UFC president Dana White says interest surrounding UFC 251 is “trending higher than a Conor McGregor fight” as the UFC’s Fight Island dream becomes a reality.
Plans for the bout faced disaster when Gilbert Burns, one half of the main event for the welterweight title against Kamaru Usman, withdrew after testing positive for COVID-19 a week out from 170-pound title bout.
Renewed negotiations with Jorge Masvidal brought the card back from the brink and the company now has a headline act that is considerably more exciting than the original contest.
Masvidal had to fly halfway around the world on six days’ notice to get the first UFC title shot in his 17-year mixed martial arts career.
And it means that UFC 251 could actually go bigger than a Conor McGregor fight.
“This is trending off the charts,” boss Dana White said.
“This thing is trending higher than a Conor McGregor fight. The only that this fight is comparable to is Conor vs. Khabib. I’ll give you an interesting stat: Our UFC store has sold more merchandise already now than we did in all of 2019.
We already beat 2019 with merchandise. This thing is trending as big of a fight as I’ve ever seen in my entire career.”
Masvidal isn’t mad about the twists that sent him to Abu Dhabi this week with minimal time to train for his fight with Kamaru Usman on Saturday night. Three spectacular wins last year turned Masvidal into one of the UFC’s top rising stars at the tender age of 35, and he plans to ride his momentum all the way through the reigning welterweight champion at UFC 251.
“The reason I’m here is because I’ve taken opportunities like this in the past,” Masvidal said. “I’ve just got to take advantage of it. It’s what I love to do. It’s what I’ve done since I was a child. I’ve just got to give it everything I’ve got.”
The showdown between Masvidal (35-13) and the hard-nosed Usman (16-1) headlines the UFC’s biggest show of the summer on Yas Island, the tourist destination that has been taken over by the UFC and rechristened “Fight Island.”
UFC 251 also features featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski’s first title defense against long-reigning champ Max Holloway, along with vaunted Petr Yan’s bout against former champ José Aldo for the vacant bantamweight belt.
But the most compelling fighter on an extremely interesting card is likely Masvidal, whose tenacity inside and outside the cage has turned him from a cult hero into a mainstream MMA star.
A former backyard brawler in his native Miami, Masvidal didn’t crack the UFC roster until his late 20s, and he endured a handful of tough losses that slowed his progress. Consecutive stoppages of Darren Till, Ben Askren and Nate Diaz last year turned him into a major draw, and he has been determined to capitalize on it.
“I had a good year for myself to reset my mind,” Masvidal said. “To get everything right in mind, body, soul, spirit, and then come back to the sport and give it my all again. It’s just amazing that the world took notice this time.”
He negotiated with the UFC for this shot at Usman, but the talks fell apart over money, and the promotion made the curious decision to give the title shot to Brazil’s Gilbert Burns instead.
But Burns tested positive for coronavirus last week, and the UFC went back to Masvidal to keep its card intact. Masvidal quickly headed to the Middle East for his first title shot after seven years and 18 fights in the UFC.
“I’m as prepared as I need to be for Usman, but it’s not like a full training camp,” Masvidal said. “But my mind is ready, and my heart is ready. There are other guys I could have fought that would have made it hard on six days’ notice. I think (Usman) is the perfect one. … I think he’s weak-minded.”
Usman stopped Colby Covington last winter to retain his belt, and his superb wrestling could turn a matchup with the hard-hitting Masvidal into a tactical fight that would greatly favor the champion.
“He took the fight on short notice, but let’s not act like he hasn’t been training for this,” Usman said. “He’s only had to train for one guy, and that’s me. I was training for a completely different guy. … It didn’t really matter to me. I trained and was prepared to get into a scrap. It didn’t matter who the face was.”
Here are more things to know about UFC 251:
DO IT AGAIN
Volkanovski (21-1) won his belt last December with a clear decision over Holloway (21-5), one of the UFC’s most popular recent champions. The promotion ordered an immediate rematch, and Holloway has vowed to avoid his mistakes in the first fight. But the athleticism and activity showed by Volkanovski in the first fight provide a clear path for the Australian champ.
Aldo (28-6) was the UFC’s long-reigning featherweight champion until Conor McGregor dethroned him in 2015, and he absorbed back-to-back knockout losses to Holloway in 2017. Aldo also has lost his last two fights, but he curiously got this title shot from the UFC after Henry Cejudo abruptly retired. Also faces a stiff task against Yan (14-1), a younger, gifted Russian on a nine-fight winning streak against quality opponents — albeit none with Aldo’s skills and pedigree.
THUG ROSE RETURNS
Former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas (8-4) is back for the first time since losing her title in May 2019 to Jéssica Andrade (20-7), who subsequently lost the belt to Zhang Weili. Namajunas and Andrade will fight a rematch at UFC 251. The popular Namajunas appeared to be winning their first bout until Andrade ended the fight with an astonishing power slam, but Andrade insists her victory wasn’t a fluke.
To accommodate the pay-per-view audience in North America, the fights will start well before dawn on Sunday morning in Abu Dhabi, with the main event still in the early hours.
“Not only did I have to get adjusted to the time rather quick here, I have to get adjusted to fighting at 8 in the morning,” Masvidal said. “It makes the journey a little bit more memorable.”