The UFC’s ‘Fight Island’ will host its first event this weekend, as UFC 251 marks the beginning of a new era in mixed martial arts history.
A stacked fight card, topped with three world title match-ups, will begin a run of four live events over three weeks.
It’s a bold move from the sports premier promotion, but one put in place to overcome the hurdle of a global pandemic.
Dana White, and all the staff at the Ultimate Fighting Championship, have been working hard since March to create a place for the UFC schedule to continue rolling, uninterrupted by the coronavirus.
The result of this effort is a ten-mile quarantine area, making the most of the geographical layout of Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.
Screening of all staff, athletes and teams takes place before anyone boards a plane bound for ‘Fight Island’, as well as a compulsory four days of isolation to ensure all test results are accurate.
Over the space of three weeks, hundreds of people will go through this process to enter the Island zone, and the UFC will deliver four live events, starting with UFC 251.
Headlined by three world title fights, this card kicks off the whole extravaganza with a bang.
Former featherweight king Jose Aldo will take on the steely Petr Yan for the bantamweight title. Following that is a rematch for featherweight gold, as Max Holloway looks to reclaim his belt from Alexander ‘The Great’ Volkanovski. The same man that bested him over five rounds, back in December.
The headliner – for the welterweight throne – sees defending champion Kamaru ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ Usman taking on short notice replacement and the proverbial ‘ace card’ of the division, Jorge ‘Gamebred’ Masvidal.
The original challenger for the welterweight champion, Gilbert Burns, was a former teammate of Usman’s and had found himself in this fortuitous circumstance because of the travel restrictions associated with the pandemic.
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Finding himself contending for the championship, Burns had completed a training camp and begun the testing process so his travel could commence. Unfortunately his test came back positive, and late last week it looked like UFC 251 would be down to two title fights.
But as rumblings of Masvidal doing COVID-19 tests began to surface, fans began to dream that a possible replacement had been found. Just six days out, it was confirmed that he would step in to face Usman.
Masvidal has been a player on the MMA scene for many years. Always there in the background, exciting and competitive, but never what you would consider to be a major figure.
However, in March of last year, he was in a headlining spot on the annual UFC London card, against rising young star Darren Till. What resulted in a spectacular knockout turned into the best year of his fighting career.
A scuffle during his post-fight interviews backstage further swelled the online conversation around Masvidal, and suddenly he was hot property.
What he refers to as ‘The Resurrection’ seems more like the birthing of a superstar, and was accelerated again in his next two bouts.
At UFC 239 he starched Ben Askren with a flying knee, five seconds into their bout, claiming the fastest knockout record.
Then the promotion created the novelty ‘BMF’ title, for which he faced cult hero Nate Diaz, and he won that impressively with a wide array of aggressive striking combinations.
His position near the top of the division was clear, but his opportunity for a shot at the title was subject to contract conversations which hadn’t been resolved in time for Fight Island.
After the withdrawal of Burns, and the nature of Masvidal being synonymous with his moniker, ‘Gamebred’, discussions of contracts were pushed through and he immediately began preparing himself for the journey.
Usman, on the other hand, had been preparing for someone he knew well before Masvidal’s late entry.
Burns – his training partner and as much of a friend as one could be when sharing a UFC roster and being of the same weigh – is a powerful striker and a skilled Jiu Jitsu practitioner. He offers a different challenge to Masvidal.
Kamaru would most likely have had the wrestling advantage and would have been more confident in the striking ranges than on the ground. With Masvidal it may be the opposite.
What Burns could do on the ground with his submission game can be compared with the striking ability of Jorge. This makes transitioning into the clinch far more problematic for Usman.
If he is able to close Masvidal down against the fence and use his wrestling to control him, tiring him out and taking him to the floor may be easier. With Burns the risk was greater on the ground, but getting there may have been less of a minefield.
The defending champion’s skills are undeniable. He is a master at controlling, and beating down the opposition. Walking them down with a sharp jab and using the fence as a barrier to trap them against.
It could be assumed that Usman will have the advantage if this goes into the championship rounds, as he’s been preparing for a five round bout.
It could also be said that his strength and wrestling skill combined may completely shut down Masvidal’s game, frustrating him, wearing him out, and ultimately making him vulnerable to the ground and pound of the champ.
If Masvidal is to walk away with the welterweight belt, then it’s essential for him to keep this fight in the striking range. He needs to do meaningful work that does damage or sets traps, paying dividends in the championship rounds.
This is a very tough test for the defending champion, but a victory that could really shine a light on his championship reign. They sit atop a stacked card, full of champions and contenders, on one of the most important events in UFC and Mixed Martial Arts history.
If ever there was a time to be a UFC fan and fighter, it is right now. Fight Island is real, and the fighters taking part of UFC 251 will be aware of how special this moment is. They will surely bring the intensity when it’s time to step into the Fight Island Octagon and battle it out with their opponents.