Whether he wants to talk about it or not, Kamaru Usman is entering mythical territory.
A dozen wins to start his UFC career. Only Anderson Silva and Khabib Nurmagomedov have done it. That streak is also tied with Georges St-Pierre for the longest welterweight win streak in UFC history. The record can be Usman’s with a successful title defense in Saturday’s UFC 258 main event.
Easier said than done.
If you were going to design a dangerous challenger for Usman, you couldn’t do much better than Gilbert Burns. “Durinho” knows Usman well, having trained with him in the past, and he brings the kind of finishing ability that has been absent from Usman’s otherwise outstanding run through the division. Burns was a live underdog when this matchup was booked last year and just because it was pushed back seven months doesn’t mean that should change.
Either way, history will be made with Usman either reaching a milestone that even the great “GSP” couldn’t, or Burns becoming the first Brazilian to win the UFC’s welterweight title.
In other main card action, flyweight wunderkind Maycee Barber looks to rebound from her first loss when she takes on Alexa Grasso, middleweight contender Kelvin Gastelum seeks a much-needed win over Ian Heinisch, Julian Marquez makes his long-awaited return to the cage against Maki Pitolo in middleweight action, and bantamweight standouts Ricky Simon and Brian Kelleher meet in a 145-pound bout.
What: UFC 258
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, Feb. 13. The early prelims begin with a pair of fights on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass at 7 p.m. ET. A four-fight preliminary card follows at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available to watch through ESPN+.
When comparing Kamaru Usman to GSP, the similarities don’t just stop at the stats. There are definitely sequences and moments in Usman’s fights where you’ll catch shades of the Canadian champion’s greatness. Whether it’s a perfectly timed takedown or a sharp striking sequence or a slick transition in the clinch, you can see why Usman has been so tough to beat and why it feels like he’s close to clearing out the current crop of contenders.
He doesn’t have the dominant top game of St-Pierre, but I actually expect Usman to confidently go to the ground with Burns if the opportunity presents itself. As dangerous as Burns is off of his back, Usman has the kind of controlled offense to stay out of danger and win rounds from inside full guard or half guard. He also has the wrestling to just get the hell out of there if he has to.
On that same token, Burns could surprise Usman on the feet. He’s giving up considerable size and reach, but if he can get inside, he can do some damage. Usman is hittable, so it’s a good thing for him that he has the chin to withstand a few power punches. Still, he won’t want to let Burns touch him up too many times. That’s how upsets happen.
Similar to how several pundits (including myself) picked Poirier-McGregor, the conventional wisdom would suggest that it’s Usman’s fight if it goes to the championship rounds and Burns’ fight if he can catch Usman in rounds one or two. Burns answered questions about his cardio with a dominating five-round performance over Tyron Woodley, but it’s going to be a different story in what should be a much more competitive—and physically taxing—matchup with Usman.
Overall, I do think this will be a war of attrition, one that is better suited to Usman’s all-around game than Burns’ gift for finishing. Usman by late finish or decision.
There was a time when Alexa Grasso was the can’t-miss prospect set to take the UFC by storm. Grasso was just 23 years old when she made her UFC debut and while a decision win over Heather Clark didn’t necessarily set the octagon ablaze, she was already coming off of an impressive Invicta FC run that saw her defeat names like Jodie Esquibel, Mizuki Inoue, and Ashley Cummins.
Issues with consistency and the weight cut prevented Grasso from becoming a contender at 115 pounds, but she appears to be back on track after a successful flyweight debut in August. Now she’s in position to stop stifle the rise of 22-year-old blue-chipper Maycee Barber.
Barber was a top prospect coming out of the second season of the Contender Series and for the most part she’s lived up to that billing. She’s an excellent athlete with a natural killer instinct and she’s shown a willingness to stand and trade even when she might be better served taking fights to the ground. How she implements her wrestling will dictate how much of the action plays out.
As a strawweight, Grasso was put to the test by some of that division’s best wrestlers, including Carla Esparza, Tatiana Suarez, and Randa Markos. She didn’t always excel in those scenarios, but a weight class up and having been through those battles, she should be able to handle Barber’s grappling.
In a bout that primarily takes place on the feet, Grasso’s superior technical skill will prevail.
Don’t count out Kelvin Gastelum as contender just yet.
Not all streaks are created equal and a closer look at Gastelum’s current three-fight skid reveals that his situation is not as desperate as it seems. The first loss of this rough stretch was in a five-round Fight of the Year candidate against Israel Adesanya; the second, a close split nod that went in Darren Till’s favor; and the third, he was caught and submitted by a top-10 contender in Jack Hermansson.
So it could be worse!
Gastelum is not far removed from back-to-back wins over Ronaldo Souza and Michael Bisping, performances that reminded people why he was viewed as a surefire title contender at 170 pounds and remains a tough out at 185. He’s always had quick hands, unending cardio, and a strong wrestling base, skills that add up to wins more often than not in this game. Ian Heinisch has similar strengths, though I don’t know if he’s as prepared as Gastelum to go a high-paced 15 minutes should it come to that.
This should be a bounce-back performance for Gastelum as long as he fights smart with a talented and hungry contender bearing down on him. I like both guys to come out fast, with Gastelum beating Heinisch to the punch and finding an early finish.
Maki Pitolo has the gift of being able to generate real power real fast and that’s going to make him a fun fighter to watch for years to come. But he could be better served moving back to welterweight at some point. When it comes to larger opponents like Julian Marquez, every middleweight encounter will be an adventure as he races to KO before he gets KO’d.
If it sounds like I’m revealing my prediction already, you’re correct. This is Marquez’s fight to lose. He’s a traditional banger who knows how to use his reach well to set up that right hand bomb. Pitolo has pop in both hands, so Marquez’s defense has to be on point. He’s shown a willingness to absorb punches in the past and he can’t bank on having a good chin to carry him through a brawl with Pitolo.
Marquez will want to mix in the occasional takedown to keep Pitiolo guessing, but this one will likely be decided on the feet. As long as Marquez doesn’t get dropped by an initial rush, he should keep Pitolo on the back foot. I don’t see this one getting out of the first round either way.
This is probably the most difficult fight to pick on the main card. Just two gamers signing on for a matchup that has more to do with putting on a show than jockeying in the rankings. More fighters should compete up a weight class during this pandemic if it helps them to make frequent appearances. But I digress.
Ricky Simon and Brian Kelleher both want to push the pace, hunt for a finish, and stay in their opponents’ faces, so we’ll see who can set the tone in the early going here. I favor Simon in a straight boxing match, while Kelleher’s dangerous submission game has me thinking he wins if this turns into a grappling match. Which is not to say that Kelleher can’t put Simon down on the feet, after all he is called “Boom Boom” for a reason.
I rarely predict an exact method of victory, but for whatever reason I’m getting a crystal clear picture of Kelleher jumping a guillotine to catch an overly aggressive Simon and earn a tap-out.