Looking At UFC 251

This weekend’s UFC 251 will be the highly anticipated debut of Dana White’s Fight Island, located on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, where the company is set to run four cards. While the octagon won’t be on the sand and in a structure suggested to look more like an airplane hanger, the goal of the ambitious project was accomplished as the unique geography allows the organization to dodge travel restrictions, transporting fighters to the same place for the event. So far, ESPN reports that the strict testing protocol and the fact that obviously nobody can just wander off the island without travel arrangements has actually allowed for a bubble that will make sure everyone on the island tests negative for COVID before the start of the fights.

The overall promotion of the event, “Fight Island” is more of a novelty and something that you might see in a Bruce Lee film, but the card has more than enough substance to go along with the over-the-top sizzle of an island that sounds like something from the kumite. As is usually tradition for the MMA league in mid-July, an absolutely stacked card is scheduled with three championship fights signed for pay-per-view. The lack of traditional live sports provided somewhat of an opportunity for the UFC to be able to put a spotlight on itself, and you can bet the organization is banking on the chance to make some new stars in the process. Usually, the live gate for these events is one of the barometers of success, as some of its biggest shows reflect that status with the box office number. However, the lack of fans in the building is more than covered by the demand for live sports and thus the money to be made on pay-per-view buys on the ESPN+ streaming service. The recent events on the network have drawn solid numbers, and the potential for major revenue is there for PPV buys, as what might be seen as a typical card is elevated in its status because outside of Korean baseball or European soccer, there aren’t many sports options for fans. Proof of this being, when Khabib Nurmagomedov was stranded in Russia because of the previously mentioned travel restrictions a few months ago, Justin Gaethje stepped in as a last-minute replacement to fight the eccentric Tony Ferguson. The two sluggers looked to be a potential dynamite brawl on paper, which definitely draws the diehard fans, but neither necessarily has the star power to bring in the general public, which isn’t meant as a jab against either of them, as both deliver entertaining fights. Still, the thrown together main event drew over 700,000 buys on PPV, which simply wouldn’t have been the case if the world wasn’t shut down because of the pandemic. Regardless, with more positive COVID test among players across different sports leagues and spikes in cases in dozens of states, the prospect of a full-fledged return to sports looks bleak at best this year. However, that again opens the door for the UFC to cash-in on the void of live sports among the American landscape so you can expect a the UFC 251 card that would’ve done big numbers under any circumstance to be even more of a mega draw right now.

After Henry Cejudo abruptly retired following a successful title defense against Dominick Cruz and then vacated the Bantamweight championship in May, the UFC announced that talented Russian, Peter Yan would square off with the legendary Jose Aldo. Since the former Featherweight champion was dominate for so long, as far back as the days of the existence of the WEC, it’s easy to overlook that Aldo is only 33, but undoubtedly already has a hall of fame resume. On the flip side, the 27-year-old Peter Yan, currently on a nine-fight win streak with only one blemish on his record prior to his UFC debut, has spent much of his tenure in the organization under the radar. Despite half a dozen fights under the UFC banner, some of which took place on the prelims, many didn’t take notice of the striker until he defeated another WEC legend, Uriah Faber via head kick at UFC 245 in December of last year.

In truth, the result of this bout will probably be determined by what Jose Aldo shows up in the cage on Fight Island. An unimpressive 2-4 in his last six bouts, it’s a harsh reality, but Aldo just hasn’t been the same fight since he suffered the 14-second KO loss against Conor McGregor in 2015. Theoretically, this impromptu title shot is a chance for Aldo to rejuvenate his career, but his most recent defeat against a mostly average Marlon Moraes on the same card where Yan KO’ed Faber suggest that Fight Island won’t be the return to prominence for the Brazilian legend. Still, Aldo is young enough and continues to have the skills to add a new chapter to his career if he’s successful. That being said, I have to pick Yan to win the Bantamweight championship.

In a rematch from UFC 245, Alexander Volkanovski will defend the Featherweight belt against Max Holloway, who he beat via a close, but unanimous decision last year. In many ways, this one is a toss up because both athletes are in the prime of their respective careers and their prior bout showed that they are evenly matched in the octagon. If there’s a specific key to victory in this contest, I would say it’s Holloway’s ability to defend against the aggressive striking offense of his opponent and his movement to avoid damage. Both are well-rounded so there’s not necessarily a particular aspect of the fight that will be a determining factor, but again, based on their previous fight, how Holloway handles Volkanovski’s volume of offense will be important. I will guess that Holloway wins a very close decision to set up for the eventual trilogy fight, but that’s more of a guess than anything.

In the main event, a contest that was originally discussed before negotiations stalled, Jorge Masvidal stepped in to challenge Kamaru Usman for the Welterweight championship. Masvidal, who wanted more money to ink a contract for the fight initially, replaced Gilbert Burns, the original challenger that tested positive for the corona virus last week. The fight represents the difference between the pure sport and the fight business. The most skilled fighter isn’t necessarily the competitor with the most star power. Masvidal, who made himself a star with a spectacular flying knee KO in a fight against Ben Askren last year, won the unofficial BMF championship via doctor stoppage in a match-up against Nate Diaz last November. The fight was hosted at Madison Square Garden and The Rock was there to present the title with the spectacle drawing an estimated 925,000 pay-per-view buys. Was it the most technical fight or the two most skilled fighters in the company? No, but it sold tickets and pay-per-views, which is the most important aspect of the fight business. For Masvidal, with a record of 35-13, he’s a journeyman that has some entertaining fights, but still a mostly average brawler that brings a slick persona into the octagon. There’s nothing wrong with that either because again, the fight business is about selling tickets. If Masvidal is able to generate some popularity for himself with more sizzle than actual skill and use it to get paid then good for him.

That’s why it wasn’t surprising that the unofficial BMF champion joined the list of fighters, including Jon Jones that recently expressed discontent with the money the UFC offers for fights. Masvidal is in the position to make the most money possible of his career because of his recent surge in popularity so obviously he’s going to try to use that leverage to negotiate the best deal possible, which is completely understandable because that’s capitalism. The fact that Burns tested positive for the corona virus and the company needed a quick replacement also gave him more of a bargaining chip so while payouts aren’t revealed until after the event, Masvidal is probably getting the biggest payoff of his career at Fight Island. At the same time, he knows that he had to maximize the payday when he had the chance because a devastating defeat could tarnish his star power and he doesn’t necessarily have the skill set to compete with the top-tier of the division. On the other hand, Kamaru Usman could cement himself as one of the top stars of the organization. With a record of 16-1, Usman brings a well-rounded skill set to the cage, with a wrestling base combined with precise striking skills. Currently on a 15-fight win streak, Usman claimed the Welterweight belt last December via TKO, fracturing Colby Covington’s jaw during the fight. However, everyone has a puncher’s chance and Masvidal’s style is perfectly suited for the puncher’s chance so I will pick Usman to retain the title, but anything can happen for a contest that will probably be an entertaining main event.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta