Getting prepared for UFC action this coming Saturday? Here is everything you need to know about the event with our Guide to UFC 261.
Date: April 24, 2021
Location: VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida
Start Time: 10:00 p.m. ET, 7:00 p.m. PT
Where To Watch: ESPN+ PPV
UFC Welterweight Championship: Kamaru Usman(c) vs. Jorge Masvidal
Overall Records: Usman 18-1, Masvidal 35-14
UFC Records: Usman 13-0, Masvidal 12-7
Last Fight: Usman def. Burns (title fight), R3 TKO, UFC 258 (2/13/21), Usman def. Masvidal (title fight), UDec, UFC 251 (7/11/20)
Last Five Fights: Usman 5-0, Masvidal 3-2
Rankings: Usman C, Masvidal #4
Betting Odds: Usman -400, Masvidal +300
Preview: The main event of UFC 261 is a familiar fight, one that we just saw in July, though this one will be under different circumstances. That one was in front of no fans in Abu Dhabi, while this one will be the headliner in front of a rabid crowd of 15,000 in Jacksonville. This one also sees both men with the same amount of a training camp, or in the case of Masvidal, an actual training camp. When they fought in July at UFC 251, Masvidal was taking that fight on just a week’s notice, without a proper training camp, and with a 30-pound weight cut in front of him. Usman was fully prepared, despite the late change in opponents and despite having a broken nose, but it was a different style than he was preparing for, so he did what he needed to do to win. Masvidal just didn’t have it on that night in July due to the weight cut and lack of preparation, and he let that be known, saying the result would be different if he had a full camp.
Those comments seemed to get under the skin of Usman, but he also liked the paycheck he got on that night, thus he asked for the rematch with Masvidal, and he got it. This time, Masivdal will come in as the fresher fighter, as he hasn’t fought since that July fight. Usman just fought in February, finishing Gilbert Burns in the third round, and this will be a ten-week turnaround. Usman is a fighter that normally likes to have a twelve-week camp, so this was a little abbreviated. Masvidal has been in the gym since well before that February fight, and even though it was originally looking like this fight might happen in the fall, he had no issues in getting this as soon as possible, as he does think the short layoff for Usman will play into his hands. Both men have Florida ties, but the crowd will be behind Masvidal, as he lives and trains full-time in Florida, and he is more the adopted hometown fighter, while Usman has branched his training camps out to Colorado.
A big thing with Masvidal in this fight that wasn’t there in July is that he is the type of fighter who feeds off a crowd and uses the energy of a crowd to fuel him. Usman is workmanlike fighter who might actually be the best fighter in the world, and he is among the most well-rounded there is. You can’t beat Usman in wrestling, and Usman has some serious power in his hands to go along with a striking game that has shown vast and quick improvement under the new tutelage of Trevor Wittman. Usman will likely try to implement the same strategy in this fight as he did in the first one, and for good reason- it was a winning strategy. However, Masvidal is an incredibly smart fighter, and he has 25 minutes of knowledge gained from being in there with the champ. It is completely up to him to change the course of this fight, and the obstacles that presented themselves in the first fight won’t be there in this one when it comes to time and preparation.
Usman knows how to win this fight, and it will be up to Masvidal to change the course to get his desired outcome. Usman is a big favorite in this one, and rightfully so, but Masvidal is a tough opponent to count out with the full preparation. I fully expect Usman to retain, but a Masvidal flash knockout win would not be a shock. I do think the fight will be better than the first one, and the crowd will be jazzed for it for sure. This could end up being really good.
UFC Women’s Strawweight Championship: Zhang Weili(c) vs. Rose Namajunas
Overall Records: Weili 21-1, Namajunas 9-4
UFC Records: Weili 5-0, Namajunas 7-3
Last Fight: Weili def. Jedrzejczyk (title fight), SpDec, UFC 248 (3/7/20), Namajunas def. Andrade, SpDec, UFC 251 (7/11/20)
Last Five Fights: Weili 5-0, Namajunas 4-1
Rankings: Weili C, Namajunas #1
Betting Odds: Weili -210, Namajunas +170
Preview: In what may be the most-anticipated fight on the card for most fans, UFC Strawweight Champion Weili returns to the Octagon for the first time in over 13 months, off of the all-time classic fight with Joanna Jedrzejczyk, to make her second title defense. Namajunas is looking to regain the UFC Strawweight Championship, becoming a two-time champion, as she faces an opponent not named Jedrzejczyk or Jessica Andrade for the first time since April 2017. She is coming off a split decision win in July over Andrade in a fight where her striking looked as good as ever. However, she’s going against an opponent in Weili who hasn’t tasted defeat since her first career fight in November 2013. Since then, all Weili has done is win, 21 straight fights that is, scoring 17 wins by stoppage in that streak, with eleven of those coming in the first round.
Weili is a power striker who throws a lot and lands a lot, as she averages over six significant strikes landed per minute. She does leave herself open to getting hit, but her power has been a big difference against her opponents. Namajunas is a more patient striker who strings together her combinations better, and she has good striking defense, defending 60% of the strikes thrown against her. She also has underrated power, as she’s scored three knockdowns in her UFC career. If the fight goes to the ground, Namajunas is world-class there as she is a submission hunter. She always active, whether on top or bottom, and she is very good at taking the back of opponents and finding the rear-naked choke, which is her favorite submission technique. Weili does have 100% takedown defense in her five UFC fights, but her opponents have only tried to take her down three times over those five fights.
This will be about power against speed on the feet. Weili has the pure knockout power, while Namajunas has tremendous footwork and can slip-and-move out of the way. One of the things that made the fight between Weili and Jedrzejczyk so great was their willingness to just trade in the pocket- you’re unlikely to see a lot of the same here. Namajunas has this great ability to avoid taking lots of damage, but Weili will bring a lot of aggressiveness to the fight. Namajunas is also coached by Trevor Wittman, and between splitting time between her and Kamaru Usman, hopefully that doesn’t play a factor, especially considering it’ll be back-to-back fights he’s coaching in.
I have a feeling this fight is going the distance, and that tends to favor Weili. Weili just has the will to win, and she showed it against Jedrzejczyk in that fifth round, and it’s a big reason she’s won 21 straight fights. Namajunas can wilt under pressure. This will be about agressiveness against patience, and I like aggressiveness to win out here, and Weili to walk away still the queen at 115 lbs..
UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship: Valentina Shevchenko(c) vs. Jessica Andrade
Overall Records: Shevchenko 20-3, Andrade 21-8
UFC Records: Shevchenko 9-2, Andrade 12-6
Last Fight: Shevchenko def. Maia (title fight), UDec, UFC 255 (11/21/20), Andrade def. Chookagian, R1 TKO, UFC On ESPN+ 38 (10/17/20)
Last Five Fights: Shevchenko 5-0, Andrade 3-2
Rankings: Shevchenko C, Andrade #1
Betting Odds: Shevchenko -450, Andrade +325
Preview: The third title fight on the card sees one of the most dominant fighters on the planet looking to stay on top of her division as she welcomes the fresh challenge of an opponent searching to capture gold in a second weight class. UFC Flyweight Champion Shevchenko makes her fifth title defense as she looks to continue her reign of dominance over the flyweight division. She is a perfect 6–0 since making the move to 125 lbs. in UFC, with three of those wins coming by stoppage. Out of 19 rounds that have been scored in her flyweight fights, she’s only lost two. Her head-kick knockout of Jessica Eye is one of the more replayed knockouts of the last few years. She has all of the tools that make her one of the best fighters, male or female, in the world. The only opponent to best her over the last ten years is Amanda Nunes.
Andrade will be looking to win a UFC championship in a second weight class, as the former strawweight champion gets a title shot in just her second fight at 125 lbs. She made her debut in the division in October, and looked absolutely fantastic in finishing Katlyn Chookagian in the first round after some vicious body shots. Her power translated well from the smaller weight class, but Shevchenko is going to represent a huge step-up from Chookagian in the division. She’s going to be giving up some size to the champion, as Shevchenko will have a four-inch height advantage, and a four-and-a-half-inch reach advantage. Shevchenko will likely also have a weight edge, as she is a former bantamweight who is big for the flyweight division, and Andrade, while she fought at 135 years ago, is still a little small for the flyweight division.
While Andrade has been a champion, she has tended to falter against the top-tier female fighters, as she’s just 1-2 in title fights with losses to Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and, while she beat Rose Namajunas for the title, she was losing that fight until a slam out of nowhere knocked Rose out, which many saw as more of a fluke than anything. When they rematched, Namajunas was a step ahead and clearly the better fighter. Andrade is an aggressive fighter who is always coming out looking to land, as she lands just a little more than six significant strikes per minute, but she also absorbs more than five significant strikes per minute. Shevchenko is always relaxed and patient on the feet. She has no problems using her feints and spending time not throwing, because she’d rather throw strikes that are going to land than throw strikes for the sake of throwing them.
She also mixes her deadly kicks in there, and with the height edge, Andrade will need to be aware of head kicks. The size and strength edge Shevchenko will have will also play a factor in takedowns, as she gets them quick and with some power. If Shevchenko gets on top, her top game is suffocating. It is really hard to see Andrade winning this fight, as talented as she is, because there’s just too many weapons that Shevchenko possesses. I think this will end up as Shevchenko’s signature win, and she finishes it inside the first three rounds.
Middleweights: Uriah Hall vs. Chris Weidman
Overall Records: Hall 16-9, Weidman 15-5
UFC Records: Hall 9-7, Weidman 11-5
Last Fight: Hall def. Silva, R4 TKO, UFC On ESPN+ 39 (10/31/20), Weidman def. Akhmedov, UDec, UFC On ESPN+ 32 (8/8/20)
Last Five Fights: Hall 4-1, Weidman 2-3
Rankings: Hall #9, Weidman #11
Betting Odds: Hall +105, Weidman -125
Preview: A fight that is eleven years in the making finally goes down here as Hall and Weidman run it back from their pre-UFC days in a pivotal bout for both men at their respective stages of their careers. These two met in the Ring Of Combat promotion in September 2010, in what was Hall’s fifth career fight and Weidman’s third. It didn’t last very long as Weidman scored the finish in just over three minutes. Their paths to UFC took unique turns after that, though both knew they’d end up there someday. Hall took The Ultimate Fighter route, looking outstanding during the show, but coming up short in the finals. He’s had an inconsistent run since, never able to put together more than three straight wins, but he’s fought some of the best at 185 lbs.. He comes into this one riding a three-fight win streak, but he lacks the big win in that run, as all three have come against fighters no longer with the promotion. He did have his signature win over Anderson Silva in October, but Silva is long past his prime and Hall wasn’t overly impressive in that one.
After beating Hall, Weidman needed just one more win before a late-notice call came from UFC. Weidman took it, and his career was off, as he quickly ran up an impressive win streak to earn a title shot against Silva. He became the man to dethrone Silva at UFC 162 in July 2013, becoming the UFC Middleweight Champion, and had a few title defenses to move to 13-0. He then lost the title to Luke Rockhold, and has been struggling to get back to a title fight. He is someone who had their career altered by USADA banning IV’s, as he always cut a ton of weight to make 185, and it took time to adjust. It didn’t help that he was fighting killers who made his jaw crack, as all five of his career losses have been by knockout, but to the likes of Yoel Romero, Gegard Mousasi, Jacare Souza and Dominick Reyes. He moved back to 185 lbs. in August after one fight at 205, and had a successful decision win over Omari Akhmedov.
This is a pivotal stage for both, as they’re both 36, and the window for winning a title is closing. Hall has improved since working with Sayif Saud and the Fortis MMA camp, cleaning up his striking and working on his mentality. He does still tend to start slow, and Weidman tends to be a fast starter who fades late. That could play a key role in this. Hall will be looking to work the jab in early to keep Weidman from stalking him down and looking for takedowns. We know Weidman will be working for the take down, and he’s been working on his striking, moving to North Carolina and training with Stephen Thompson, and they had Anthony Smith working with him as both prepared for this show. Weidman should pressure Hall against the fence and take him mentally out of the fight, because Hall has shown he can break.
If Weidman can get Hall down and work his great top game, he may even be able to find a submission. Weidman does tend to fade, so Hall may look to exploit that and be willing to give up the first round in order to win the last two. This will come down to how much Hall can keep it on the feet, as the longer it’s there, the more advantage he has. This is an interesting fight, and it being a pick ’em despite Hall’s win streak shows that Weidman has a great chance to win. I tend to lean towards Weidman in this one, as he’s proven himself in big fights before.
Light Heavyweights: Anthony Smith vs. Jimmy Crute
Overall Records: Smith 33-16, Crute 12-1
UFC Records: Smith 9-6, Crute 4-1
Last Fight: Smith def. Clark, R1 SUB, UFC On ESPN 18 (11/28/20), Crute def. Bukauskas, R1 KO, UFC On ESPN+ 38 (10/17/20)
Last Five Fights: Smith 2-3, Crute 4-1
Rankings: Smith #6, Crute #13
Betting Odds: Smith +160, Crute -200
Preview: The opening bout of the pay-per-view card sees a former title challenger looking to get back there after recent struggles battle a rising prospect who has future title challenger written all over him. Smith will be fighting for the 51st time in his professional career, and he’s looking to score his second straight win after submitting Devin Clark in November. That ended a tough two-fight skid where questions about his future were starting to be asked. After that win, Smith was talking about wanting to fight the younger and dangerous fighters, even mentioning Crute. He gets that wish after Crute’s original opponent, Johnny Walker, was forced out due to injury. Crute comes into this riding a two-fight win streak, and he’s won twelve of his thirteen professional fights. He’s never fought someone as highly-ranked as Smith, as the highest-ranked opponent he’s had contributed to his lone loss in his career, coming to Misha Cirkunov. Both of these guys are finishers, with Smith having a 91% finish rate and Crute a 75% finish rate.
Both men are black belts in jiu-jitsu, and this one could end up being an interesting battle if it gets to the ground. Smith tends to do better when he is on top, though he is slick when he’s on the bottom. Crute is a power-house, and he should be looking to fight Smith similar to the way Glover Teixeira did, and that is with pressure against the cage and dominant top control if it gets to the mat. On the feet, Smith is a more well-rounded striker, one that likes to rip kicks to the body and is good at finding those calf kicks. He will have a slight edge in the reach advantage on Crute. A big key is that this fight will take place in the full-sized Octagon, and that should give Smith a slight edge as he has the better footwork and movement. Crute is going to need to wrestle in this one, and he does average over four takedowns per 15 minutes. Smith only defends roughly half of the takedowns attempted on him. Crute does hunt for the submissions constantly on the ground.
This should be a fun battle, and with the finishing rates of both means we’ll likely see a finish here. Crute’s lone test against a veteran didn’t turn out well for him, so this is his big opportunity to see if he will break into that next level. I think he gets the job done, but Smith isn’t going to make it easy for him.
Start Time: 8:00 p.m. ET, 5:00 p.m. PT
Where To Watch: ESPN & ESPN+
Welterweights: Alex Oliveira vs. Randy Brown
Overall Records: Oliveira 22-8-1 2 NC, Brown 12-4
UFC Records: Oliveira 11-7 1 NC, Brown 6-4
Last Fight: Rakhmonov def. Oliveira, R1 SUB, UFC 254 (10/24/20), Luque def. Brown, R2 KO, UFC On ESPN+ 31 (8/1/20)
Last Five Fights: Oliveira 2-3, Brown 3-2
Betting Odds: Oliveira +120, Brown -145
Preview: A pair of welterweights looking to get back into the win column headline the prelims as Oliveira and Brown both look to return to their winning ways. These two were scheduled to fight in February, but Brown had to pull out the week of the fight. Oliveira got a replacement opponent, but that fight fell apart at the weigh-ins, so they decided to rebook the original fight for here. Oliveira is looking to rebound from being submitted by Shavkat Rakhmonov in October, while Brown is looking to rebound from a knockout loss to Vicente Luque in August in his lone 2020 appearance. Both men are known to have some entertaining fights, as Oliveira has scored 17 of his 22 wins by stoppage, and Brown has gotten ten of his twelve wins by stoppage. Brown is going to have the height and reach edge in this one, and he has the abilities to be able to put Oliveira away.
Oliveira has been in a lot of wars in his career and it’s starting to look like the battles are catching up to him. He still starts off strong, but he quickly fades and doesn’t pull the trigger like he used to. He only lands just under three strikes per minute, and his striking defense is fading. Brown isn’t a flashy striker, but he’s patient enough to weather an early onsluaght that Oliveira will bring. Neither one of them are huge takedown artists, and both have good takedown defense. With their styles, though, this one likely remains on the feet. A short fight will favor Oliveira, but I sense Brown knows this and will drag it out as long as he can. I like Brown to win this one, but it could end up being an ugly showing.
Welterweights: Dwight Grant vs. Stefan Sekulic
Overall Records: Grant 10-3, Sekulic 12-3
UFC Records: Grant 2-2, Sekulic 0-1
Last Fight: Rodriguez def. Grant, R1 KO, UFC On ESPN 15 (8/22/20), Emeev def. Sekulic, UDec, UFC Fight Night 136 (9/15/18)
Last Five Fights: Grant 3-2, Sekulic 3-2
Betting Odds: Grant -230, Sekulic +185
Preview: Another welterweight battle that will see someone get back on the winning path takes place here as Grant makes his fifth walk to the Octagon, while Sekulic makes his second Octagon appearance. Grant has split his first four UFC fights. He lost his debut to Zak Ottow, but scored back-to-back wins over Carlo Pedersoli and Alan Jouban before being knocked out by Daniel Rodriguez in his last fight. He’s got seven knockout wins in his career. Sekulic returns to action for the first time since September 2018, his UFC debut. He dropped a decision to Ramazan Emeev, then was forced to sit on the sidelines for two years due to a USADA suspension for banned substances. As he returns to action, he’ll be looking to improve on a record that’s seen him score a 75% finish rate.
These are two very inaccurate strikers on the feet, but a key difference in the striking with be the power of Grant. However, Grant doesn’t necessarily use that power to his advantage. He does land more than he gets hit, and his defense on the feet is good. It’s hard to know what Sekulic is going to look like coming off the long layoff, but he wasn’t overly impressive in his UFC debut. He is more of a ground fighter, and he wasn’t able to get Emeev down except once, and Emeev took him down a couple of times and even scored a knock down. Sekulic could use his grappling to wear Grant down, as Grant’s conditioning is a question mark against him. This is really a weird fight to pick, as neither are overly impressive, and this could end up being a fight where the loser gets cut. I tend to slightly favor Grant, just because of activity, and because he’s the favorite, but I’m not expecting much from this one.
Middleweights: Karl Roberson vs. Brendan Allen
Overall Records: Roberson 9-3, Allen 15-4
UFC Records: Roberson 4-3, Allen 3-1
Last Fight: Vettori def. Roberson, R1 SUB, UFC On ESPN 10 (6/13/20), Strickland def. Allen, R2 TKO, UFC On ESPN+ 40 (11/14/20)
Last Five Fights: Roberson 3-2, Allen 4-1
Betting Odds: Roberson +125, Allen -150
Preview: Much like the two prelims that will follow this one, this pair of middleweights are both looking to get back to their winning ways in this one. Roberson comes into this one after having been submitted by Marvin Vettori in his last fight in June. That was actually the second time those two were scheduled, as they were supposed to fight in May, but it was cancelled after Roberson got ill the morning of the fight after missing weight. Roberson also missed weight for the June fight. He hasn’t been seen since, so the big question is if he’s gotten his weight management issues behind him. Prior to that loss, he was starting to gain momentum with two straight wins. Allen is coming into this one off of his first UFC loss, which came at the hands of Sean Strickland, who finished him in the second round in November. Prior to that, Allen had won his first three UFC fights, winning over Kevin Holland, Tom Breese and Kyle Daukuas, so he’s already fought some stiff competition during his UFC tenure.
Just on resumes alone, Roberson may actually be the weakest fight Allen has been faced with inside the Octagon, but he’s still a dangerous one. In a combined 31 professional fights, they’ve combined for 19 finishes, and Roberson has been submitted in all three of his losses. On the feet, Allen has historically landed more per minute and been the more accurate fighter, but he’s also gotten hit way more than he’s landed, and his striking defense is a big question mark. Roberson hasn’t shown the one-punch knockout power that would be useful against Allen, so his takedown defense is going to need to be on point here. Allen isn’t the best at takedowns, as he’s only scored on 37% for his attempts, but when he gets it to the mat, he hunts for submissions, averaging two submission attempts per fifteen minutes. As noted, Roberson has been submitted in all of his losses, and he seems to give up if he’s put on the bottom. Allen needs to realize this and use that in his favor. I like Allen to win by submission in this one, as he’s just the better fighter of the two.
Featherweights: Patrick Sabatini vs. Tristan Connelly
Overall Records: Sabatini 13-3, Connelly 14-6
UFC Records: Sabatini 0-0, Connelly 1-0
Last Fight: Sabatini def. Stirn, R2 SUB, CFFC 91 (12/18/20), Connelly def. Pereira, UDec, UFC On ESPN+ 16 (9/14/19)
Last Five Fights: Sabatini 4-1, Connelly 5-0
Betting Odds: Sabatini -230, Connelly +185
Preview: A featherweight battle between a newcomer to UFC and a fighter returning from a long layoff kicks off the ESPN portion of the main card as Sabatini and Connelly look to keep their win streaks going. Sabatini finally will make his debut after his planned debut in February was called off after his opponent missed weight by 11.5 lbs.. It was a fight he was taking on about a week’s notice, while for this one he’ll have a proper training camp for his debut. Connelly is making his second UFC appearance and is looking to build on a win over Michel Pereira in September 2019. That was a fairly memorable fight, as Connelly was taking it on short notice, going up a weight class, and was a big underdog against the hyped Pereira. It was also the fight where Pereira, who is known for his wild and flashy style where he tends to fight like an idiot, was at his peak in his fight antics, and it cost him as Connelly scored the upset decision win. He’s moving down to 145 lbs. for this fight, which is more natural for him, though it’s been since 2015 that he’s fought at featherweight. Sabatini has a two-fight win streak and Connelly has a five-fight win streak coming into this one.
Both are great submission fighters, as Sabatini has scored ten of his thirteen wins by submission, and Connelly has gotten nine of his fourteen wins by submission. They are pretty equal in the wrestling department, though there is going to be an X-factor there in that Connelly is coming off of major reconstructive knee surgery that kept him from fighting for 19 months. Sabatini is the younger and more physical fighter. Neither is really going to scare you on the feet, but this one will come all down to the wrestling. Sabatini is more of a chain wrestler while Connelly is a pressure against the fence and drop down for a double-leg takedown wrestler. Both men, while great submission artists, are also very tough to submit. That is where the physicality of Sabatini will come into play, as he’ll be able to pressure and tire Connelly out on the mat. Sabatini has a brighter future and I like him to get the win in what should be a very competitive fight.
Early Preliminary Card
Start Time: 6 p.m. ET, 3 p.m. PT
Where To Watch: ESPN2 & ESPN+
Bantamweights: Danaa Batgerel vs. Kevin Natividad
Overall Records: Batgerel 7-2, Natividad 9-2
UFC Records: Batgerel 1-1, Natividad 0-1
Last Fight: Batgerel def. Cannetti, R1 KO, UFC 248 (3/7/20), Johns def. Natividad, R3 KO, UFC On ESPN+ 39 (10/31/20)
Last Five Fights: Batgerel 4-1, Natividad 4-1
Betting Odds: Batgerel -185, Natividad +150
Preview: The early slate of prelims features Asian fighters in all four bouts, as this event was originally planned to take place in Singapore before a deal couldn’t be reached, but they still wanted to fill the card with Asian fighters with Zhang Weili being in a big fight. Batgerel is one of those Asian fighters, and he’ll be making his third walk to the Octagon. He is coming off an impressive first-round knockout win over Guido Cannetti in March 2020, his fourth career win by knockout. He actually holds a 2013 win over UFC flyweight prospect Kai Kara-France. Natividad will be in his second UFC bout, as he’s coming in off a third-round knockout loss at the hands of Miles Johns in October. That loss ended his five-fight win streak, and was the second time he’d been finished in his career. This one could be an early contender for Fight Of The Night, as it is a battle of two fighters who just swing for the fences.
Because both throw so much, neither would be considered an accurate fighter, but Batgerel averages almost six strikes landed per minute, and he has a strike differential of just over three per minute, meaning he doesn’t get hit all that much. Natividad isn’t quite the blitzing striker that Batgerel is, and he does get hit more than he lands. Both of Natividad’s losses have been by knockout, while Batgerel has yet to be finished in his career. Batgerel, despite hailing from Mongolia, actually trains at the Greg Jackson camp in Albuquerque, which means his conditioning should be at a high-level. That will come in handy here if both start throwing tons of punches. Natividad is the slightly better wrestler, and I expect him to try and use it if he can, but Batgerel has some good uppercuts and will make him pay. I think this will be a slugfest until the end, and I like Batgerel to finish Natividad somewhere in the first half of the fight.
Lightweights: Kazula Vargas vs. Zhu Rong
Overall Records: Vargas 11-4, Rong 17-3
UFC Records: Vargas 0-2, Rong 0-0
Last Fight: Weaver def. Vargas, R1 DQ, UFC On ESPN+ 25 (2/15/20), Rong def. Bi, R3 KO, WLF WARS 50 (1/14/21)
Last Five Fights: Vargas 2-3, Rong 5-0
Betting Odds: Vargas +200, Rong -250
Preview: An interesting lightweight battle takes place here as Vargas welcomes Rong to UFC for the first time. Vargas fights for the first time in 14 months as he looks to score his first UFC win after dropping his first two fights in the promotion. He lost a decision to Alex da Silva in his debut, and then was disqualified against Brok Weaver due to an obvious illegal knee in his last fight. He was lucky they didn’t cut him after that fight, but they kept him around, likely to give Rong an excellent debut win. Rong is one of three fighters debuting on this card who were signed following a combine at the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai, and all three have been training there. Rong is likely the best overall fighter of the three, and he is young as he just turned 21 in March, and will be fighting in his 21st career fight. He comes into this fight riding a 10-fight win streak, and in his 17 career wins, eleven have been by knockout and four have been by submission. He is an exciting prospect, is a highlight-reel finisher, and a guy they hope catches on in China to where they can make him a star.
Rong will have three inches in height and a slight reach advantage in this one. He is absolutely dangerous on the feet, which will be tough for Vargas to navigate, as he is far from an even decent striker. Vargas lands less than two strikes per minute, so his output is close to non-existent. He hasn’t gotten hit much, as his loss to da Silva was all about da Silva taking him down and dominating in the control time. Rong has an excellent gas tank, made better by the fact that he is 15 years younger than Vargas. Vargas is going to need to take Rong down and utilize a stifling top game, and Rong has been submitted in all three of his losses. However, Vargas just hasn’t been impressive and has had some mental lapses, and the pure power and talent of Rong will override that. Rong should pick up the win here, and he’s a fighter to keep your eye on in the future.
Flyweights: Qileng Aori vs. Jeffrey Molina
Overall Records: Aori 18-6, Molina 8-2
UFC Records: Aori 0-0, Molina 0-0
Last Fight: Aori def. Abdulaev, R2 KO, WLF WARS 41 (1/3/20), Molina def. Silva, UDec, Dana White’s Contender Series 30 (8/25/20)
Last Five Fights: Aori 5-0, Molina 5-0
Betting Odds: Aori -110, Molina -110
Preview: A pair of flyweights make their UFC debuts here as the division gets a much-needed boost of fresh blood. Aori is another of the fighters signed from the combine at the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai, and he enters UFC riding a six-fight win streak. He hasn’t been in action since January 2020, when he scored a second-round knockout win. This will be his 25th career fight, but he has just seven wins by stoppage in his 18 career wins. Molina is a product of the Contender Series, scoring a contract in August after winning a decision over Jacob Silva. After starting his career with just a 1-2 record, Molina has now scored seven straight wins, and of his eight career wins, seven have been by stoppage. This one has the potential to be another exciting fight. Aori likes to come forward and is primarily a striker.
He has shown a lot of holes in his striking, so hopefully working with UFC PI Shanghai head coach Dean Amasinger, who was a great striker during his career, have shored up those holes, or else Molina is going to make him pay. Molina attacks with a lot of volume and isn’t afraid to take one to land one. He’s shown some power, shown some good counters, and his head coach, James Krause, will have him plenty prepared. A big difference between the two will be the grappling. Molina is a solid grappler, with five submission wins, and Aori has been submitted three times in his career. Unless Aori has made strides in the 15 months between fights, this looks like a fight that Molina should be favored in, and he has some betting value with this being a potential pick ’em fight on the odds. The styles match-up just favors Molina’s style more, and I can easily see him grind out a decision.
Women’s Strawweights: Na Liang vs. Ariane Carnelossi
Overall Records: Liang 15-4, Carnelossi 12-2
UFC Records: Liang 0-0, Carnelossi 0-1
Last Fight: Liang def. Liu, R1 SUB, WLF WARS 50 (1/14/21), Hill def. Carnelossi, R3 TKO, UFC On ESPN+ 17 (9/21/19)
Last Five Fights: Liang 4-1, Carnelossi 4-1
Betting Odds: Liang +170, Carnelossi -210
Preview: The opening bout of the card sees the lone female signee from the combine at the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai make her UFC debut against an opponent in her second UFC bout. Liang enters UFC riding a four-fight win streak, and she may have a little familiarity to fans as she did fight once in Bellator in the past, losing to current flyweight champion Juliana Velasquez. She also has losses in her career to current UFC fighters Mariya Agapova and Liliya Shakirova. Despite being just 24, this will be her 20th professional fight. Carnelossi fights for the first time since September 2019, which was a loss due to a cut in the third round to Angela Hill in her UFC debut. She made her career debut with a loss to current UFC stand-out Amanda Ribas, but then sandwiched a 12-fight win streak in between her next loss, and will be looking to start a new streak here. Liang has shown to be a finisher in her career, as she has yet to win a decision, but has 13 finishes and two DQ wins, including 12 in the first round. Carnelossi has scored nine of her twelve career wins by stoppage, with eight coming by knockout.
Carnelossi is a blitzing striker with a lot of power, and she has legitmate one-punch knockout power. She lands a lot, but also gets hit a lot, though she shows no concerns over that, and she shouldn’t against Liang. Liang is one of those fighters who is single-minded in that she looks for takedowns and submissions immediately once the fight begins. She is not going to scare anyone outright with her striking. She is also not scared to shoot right away, and to keep doing so until she gets a takedown. Unfortunately for her, Carnelossi has some strong takedown defense. Liang also likes to pull guard, which may be a bad idea as Carnelossi could start smashing her from the top. I don’t really see any way Liang wins this one as Carnelossi is just too good. Carnelossi is also the decent-sized betting favorite, so she should get lots of action from the bettors. Unless Liang pulls out a miracle submission, this is going to be a rough night for her.