UFC 261, this weekend in Jacksonville, Florida (live at 4 a.m. Saturday to Sunday night on RMC Sport 2), will be held in a packed house, an indoor first in the world of sports since the start. of the Covid-19 pandemic. With a card worthy of this return of the fans: the superstar Jorge Masvidal is once again trying to become welterweight champion against Kamaru Usman and two women’s titles are at stake with fights Weili Zhang-Rose Namajunas and Valentina Shevchenko-Jessica Andrade that promise.
The formula goes with his smile of the moment, XXL. “I’ve been waiting for this for a very long time. It’s great.” UFC executive boss Dana White couldn’t hide her smile this Thursday as she kicked off the last press conference before UFC 261. Reason for her happiness? The presence of fans in the stands. For the media exercise but especially for the event itself, this Saturday night at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. A year after being the first big sports organization to resume its activities despite the Covid-19 pandemic, on May 9 for UFC 249, the UFC finds the same Florida venue for a new big step towards the return to “normal” life: nearly 17,000 spectators will fill the enclosure for the first sporting event to be sold out indoors for over a year.
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“I’ve had a lot of great moments in my career,” White continues. “And this is one of them. It’s a great night, not just for the fighters and the UFC but for the sport in general. . We prove that it can be done without danger. ” This does not prevent the controversy on this decision, especially after the exit of the boss of the UFC explaining that each spectator would be “free of his choice” to wear a mask or not. A conspicuous Republican, long-time supporter of former President Donald Trump, White does not care and keeps his foot on the accelerator. And the fans agreed with him by rushing very quickly for tickets, proof of a strong desire to see sport again from the stands but also a quality card.
The 17,000 “lucky” will have something to feast on. The return of the public is also that of Jorge Masvidal. “Gamebred,” the biggest UFC and MMA star behind Conor McGregor, who spent his fall campaigning for Trump, is given another welterweight title shot over champion Kamaru Usman, who had beaten by unanimous decision last July at UFC 251 on the “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi after suffocating him to the ground at the end of the fight. But with a major difference: the UFC’s “Baddest Motherfucker” (he even has a belt for that) had accepted this first fight six days before the event, replacing a Gilbert Burns struck by the Covid, and must have cut ten kilos and a little over a hundred hours. Not ideal for cardio, what.
“Break his will”
“All the energy I had spent to lose weight will be used to finish it in the cage”, specifies with a smile full of appetite the one who was able this time to prepare for several weeks and in particular worked on techniques to counter the blows to the feet inflicted by his opponent in July. Opposite, Usman will look to continue his unbeaten streak since joining the UFC – thirteen wins in a row, the second-best total in the organization’s history behind the sixteen of Brazilian Anderson Silva – and get a bit closer. plus the legendary Georges St-Pierre in the welterweight “GOAT” (the best of all time) debate.
The Nigerian, originally specialized in wrestling, also comes to take a big check: it was he who challenged Masvidal for a new dance, after his dominant victory over Burns in February, with the desire to “break his will for good “and aware of the reports of a moment shared in the cage with the Florida star who had allowed their first fight to sell 1.3 million pay-per-views. The main event is salivating but it may not be the most spectacular fight. Because there is something heavy behind. For the seventh time in its history, which has more than 550 events since 1993, the UFC is organizing an evening with three fights for a title: Usman-Masvidal, therefore, but also the two female shocks Weili Zhang-Rose Namajunas and Valentina Shevchenko -Jessica Andrade.
“Better dead than red”
The first promises an exciting “war” and a festival of striking between the Chinese, who defends her title from the straws for the second time, and the American fighter, former champion of the category who tries to become the first to win this belt twice. . The powerful Zhang, who will not have really seen the effects of the pandemic since her last outing – a victory over former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk in an unforgettable fight, which must have left traces on both – date of the last indoor event height, UFC 248 in March 2020, will undoubtedly be more determined than ever to keep his crown after the controversial exit of Namajunas who explained in a Lithuanian media (using in particular the diverted historical expression “better dead than red”) find part of her motivation in the face of her Chinese rival in opposition to communism (she is of Lithuanian origin) while the champion has never supported her regime or expressed her political ideas publicly.
In short, it smells like a mess between the two. Same scent around the fight for the title of flies between the Kyrgyz champion Valentina Shevchenko and her Brazilian challenger Jessica Andrade. Former holder of the straw belt, the latter – who knows the two previous fighters well for having won the title against Namajunas before losing it to Zhang – can become the second woman in the history of the sacred UFC in two categories after her compatriot Amanda Nunes. But to achieve her goal, this aggressive fighter who puts a lot of pressure on the opposite has to face an octagon killer, Shevchenko, considered the best female fighter in all categories with Nunes – Andrade even puts her in front – who destroys one by one the rivals placed in front of it.
“It gives me a clear target”
Andrade even admits that she expects to be hit, because Valentina is “too fast”, but claims to have the weapons to lie the predictions (she has the second highest number of “finishes” for women in the UFC history behind Nunes and tied with Ronda Rousey). Opposite, the kicking machine Shevchenko feasts in advance because she loves this kind of opponent who will run on her to try to suffocate her: “It gives me a clear target, I don’t have to look for the right spot “.
In case of victory for both, which far from being done, we already dream of a Weili Zhang who would climb among the flies to challenge her in a championship fight, which would perhaps give her a little more lead to twist than usual even if Andrade is a good opposition, or even better a third fight against Nunes, who has already beaten him twice but with a decision that gives rise to discussion in the second, to settle once for all the debate about the best fighter on the planet. The fighters are hot, the fans are ready to give voice: watch out for a big show, it will roar like jaguars in Jacksonville.