Kamaru Usman v Jorge Masvidal the highlight of a stacked UFC 261 card in first sell-out for a year

Rose Namajunas up against the wrecking ball Weili Zhang in another epic battle

The UFC welcomes back a sold-out arena this Sunday for the first time in more than a year, with UFC 261 in Jacksonville, Florida. The stacked card, playing out to a reported 15,000 fans at the VyStarVeterans Memorial, features three championship bouts. Here’s a breakdown of the title clashes.

Kamaru Usman (c) v Jorge Masvidal (welterweight title)

Nine months after the pair met on six days’ notice in Abu Dhabi, they’re running it back – with Masvidal given a full training camp and no easy out should the fight go the same way as the first. The challenger stepped in at the last moment for Gilbert Burns in the Fight Island opener’s headline bout last July, but was smothered by Usman’s impressive strength to lose unanimously on points. Usman (18-1) has since added to his incredible CV, stretching his win streak to 17.

In fact, February’s third-round TKO of former stablemate Burns means the Nigerian has never lost inside the octagon, in 12 appearances. Masvidal, meanwhile, hasn’t really built professionally on his Fighter-of-the-Year 2019, when his profile skyrocketed. The former street fighter (35-14) claims he’s much better equipped than last summer to win a first UFC title, but he will not only have to contend with Usman’s sublime grappling but his much-improved, and dangerous, striking. It’s a titanic ask.

Weili Zhang (c) v Rose Namajunas (women's strawweight title)

How to stop the wrecking ball that is Zhang? The Chinese star has won 21 consecutive fights since losing on professional debut, in the process securing the strawweight title in August 2019 against Jessica Andrade. The then-champion lasted only 42 seconds. The newly crowned belt-holder swiftly followed that with an instant classic against Joanna Jedrzejczyk in March last year, which for many was easily the fight of 2020.

Zhang took the thriller by split decision. However, the effects of that, and the pandemic, have kept China's first UFC champion on the sidelines, with a return against the supremely dangerous Namajunas (9-4) not the nicest welcome back. The American, herself a former champion, avenged her dramatic defeat to Andrade in 2019 by triumphing at UFC 251 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi last July, in another blockbuster. Out now to become a two-time champion, the Lithuania-born Namajunas has raised the stakes somewhat by bringing politics into the bout. Two expert strikers, this could be a must-watch.

Valentina Shevchenko (c) v Jessica Andrade (women's flyweight title)

So Andrade becomes the latest to challenge the seemingly unstoppable Shevchenko, with many predicting the formidable flyweight - she is unbeaten in the division - might just have a real challenge on her hands this time. Shevchenko is one of the most accomplished female athletes in UFC history, losing only to the greatest of all time, Amanda Nunes (twice, both via decision, both at bantamweight).

Andrade v Chookagian

The Russian (20-3) promptly returned to flyweight, won the belt and has since defended it four times as she cruises to a place in the UFC Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, Andrade (21-8) only just moved to flyweight, but won on debut in October with an emphatic first-round TKO of Katlyn Chookagian. The former strawweight champion, although a heavy underdog, has a rock solid chin and an irrepressible approach inside the octagon. What's more, she’s attempting to join a select band to have captured titles at two weights. In Shevchenko, however, she faces an unbelievably talented mixed martial artist.

Updated: April 22, 2021 11:37 AM

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