“I feel like every fight, I have to win,” Masvidal told ESPN. “But no, I don’t feel like [this is his last title opportunity] at all. I just feel like I’m going to win this fight, and I’m going to continue to do bigger and better things before I close the chapter on this MMA thing.”
But what if the oddsmakers are right? Masvidal is currently a +310 underdog, according to Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. If Masvidal, 36, loses, he’ll be 0-2 against Usman with several other elite contenders in the division ready to take shots of their own, or get their own rematches.
Speaking of rematches, if Robert Whittaker gets past Kelvin Gastelum in Saturday’s Fight Night main event, he’s expected to land his second shot at middleweight champ Israel Adesanya. Whittaker was stopped in the second round of their fight in 2019, but since then he has beaten top contenders in Darren Till and Jared Cannonier. Would Whittaker be a more dangerous opponent for Adesanya the second time around?
The one potential fight that’s creating the biggest buzz in the MMA world is Francis Ngannou defending his heavyweight title against Jon Jones. If Jones and the UFC are able to settle their issues and successfully negotiate a deal, just how big would that be? Would it rival the next bout for Conor McGregor, who is the biggest star in the history of MMA?
ESPN’s panel of Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto, Ariel Helwani and Jeff Wagenheim breaks down what’s real from what’s not.
Real or Not: This will be Masvidal’s last title shot if he doesn’t beat Usman
Raimondi: Are we counting the BMF title? Either way, I have to say “not real” for this one. Masvidal is one of the biggest stars in the UFC. Even if he loses to Usman a second time, he’ll still retain a path to the belt in the future. Now, it would be hard to sell a third fight between the two if Usman wins. But the beauty of the future for Masvidal are all the other big fights he has — some arguably bigger than Usman vs. Masvidal 2.
If Masvidal loses at UFC 261, a BMF rematch with Nate Diaz could be made, and that would instantly be a hot seller. Then there’s the looming grudge match with Colby Covington. Masvidal vs. Covington is one of the biggest fights the UFC can do right now, and it’s surprising that it has not happened yet. But it has to happen at some point. Then there’s a matchup between Masvidal and Leon Edwards, which has been flying somewhat under the radar. The two have that history from UFC London two years when Masvidal popped Edwards with punches in a backstage altercation, then coined the catchphrase “three piece and a soda.” That was a crucial moment in Masvidal becoming a big UFC star, and the promotion can revisit that at any time.
It doesn’t matter if Masvidal loses again to Usman. Masvidal will remain extremely relevant. The question here, though, is the title shot. And I maintain that if Masvidal loses to Usman, but picks up wins against any one of the likes of Diaz, Covington or Edwards, he could be right back in the mix quickly. Also, consider this: Usman beats Masvidal and fights Covington next. Usman vs. Covington at UFC 245 in December 2019 was very, very competitive before Usman finished via TKO in the fifth round. Let’s say Covington wins. Even if Masvidal is coming off a loss, who would not want to see Covington vs. Masvidal in a massive fight with the belt on the line?
It isn’t like the UFC has been bashful in the past about giving fighters coming off losses title shots. Plus, we’ve seen many big names — Frankie Edgar and Urijah Faber come to mind — get chances at the belt as long as they stay consistent at the top of the division. I really don’t think Masvidal is going anywhere. As long as he has moments against Usman — and I fully believe he will — he will be able to keep his stock high. I don’t subscribe to the theory that Masvidal is much less popular than he was in 2019. Masvidal is a big star, and he’s here to stay.
Robert Whittaker explains what he learned watching Israel Adesanya’s loss to Jan Blachowicz.
Real or Not: If Whittaker beats Gastelum, he’ll be a more dangerous foe for Adesanya than the last time
Okamoto: That’s 100% real. Is he successful in that proposed rematch? Only time will tell. But yes, I believe Whittaker would be in a much better place to beat Adesanya in a rematch than he was when they fought in 2019. I brought this up after Whittaker beat Darren Till in July 2020 and again when he beat Jared Cannonier in October: Whittaker has admitted in interviews that he was very burned out on MMA when he lost the title to Adesanya.
Now, I’m not treating that as an excuse or saying Whittaker would definitely beat Adesanya in a rematch because of it, but burnout is a real thing to me. Whittaker is not the kind of athlete to lie or exaggerate about something like that, and if he barely wanted to keep fighting the first time he fought Adesanya, I have to believe that had some impact on his performance. I also think Whittaker is a great fight strategist. I think he’s the kind of middleweight who will make adjustments based on what he felt from Adesanya the first time, and based on specific skills he’s worked on since.
Look, Adesanya is also probably more dangerous than the first time, because his confidence as a middleweight champ is sky high. But I do believe the Whittaker who would face Adesanya in 2021 is far more dangerous than the one from 2019.
Real or Not: Ngannou vs. Jones would be as big an event as McGregor vs. Poirier 3
Helwani: If promoted correctly, the buzz for Ngannou-Jones would be great. But would it be bigger to the casual fan than McGregor-Poirier 3? I don’t think so. So this is not real. Despite his recent loss, McGregor still has a supremely loyal following. His fans adore him and, when not in a pandemic, they travel to his fights. Poirier is starting to develop a loyal fan base, too. It’s hard to dislike him.
I feel like this fight is monumental, matchup’s like this don’t come very often in a lifetime. Me stopping Francis in my first fight up at heavyweight would be nothing short of extraordinary. Ali versus foreman, hosted by the UFC
— BONY (@JonnyBones) March 31, 2021
Jones and Ngannou don’t have that king of following at the moment. Ngannou just hasn’t had enough time at the top to develop one yet (it could certainly come in due time), and Jones has had an up-and-down relationship with fans over the past decade. He’ll never be as popular as McGregor.
That’s not to say the fight wouldn’t be huge. It would be massive. It would generate close to or more than a million pay-per-view buys. But it’s not quite a McGregor fight, which is a shoo-in for a massive PPV buy rate and live gate. The hardcores may side with the heavyweight title fight, but for now McGregor is still king. And when you add in the storyline of him looking for revenge or redemption against the perpetually underrated Poirier, their matchup is hard to beat.
All that said, I think Ngannou-Jones would be the biggest non-McGregor fight of 2021. It would be a travesty if it doesn’t happen this year.
Real or Not: Demetrious Johnson‘s days among the MMA elite are over
Wagenheim: I suppose it’s only fair that I get my nose rubbed in this one. I’m the only voter who steadfastly (my word) or stubbornly (my colleagues’ word) has kept Johnson in the ESPN pound-for-pound top 10 in his post-UFC days. But I don’t feel shamed. Judging by his résumé leading up until last Wednesday night’s One Championship title fight loss, “Mighty Mouse” was one of the top 10 fighters on the planet. Is he still? No, next time there’s a P4P vote, he will be unranked.
Can Johnson earn his spot back? That’s going to be tough. It’s not that he’s suddenly something less than a sublime fighter. He failed to dethrone flyweight champ Adriano Moraes, but he didn’t exactly look like a shadow of himself. He just got KO’d. It happens. DJ could very well put on a master class in his next performance. But here’s his problem: That masterpiece would be seen by relatively few MMA fans in the U.S., and even fewer would recognize the man across the cage from him.
Fighting outside the UFC spotlight is an uphill battle for recognition. ESPN’s rankings are filled with mostly UFC names because that’s the promotion with the deepest roster of elite fighters, true, but also because the UFC puts on its own master class in nurturing an aura of supremacy. So while I’m not yet ready to declare that Johnson, at age 34, will never again resemble the all-time great who reeled off a record 11 UFC flyweight title defenses, I do believe it’s very much real that the perception of Johnson being among the elite is a thing of the past.