UFC 261 takeaways: Fans return for night of electric moments

Kamaru Usman knocks out Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261 in Jacksonville, Fla. (Gary McCullough/AP)

If you've ever attended a UFC event in person you can attest to the energy and palpable tension inside a packed venue in the moments before, during and after an anticipated fight and/or finish.

That atmosphere had been absent from UFC events for 413 days due to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, but Dana White and Co. packed the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday night and the competing fighters helped turn it into one of the more memorable shows in recent mixed martial arts history.

There were three dominant finishes in each of the featured title bouts, including Kamaru Usman and Valentina Shevchenko defending their belts and Rose Namajunas winning hers back for a second time.

To say that UFC 261 was memorable would be an epic understatement.

With that in mind, here are some takeaways from the wild event.

Usman showing no signs of plateauing

Kamaru Usman isn't merely maintaining his spot atop the UFC's welterweight division. The undisputed 170-pound champion and consensus top-two pound-for-pound fighter is widening the gap between himself and the rest of the competition.

Masvidal said at Friday's ceremonial weigh-ins he'd wipe the smile off Usman's face in their rematch. Early in the second round, Masvidal smiled at Usman after the champ swung a right hand that landed on the chest. Usman threw a follow-up right hand seconds later but this time landed on the chin and put Masvidal to sleep – thus wiping the smile clean off Gamebred’s face in a moment of jaw-dropping, jaw-smashing poetic justice.

It was a stunning finish. The best of Usman’s career to date.

Usman didn't necessarily have a fan-friendly fighting style early in his UFC career. He won eight of nine fights by unanimous decisions with a wrestling-heavy game plan during his rise to the belt. Since becoming champ, however, the soon-to-be 34-year-old has won three of his four title defences by knockout or technical knockout.

Masvidal's BMF belt wasn't technically on the line on Saturday, but Usman also proved he's worthy of owning that distinction too.

When he put an exclamation point on the Masvidal rivalry in the form of that fight-ending punch, he sent yet another message to his future opponents – his loudest yet – that he is still getting better and, in fact, the best is perhaps yet to come.

Covington rematch has to be next

If that’s what Usman is capable of in a rematch, who wouldn’t want to see him and his top rival Colby Covington throw down for a second time at some point later this year?

Covington gave Usman his toughest test to date back in December 2019 when the pair headlined UFC 245 and took home Fight of the Night bonuses. The fight was even through four rounds before Usman turned up the heat and got a late, somewhat controversial TKO stoppage.

Covington remains the No. 1-ranked welterweight contender and bounced back from his loss to Usman with a dominant win over former champion Tyron Woodley this past September.

Usman already holds wins over six of the top-10 welterweights, including No. 1-4. The most intriguing fresh option is No. 5-ranked Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson whose karate style would be a fascinating puzzle for Usman to solve. Vicente Luque is also on roll with three straight impressive stoppage wins but he’s behind Thompson on the depth chart.

Besides Covington, another potential rematch for Usman that could draw a decent amount of attention would be against No. 3-ranked Leon Edwards, who hasn’t lost since Usman earned a three-round decision over him in 2015. Edwards should be awarded a title shot if he defeats Nate Diaz in next month’s UFC 262 co-main event.

Weidman's broken leg was horrifyingly familiar

Written in a movie you'd roll your eyes. Watching it unfold in reality, you likely covered them instead.

More than seven years after Chris Weidman watched and felt Anderson Silva break his leg whilst throwing a kick during their UFC 168 fight, the same thing happened to him against Uriah Hall.

Weidman’s right shin snapped in half when he kicked Hall early in their middleweight contest.

The 36-year-old former middleweight champion has had a terrible string of bad luck with many injuries and has gone just 2-6 since his final title defence in 2015.

This gruesome injury isn’t the first of its kind in the UFC. As mentioned, Silva experienced it in 2013. It also happened in 2008 when the late Corey Hill snapped his leg fighting Dale Hartt.

“My deepest and most sincere sentiments champ,” Silva wrote on Instagram in a message to his 3.7 million followers. “Have faith, I wish you a speedy recovery. In this moment I wish you and your family light, love and knowledge. To the fans of the sport, please respect this moment of this incredible warrior and let's wish that he is 100% very recovered soon. May God bless you and your family.”

Silva was able to return to the UFC just 13 months after his gruesome leg injury. It’s unclear at this time whether Weidman will be able to do the same.

Weidman’s wife posted an update Sunday, thankfully indicating the fighter’s surgery went well.

Will pressure get to Rose during her second title reign?

Rose Namajunas has admitted in the past she didn’t handle all the pressures of being a UFC champion too well during her first title stint.

Will her second stint as champion go smoother after winning the strawweight belt back at UFC 261 thanks to a beautiful first-round head-kick knockout of Zhang Weili?

Had Zhang defended the belt, a championship rematch with Joanna Jedrzejczyk would've made sense considering how their UFC 248 classic ended in a split decision. That rematch still makes sense considering Namajunas already holds two wins over Jedrzejczyk and there isn’t much appetite for a trilogy bout at the moment.

What makes most sense would be for Namajunas to face the winner of a May 22 meeting between No. 3-ranked Yan Xiaonan No. 4-ranked Carla Esparza.

Yan is 6-0 in the UFC, while Esparza has won four straight. Esparza also happens to be the UFC’s inaugural strawweight champion and she won the belt by submitting Namajunas in their 2014 meeting.

“I kind of want to see how Carla and Yan play out,” Namajunas told reporters in Florida after the fight. “I could probably do whatever I want right now. It’s just a matter of what seems appealing to me at the moment. I kind of have to let things settle for a bit.”

Shevchenko in a class of her own

Valentina Shevchenko hasn’t really been tested since debuting in the UFC flyweight division. That’s not to say there aren’t talented fighters in the division, it’s just that Shevchenko is so far ahead of her contemporaries it’s difficult to predict how long she’ll stay around at 125 pounds.

Shevchenko went through former strawweight champion and knockout artist Jessica Andrade like a buzz saw, forcing a referee stoppage midway through the second round of the thoroughly one-sided drubbing.

It appears as though Lauren Murphy could be next in line and if that's the case the betting lines will be staggering. It’s usually unwise to look past future competition in MMA but the only test remaining for Shevchenko at this point would be to go back up to 135 pounds and get another crack at Amanda Nunes.

Rewatch their five-round UFC 215 tilt and you’ll see why so many people scored that fight for Shevchenko.

Crute the latest victim of trendiest kick in MMA

At this point you’re unlikely to go an entire UFC event without at least one fighter having their peroneal nerve damaged by a kick. We saw it contribute to Dustin Poirier’s win over Conor McGregor earlier this year and it’s becoming an increasingly common technique used in competition.

One-time light-heavyweight title challenger Anthony Smith deadened Jimmy Crute’s leg with roughly one minute remaining in the opening stanza of their fight, the first bout on the main card, and Crute lost functionality in his left leg below the knee. The doctor called off the bout in between rounds.

Crute, who has future champion potential at 205 pounds, said after the loss “I couldn’t feel my leg” and explained his game plan for the second round was going to be to pull guard and try to grapple.

Below are the complete results from UFC 261.

-- Kamaru Usman def. Jorge Masvidal by knockout
-- Rose Namajunas def. Zhang Weili by knockout
-- Valentina Shevchenko def. Jessica Andrade by technical knockout
-- Uriah Hall def. Chris Weidman by TKO (leg injury)
-- Anthony Smith def. Jimmy Crute by TKO (doctor stoppage)

-- Randy Brown def. Alex Oliveira by submission (rear-naked choke)
-- Dwight Grant def. Stefan Sekulic by split decision
-- Brendan Allen def. Karl Roberson by submission (ankle lock)
-- Patrick Sabatini def. Tristan Connelly by unanimous decision
-- Danaa Batgerel def. Kevin Natividad by technical knockout
-- Rodrigo Vargas def. Rong Zhu by unanimous decision
-- Jeff Molina def. Qileng Aori by unanimous decision
-- Ariane Carnelossi def. Na Liang by technical knockout

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