The Cold War and The Cage – UFC 261

Well, it’s never dull is it?. As usual, you can set your watch by the failure of my predictions. “100% Usman will grind his way to a dull win by unanimous decision”, I told a friend last night, “But I live in hope”. I meant that Masvidal might generate some excitement in the stand-up, but in the end neither happened. Usman continued to cement his legacy as king of the welterweights by absolutely flatlining Masvidal with a massive right straight, and in truth the 6 or 7 minutes they were in there had as much stand up as grappling.

Did Usman outstrike Masvidal? Surely impossible, but you could make a real case. He landed the jab a good few times, with Masvidal offering his trademark grinning and trash talk in response. Masvidal had clearly (and sensibly) planned to counter-wrestle, and based his offence around low leg kicks. It was an interesting strategy, and I would have loved to see if he could make it work. They were all landing, and with decent power. While the leg kick has traditionally been seen as an investment that pays dividends as a fight progresses by stalling the movement and power of the opponent, in recent years it has become more than that. You only have to look as far as McGregor’s most recent fight, or Sean O’Malley a little before that – if a calf kick lands right on the button, that’s all she wrote. Even without a strike that precise, the investment strategy could easily have been a gamechanger against Usman, who as we all know, wins by grinding his way to decisions. Except that he doesn’t anymore. Once before in these pages I complained that Usman “represented nothing so much as the boring inevitability of death”, but he’s knocked out 3 of his last 4 opponents now, and I feel obliged to shut my mouth.

Who can challenge him? The man is a terrifying prospect – under the guidance of Trevor Whitman he’s gone from a man who used his impregnable wrestling to overwhelm all comers, to a man who keeps that on the back burner while he knocks out Jorge Masvidal for the first time in his career. Has he surpassed George St Pierre? If he defeats Colby Covington in their rematch, I think he has – both in record, and in sheer quality across multiple dimensions of the sport. It is difficult to see anyone holding a candle to him at the moment, which is why I’m banking on the unranked Khamzat “I am the wolf brother” Chimaev to be the one to do it. If anyone can trouble the Nigerian Nightmare, it’s surely the bloke who’s taken 1 punch in his last three fights and annihilated all his opponents. All aboard the hype train.

Elsewhere on the card the women’s strawweight champion, Zhang Weilli, was the favourite to beat ‘Thug Rose’ Namajunas. Namajunas had politicised the fight by tweeting ‘better dead than red’ in the run-up (Zhang is chinese, and celebrates her victories proudly with her country’s flag). For her part Weilli brushed off the comments completely, offered to pay for Namajunas to visit China and said she hoped they could be friends after the fight – but the American crowd wouldn’t drop it. For the first time in her career, Weilli was booed and jeered by the crowd, and appeared rattled by the experience. With the Americans lining up missile bases along the Chinese coast, there’s every possibility the fight will enter the history books for it’s symbolic importance. A new Cold War has been stirring for a while now, and the Americans appear determined to rattle their sabres. It’s difficult to tell how much this affected Weilli’s performance; she certainly seemed cagey. On the other hand, to my immense frustration, Rose turned in a flawless performance. She weaved continuously in and out, stance switching, feinting, and reading her opponent’s reactions, a spider closing in on prey – and then switched Weilli off with a perfectly timed head kick. Weilli is a warrior who had run through 19 opponents on the bounce before last night, and will no doubt be back soon and ready for the mind games.

In the third of three title fights, Valentina Shevchenko continued to showcase her brilliance, in symmetrically opposite fashion to Kamaru Usman – Shevchenko has been an elite striker who used this fight to showcase her dominant wrestling against Jessica Andrade. She has surely earned a third crack of the whip against Amanda Nunes by now.The entire card was, of course, upstaged by Chris Weidman’s horror show leg kick, a distinctly Forbidden Event which dissolved his shin into a piece of hellish silly string. We wish him well.

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