When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry opened its doors to the Ultimate Fighting Championship returning in May of 2020 for three shows during the early stages of the global pandemic, UFC President Dana White had nothing but praise for the politicians and the Sunshine State.
White brought three outstanding shows to Jacksonville in a seven-day stretch, and then promised he’d be back soon with stacked cards for when fans could attend the fights again. Well, White is now ready to return the favor and to do so with the promotion’s first card allowing for 100-percent capacity.
UFC 261 will feature three title fights in the 15,000-seat arena, including a rematch between Kamaru Usman and Jorge ‘Gamebred’ Masvidal for Usman’s welterweight title, on April 24 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
White had also promised that his promotion would be the first [sport] to have fans back at full capacity. Although he’s tried to make that happen — he told the media two weeks ago that Dallas had said ‘no’ and he was working on Houston and ready to go there in the next 2-3 weeks — it appears as if MLB’s Texas Rangers will beat the UFC by having full capacity on Opening Day. According to ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, PBR will also have 100 percent fans at an event in early April.
In the UFC 261 co-main event, women’s flyweight champion Valentina ‘The Bullet’ Shevchenko will defend her belt against former UFC women’s strawweight queen, Jessica Andrade. Shevchenko (20-3 MMA, 9-2 UFC) is gunning for her fifth consecutive successful title defense in the 125-pound loop. She has only lost twice in the Octagon in two close decisions — one that was a split — to Amanda ‘The Lioness’ Nunes, the current double-champ in the women”s bantamweight and featherweight divisions.
Andrade (21-8 MMA, 12-6 UFC) won the 115-pound title by scoring a second-round KO (slam) win over Rose Namajunas at UFC 237 on May 11 of 2019. However, she lost her belt in her first defense by first-round KO to Zhang Weili at UFC Shenzhen in China on Aug. 31 of 2019.
After dropping a split decision in her rematch with Namajunas that won Fight of the Night honors at UFC 251, the 29-year-old Brazilian moved up for her flyweight debut and defeated Katlyn Chookagian via first-round KO to win a Performance of the Night bonus this past October.
The third title fight is between strawweight champion Weili, who is set to make her second title defense against Namajunas. The 31-year-old Weili defended her strap with a split-decision win over former champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the 2020 Fight of the Year at UFC 248 last March.
On Monday, BetOnline opened Usman as a -300 favorite vs. Masvidal, but those odds had increased to -350 as of early Tuesday morning (3/16/21). Masvidal was a +285 underdog.
When Gibert Burns tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of his title fight against Usman for UFC 251 this past July, Masvidal accepted a replacement role on eight days of notice. ‘Gamebred’ not only had the short notice, but he had to immediately fly from Miami to Las Vegas, where he had to pass multiple COVID-19 tests before boarding a flight from Vegas to ‘Fight Island’ in Abu Dhabi.
Making his task even more difficult, Masvidal had to cut more than 20 pounds in that short period of time. Competing after a full fight camp, Usman survived Masvidal’s explosive striking attacks in the early going and then took over the rest of the fight with his superior wrestling and grappling. He defended his belt with a unanimous-decision victory.
Usman has since defended his belt successfully once more (and for the third time since winning the strap from Tyron Woodley) with a third-round KO win over Burns at UFC 258.
Here are some stats for Usman-Masvidal 2 from MMA By TheNumbers:
Most books have Shevchenko installed as a ‘chalk’ in the -350 to -400 range vs. Andrade, who is a +300 underdog at most spots. 5Dimes is offering the prop that the fight doesn’t go to a decision (-150) vs. the fight goes to a decision (+110).
Most shops have Zhang as a -200 favorite vs. ‘Thug Rose,’ who is a +160 underdog.
Two other notable scraps have been booked for UFC 261, as former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman will rematch Uriah Hall. Weidman defeated Hall via via first-round KO to win the Ring of Combat middleweight title in his 185-pound debut way back in September of 2010. The 36-year-old Weidman has posted a 2-5 record in his last seven bouts.
Hall has won three straight fights to improve to 16-9 overall and 9-7 in the UFC.
Another fight that will probably be on the main card is a 205-pound showdown between Anthony Smith and Jimmy Crute. Smith went 1-2 in 2020, losing by fifth-round KO to Glover Teixeira at the second show in Jacksonville last May 13. ‘Lionheart’ also dropped a UD to Aleksandar Rakic on Aug. 29 before bouncing back to beat Devin Clark by first-round submission in a five-round headliner on Nov. 28 in Vegas.
Crute is 12-1 overall and 5-1 in the UFC with four wins by first-round finishes (three KOs, one submission and a pair of POTN bonuses). However, Smith will be a big a step up in competition for the 25-year-old from New South Wales, Australia.
We’ll leave you with Masvidal’s most recent tweet on Monday: