UFC 251 on Fight Island continues to evolve. From visions of palm trees surrounding an Octagon on a beach with Kamaru Usman defending his welterweight belt against Gilbert Burns to what looks like an indoor venue with a possible main event of Alexander Volkanovski defending his featherweight title against Max Holloway.
And we still have a week to go.
News broke early Saturday morning that Burns was scratched from the card, and that neither he nor Usman were on the UFC's charter jet to Abu Dhabi.
Jorge Masvidal immediately offered to step in, and his manager, Abraham Kawa, told ESPN his fighter is "absolutely willing" to take this bout on a week's notice. Is that the play the UFC needs to make? What started off as a long shot seemed to be gaining momentum as negotiations took place Saturday afternoon.
Volkanovski and Holloway don't think the card is missing a main event.
"This was the real main event," Volkanovski said Saturday of his bout. "A lot of people thought this was the main event, so it's in its rightful place."
ESPN's panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim break down the July 11 card, which will be the first of four straight on Yas Island.
Should the UFC do everything it can to get Masvidal to replace Burns?
Helwani: Absolutely. That was supposed to be the original main event, anyway. It's the welterweight title fight we were promised since Usman and Masvidal had their little kerfuffle at Super Bowl media day months ago in Miami. Now, as much as I'd love to see this fight in seven days -- and I'm certain it would generate way more pay-per-views than the Usman-Burns main event -- it still feels like a bit of a long shot at the moment. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as just picking up the phone and offering it to Masvidal. In addition to all the testing and quarantine procedures that will no doubt have to take place both in America and Abu Dhabi in a very short amount of time, they will also have to negotiate a deal with Masvidal, and, well, that's easier said than done. The two sides haven't seen eye-to-eye lately but, hey, maybe the sense of urgency helps the situation? Crazier things have happened.
Okamoto: No. If that were the case, the UFC should have done everything it could to book Masvidal the first time around. Right? I've said numerous times, the best fight the UFC could have made for Usman was Masvidal. And if the two sides were able to come to terms on a title fight now for, say, September -- I'd be OK with it, even though that'd be a rough outcome for Burns. But to scramble now? Why would the UFC skip Masvidal back then -- when you could have given time to prepare for the fight and have time to really promote it -- only to pay him now? I hope the UFC and Masvidal eventually come to terms. I hope they come to terms tomorrow. I want to see him fight. But to scramble for an event that is now seven days away? Doesn't make sense to me.
Raimondi: No. The most reasonable thing for the UFC to do now is to just reschedule Usman vs. Burns for another card, perhaps as the co-main event to the Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 3 heavyweight title fight at UFC 252 on Aug. 15. Usman should not have to fight someone coming in on a week's notice. Plus, Usman didn't make the trip with everyone else from Las Vegas to Abu Dhabi on Friday night. If the plan was to find another opponent for him, Usman would have been on board. Usman and Masvidal, if that's the matchup that gets made, could always catch a flight in the coming days, but it's unclear what the travel restrictions would be going to the United Arab Emirates. There was a reason the UFC chartered flights from Las Vegas; Sao Paulo, Brazil; London; and Moscow for the fighters, corners and staff members. The UFC already has two other title fights at UFC 251. There is no good reason to force a late-notice replacement at this stage given the challenges.
Wagenheim: Desperately enlisting, as a main event substitute, the fighter who should have been there in the first place would be a delicious twist of fate. But is it really necessary? UFC 251 was built to withstand loss, even loss of this magnitude. Look at what remains intact: two championship bouts and a clash of former champs. That's a formidable fight card. If Usman vs. Burns were being asked to carry the show all by itself, there would be a problem. But to me, this event has not been gravely diluted.
What one thing must Max Holloway do in order to change the outcome in the rematch?
Max Holloway says he trained for UFC 251 on Zoom
Max Holloway explains to Ariel Helwani the difficulties he encountered because of COVID-19 during his training for his rematch vs. Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 251 on Fight Island.
Helwani: Check leg kicks. Of course, it would be silly to assume Volkanovski will employ the exact same game plan as he had back in December, but let's be honest, he's definitely going to attack the leg until Holloway defends it properly. And that was a massive key to Volkanovski's win back in December. How effective were the leg kicks? According to UFC Stats, Volkanovski landed 75 of 93 leg strikes during their five-round fight at UFC 245. Huge. Holloway actually landed 18 more head strikes and 17 more body strikes, but Volkanovski landed 58 more leg strikes. The Aussie was 0 for 4 in takedown attempts, so one could hypothesize that if Holloway avoided/defended the leg strikes better he'd still be champ. Of course, all this is easier said than done. Volkanovski has won 18 in a row for a reason: He's really good and hard to beat.
Okamoto: I don't think there's one thing Holloway needs to fix. Look, I think Holloway is one of the best fighters, pound-for-pound, of the past decade, but Volkanovski's coach, Eugene Bareman, said something to me the other day that I agreed with: The fight was not that close. It was certainly competitive, but it's not as if there was one obvious tweak Holloway could have made to significantly alter it. Volkanovski won every round on one of the judge's scorecards. And if you look at the scorecards collectively, Holloway only won the fifth, in terms of two of the three judges scoring it for him. Other than that, as far as the first four rounds, Volkanovski won them all. Holloway's going to need to make several adjustments, which is difficult to forecast considering he said he didn't work closely with his coaches during the outbreak.
Raimondi: The biggest advantage Holloway has coming in is that now he has 25 minutes under his belt with Volkanovski across from him. Volkanovski is a tricky opponent with a brilliant team behind him. He does things in the striking game, particularly with his kicks, that not everyone is doing. But Holloway has seen that now and can make the necessary adjustments. Remember, Holloway won the final two rounds on the scorecard of one judge and won the fifth round on the scorecard of another at UFC 245. He was already adapting to what Volkanovski was throwing at him. Holloway doesn't necessarily have to neutralize Volkanovski's leg kicks -- he landed 75 in December, the most ever for a male fighter in a UFC bout -- but Holloway needs to figure out how to succeed with his own offense in spite of Volkanovski's attack.
Wagenheim: Every breakdown of this rematch that I've seen points to the same thing: leg kicks. But what ultimately will determine Holloway's success is not just how the lower part of his body fares. Look to his head, too. Holloway has lost two of his past three fights, both decisively. Prior to that, he was on a 13-fight winning streak and being lauded as the greatest featherweight ever. How will he handle walking into the Octagon as a challenger? Holloway's self-image as an athlete who belongs at the top of the sport has suffered a blow. Can he rise above that?
What about fighting in Abu Dhabi presents the biggest challenge -- the travel, the heat, the early time or something else?
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Dana White releases video detailing the testing and infrastructure of UFC "Fight Island" in Abu Dhabi.
Helwani: I don't think the fact that the fights are happening in the early morning of July 12 in Abu Dhabi will affect the majority of the main card fighters because most of them train in America or near America. So, those fighters can just follow their local clocks and be relatively good. It reminds me of when the UFC held that FOX event in Stockholm in 2015 or UFC 204 in Manchester in 2016 in the middle of the night to accommodate the American TV audience. In those cases, the American fighters just slept during the day and woke up at night while they were overseas and seemed to be OK with that process. That said, I think it could affect the Petr Yans and Alexander Volkanovskis of the world because they will have to dramatically change their body clocks to peak when they are usually sleeping since Yan trains in Thailand and Volkanovski trains in Australia. So, in the end, I'll go with the heat. If you recall, the last time the UFC was in Abu Dhabi, many of the fighters complained about the sweltering heat. Now, on the bright side, they are in a different "arena" this time around, so hopefully the AC issues have been rectified. But, on the negative side, that card was in September. July is much hotter. Saturday morning, for example, it was 103 degrees Fahrenheit at 4 a.m. local time, which is when the card would be happening this weekend. One would think it would be cooler in the morning, but not in Abu Dhabi. Also, once again, they are in a makeshift arena, so one wonders how the elements will affect the athletes. When I covered UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi back in April 2010, it was incredibly hot, as well. But, that was outdoors. So, I have no doubt the heat will play a factor, the question is how big.
Okamoto: I was there for the most recent event -- UFC 242 in September -- and I will tell you, the heat is real. It's not just the triple digits (living in Las Vegas, I'm actually used to those), it's the humidity. That climate is stifling, and almost every fighter I spoke to at that event commented on it. It affects how you warm up and your endurance. I remember one cornerman telling me he almost burned himself on the metal of the Octagon, it was that hot. "Fight Island" will be in a different facility, so hopefully it's better this time around, but I'll say the heat is the biggest challenge. But the travel is not easy, either, particularly now. It's not just travel, it's quarantining in a hotel for days before cutting weight. That could have a real impact on fighters making weight, and how they perform after rehydrating.
Raimondi: I don't think any single one of those things is a game-changer, but all combined could lead to some trepidation. I'm particularly concerned about those who have a hard weight cut -- I'm looking at you Jose Aldo -- and have to travel a far distance. As far as the heat goes, it could cause some discomfort during fight week. But as long as the actual event venue has air conditioning, which was an issue at UFC 242 last September, the fighters should be fine. I'm really not sure if the odd start time -- the main card will begin at 6 a.m. local time in Abu Dhabi -- will be too much of a factor. Fighters are pretty comfortable with overcoming adversity. Again, though, all of those things mentioned above will definitely make for unique obstacles for the athletes to get past.
Wagenheim: Heat is the unknown factor. The UFC has said the arena will be properly air conditioned, which would be a welcome departure from the hot, humid conditions that fighters had to endure during last September's event on Yas Island. Some fighters reported that there was AC in the dressing room, but once they were inside the Octagon and under the glaring lights, the heat was brutal. If conditions inside the building end up being anything like they were last time, it will adversely affect performances. This fight card does begin in the middle of the night local time, which will help a little. It might be only 95 degrees rather than in the 100s. But the AC has to be working well enough to allow these athletes to be at their best.
What prelim fight are you most excited for?
Helwani: Easy one: Jiří Procházka vs. Volkan Oezdemir. Procházka is the former Rizin light heavyweight champion and this is his UFC debut. He enters the fight on a 10-fight winning streak, and he has victories over familiar names like C.B. Dollaway, Muhammed Lawal, Fabio Maldonado, Brandon Halsey and Jake Heun. But you can make a case that a lot of his wins came against fighters who were either past their prime or not quite UFC-caliber. So, how does he look against former title contender Oezdemir, who has won two in a row, and is always a tough out? I'm curious to find out.
Okamoto: Volkan Oezdemir vs. Jiri Prochazka, hands down. These two light heavyweights have a combined 43 career wins, and 35 of those have come via knockout. Prochazka, who is making his promotional debut, is one of the most interesting acquisitions the UFC has made in recent memory. He has the potential to do what Oezdemir himself actually did in 2017, when he burst onto the scene with back-to-back first-round knockouts of Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa to earn a title shot in just his fourth UFC appearance.
Raimondi: Volkan Oezdemir vs. Jiri Prochazka. Prochazka, a Czech Republic native, was really excellent for the Japanese promotion and has all the skills to be top-level 205-pound fighter in the UFC. Oezdemir has already fought for the title at light heavyweight in the UFC and is still only 30 years old. Prochazka is just 27 years old. We could be looking at the future of the division in this bout.
Wagenheim: Unless you're an MMA diehard, you might not recognize a lot of the names in the prelims. But there are several fights with the potential to steal the show. One of them is the welterweight matchup of Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and Muslim Salikhov. The Brazilian, dos Santos, was on a roll with seven straight wins before losing by knockout last summer to Li Jingliang in China. He got back on track in March with a win over Aleksei Kunchenko. Now he faces another Russian, this one a five-time world champion in the Chinese kickboxing art known as Wushu Sanda. Salikhov has won three in a row and poses a threat to the man nicknamed "Capoeira," after the stand-up martial art he's been practicing since age 4.
My bold prediction for this card is ...
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UFC strawweight Rose Namajunas explains just how tough COVID-19 has been on her family, as she lost two family members within days of each other at the beginning of the outbreak.
Helwani: This will be Paige VanZant's final UFC appearance. Win or lose, PVZ will take her talents elsewhere, most likely to Bellator. She's only 26, and yes, she's been injury-prone as of late, but she is still a draw, in my opinion, and a win would give her a lot of leverage as she enters free agency. High stakes for the Oregon native on Saturday night.
Okamoto: Jessica Andrade beats Rose Namajunas to make their matchup 2-0. I think Namajunas is one of the absolute best in the world, but I'm surprised she is almost a 2-to-1 betting favorite. She may have fought the perfect fight last time she met Andrade, and still lost her championship. She also openly contemplated retirement. Again, I'm still a big believer in Namajunas, and I think she is more than capable of reclaiming the UFC title, but to see her as a significant favorite after the two things I just mentioned is a surprise.
Raimondi: Jose Aldo will become just the eighth fighter to ever win UFC titles in two different weight classes. By doing so, he'll cement himself once again as one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time. It seems like people have forgotten just how good Aldo was. He held the WEC/UFC featherweight title for six years. At one time, he was right there with Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva in the conversation for best ever. By beating Petr Yan for the vacant title at UFC 251, Aldo will regain some of the luster his legacy lost when he was knocked out in 13 seconds by Conor McGregor in 2015.
Wagenheim: I'll go out on a limb and say that neither of the title bouts, as exciting as they promise to be, will be remembered as the fight of the night. I think the rematch between former strawweight champions Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade is going to be a hard act to follow.