The first three months of 2021 have provided us with some incredible fights in the UFC. Perhaps the tone was set by Max Holloway on Fight Island in January, bobbing and weaving past Calvin Kattar whilst catching up with the commentary team.
We have seen the bantamweight title change hands due to a disqualification, surprise losses from both Conor McGregor and Israel Adesanya, and a brand new UFC heavyweight champion in Francis ‘The Predator’ Ngannou.
With news of a full capacity crowd attending UFC 261 - the first for over a year - April 2021 promises to be unmissable for any MMA fan. Here are four huge UFC fights coming up next month.
4. Weili Zhang vs Rose Namajunas
Weili Zhang lost her first professional MMA fight by decision in 2013. Since then she has won an astounding 21 fights in a row. The last five of those wins have been in the UFC, as Zhang became the first-ever Chinese champion in UFC history. She steam-rolled Jessica Andrade in 42 seconds to claim the strawweight title in 2019, and defended the belt successfully against the notoriously tough Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248.
Boasting two wins over Jedrzejczyk herself, Rose Namajunas is a former strawweight champion. Namajunas lost the title to Jessica Andrade in 2019 but avenged that loss via split decision in the rematch at UFC 251 last year.
Stylistically, this matchup is sure to entertain, as both fighters like to move forward with high pressure and aggression. The co-main event of UFC 261 is a real treat for fans in attendance at the Jacksonville Arena on Saturday 24th April.
3. Robert Whittaker vs Kelvin Gastelum
Before losing to ‘Stylebender’ Israel Adesanya in 2019, Robert Whittaker had won nine fights in a row, a run that included victories over Yoel Romero, Brad Tavares, Derek Brunson, Ronaldo Souza and Uriah Hall. Losing to one of the pound-for-pound best is the only blemish on his record since 2014. The Australian seems to be back to his best too, with convincing wins over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier last year.
Kelvin Gastelum has been a frustrated figure in the octagon for the past few years. Gastelum suffered three losses in a row after his career-defining win over Ronaldo Souza in 2018. The middleweight division is littered with talent and slipping outside the top ten is now a reality for him if he loses again. His win against Ian Heinisch at UFC 258 in February 2021 was a small step in the right direction.
Whittaker was originally scheduled to fight Paulo Costa at UFC 261. However, Costa pulled out due to illness. Kelvin Gastelum has stepped up to the plate, a mere two months after his previous fight.
UFC Fight Night on April 17th will be fascinating - a potential banana-skin for Whittaker if he doesn’t respect Gastelum’s MMA pedigree, but also a great (and perhaps last) chance for Gastelum to be considered a middleweight contender. UFC Fight Night
2. Valentina Shevchenko vs Jessica Andrade
Having lost twice to women’s pound-for-pound queen Amanda Nunes at bantamweight, Valentina Shevchenko’s decision to return to flyweight in 2018 was a masterstroke. There has been total domination from the Kyrgyzstan native. Her six wins in a row included winning the vacant flyweight title and successfully defending it four times. Shevchenko has proven to be a world-class counter striker with knockout power who also possesses impressive grappling skills, with two submissions inside the octagon. It’s no surprise she is ranked second on the pound-for-pound list.
Former UFC strawweight champion Jessica Andrade started her move up to flyweight with an impressive TKO win over Katlyn Chookagian at UFC Fight Night in October. Andrade was severely disappointed with the split decision loss to Rose Namajunas at UFC 251, as she definitely felt she had done enough to win.
The Brazilian has her work cut out for her. She last fought at a heavier weight but that was over five years ago, and moving up in weight is usually more challenging than the reverse. Valentina Shevchenko has found her perfect weight class. It's unclear if Andrade can stop ‘The Bullet’ but we expect fireworks at UFC 261.
1. Kamaru Usman vs Jorge Masvidal
Sporting an incredible 17 fight win-streak that dates back to 2013, Kamaru Usman has earned the right to be considered one of the greatest fighters to ever wear the famous four-ounce gloves. The welterweight champion and pound-for-pound king recently finished Gilbert Burns and Colby Covington. He also won unanimous decisions against Tyron Woodley, Rafael dos Anjos and Jorge Masvidal.
Jorge Masvidal was shooting up the ranks prior to the fight with Usman in July 2020, with recent stoppages over Nate Diaz, Ben Askren and Darren Till. Masvidal took the fight against Usman on short notice, originally scheduled with Gilbert Burns, who pulled out after testing positive with COVID-19.
Before his knockout win streak, Masvidal rued the chances he had to finish past fights early, which he then lost on the judges scorecard. You can’t help but wonder if this is how he will approach the Usman rematch after being tentative in the first bout.
Fans in attendance at UFC 261 could potentially see history made if it is yet another win for The Nigerian Nightmare, who carries a record 13 consecutive wins in the UFC welterweight division into the fight.