Namajunas stuns Weili to take strawweight belt
JACKSONVILLE, Florida, April 25, (AP): A packed house. A raucous crowd. Celebrity sightings. Stunning upsets. Spectacular finishes. Broken bones. Blood, sweat and tears. UFC 261 returned a sense of normalcy to the sports world with one of its craziest events in years. Billed as the first full-fl edged sporting event since the coronavirus pandemic altered the world more than a year ago, it delivered more than even its staunchest promoter imagined. “I don’t think it gets any better than tonight,” UFC President Dana White said. “You couldn’t have a better night. … It was amazing. The crowd was amazing. The fights were amazing. … There’s just a different energy you get when people are here. It was insane.” Kamaru Usman ended the event by winning his 18th straight bout and retaining his welterweight belt. Usman knocked out Jorge Masvidal with a right punch to the jaw early in the second round, silencing a pro-Masvidal crowd. Usman’s knockout victory was his third in his last four fights, further showcasing his impressive versatility and an ability to adjust tactics during bouts. The former NCAA Division II wrestler had only one knockout victory in his first 10 UFC fights before he stopped Colby Covington, Gilbert Burns and Masvidal with punches in the past 18 months.
“Jacksonville, Florida, you said you wanted violence. You’re welcome,” Usman said. Usman’s 18 consecutive MMA victories include 14 straight wins since joining the UFC in 2015. Only Anderson Silva’s streak of 16 straight UFC wins is longer in the promotion’s history. “He’s one of the best ever. He’s an absolute stud,” White said. “You’re an idiot if you think this guy is boring.” Usman (19-1) thanked Masvidal (35- 15) for scaring him and pushing him, saying it’s been a long time since he felt nervous before a bout. This one was a rematch from their short-notice fight in July.
The 33-yearold Usman beat Masvidal at Fight Island, winning a unanimous decision at UFC 251. Masvidal stepped in on six days’ notice, flying halfway around the world to fill in for No. 1 title contender Gilbert Burns after Burns tested positive for COVID-19. Masvidal held his own and went five rounds against the champ, whose strategy including stomping on Masvidal’s feet every time they were locked up. Some thought Masvidal would have a better chance with a full training session. Not really. Still, Masvidal had the crowd behind him. They cheered wildly for the 36-year-old Miami native, breaking into “Ole, Ole, Ole” and “Let’s go Jorge” chants, and booed Usman whenever possible. “He’s got my number, man,” Masvidal said. It was the last of three title bouts, but hardly the most surprising. Rose “Thug” Namajunas (11-4) stunned Zhang Weili (21-2) to take the strawweight belt. Namajunas sent Zhang to the canvas with a left foot to the face, and the bout was stopped at the 1:18 mark of the opening round.
Namajunas broke down in tears in the octagon as she became the first woman in UFC history to recapture a championship belt. Three previous champions failed to reclaim belts they had lost, including Ronda Rousey. Zhang erupted in anger, clearly upset with the referee’s decision to stop the fight. Replays showed how vicious the kick was, but Zhang insisted she never lost consciousness. Flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko (21-3) totally dominated Jessica Andrade (21-9) to retain her belt, slamming Andrade to the canvas three times in two rounds. She eventually won a TKO after a series of bludgeoning blows to Andrade’s head and ear. Shevchenko danced in the octagon after the grappling victory and exclaimed, “I can do everything.” The sold-out event drew a star-studded crowd. There was no social distancing inside the 15,000-plus-seat arena and few masks in any direction.
It was a clear sign that at least some fans are ready to return to normal after more than a year of dealing with COVID- 19 changes to their routines. “I’ve pictured this moment a million times over, so it was everything I expected it to be,” said Jeff Molina, who beat Qileng Aori in an undercard bout. “Having fans back is awesome. … I stepped in there, I turned and looked at the crowd, raised my hand and definitely caught some good energy, good vibes from the crowd.” Seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady was sitting cage-side along with Tampa Bay teammates Mike Evans, Blaine Gabbert and Josh Wells. Florida legend and Jacksonville native Tim Tebow was on hand with his wife. And Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew and linebacker Myles Jack were in the first few rows. Former Bucs receiver Antonio Brown dipped into a large bucket of popcorn as he sat next to YouTube sensation and celebrity boxer Jake Paul, who got into a noseto- nose argument with former UFC fighter and current commentator Daniel Cormier before the main card. The packed house taunted Paul several times during breaks and at least twice during fights.