illustration of ufc fighters kamaru usman and jorge masvidal in the ring
Though an upset victory was not entirely out of the question for Masvidal, Usman was the clear favorite to win after previously defeating Masvidal at UFC 251. (Illustration by Sonja Vasiljeva, San Jose State University)

Kamaru Usman Was a Shoo-In To Win the UFC 261 Match

Though his opponent Jorge Masvidal entered the ring with improved knockout power and endurance, Usman remains unmatched in many areas of fighting skill.

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illustration of ufc fighters kamaru usman and jorge masvidal in the ring

Though his opponent Jorge Masvidal entered the ring with improved knockout power and endurance, Usman remains unmatched in many areas of fighting skill.

At the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 261 match on April 24, undisputed welterweight champion Kamaru Usman defended his title against the fan favorite Jorge Masvidal in a rematch of UFC 251. In their previous bout, Usman handily disposed of Masvidal, winning every round on the majority of the judges’ scorecards. However, despite this dominant performance, fans pointed out that Masvidal accepted the bout on only six days’ notice after Usman’s original opponent, Gilbert Burns, tested positive for COVID-19.

After Usman’s victory over Burns at UFC 258, the champion called out Masvidal for a rematch, vowing to ensure that the top contender would have no excuses this time. Although the UFC had heavily emphasized how Masvidal’s improved preparation would impact the results of the rematch, a closer analysis reveals that regardless of how much time Masvidal had to prepare, the fight was bound to go in Usman’s favor once again.

Despite the outcome of UFC 261, however, Masvidal has proven himself to be an elite fighter. He has become one of the most dangerous and creative strikers in the entire UFC. While he is most known for his flying knee knockout against Ben Askren, his primary strength is boxing, and this skill helped him score impressive knockouts over formidable opponents such as Darren Till and Donald Cerrone. He has also demonstrated versatility across all mixed martial arts disciplines, as he managed to avoid yielding to Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Demian Maia and even scored his own impressive submission victory against another jiu-jitsu black belt in Michael Chiesa.

Most importantly, in between his loss to Stephen Thompson and his win over Till, Masvidal dramatically improved his self-discipline and his approach to training in a process he dubbed the “Resurrection.” Masvidal still possesses all the aforementioned skills, but he has demonstrated more knockout power with his hands and improved endurance since the Till fight. His increased skill showed in his impressive win against Nate Diaz. Whereas Masvidal has lost several controversial split decisions throughout his early career, his most recent run of form displays a sense of urgency that has taken him to the next level in terms of title contention. Even though Usman defeated him, the current champion undoubtedly faced the best version of Masvidal the world has yet to see.

Since he entered the UFC, Usman has continued to dominate every opponent that the organization has put in front of him, but even so, the champion demonstrated an entirely new layer to his game in his most recent outing against Burns. Although Usman’s primary strength is his wrestling and physical strength in the clinch, he showed major improvements in his striking in order to turn the tides against a very dangerous opponent in Burns, eventually finishing the fight in the third round. In the first fight between Usman and Masvidal, Usman secured a dominant victory despite Masvidal’s clear advantage on the feet by repeatedly engaging in the clinch, which fatigued Masvidal and allowed Usman to impose his will via his wrestling.

This time around, not only did Usman maintain that same advantage, but he also narrowed the gap between the two fighters in terms of striking ability. This improvement only made it easier for Usman to secure takedowns on Masvidal, as the challenger now had more threats to worry about on the feet and could not commit as much focus to stopping Usman’s wrestling. Whether Masvidal had prepared for six days or six weeks, the gap in their physical abilities as well as their mixed martial arts skill sets proved too much for the challenger to overcome.

In addition, Masvidal’s training situation prior to the previous fight was not nearly as disorganized as the UFC’s narrative implies. Even though he was not scheduled to face Usman until six days ahead of the fight, Masvidal had already been training for a fight against Usman well in advance. Masvidal had trained together with college wrestling talent Bo Nickal in preparation for his first bout against Usman, but he still found himself unable to adequately defend against Usman’s wrestling onslaught. With that in mind, there was no indication that any amount of training would allow Masvidal to bridge that skill gap in such a short time period between their first fight and the rematch, and as a result, Usman was massively favored heading into UFC 261.

Of course, the universal disclaimer in mixed martial arts still applied up until Usman’s victory, as the better fighter does not always win on the night. Greater upsets have happened in the past, as seen with instances such as Michael Bisping’s knockout over Luke Rockhold and Anthony Pettis’ victory against Thompson. As significant as Usman’s advantage was, Masvidal does possess enough skill to possibly have secured a knockout win if he had managed to land the perfect strike at the right time.

That said, several factors made this outcome even more unlikely than in most cases. For one, Usman has demonstrated some of the most durability in the sport. Although many power punchers have landed clean strikes on Usman’s chin, the champion was only ever truly hurt for a brief moment against Burns, who himself possesses some of the most knockout power in the division. Other top contenders such as Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington failed to do significant damage to Usman even when they landed strikes.

Also, Usman’s reach and distance management are often overlooked by most fans, who tend to fixate on his physical strength and wrestling abilities. His ability to switch stances and pressure the opponent while simultaneously keeping himself out of harm’s way resembles some of the all-time greats in the sport, such as Georges St-Pierre or Jon Jones. Finally, Usman possesses a unique combination of both cardio and physical strength that exceeds that of any other fighter on the entire roster. The reason most fighters cannot wrestle as consistently and relentlessly as Usman does is because they would fatigue too heavily as a result and put themselves in danger. Usman, however, has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to exert a high output in terms of both striking and wrestling across five full rounds.

Moreover, even though critics often maligned him for a lack of knockout power, Usman has now finished two of his last three opponents. In his most recent fight against Burns, Usman dropped him multiple times with only a jab before scoring a violent finish via ground and pound. As a result, the win conditions for Masvidal remained incredibly narrow and dependent on chance, whereas Usman possessed a number of ways to win this fight.

Mixed martial arts, particularly at the highest level, remains one of the most difficult sports in which to accurately predict the outcomes. Fights can end at any moment and often come down to the result of split-second decisions. Even so, every available piece of information indicated that Usman would handily win the UFC 261 fight, and he will continue to present a near insurmountable challenge for the rest of the welterweight contenders as well.

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Brandon Li

Vassar College

Outside of reading and writing, I enjoy swimming, watching mixed martial arts and playing video games with friends.

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