Which fighter faces the most pressure on Fight Island?

MMA

UFC president Dana White began touting a welterweight title bout between champion Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal as far back as January, when a heated exchange between the fighters during Super Bowl week lit a marketing fuse that was expected to detonate a blockbuster main event on July 11.

But a lot has happened since the heat for that fight started to build, including the world changing due to the coronavirus pandemic. The International Fight Week card on July 11 has turned into the first card on Fight Island, also known as Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

And while Usman will indeed be defending his belt, it won’t be against Masvidal, who has been waging a passionate battle against the UFC on social media for fighter pay after his negotiations for the Usman bout fell apart. Instead, Gilbert Burns has stepped into the challenger’s role for UFC 251.

So what now for Masvidal, the UFC’s 2019 fighter of the year who hasn’t fought since beating Nate Diaz for the mythical BMF title on Nov. 2?

And how does UFC 251 look without him? There will be two title bouts other than the main event, including Alexander Volkanovski defending the featherweight championship against Max Holloway, and Petr Yan facing Jose Aldo for the vacant bantamweight belt.

ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim addresses Masvidal’s situation, the reality of Fight Island, the UFC 251 title fights and more.

What are your thoughts about Masvidal not being in the UFC 251 main event, and about his future in general?

Helwani: I don’t mean to be a downer, but it’s a real bummer. Usman vs. Masvidal was the fight to make, plain and simple. It was the fight to make the moment Usman walked out of UFC 245 as the reigning, defending welterweight champion in December. Then they had their Super Bowl run-in, and it got even more interesting. And, you’ll recall, Dana White told the media during Super Bowl week that this fight was going to happen in July. And now it’s not. Of course, a lot has happened since then, but still. This card would be so much more intriguing if that were the main event. And I hope this doesn’t come across like I am disrespecting Gilbert Burns. I’m really not. I have a ton of respect for the fighter he has become and for what Burns has done this year. But there are a bunch of people he could fight next. The Masvidal story is more pressing. This was the culmination of 18 years in the game — from the backyards of Miami to the desert of Abu Dhabi, sprinkled with some real bad blood. I’m sure Usman vs. Burns will be fun and entertaining, but I’m not over Masvidal’s removal from this card just yet. I wish they could have come to terms on a deal that made sense for all and we got the fight we were promised months ago.

Murphy: Masvidal has been the no-brainer booking for Usman since their verbal sparring session at Super Bowl Radio Row. The confrontation made UFC public relations seethe and its marketing team salivate. Usman-Masvidal was the biggest draw at 170 pounds by a country mile, which is saying something in a division that deep.

That’s not a knock against Burns, either; he is undeniably deserving of his shot at the belt. Given the recency of his dominant win over former champ Tyron Woodley, Burns could easily have been labeled the No. 1 contender and challenged the Usman-Masvidal winner late this year.

The effect on Masvidal’s future can still be minimized. Should he land opposite the Usman-Burns winner as next in line or atop the marquee against Conor McGregor, luring the Irishman out of an abrupt third retirement, the UFC 251 miss can be redeemed. I think this ultimately ends well for Masvidal.

Okamoto: It’s a bummer. No other way to say it. Masvidal and Usman had heat. It’s the title fight we thought we were getting all year. I love Masvidal’s story. He has been hiding in plain sight his entire career, and then he caught fire in 2019. I want to see the end of that story. The Darren Till knockout, Ben Askren highlight, BMF title … does it all lead to a UFC championship? Feels like the story isn’t finished. Holdouts are a part of professional sports. Masvidal is not the first pro athlete to hold out for a better contract, nor will he be the last. I hope we see him fight for a title, but I don’t know what his future holds. The UFC just showed it was willing to move on from him once. And after this fight between Usman and Burns, guys such as Colby Covington and Leon Edwards will be waiting to take the next shot. I’m apprehensive about Masvidal’s future, to be honest. I hope they’re able to work it out.

Wagenheim: I’d be upset about the absence of Masvidal if the UFC were shoving him aside and feeding us another bogus championship fight. (We’re already getting one of those with Yan vs. two-losses-in-a-row, 0-1-at-bantamweight Aldo.) But Burns is a legit 170-pound challenger, as Edwards would have been if he had accepted the title shot. So the show goes on. As for Masvidal, his is a cautionary tale, one that has been told before and will continue to be reprised until fighters learn to act in their self-interest. I’m not even talking about them organizing. We’ve seen those efforts run out of steam again and again, so maybe a fighter association is simply not to be. But why do athletes let their managers negotiate long-term contracts without every nuance covered in writing?

Which of the three title fights at UFC 251 intrigues you the most?

Helwani: Volkanovski vs. Holloway 2. Historically, when an ex-champion gets an immediate rematch after losing his or her belt, it doesn’t bode well for the former titlist. Will the same thing happen to Holloway? Also, a second straight loss to Volkanovski would put Holloway in purgatory at 145, not that long after it seemed like he would be reigning supreme at featherweight for years. How does Holloway respond to that loss? Will he make adjustments, especially when it comes to checking those leg kicks? How will Volkanovski respond after hand surgery? And will he feel the pressure that comes with being the hunted and not the hunter for the first time? All those questions and more will be answered. Intriguing fight.

Murphy: The main event between Usman and Burns is my favorite of the three, almost by process of elimination.

Aldo is no better than the fourth-most deserving bantamweight for a shot at the vacated belt. Part of me feels like we’re watching a Grand Prix semifinal, with Aljamain Sterling waiting for the winner in the championship. In the co-main event, nothing from Volkanovski piecing up Holloway for 25 minutes six months ago suggests 25 more minutes will finish any differently.

In Usman vs. Burns, though, you have former Blackzilians training partners with world-class grappling in different disciplines who share two of the longer active UFC winning streaks. The matchup is replete with a backstory that’s a refreshing change from “these two don’t like each other.” It’s top-tier MMA with scores of options in how the fight will unfold, many of which would keep fans on a knife’s edge.

Okamoto: The main event. If I could only watch one of the three, it’s Usman vs. Burns. Just the tear Burns has been on; and teammate vs. teammate is always an interesting storyline to me. I definitely want to see if Holloway can get back on track. If he loses to Volkanovski, he’ll be 1-3 in his past four fights. That would have seemed inconceivable at the start of 2019. And, of course, I want to see who claims the vacant bantamweight championship. That’s one of the most intriguing divisions in the sport right now. But that said, the welterweight main event is still the most interesting to me.

Wagenheim: I’m most looking forward to Volkanovski vs. Holloway 2. How will each man look? Prior to their meeting in December, Holloway was a dominant featherweight champion. But Volkanovski controlled nearly every second of their 25 minutes in the cage together. Was that the result of a great game plan by the City Kickboxing coaches? Or is the Aussie simply the better man? Was Holloway depleted by the beating he had taken from lightweight Dustin Poirier eight months earlier in an attempt to add a second title belt? If so, will Max be himself this time? Volkanovski feels “disrespected” by those who question his title-winning performance and says he’ll knock out Holloway this time. That’s even more reason to be excited for this rematch.

How do you feel about what Fight Island turned into?

Helwani: I don’t want to be the guy who says I told you so, but … I told you so. I never believed “Fight Island” was going to look like everyone thought it would. But I’ll tell you what, this has been some of the UFC’s best promotional work in years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about Fight Island since the pandemic hit us here. It has truly captured the imagination of the world. So, kudos to them. I guess a lot of people never watched BodogFight back in the day. It actually held fights on a beach. It was cool and all, but nothing to get all crazy about. Anyhow, I bet some people will even tune in on July 11 because of the Fight Island name alone. The question is, will they be disappointed when they do so?

In the end, the real victory here is that the UFC figured out a way to hold events internationally so all the fighters outside of America can fight and get paid. I’m certain none of them cares if the fights are happening on a beach or not, anyway. This just opens up the matchup possibilities exponentially, and we see that with the July 11 card.

Murphy: Is anybody not a little disappointed Fight Island is only a marketing tool? UFC president Dana White told TMZ, “I have a private island that I’ve secured,” and he told Brett Okamoto, “We really are putting an Octagon on the beach.” The picture those interviews painted is far more “Street Fighter” than the site that hosts four cards over 14 days next month.

Technically, Yas Island is hardly more of an island than the United Kingdom. In fairness, “Fight Archipelago™” looks far less sexy on T-shirts. (“Fight Isthmus™” has potential.)

Billed as a rogue expedition into the combat sports unknown, this is actually a third trip to a city that has hosted UFC pay-per-views as recently as September. The sealed-off, 10-mile “safety zone” is the one attribute with a Fight Island feel — until you learn the safety zone also has a water park, Ferrari World and an Ikea.

Okamoto: I’m as guilty of over-fantasizing about Fight Island as anyone. I even wrote a (super awesome) song about it while I was stuck at home in March. A Caribbean island somewhere, with palm trees and waves crashing next to the Octagon? I pictured all of that. So, now it’s in Abu Dhabi, where the UFC just was in September. So, am I a little let down? A tad. But also … I don’t care. I just want to see the sport pick up and operate at pre-COVID-19 levels, and that’s what Fight Island accomplishes. It’s an opportunity for international athletes who might have had trouble getting into the United States. The spirit of Fight Island will live through Yas Island, even if it’s not exactly what we imagined.

Wagenheim: I’m a bit let down, honestly. Dana White sold us on Fight Island with scant details, but what we are getting is far less exotic than what a lot of us imagined — and even less so than what the UFC’s own T-shirt designers envisioned. Logistically, this is going to mean arduous travel for around 100 fighters and their teams. On the other hand, any concerns about sufficient medical care being available on some remote outpost are alleviated by the fights being on an island that’s part of Abu Dhabi, a city of 1.4 million people with several hospitals. And location aside, it’s good to see fighters from outside the United States having an opportunity to get back in the game.

Which fighter has the most pressure on his/her shoulders at UFC 251?

Helwani: I’ll offer two: Holloway and Paige VanZant. The former because if he loses a second straight fight to Volkanovski, he will be in featherweight purgatory, meaning as long as Volkanovski is champion, Holloway won’t sniff a title shot. It’s just really hard to justify giving a title shot to someone who is 0-2 versus the champ. Just ask Chad Mendes, Urijah Faber or Joseph Benavidez. And then you can say, well, he can just move up to 155 if he loses; but when Holloway fought Poirier at lightweight last year, Holloway looked really small, so I’m not sure that is the answer for him. And PVZ because this is the final fight on her UFC contract. Most expect her to leave and join her husband, Austin Vanderford, in Bellator, but you always want to enter free agency coming off a win. What if she scores an incredible win? Maybe the UFC offers her a big contract — or at the very least, her price tag goes up for Bellator and others. If VanZant loses, she has way less leverage.

Murphy: Back-to-back wins over undisputed featherweight king Aldo moved Holloway into the conversation for best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. A decisive loss to Poirier for the interim lightweight belt was forgiven, as Holloway was visibly smaller and trying to join the ranks of champ champs. A decisive loss to someone in his own division, though, has put Holloway’s career at a crossroads. Volkanovski picked apart Holloway at UFC 245. Despite two 48-47 scorecards, there was no doubt fans would hear Bruce Buffer say, “And new,” when the horn sounded after the fifth round.

Either Holloway solves a puzzle he had little success handling in December or his career takes another step along the trajectory of that of Aldo and countless other greats who string together losses without warning. With no shortage of depth at 145, two losses against the champion would mean a long road to title consideration for Holloway.

Okamoto: Volkanovski. That might sound strange, considering Holloway is the one who lost his title in December and has lost two of his past three contests. But Holloway is popular, and he will still be popular after UFC 251, win or lose. If Holloway loses, I imagine he’ll move up to 155 pounds, where there are plenty of big fights for him. Volkanovski is also popular, but not to the extent of Holloway. I don’t think Volkanovski would get an immediate rematch if he were to lose. Volkanovski probably would fall back in line a bit, and right now, that’s a tough line at 145 pounds. Volkanovski is going to face plenty of the top talent in that division. The question is, is he going to face them as a champion making a title defense? Or will he face them as a contender, trying to get back to the title? I’m sure he’d rather do it as a champion, as the money will be much better in that scenario. Volkanovski has the most to lose at UFC 251, there’s no doubt in my mind.

Wagenheim: There’s pressure to go around, really. Looking at the eight fighters in the three title bouts and the rematch of former champions, I think the least pressure is on Burns (his fast rise has him kind of playing with house money) and Aldo (his legacy is set, and a bantamweight fight isn’t going to tear that down). Among the other six fighters, I’d say it comes down to Volkanovski and Holloway for the most pressure. A second loss by Holloway could push him permanently out of the title picture (same goes for Jessica Andrade and Rose Namajunas). But I’ll go with Volkanovski. He looked spectacular in winning the belt in December. If Holloway turns the tables on him in a big way, Volkanovski could be remembered as a mere blip on the featherweight radar. Another dominant performance, on the other hand, would cement the Aussie’s place.

Which fight that isn’t on the Abu Dhabi cards yet needs to happen?

Helwani: I want to be realistic with this choice, otherwise I’d go with something like Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 3 or Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou. Obviously, they aren’t doing those fights in July because the pay-per-view main card is already set, and there’s no way they are giving those away for free. Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa is another perfect international fight, but again, it’s not happening in July (though it was discussed). So, while it sounds like they are close to making this fight happen later this summer, I am going to ask to expedite the rumored but not yet officially announced Brian Ortega vs. Chan Sung Jung grudge match. Jung must defend Jay Park’s honor once and for all! Jokes aside, it’s been almost two years since we’ve seen Ortega fight, and his last fight was for the title against Holloway. I’m curious to see how Ortega looks these days, and I think Jung deserves a title shot if he wins. Plus, the backstory is just too much fun.

Murphy: Mackenzie Dern‘s grappling legend was built all over the world; she owns a stack of IBJJF (International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation) gold medals from Mundials and other elite jiu-jitsu tournaments. Abu Dhabi, though, is the site of maybe her greatest upset, a win over nine-time world champion Gabi Garcia in the Absolute division at WPJJC (World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Cup). Given the region’s love for jiu-jitsu — and Dern’s legacy in the sport — it would be great to have her represented somewhere on the four Fight Island shows.

Dern absorbed only seven significant strikes in her first-round kneebar win over Hannah Cifers last month. Dern told Daniel Cormier in the postfight interview she wants a short layoff, returning to the Octagon at some point this summer. I don’t know if I have a specific matchup in mind. Any unranked strawweight grappler against whom Dern can show she is ready to climb that steep divisional ladder makes sense, including Randa Markos or a Montana De La Rosa rematch, among others.

Okamoto: We did a panel a little while back about building your fantasy Fight Island main card. And I had a featherweight fight between Zabit Magomedsharipov and Yair Rodriguez on mine. I don’t think that fight is going to be anytime next month, but I’ll still use it as my answer. I want to see that fight. Book it. Fight Island, Las Vegas, anywhere. I need to see it.

Wagenheim: I have no reason to believe that either Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje or Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa is in peril, but I’ll cite those must-see fights anyway because they are the only two championship matchups I see on the horizon that cannot be replaced. Neither has a Burns-type Plan B. For UFC title belts to mean something, matchmakers must book those fights and not stray from them.

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