Usman, Volkanovski, Yan leave Fight Island with belts

National Sports

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Kamaru Usman retained his welterweight title with a smothering victory over short-notice challenger Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251 on Sunday.

Alexander Volkanovski retained his featherweight title with a narrow split decision over Max Holloway, and Petr Yan won the vacant UFC bantamweight championship with a fifth-round stoppage victory over José Aldo on Yas Island, the UAE tourist destination turned into a secure bubble by the UFC during the coronavius pandemic.

Former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas avenged her loss to Jéssica Andrade with a split-decision win in their rematch on the UFC’s so-called “Fight Island.” The mixed martial arts promotion will host four shows this month at the arena, with more expected in the upcoming months at its haven from the coronavirus.

Usman (17-1) earned his 16th straight MMA victory and defended his belt for the second time with a cerebral, technical performance against the 35-year-old Masvidal (35-14), who gallantly accepted his first UFC title shot on six days’ notice when Gilbert Burns tested positive for the coronavirus.

“(Masvidal) is the biggest, baddest dude out there right now,” Usman said. “I had to switch gears and prepare for him on six days’ notice. I know a lot was made of him taking the fight on short notice, but all these guys are preparing for one guy, and that’s me at the top of the mountain. I had to make a mental shift. I had a completely different game plan.”

Masvidal was eager for a knockout, and the former backyard brawler came out swinging in an exciting first round. But while Masvidal’s wind faded, Usman coolly took charge with wrestling takedowns, foot stomps and judicious strikes mixed with superior conditioning.

Two judges scored it 50-45 for Usman, and a third had it 49-46.

Some fans might have booed Usman’s strategy, but there were no fans inside the temporary arena. UFC 251 began well before dawn Sunday morning in Abu Dhabi to meet the time demands of the lucrative North American pay-per-view audience, and the sun rose as the card progressed.

Volkanovski (22-1) earned his 19th consecutive MMA victory since 2013 by a razor-thin margin, winning 48-47 on two of the three cards when his leg kicks and takedowns earned the decision over Holloway’s overall striking game.

“It was a tough fight,” Volkanovski said. “He stood there and didn’t really take a backward step. I couldn’t use the kicks as much as I liked. I knew I had to win that last round. It’s tough. He’s a gamer. We’re both hard workers, but I got the job done.”

The Australian champion won his belt last December with a virtuoso technical performance against Holloway (21-6), who had reigned atop the division for the previous three years.

In the rematch, Holloway showed off another level of his superb striking skills while weathering dozens more leg kicks from Volkanovski, who relied largely on that strike to win the first bout. Holloway largely controlled the first two rounds, but Volkanovski increased his output starting in the third round and added a few takedowns to bolster his case with the judges.

Three title belts were on the line on the same card for only the sixth time in UFC history, and Yan (15-1) claimed the first one by persevering for a beating of Aldo (28-7), the former featherweight champion dethroned by Conor McGregor in 2015.

Yan weathered an inspired start by Aldo, and eventually established his dominance with superior striking. After Yan battered a bloody Aldo into a turtled position on the canvas in the fifth round, referee Leon Roberts allowed the fight to continue for an alarming amount of time before stopping it with 1:36 left.

“I expected it to be a hard fight,” Yan said through an interpreter. “That was our plan, to get him tired early on, and then in the third round, start attacking.”

Aldo has lost three straight fights and six of his last nine, but he caused problems for Yan early on until the younger Russian took over.

Namajunas (9-4) returned from a 14-month break since Andrade (20-8) claimed her title with an upset victory, surprising the champ with a body slam after Namajunas dominated the early fight.

Namajunas never allowed an opportunity for Andrade to finish her in the rematch, dominating the first two rounds with her slick striking and fluid movement. Andrade rallied in the third and badly damaged Namajunas’ nose and left eye, but Namajunas won 29-28 on two judges’ scorecards.

“I was just in the right state of mind,” Namajunas said. “That’s everything. Early on in the fight, I was doing great. Then I think she hit the desperation button and started really unloading. She caught me a couple of times, but I just stayed strong.”

If her nose heals up quickly, Namajunas could get the next title shot at Zhang Weili, who took the belt from Andrade late last year.

Brazilian flyweight Amanda Ribas kicked off the pay-per-view card with a first-round armbar submission victory over Paige VanZant. Ribas (10-1) improved to 4-0 in the UFC with a swift dismantling of the popular VanZant (8-5), whose UFC contract is up after four losses in her last six bouts.

Jiri Procházka wrapped up the non-PPV undercard with a spectacular knockout of former light heavyweight title contender Volkan Oezdemir in the opening minute of the second round.

Procházka (27-3-1) is a Czech veteran who has fought mostly in Japan for the past five years, and he was impressive in his hyped UFC debut. Procházka lowered his hands, stuck out his chin and boldly dared Oezdemir to hit him in the first round, and he ended the fight with a head kick followed by a punch that rendered his Swiss opponent unconscious.

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