UFC 261 preview: Which champion is most likely to lose their title?

MMA handicapper Lou Finocchiaro joins Follow The Money to find what value he can in the UFC 261 main event between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal, also discusses a few of the other key bouts, and how to bet them.

UFC 261 has the potential to be special.

Not only does Saturday’s pay-per-view event feature a trio of title bouts showcasing two of the top stars at 170 pounds and four of the top five pound-for-pound women’s fighters on the UFC roster, but it also marks the return of sold-out crowds.

Roughly 15,000 fans are expected to pack the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., the same venue that was the first to host the UFC following its two-month hiatus due to COVID-19 in 2020.

It’s also a fitting setting for this main event considering both UFC 261 headliners train out of Florida.

Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal is a rematch of a UFC 251 encounter that took place in front of no fans on Fight Island. Usman retained his welterweight title with a unanimous decision, however, there’s an unofficial asterisk attached to the result since Masvidal took the fight on approximately one week’s notice.

Will a full training camp result in a more dangerous Masvidal, or will Usman prove once and for all his strengths are too much for Masvidal to overcome in the Octagon?

In addition to that anticipated championship rematch, Zhang Weili looks to defend her strawweight title against Rose Namajunas and women’s flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko aims to beat Jessica Andrade to remain perfect at 125 pounds.

Here’s a quick breakdown of all three title fights with betting odds and some prop bets to consider.

Kamaru Usman (-400) vs. Jorge Masvidal (+300)

There seems to be slightly less buzz surrounding this rematch compared to the first fight considering UFC 251 played out pretty much exactly how we expected it to. Masvidal landed a few nice shots early on but besides one judge awarding the opening stanza to Masvidal, Usman swept the scorecards.

Masvidal wasn’t able to prevent Usman from dictating where the fight took place. He was either pressed and controlled along the cage or was working his way up from the mat for much of the first encounter.

On the flipside, Usman wasn’t able to damage Masvidal and didn’t come close to stopping the fight. Usman landed 263 total strikes against Masvidal, an impressive total, yet 169 of those strikes were deemed not significant and many were merely foot-stomps.

We haven’t seen Masvidal compete since UFC 251. Usman, meanwhile, defended his title with an impressive third-round technical knockout against Gilbert Burns at UFC 258 in February.

UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou is expected to be in Usman’s corner just as the welterweight champ cornered Ngannou at UFC 260.

Burns was able to knock Usman down early in the first round at UFC 258. If Masvidal’s going to win he’ll have to capitalize on any similar situations because Usman displayed championship mettle and took over the fight mere seconds after being rocked.

Masvidal said at Thursday’s press conference he felt Usman was “scared to strike” with him at UFC 251. It could be an attempt to bait Usman into staying on the feet a little longer in the rematch, which would be a benefit to the former street fighter.

Prop bet to consider:
Usman by decision at -125

Usman’s work with striking coach Trevor Wittman has paid dividends, although his skills on the feet remain far less nuanced than Masvidal’s. That’s why Usman is likely to once again revert back to his dominant wrestling. It’s his best path to victory, so why not take it?

Eleven of Masvidal’s 14 professional losses have been via decision, including all seven of his UFC losses, and out of his 16 knockout/TKO wins none have come outside of the first two rounds – save for his win over Nate Diaz but that fight was called off by a doctor due to a cut.

If you’re going with Masvidal you may as well take him to win inside the distance at around +450 depending on which sportsbook you look at. Meanwhile, Usman by stoppage is +250 but Masvidal hasn’t been finished in 12 years. Usman on points is chalk for a reason.

Zhang Weili (-200) vs. Rose Namajunas (+170)

Zhang is coming off a thrilling split decision victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248, the last UFC event that didn’t require zero spectators or limited fan attendance. That scrap with Jedrzejczyk is widely considered the greatest fight in women’s MMA history and the matchup with “Thug Rose” has just as much, if not more, potential to entertain.

Namajunas avenged a previous loss to Andrade in her most recent fight, taking home a three-round split decision Fight of the Night performance at UFC 251 in July.

Zhang and Namajunas are the two most skilled and well-rounded fighters in the division. This one should be great.

Prop bet to consider:
Namajunas by decision at +375

Zhang by decision at +160 is the chalk and perhaps the most likely outcome with her strength advantage and ability to push the pace possibly being a problem for Namajunas. In addition to her immense talent, Zhang also has heaps of momentum heading into Saturday and that has clearly impacted the odds.

If this fight stays primarily on the feet and Namajunas’s timing is on point, she can play the matador and use her length and footwork to sting Zhang at a distance. This line is slightly too big for what I view as more of a 50/50 fight, so I’m siding with the former champ to pull off the upset at +170 because of the value.

Valentina Shevchenko (-450) vs. Jessica Andrade (+350)

Shevchenko hasn’t really been tested since the UFC opened the 125-pound women’s division, but Andrade is looking to change that.

This is Andrade’s third weight class in the UFC. She began as an undersized bantamweight (135 pounds) then became a massive strawweight (115 pounds) with a brief stint as champion. The Brazilian has found a happy medium at flyweight and will look to win a title in a second weight class.

If Shevchenko can stay perfect at flyweight she may look to return to bantamweight to take the double champ crown away from Amanda Nunes and avenge her last loss.

Prop bet to consider:
Shevchenko by decision at +140

I see a lot of Andrade chasing Shevchenko around the Octagon and swinging at air in this one. If Shevchenko doesn’t feel threatened then she could turn up the heat and get a +120 stoppage win. On the other hand, if Shevchenko doesn’t want to risk engaging with Andrade’s power and plays it safe then don’t be shocked if this bout turns into a not-so-thrilling rout for the reigning champ. Andrade by either stoppage (+550) or decision (+900) would return massive value for anyone taking a chance on the underdog here.

UFC 261 MAIN CARD
-- Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal
-- Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas
-- Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade
-- Uriah Hall vs. Chris Weidman
-- Anthony Smith vs. Jimmy Crute

PRELIMINARY CARD
-- Alex Oliveira vs. Randy Brown
-- Dwight Grant vs. Stefan Sekulic
-- Karl Roberson vs. Brendan Allen
-- Patrick Sabatini vs. Tristan Connelly
-- Danaa Batgerel vs. Kevin Natividad
-- Kazula Vargas vs. Rong Zhu
-- Qileng Aori vs. Jeffrey Molina
-- Na Liang vs. Ariane Carnelossi

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