UFC 251 takeaways: Usman won but Masvidal retained BMF belt

Kamaru Usman began his UFC career 12-0. (John Locher/AP)

Kamaru Usman defended his welterweight title at UFC 251, but let’s be clear, he did not earn Jorge Masvidal’s BMF belt because of the way in which he got his hand raised.

There was plenty to appreciate about Usman’s performance and it’s hard to imagine any welterweight taking the title away from him anytime soon, but at the end of the day, it was a boring fight save for a few moments from Masvidal in the opening round.

UFC president Dana White said Friday that UFC 251 was trending towards being one of the most successful events in company history because Masvidal, one of MMA’s top stars, had stepped up on short notice to fight Usman and the two of them had seemingly developed a heated rivalry in recent months.

In hindsight, though, there was absolutely no reason for the amount of hype surrounding this fight.

The most likely outcome was always going to be Usman winning a decision where he used his wrestling to impose his will on Masvidal and nullify the veteran’s diverse striking attack.

That’s pretty much always been the formula to beat Masvidal and that’s exactly what we saw for the majority of the 25-minute bout. Usman secured five of his 16 takedown attempts had 10:06 of control time in the clinch alone yet at no point did Usman hurt Masvidal or come close to finishing the fight. The two cuts Masvidal sustained on his forehead were caused by inadvertent headbutts. Besides that, he didn’t have a scratch on him other than maybe some bruised toes from all of Usman’s foot stomps.

Usman intelligently fought to his strengths, stayed the course like a true champion and that method of victory is exactly what we’ve seen from “The Nigerian Nightmare” ever since he debuted in the UFC in 2015.

That’s what made his tilt with Colby Covington this past December so surprising. That fight was personal and the two men traded shots for five rounds until Usman picked up a late, albeit somewhat controversial, TKO stoppage. Covington is far superior to Masvidal in terms of wrestling, sure, but Usman didn’t even attempt a single takedown that entire fight.

Usman gained a lot of favour with fans for the way in which he fought and defeated Covington. Those are the types of fights most fans want to see at the end of the day and those are the types of performances that have people dubbing you the BMF. That just isn’t what we saw on Fight Island.

We saw an impressive title defence, not a great fight.

With the win, Usman tied Georges St-Pierre for the longest winning streak in UFC welterweight history with his 12th consecutive victory, but let’s be honest these wins streaks were not created equal.

Usman’s first win on his streak was in the finale of The Ultimate Fighter against a fighter who never made it in the UFC, and more than half of his UFC opponents have been lower-tier fighters that have never and will never sniff title contention.

Meanwhile, the first win on St-Pierre’s 12-fight streak was a No. 1 contender’s bout and there was a title on the line in the other 11 wins.

St-Pierre was criticized at times throughout his career and considered boring by a certain segment of fans for frequently going the distance. Like Usman, St-Pierre had a strength and wrestling advantage over basically all of his opponents, but a key difference is Usman usually uses the cage to grind on his opponents and get his takedowns whereas St-Pierre would use his superior striking and timing to set up his opportunities and get his fights to the mat when he wanted to.

Simply put, Usman’s style of wrestling is not as aesthetically pleasing as St-Pierre’s. Also, St-Pierre was a better submission artist and a more versatile grappler so the way he would pass a fighter’s guard to inflict ground-and-pound damage and attempt submissions was more exciting to watch than Usman’s more mauling style — keeping in mind “exciting” is subjective.

Usman has a finishing rate of 25 per cent with only three stoppages in 12 wins where in St-Pierre’s first dozen UFC wins he had seven finishes, five TKOs and two submission.

So, while Usman deserves heaps of praise for what he’s done thus far in his UFC career, let’s pump the brakes on the GSP comparisons.

Holloway not quite in no-man’s land after latest loss to Volkanovski

Whenever a top fighter loses twice to a reigning champion they’re put in a tough spot. They’re better than nearly every fighter in the division yet can’t get over that final hurdle and so it doesn’t make sense to keep putting together title rematches.

It happened to Joseph Benavidez at flyweight when Demetrious Johnson was champ. It happened to Frankie Edgar at lightweight when he lost back-to-back decisions to Benson Henderson then again at featherweight when he couldn’t get past Jose Aldo. Ironically it recently happened to Aldo after back-to-back beatings from Max Holloway.

Considering how the UFC 251 co-main event unfolded, a third fight between Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski is not out of the cards. Volkanovski won a five-round split decision but “3-2 Max” was trending on social media early Sunday with many onlookers, including Dana White, scoring the fight for the former champ.

It really just comes down to how you scored the third stanza as Holloway clearly won the first two rounds and Volkanovski came on strong in the fourth and fifth.

Holloway could move up to lightweight and do some damage in that division. There are tons of exciting potential matchups for him at 155 pounds but the question becomes does he have the power to compete with the top lightweights. We saw a preview of what that might look like when he fought Dustin Poirier for the interim lightweight title at UFC 236 last year. He lost four rounds to one on all scorecards that night.

Namajunas vs. Zhang is the fight to make next

“Thug Rose” is back.

Rose Namajunas hadn’t competed since being knocked out by Jessica Andrade and losing her title 14 months ago but the strawweight star avenged that loss with a Fight of the Night performance at UFC 251.

Namajunas was ranked as the No. 2 contender behind Andrade heading into the event but she’ll be No. 1 when the rankings are updated.

This should set up a fight with current champ Weili Zhang, who took the title from Andrade last August in only 42 seconds.

Zhang defended the title with a split decision win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk in an instant classic at UFC 248 in March. It’s currently the frontrunner for 2020 Fight of the Year and widely considered the greatest fight in women’s MMA history, so some were pining for an immediate rematch.

But when you consider that Namajunas holds two wins over fellow former champ Jedrzejczyk and both came in a more dominant fashion than Zhang’s win over her, it only makes sense to set up a Zhang-Namajunas encounter which could generate a lot of hype.

Namajunas and Zhang both have the same manager, but that shouldn’t prevent this matchup from coming together at some point later this year.

Prochazka a fresh contender at 205 pounds

Jiri Prochazka lived up to the hype in his UFC debut with a vicious knockout win over No. 7-ranked light-heavyweight contender Volkan Oezdemir.

The 27-year-old Czech standout has a unique, fan-friendly fighting style and breathes some new life into a division always in search of new stars and potential challengers for Jon Jones. He’s certainly more of an immediate threat than merely a prospect to keep an eye on.

He’s the former Rizin Fighting Federation champion with a handful of victories over notable MMA veterans. He’s a bit of a showman with a herky-jerky style. He ate some big shots from Oezdemir, who has KO power at 205 pounds and heavyweight, but he consistently shook them off with disdain and continued being the aggressor. Not saying he deserves an immediate title shot or anything but he’ll need another ranked opponent for his second outing.

Jones is currently in a bit of a rift with the UFC and said he may take some time off. His last fight was a controversial decision over Dominick Reyes and his previous win was a split decision over Thiago Santos. Jones turns 33 later this month so there may be a changing of the guard at 205 pounds in the relatively near future.

Santos is headlining a card against the resurgent Glover Teixeira in September. Reyes is the No. 1 contender but doesn’t have an opponent lined up. Same goes for Jan Blachowicz who has also worked his way into the title conversation, winning seven of his past eight and picking up five post-fight bonuses along the way.

After UFC 251, Prochazka has to be considered in the mix as well.

It was a looooong night

From the start of the prelims to the conclusion of the main event, UFC 251 lasted nearly eight hours.

Eight of the 12 fights went the distance and all three title fights went into the fifth round. There were also a handful of delays throughout the card due to low blows, including one in the main event when Usman punched Masvidal below the belt.

The preliminary bout between Leonardo Santos and Roman Bogatov was particularly brutal. Bogatov hit Santos with a pair of low blows that resulted in a delay of several minutes each time. Then, despite multiple warnings from the referee, Bogatov struck Santos with a blatant illegal knee which caused yet another lengthy delay.

Overall, the event set a new organizational record for most total fight time with 3:07:27 of in-cage fighting. The previous record was 3:04:18 set at UFC Fight Night: Werdum vs. Tybura in 2017.

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