Fight Island is finally here, and with it, one of the most stacked cards in UFC history.
Despite only being two weeks removed from the last UFC event, it feels like this next card has been a long time coming; perhaps it's because fans have been talking about "Fight Island" since the term was first used back in May, or maybe it's because the stacked card has fans positively foaming at the mouth even moreso after the last-minute shakeups.
It was hard to imagine just a few months ago that anything would come close to matching UFC 249's stacked lineup, but the UFC is pulling out all the stops to make its trip to Abu Dhabi a memorable one and the fans are certainly in for a treat with this pay-per-view.
So without further ado, let's take a look at tomorrow night's action.
Early Prelims (ESPN/Fight Pass, 3:00 pm PST/6:00 pm EST)
Despite an incredibly stacked card, the early prelims are (understandably) lacking in star power and compelling matchups like those found throughout the rest of the event - the UFC does have plenty of other cards to fill after all.
The four fights comprising the early preliminary card are all rather skippable, headlined by the struggling heavyweight Marcin Tybura as he takes on a last-minute replacement in the highly experienced Maxim Grishin.
Don't worry - it gets much better.
Preliminary Card (ESPN/TSN, 5:00 pm PST/8:00 pm EST)
Now on to the good stuff.
Lightweight Bout (155)
Leonardo Santos (17-3-1) vs. Roman Bogatov (10-0)
The night truly gets kicked off with the return of Leonardo Santos. The lightweight standout is a highly decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitor and coach, but is known more recently for his improved striking and impressive knockouts over the likes of Stevie Ray and former top contender Kevin Lee.
Santos is currently sporting a 12-fight unbeaten streak with five straight wins since earning a majority draw against Norman Parke early in his UFC career - the problem the Brazilian faces is in staying healthy and actually making it to the cage with any consistency.
His last fight, a nasty one-punch KO of Stevie Ray, came just over a year ago; prior to that, his last fight was all the way back at UFC 204 in October of 2016. His KO win over Kevin Lee came late in 2015, which was the last calendar year that saw Santos compete more than once (if at all).
Roman Bogatov on the other hand is an undefeated Russian prospect who has fought at least twice each year since he began fighting in 2016, winning half of his fights by submission with his lone TKO being due to an injury.
The grappler will certainly have his work cut out for him if he wants to grapple with a renowned submission artist like Leonardo Santos, who will look to keep the fight standing and show off his continuously improving hands instead, and should enjoy an advantage anywhere the fight takes place.
This fight should see Santos come back into the lightweight top-15 discussions; here's hoping we finally get to see him consistently in the cage from now on.
Pick: Santos by first or second round knockout
Featherweight Bout (145)
Makwan Amirkhani (15-4) vs. Danny Henry (12-3)
Makwan Amirkhani is a rather difficult fighter to label - at times he is an exciting fighter, filled with transitions on the mat and explosive bursts on the feet; at others he is a dull grinder laying on his opponents while trying to eeke out a decision and avoid exhaustion.
This is almost entirely due to his poor pacing - Amirkhani likes to start out strong and aggressive, but a lot of his energy is used without achieving a whole lot, whether it be spending excess energy pursuing flashy takedowns or throwing wild shots and winging his way into the clinch.
This will sometimes result in an early finish (much moreso earlier in his MMA career against lesser competition) but in the UFC, it largely means he's gassed himself early and as a result looks to instead score points by laying on his opponent as much as possible for the remainder of the fight.
That isn't to say it hasn't worked well for Amirkhani, who's 5-2 in the Octagon, but one can't help but wonder if Amirkhani couldn't do himself a lot of favours by toning it down a little early in his fights. His last outing saw the limitations of such a style as he was eviscerated by cardio machine Shane Burgos after predictably exhausting himself over the first round and a half.
Danny Henry on the other hand is a well-rounded and much more consistent fighter in the cage, though his latest outing (a quick submission loss to Dan Ige) showed that a strong grappler like Amirkhani may cause him trouble early.
Should he be able to keep the fight on the feet, Henry should have the edge over the wild Amirkhani in the striking department, and there's a pretty clear path to victory now for Makwan's opponents - survive early, punish him late.
Of course that requires one to be able to stuff Makwan's takedowns, which is where a lot of the lower-tier featherweights have faltered against the Fin, and it's likely what will secure Makwan another decision victory barring a frantic finish earlier in the fight or a late comeback from the Scottish underdog.
Pick: Amirkhani by decision
Welterweight Bout (170)
Elizeu Zaleski Dos Santos (22-6) vs. Muslim Salikhov (16-2)
Now this is a bonafide Fight of the Night contender.
After participating in a war with Nicolas Dalby in his UFC debut that saw him on the wrong end of a split decision, Elizeu Zaleski Dos Santos went on a tear through the welterweight division, winning seven straight fights including highlight reel finishes of Sean Strickland, Luigi Vendramini, and Curtis Millender.
Known for his wild spinning attacks and aggression, Zaleski Dos Santos' lack of defense saw his streak snapped as he was schooled by Li Jingliang in what was by far Jingliang's most impressive performance to date. Since the setback, Elizeu bounced back with a workmanlike performance against the 20-1 Alexey Kunchenko and showed notable improvements in his boxing, something that will surely help him against the likes of Muslim Salikhov.
If you want to see a skilled kickboxer with an affinity for spinning shit wreck shop in MMA, look no further than Muslim Salikhov. Lightning-fast kicks and razor-sharp hands make the Russian knockout artist one of the most fearsome outings in the stacked welterweight division, and outside of a lone blemish against Alex Garcia in his UFC debut, Salikhov has been able to avoid his opponent's takedowns and dominate his opposition since 2012.
For Zaleski Dos Santos, the smart move would be to go for the takedown relentlessly and avoid striking at all costs, but Elizeu isn't the greatest wrestler and there's a good chance he will be unable to get the Russian down consistently - his best offense may be to mix up the takedowns just enough with strikes to keep Salikhov at bay and outwork him for a decision victory, assuming he can avoid being on the receiving end of a highlight-reel knockout.
But knowing Elizeu, there's a good chance (especially if he tries and fails to take down Salikhov early) he just says "fuck it" and starts throwing spinning shit - and that's what the fans want to see in this matchup. Should the fight stay standing, we're in for a treat as the two heavy-handed strikers are sure to deliver fireworks and both men are more than capable of knocking the other out - Salikhov will enjoy a technical advantage however, which is what has me siding with the Russian in this matchup.
Pick: Salikhov by second round knockout
Light Heavyweight Bout (205)
Volkan Oezdemir (17-4) vs. Jiri Prochazka (26-3-1)
Another bout that's being slept on by many fight fans, the lone light heavyweight matchup at UFC 251 has all the potential needed to deliver a barnburner and/or highlight reel knockout.
A name unknown to most North American fans, Jiri Prochazka will be making his UFC debut after dominating the field over in Japan's RIZIN for the last five years. The 27-year-old has made a name for himself by being an extremely aggressive striker with an affinity for knockouts, holding 23 KOs in his career including in all of his last eight outings.
Admittedly he hasn't been fighting the cream of the crop in the rather shallow 205-pound division, and his lack of strong competition, while it has certainly made his record look impressive, was likely beginning to hinder his progression as a fighter.
The UFC certainly isn't easing him into their ranks as he'll immediately take on Volkan Oezdemir, a once-title challenger who's back on the upswing.
Oezdemir can certainly be an exciting knockout threat himself, with 12 KOs of his own and the litany of quick finishes earlier in his career earned him his "No Time" moniker.
Unfortunately he's a less consistent entertainer - in the UFC he's looked like a phenom at times, whether he was smashing Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa with his "death touch" or lamping Ilir Latifi after skewering him with superb boxing combinations; in other fights he has looked complacent and rather average, whether he's getting tapped out by Anthony Smith or squeeking by with a razor-thin decision over prospect Aleksandar Rakic.
Jiri's wanton aggression should surely bring out the best version of Oezdemir however, who regularly thrives in exchanges and has a clear edge in boxing technique.
Prochazka is likely going to find himself able to compete in the deep end of the light heavyweight pool in the near future, but he's going to have to polish up his defense and rein in his aggression to compete with the real contenders.
It's a clear prospect-building bit of matchmaking from the UFC - if Prochazka wins, the UFC has themselves a new contender; if he loses, it's likely to be in exciting fashion and will be a great learning experience for the promising up-and-comer.
Pick: Oezdemir by first round knockout
Main Card (PPV, 7:00 pm PST/10:00 pm EST)
Women's Flyweight Bout (125)
Amanda Ribas (9-1) vs. Paige VanZant (8-4)
After 18 months away from the sport and having competed just twice in the last four years, "12 Gauge" Paige VanZant returns to the Octagon to fight out the last bout of her contract.
The part-time fighter has been outspoken about her meager UFC pay (she currently receives $40,000 to show up with that number doubling should she win) and the fact that she makes more money through sponsors and appearances, though that line of thinking is ignoring the fact that she has those options (and scored her appearances on Dancing with the Stars and Chopped) because of the profile the UFC helped her build.
The once highly touted prospect doesn't exactly have a strong case based purely on her fighting ability (she's a solid 5-3 in the organization, but has stumbled every time she's faced stronger competition) but considering her following and impressive TV numbers she certainly deserves to be earning more with each outing.
Rather than re-negotiating before her contract expires, Paige has opted for the much riskier path - fighting out her contract and trying out the free market, knowing that organizations like Bellator would certainly offer her a more lucrative contract.
Of course, the UFC has done her no favours and is feeding her to the vastly superior prospect Amanda Ribas, all but ensuring Paige ends her contract with a lopsided loss that hurts her market value in the hopes they can keep her without breaking the bank (or if another organization still opts to shell out more cash than they see her as worth, she's leaving on a loss and a barely-above .500 record in the promotion).
Given that she's still only 26 and we haven't seen VanZant compete in well over a year, there's a possibility Paige has gotten a lot better since we last saw her inside the Octagon, but given her somewhat questionable dedication to fighting since she has focused so much of her time pursuing other projects, it's highly unlikely she'll have advanced to the point where she can hold her own with the likes of Amanda Ribas.
Daughter of a highly revered Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, Ribas is exceptionally talented on the mat but the addition of slick and technical striking has transformed her into a bonafide contender.
The similarly 26-year-old grappler spent over two years on the sidelines thanks to USADA finding the presence of ostarine in her system prior to her UFC debut, a substance extremely common in supplements - in fact her suspension was later terminated after USADA found the supplement that caused the positive test (only after she had already sat out for the better part of two years).
All told it had been over three years since Ribas had last fought when she finally made her long-awaited UFC debut in June of last year, but the talented prospect quickly made up for lost time.
Ribas dominated Emily Whitmire en route to a second round rear-naked choke submission to announce her arrival to the strawweight ranks, showing off impressive ground and pound to go alongside her positional dominance and submission skills. She then found herself paired against the most high-profile prospect in the division, BJJ phenom Mackenzie Dern.
Ribas showed off her far superior striking (a silver lining from her extended layoff from competition) and utterly dominated her fellow Brazilian, piecing her up on the feet and stuffing her takedowns with ease.
She was scheduled to face VanZant in March of this year, but a recurring arm injury forced VanZant to withdraw and instead Ribas picked apart the highly experienced top-15 Canadian Randa Markos in her stead.
With far cleaner, more powerful striking and a massive advantage in the grappling realm, Ribas has the edge everywhere the fight could go - though the bout is taking place up at flyweight where Paige VanZant has competed twice (she went 1-1), Ribas is the same height and actually appears to be the larger of the two athletes so she won't be at a size disadvantage either.
Outside of being caught by a wild VanZant switch kick, it's hard to imagine a scenario where Ribas doesn't leave the Octagon with her hand raised on Saturday night.
Pick: Ribas by second round submission
Women's Strawweight Bout (115)
Rose Namajunas (9-4) vs. Jessica Andrade (20-7)
Now this is a tough fight to call.
The two former strawweight champions are both coming off of devastating losses - Andrade was knocked out in just 42 seconds by the current champion Weili Zhang 11 months ago while Rose Namajunas is returning from a brutal slam knockout loss at the hands of Andrade herself last May.
As we saw in their title tilt just over a year ago, Rose is clearly the more technical and refined fighter, but she has two failings that regularly work against her - she tends to fade as fights go on and she suffers from mental lapses (though much less frequently now than earlier in her career).
Her middling gas tank wasn't pushed in their first meeting given the fight ended midway through the second round, but even then her pace had already showed signs of waning as Andrade's aggression began to go unpunished in the second frame, unlike in the first round where Rose was lighting her up like a Christmas tree consistently.
Although many had thought Rose's mental weaknesses were a thing of the past when she captured the title and then defended it (albeit in a controversial decision) against Joanna Jędrzejczyk, they cost her the crown against Andrade.
After successfully avoiding one of Jessica's trademark slams in the opening round by attacking a kimura, when she found herself in a similar position in the second round Namajunas once again committed to the submission hold - this time however, Andrade saw it coming and adjusted, allowing her to follow through with a massive slam while Rose unwisely held onto her arm and left her head completely defenseless against the planks that make up the Octagon floor.
The vicious knockout served as an incredible reminder that one mistake can cost a fighter everything and an athlete that can make adjustments during competition can never be counted out.
With Andrade's over-aggression being exploited in her very next outing, one hopes that Andrade will have learned her lesson and has adjusted her style to accomodate a smarter, less reckless approach to pursuing her opponents (preferably one which involves improvements in her footwork, which is an aspect of striking regularly lacking in MMA).
The rematch will likely unfold in a similar fashion to their first meeting - Rose will have the technical advantage on the feet and will use her length to keep Andrade at bay, while should Andrade avoid running into a knockout blow, Jessica's aggression and pace will wear on Namajunas as the fight wears on.
Unfortunately for Andrade however, it's only a three round fight, meaning she's going to have to tire Rose out quickly or will need an another explosive finish to pull off a second victory against "Thug" Rose.
It's certainly odd to see a fighter who was viciously knocked out by their opponent be an even bigger favourite heading into a rematch than their first meeting, but it appears many believe Rose just has to avoid the slam to prevent a similar outcome.
While that's certainly a possibility, Andrade has shown an impressive ability to make adjustments not only during fights (something that Rose has always lacked) but between them as well - with smarter pressure and a focus on attacking Rose's body, I believe Andrade will be able to overwhelm Rose late and make her fold once again.
Pick: Andrade by third round knockout
Bantamweight Championship Bout (135)
Petr Yan (14-1) vs. Jose Aldo (28-6)
The first of Fight Island's three title fights may prove to be the most exciting.
The former featherweight king Jose Aldo is looking to capture a belt in a second weight class when he takes on a hungry young killer in Petr Yan for the vacant bantamweight strap.
Yan is of course fresh off an absolute mauling of 40-year-old Urijah Faber, a fight which extended his winning streak to nine and includes victories over John Dodson and Jimmie Rivera.
Primarily a boxer who mixes in kicks and knees to his arsenal, the Russian standout is a textbook swarmer - a pressure fighter that puts the pace on his opponents and systematically wears them down with combinations and constant forward movement. It's certainly an exciting style and one which has made him a feared contender in the stacked division, not to mention a betting favourite against a former champion and one of the best fighters to ever step into the Octagon.
While the 26-year-old Yan isn't even in his prime, Jose Aldo has noticeably slowed down in recent years. After losing his title, regaining it and then losing it to Max Holloway, Aldo put himself back in the mix by bringing back the aggression that made him the most feared featherweight on the planet earlier in his career.
Unfortunately a non-performance against Alex Volkanovski halted his momentum and instead the featherweight who had routinely struggled to make the 145-pound limit opted to find a new home down at bantamweight, seriously dieting for the first time in his career.
His bantamweight debut against recent title challenger Marlon Moraes saw mixed results - his chin held up as he ate shots from a feared knockout artist with little issue, he looked to be in great shape and his somewhat suspect cardio held up well, and most felt he did enough to beat Moraes when the two went to the scorecards. Unfortunately the judges disagreed, handing Aldo his second loss in as many fights.
As much as some fans wanted to claim Aldo looked great in his bantamweight debut, and in some aspects he did, there was a lot of cause for concern. Though he wore the shots well, Aldo has always been masterful in his striking defense - in recent years his defensive reactions have dulled and slowed however, and this was more evident than ever against Moraes.
While Aldo's offense has always been praised, his defense was perhaps even more crucial to his success and it's disturbing to see a fighter of Aldo's caliber march into shots like he did at times against Moraes. It's simply not something you'd ever have seen from Aldo just a few years ago.
Despite being on a losing streak, Aldo was nevertheless picked by Cejudo to be his next challenger before the COVID-19 hysteria hit and thus no one outside of the US was able to gain entry into the country, leading Dominick Cruz to take the fight at UFC 249 instead.
After Cejudo retired and left the belt vacant, the UFC opted to return Aldo's promised title shot, this time against Petr Yan, although both Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen clearly had better cases for the shot than Aldo (Aljamain has since solidified his case by submitting Sandhagen last month).
Regardless of whether Aldo truly "earned" the shot, his resume speaks for itself and he is still one of the most dangerous fighters on the planet. His killer instinct is second-to-none and when he goes on the offensive, his powerful boxing and vicious knees are difficult for anyone to survive.
In five-round fights, Aldo has regularly been conservative with his offense and prefers to avoid tiring himself to extend his gas tank - against someone like Yan (or in retrospect, Holloway) this is a self-defeating strategy as it means that he is unable to finish them early and they inevitably take over later anyway.
While it certainly is risky, the best strategy for Aldo to employ against a fighter like Yan is to come out strong and relentlessly pursue the finish as soon as he sees an opening, whether it be by a combination led by his beautiful left hook (particularly to the body of late), his explosive knees, or even on the mat like in the old WEC days.
Yan is certainly a good grappler in his own right, but Jose Aldo is an incredible wrestler and BJJ artist on the mat - he has just outright refused to go there in recent years, even when he holds a massive advantage there against his opponent.
It's not likely that Aldo will change that stubbornness now, but after having much more success in the last few years when he has decided to be more aggressive, one can hope he at least goes for the finish and doesn't back himself into a corner by starting off too conservatively.
Most likely, the two will engage in a striking affair with Yan pushing the action and Aldo looking for counters - should Aldo connect and stun Yan, that's when Aldo will need to unload and secure the finish at all costs, like he did against Jeremy Stephens and Renato Moicano.
As much as Yan might be the "smart" pick in 2020, Jose Aldo can never be counted out and I still believe he has what it takes to be a champion again - UFC 251 may very well be the night of the underdogs (besides PVZ) and I'm going to throw my money down on Aldo last time.
Pick: Aldo by second round knockout
Featherweight Championship Bout (145)
Alexander Volkanovski (21-1) vs. Max Holloway (21-5)
The second and biggest rematch of the night, the featherweight title clash between Max Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski is going to be all about who can make the smartest adjustments following their first meeting.
Volkanovski certainly employed a brilliant strategy against Holloway in their first encounter late last year - chop away at his legs, land power shots when he pursues, and avoid drawn out exchanges at all costs.
It was a gameplan that should have been what Jose Aldo (particularly given his legendary leg kicks) brought with him in his fights with Max, and for the New Zealander it worked to a tee.
Despite the impressive gameplan however, Volkanovski still only won the fight by a single round, winning the first three but dropping the final two frames as he began to slow down and Holloway took more risks in order to turn the tide.
Seeing what adjustments Holloway brings to the table this time will be interesting - he certainly improves between outings and will undoubtedly have some sort of answer for Volkanovski's low kicking and movement, but whether it's enough to earn him the victory is the question.
Volkanovski will undoubtedly look to add a new wrinkle or two to his game to ensure history repeats itself as well, making this fight a highly intriguing chess match.
Regardless of the outcome, we're sure to see a technical scrap between two incredibly skilled and intelligent fighters that will make for a memorable co-main event.
Pick: Holloway by decision
Welterweight Championship Bout (170)
Kamaru Usman (16-1) vs. Jorge Masvidal (35-13)
When Gilbert Burns was pulled from the main event just one week ago due to a positive COVID-19 test, MMA fans everywhere felt personally attacked - the MMA gods had giveth and now they tooketh away.
When "Gamebred" stepped up to take on Usman on just six days' notice however, it sent the MMA world into a frenzy.
The fight that the fans had been asking for had finally been made and everyone involved (besides Burns of course) was ecstatic - the UFC got an even bigger main event for their stacked card and despite having to pay extra for it, got the benefit of added drama to help sell the event; Jorge Masvidal received the payday he was asking for when negotiations for the matchup had originally soured, and given that he had stayed training for Usman knowing that an injury or cancellation was possible, he was no worse for wear; the fans received the fight they had been clamouring for all along; and even Usman benefitted after getting a better stylistic matchup.
That last part may be surprising to some, but it's true - it's no secret that Usman's bread and butter is his dominant wrestling. Well, Gilbert Burns is one of the best BJJ practitioners to ever compete inside the Octagon and is all sorts of trouble for anyone on the mat, making him an extremely dangerous opponent for Usman - his highly impressive striking and power are also a match for Usman, forcing him into his less-preferred area of fighting where Burns would have an edge.
Against Masvidal, Usman can take comfort in knowing his primary strength can once again be fully utilized.
While Masvidal is certainly no slouch on the ground, with slick submissions of his own and an impressive ability to get back to his feet, he is no Gilbert Burns on the mat. Usman will have a clear advantage should he be able to take (and keep) Masvidal down; he will be at a clear disadvantage should he fail to do so however.
Kamaru's striking has certainly come a long way, but just like in grappling, there are levels to the striking game and Masvidal is simply levels above him on the feet. That isn't to say he won't be able to hold his own however - Kamaru has shown impressive durability, incredible cardio, solid boxing, and as we've seen time and time again, the threat of the takedown is a great way to freeze a striker and keep them hesitant to throw their strikes.
For Usman, the key to victory will be turning the fight into a boring, one-sided grappling match, mixing in just enough striking to avoid being predictable and running into a flying knee from hell on the way in, but not staying on his feet long enough to give Masvidal much chance of getting into the fight.
For Masvidal, it's quite obvious that avoiding the takedown or at worst, working his way back to his feet quickly and with minimal energy expended, is paramount. His advantage is clearly on the feet and letting his hands go when he is standing is just as important as stuffing the takedowns; if he doesn't make his time at range matter, then whether he stops a takedown or not becomes a moot point.
If he does get taken down regularly, there's always a chance he can snatch up a submission, but against a grappler of Usman's caliber it's unlikely and more of a last resort to look for should Masvidal not be able to get off the canvas.
Although not primarily a body puncher, Masvidal has shown a willingness to go to the body more than many fighters in the past and implementing a stiff body jab (which he has shown in some older fights) could pay dividends - not only does the body jab change levels which is great for defending takedowns, but it effectively creates a bar that an opponent has to get through just to get to your hips, becoming a great preventative measure against wrestlers that also pairs well with the overhand right.
Masvidal's body work typically stems from round kicks to the midsection, which against a wrestler like Usman, are definitely not advised. Instead, Masvidal would be wise to target the body extensively with his boxing not only to put himself in better position to defend takedowns, but to also try and sap Usman's remarkable gas tank.
Kicks in general (besides inside leg kicks or calf kicks, which given Usman's famously damaged knees, could work a treat here) are likely something Masvidal should avoid despite his powerful kicking game, but feints with his knees and the flying knee in particular could certainly dissuade Usman from shooting in, especially given how badly it turned out for Askren.
The two definitely don't like each other and some have suggested that Usman's ego may get him to try to stand and trade with Masvidal - while Marty from Nebraska certainly doesn't seem like the most intelligent individual, he has shown a lot of smarts inside the cage and has previously shown he's not afraid to have an incredibly dull wrestling match even after talking trash with an opponent (see his bout with Emil Meek).
Though stranger things have certainly happened, it's unlikely Usman isn't going to come with a wrestling-heavy attack.
The main event is certainly an intriguing one that could play out a variety of different ways - smart money says Usman is going to look to outwrestle Masvidal for 25-minutes and turn Fight Island's crowning jewel into a dull affair, but I can't help but feel Masvidal has something special up his sleeve.
Pick: Masvidal by second round knockout
No matter what, UFC 251 is going to be an epic night of fights so be sure to check it out!