is built around ESPN's No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, who will seek his fifth title defense against rival Colby Covington. The title fight is a rematch of their epic first meeting in December 2019, when Covington landed 143 total strikes on Usman but came up short via TKO.

In the co-main event, strawweight champion Rose Namajunas will defend her title against former champ Zhang Weili, whom she took the belt from via first-round knockout in April. Zhang, who is from China, made significant changes to her camp for this rematch, relocating her entire preparations to Arizona under Henry Cejudo and Team Fight Ready.

And in one of the most anticipated lightweight bouts of the year, Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler, both former UFC title challengers and champions outside of the UFC, will meet in a three-round bout that will likely determine the next challenger at 155 pounds.

Those three bouts will share the majority of the spotlight, but a featherweight matchup between Billy Quarantillo and Shane Burgos is capable of stealing the show due to the stylistic matchup. And the card also features former lightweight champion and three-time featherweight title challenger Frankie Edgar facing Marlon "Chito" Vera.

It's a phenomenal card, spearheaded by a welterweight title fight with stakes that go beyond just a belt. Usman is no longer simply defending a belt. He's working on defining a lasting legacy. Covington, who has fought only once since losing to Usman in 2019, realizes he won't get another chance at a title any time soon if he comes up short again.

The main card of Saturday's UFC 268 is on pay-per-view starting at 10 p.m. ET, with prelims on ESPN News and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. and early prelims on ESPN+ at 6 p.m.

Purchase UFC 268 on ESPN+ PPV

Welterweight championship:
Kamaru Usman (c) vs. Colby Covington 2

Numbers matchup: 143 vs. 14

143: Significant strikes landed by Covington in the first fight with Usman, by far the most by any Usman opponent in the UFC. (Next best was Jorge Masvidal with 66.)

14: Consecutive victories in the UFC by Usman. He is two shy of the all-time record held by Anderson Silva. Extending back before his UFC run, Usman has won 18 in a row, tying him with Jon Jones and Damir Ismagulov for second-longest active winning streak by any UFC fighter, behind only Alexander Volkanovski's 20 straight wins.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats

And the winner is ...

"I think Usman just needs to keep the fight on the feet and use his anti-wrestling. That is where he can expose Colby -- in the striking department," Eric Nicksick, coach at Xtreme Couture MMA, said. "Usman was already good there, but after what he's done with coach Trevor Wittman this last year, he's even better. He can put on a clinic. He does a lot out of both stances now. He does what we call trace steps, where let's say he throws a double jab, cross -- if the cross just misses, most of the time he'll use that cross now as his new lead hand and fight out of southpaw. There are a lot of advantages in that, and it suits him well with his length and range. He's also very subtle in adding head feints, level changes -- he keeps you guessing."

Check out how Nicksick and other experts break down the main event and predict a winner.

Strawweight championship:
Rose Namajunas (c) vs. Zhang Weili 2

Numbers matchup: 53.3 vs. 6.36

53.3: Takedown accuracy percentage of Namajunas, the third highest in UFC strawweight history.

6.36: Significant strikes landed per minute by Zhang, the third highest rate in UFC strawweight history.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats

And the winner is ...

"Weili is training with former UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo now, so obviously we know the game plan. Rose's team knows the game plan. It's to come in and wrestle," said Javier Mendez, coach at American Kickboxing Academy. "Let's see if Zhang can execute. She needs to pressure, stay off the middle, kick hard, punch hard, strike into the clinch and put Rose up against the cage. If she can do those types of things, she's good. At a distance, Rose wins all day long. So turn it into a dog fight."

Check out how Mendez and other experts break down the co-main event and predict a winner.

Special attraction at lightweight:
Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler

Numbers matchup: 91 vs. 77

91: Percentage of victories in which Gaethje got a finish (19 knockouts and one submission in 22 career wins). He finishes opponents by being unrelenting with his attack. In eight UFC fights, he has landed 7.46 significant strikes per minute, the fourth highest rate in promotion's history.

77: Finish rate for Chandler, who has been more diverse in how he gets the job done -- 10 knockouts, seven submissions in 22 wins. In two UFC fights, he has been on target with 6.01 significant strikes per minute.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats

How to watch the fights

Watch the PPV and all other fights on ESPN+. Get ESPN+ here.

Watch the prelims on ESPN News and ESPN+ and early prelims on ESPN+. Download the ESPN App | WatchESPN | TV schedule

Don't have ESPN News? 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 championship: Kamaru Usman (c) vs. Colby Covington
Strawweight championship: Rose Namajunas (c) vs. Zhang Weili
Men's bantamweight: Frankie Edgar vs. Marlon Vera
Men's featherweight: Shane Burgos vs. Billy Quarantillo
Lightweight: Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler
ESPN News/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Middleweight: Alex Pereira vs. Andreas Michailidis
Lightweight: Al Iaquinta vs. Bobby Green
Middleweight: Phil Hawes vs. Chris Curtis
Middleweight: Edmen Shahbazyan vs. Nassourdine Imavov
ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET
Welterweight: Ian Garry vs. Jordan Williams
Heavyweight: Gian Villante vs. Chris Barnett
Light heavyweight: Dustin Jacoby vs. John Allan
Men's featherweight: Melsik Baghdasaryan vs. Bruno Souza
Men's flyweight: C.J. Vergara vs. Ode' Osbourne
(c) = defending champion

Ian Parker's best bet

Gian Villante (-125) vs. Chris Barnett (+105)

In his last fight, Barnett made his UFC debut against Ben Rothwell. That's a tough task for any fighter in the division, but Barnett was competitive in the first round, landing some good strikes and keeping Rothwell on his toes. However, in the second round Barnett succumbed to the submission game of Rothwell. Fortunately for Barnett, Villante does not have that same level of submission game, nor is Villante even likely to attempt any submissions.

Villante has been known to brawl, and more often than not, he ends up on the losing end of those fights. However, Villante has shown himself to be extremely difficult to put away. In his last outing, he dropped a decision to Jake Collier. Out of Villante's last five losses, he has been finished only once, and that was at the end of the third round.

Based on both of these men's careers thus far, I expect a low-output striking battle between two heavyweights with excellent chins. Instead of choosing a side, the play here is to take over 1.5 rounds, as I don't see either of these men getting the finish -- and if one of them does, it wouldn't happen until the third, when the other has gassed out.

Pick: Over 1.5 rounds at -190.

For more tips from Parker on this fight card's best bets, go here.

A couple of other things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)

1. Shane Burgos is a New Yorker who has thrived in his home state. He is 5-0 in New York and 2-0 at Madison Square Garden, one of just three fighters who have won multiple UFC bouts at The World's Most Famous Arena without a loss (Stephen Thompson, Lyman Good). Burgos faces featherweight Billy Quarantillo, who has landed eight takedowns in his five UFC fights. (Burgos has 89% takedown defense.)

2. Another fighter who will feel right at home is New Jersey's Frankie Edgar. The former lightweight champion came across the Hudson River for the first UFC show at Madison Square Garden in 2015 and defeated Jeremy Stephens. That was at featherweight, but now Edgar fights as a bantamweight. His opponent on Saturday is Marlon Vera, whose eight finishes in the UFC put him in a tie with TJ Dillashaw for the most in the 135-pound division.

ESPN's Jeff Wagenheim also contributed to this fight preview.