UFC 261 kicks off Saturday night from Jacksonville, Florida—the first time the promotion has been away from their APEX Center home since January. The event features three title bouts and a few other matchups that will be important in determining the pecking order in their respective divisions. The prelims—both early and televised—will see some fresh faces making their debuts, as well as some known commodities making the leap from prospect to contender with victories.
The three title bouts will showcase talent from the strawweight, women’s flyweight and welterweight divisions, with all three being compelling in some way, beginning with Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade. Of all the women at flyweight, I reckon Andrade has the best chance at defeating the champ. That will be followed up by the strawweight battle between Rose Namajunas and current queen, Zhang Weili. And sitting in the headlining spot will be Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal 2. It’s hard to imagine this card failing to deliver plenty of action and entertainment.
We’ve selected four fighters from the event that will illustrate why they are worthy of their lofty or budget-conscious price tags in an effort to help you select your DraftKings fantasy MMA lineups. Let’s get started.
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Kamaru Usman, $9,400
Kamaru Usman is the Kryptonite by which welterweight contenders meet with defeat. His powerful wrestling, top control and evolving striking has made him basically unstoppable in the octagon. As a matter of fact, Jorge Masvidal, who should enjoy the striking advantage, might not even have that ace up his sleeve, considering how well Kamaru has looked over the last couple years. One might even view Masvidal as being on the short end of the stick in the standup. And let’s not forget that Usman has incredible stamina and conditioning, with an iron chin to round out that well-maintained machine. Try as I might, I can’t find a path to victory for Masvidal outside a knockout, and even that is a very distant possibility.
Pricing: Just right
Zhang Weili, $9,000
Rose Namajunas will have her hands full when she meets Zhang Weili in Saturday night’s co-main event. Weili will enjoy virtually all the advantages starting with power and conditioning and expanding to include the grappling edge and durability. And make no mistake, Zhang can take quite a bit of heat and be none the worse for wear. Her 2020 thriller with Joanna Jędrzejczyk demonstrated solid cardio despite taking 180 significant strikes over the course of the fight. Even though the contest went to a split-decision, the visible damage Joanna took was stark and certainly figured in to Weili ending up the victor. Namajunas is a savvy fighter capable of making split-second adjustments and showing some durability of her own when she rematched Jessica Andrade last year. That said, she was visibly slowing down in the third round of that fight, and some argue that Andrade should have taken the decision. Rose also lacks power. She’s recorded just one knockout in her career, and despite keeping up a respectable output, she’ll have a hard time with the champ, who averages 6.38 strikes landed per minute and packs thunder, resulting in 10 knockouts. Zhang is hittable, but not nearly as much as Namajunas. “Thug” Rose certainly has a shot to upset the favorite here, but I wouldn’t put the house on it.
Pricing: Just right
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Jessica Andrade, $6,700
My brain is telling me Shevchenko, but my heart is screaming for Andrade. Of the three champions competing on this card, Valentina might be the one looking the most mortal at this current juncture. She’s experiencing injuries more frequently, some of which required surgery. She let Jennifer Maia take a round off her, and spent several minutes of that fight trying to adjust to Maia’s relentless pressure. Jessica Andrade doesn’t know any other direction but forward, and she throws everything but the kitchen sink while she’s walking her opponents down. She’s crazy strong—just ask Rose Namajunas about that. She hits like a truck and has decent stamina reserves. Does Valentina have the style to absolutely stifle whatever Andrade throws at her? Absolutely, but if Andrade can surprise her early with an immediate and relentless attack, we could end up with a new flyweight queen, and that kind of shakeup is what keeps things spicy and interesting.
Pricing: Too wide considering Andrade has a better chance than anyone
Jeff Molina, $8,000
Jeff Molina and Aori Qileng are way down on the early prelims, but this fight promises to be a really fun scrap between two debuting flyweights. Molina is a solid grappler with a keen eye towards slight of hand, i.e. his use of fakes and feints and lots of volume will no doubt be a boon to his success against the plodding, stalking approach of Aori. Powerful, aggressive wrestlers tend to give Molina fits, but fortunately, Qileng isn’t that. Aori is a bona fide hardcase and he’s strong and quite dangerous, but of the two, he is the one that takes way more risk than the rewards would dictate and his instincts and decision making speak to a fighter that should have a lot less experience than he actually does. This is a coin-toss fight, but I am leaning more towards Molina simply because I’ve been able to take better stock of his fight history, whereas Aori remains somewhat of a mystery.
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