In the main event, UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman will defend his crown in a rematch with Jorge Masvidal. The co-main event will see UFC strawweight champ Weili Zhang try to extend her reign against former champion Rose Namajunas. Finally, UFC women's flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko will face her toughest test yet in former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade.
But what makes a fight card unforgettable isn't solely determined by the results and participants. There are overarching storylines that influence the narratives of the fighters involved, as well as paint a big picture of the UFC as a promotion.
On that note, let's delve into some of the most significant story arcs ahead of Saturday night's blockbuster event.
3 significant storylines heading into UFC 261
#3 Can the UFC's safely host a live crowd again?
UFC 261 will be the promotion's first event in over a year that will have a live crowd in attendance. That's because fans are being allowed back into arenas with the availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the United States.
But when UFC 261 takes place at the sold-out VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, wearing precautionary face masks will be encouraged but not required. In a packed 15,000-seat arena, the implementation of a lax set of restrictions could definitely lead to a disastrous outbreak.
The UFC is well aware of the catastrophic possibilities. A clause in the UFC events supplemental terms reads:
"...[A]ttendance at the Event (collectively, the “Holder Activities”) may lead to exposure to COVID-19 and that contraction of COVID-19 may result in severe and permanent damage to the health of the Holder and/or others, including, but not limited to, death, fever, weight loss, irreversible pulmonary, respiratory and/or neurological system damage, loss of taste or smell, mental or emotional distress, temporary or permanent disability, loss of income, loss of employment, loss of financial or other opportunities, medical expenses..."
Of course, the UFC is not the first sports league to host a live crowd in the middle of the pandemic. Giant American leagues such as the NFL, NBA, MLB, and WWE have been allowing fans into their events in recent months. Let's just hope that UFC 261 comes through without any major problems.
#2 Big stakes for Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal
Kamaru Usman will lock horns with Jorge Masvidal, putting the UFC welterweight title on the line in the main event of UFC 261. It will be a rematch of last July's UFC 251 main event, where Kamaru Usman outclassed 'Gamebred' to earn a resounding unanimous decision win.
A victory for the champion could propel him to the number one spot in the UFC pound-for-pound rankings – a position that Jon Jones currently occupies. 'The Nigerian Nightmare' is riding a 17-fight win streak with notable victories against Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington and his current challenger Jorge Masvidal. If Usman makes it 18 in a row, he could solidify his claim as the top P4P fighter in the UFC.
As far as Jorge Masvidal goes, UFC 261 could be his last shot at the welterweight title. UFC matchmakers handed Jorge Masvidal a gift in the form of an immediate title rematch, even after he lost as a challenger. If Masvidal suffers back-to-back losses to Usman at UFC 261, he would have to get back at the end of a long line in the 170-pound division.
#1 The rise of women's MMA
UFC 261 will showcase the power of women's MMA as two dominant champions Valentina Shevchenko and Weili Zhang will defend their titles against two former champions Jessica Andrade and 'Thug' Rose Namajunas.
Six years ago, the UFC women's division was centered around one person alone: Ronda Rousey. When Rousey was dethroned as the undisputed queen of MMA, many questioned whether the UFC women's division could survive in the absence of the megastar.
Given how UFC 261 is booked, doubts regarding the UFC women's division are finally laid to rest. Thanks to superstars like Amanda Nunes and the four ladies who will compete at UFC 261, the women's division is alive and well.