Two monumental title rematches top the marquee as the mixed martial arts leader returns to Madison Square Garden in New York for UFC 268 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
It’s a main event fit for the world’s most famous arena, a grudge match for welterweight gold as champion Kamaru Usman battles bitter rival, Colby Covington.
In the other epic encore, reigning queen Rose Namajunas and Zhang Weili run it back for the strawweight strap in the co-headliner. A third blockbuster bout sees top-five lightweights Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler collide in what has the makings of a classic.
Plus, the legendary Frankie Edgar faces off with Marlon Vera at bantamweight and Shane Burgos and Billy Quarantillo bang it out in the featherweight division.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Kamaru Usman (1.31) v Colby Covington (3.50) (Welterweight Championship)
As men, the main eventers are polar opposites. Usman (19-1) lives by a code of honour while Covington (16-2), as his moniker suggests, is a disruptor. “Chaos” is a trash talker…a button pusher. With him, nothing’s off-limits when it comes to mind games and verbal barbs. The more personal he can make things, the better.
Most of it is a persona, a WWEesque character, and it’s worked like a charm. Thanks to his vitriolic pro-wrestling-like “promos” on opponents and popular athletes like LeBron James as well as his staunch support of Donald Trump, he transformed himself from just another fighter on the roster to one of the most talked-about figures in the sport in recent years. All while, crucially, walking the walk.
As competitors, the bitter rivals are cut from the same cloth. They’re extraordinary ironmen. Terminators, whose gas tanks and output are otherworldly. They overwhelm all but one another with their cyborg-like conditioning and are world-class wrestlers at their core.
Their instant classic in 2019 was as closely contested as experts thought it would be. As a fight – a spectacle of violence – it surpassed all expectations. Constant pressure and epic ebbs and flows had earned each man two rounds going into the fifth and final round, with Usman sealing the deal by TKO, which left Covington with a broken jaw along with broken dreams.
The bad blood has been brewing for almost two years and it’s apropos that they get to settle the score at Madison Square Garden, which has hosted some of the most iconic combat sports events in history including the first two fights of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy, the showdown between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis and in MMA terms, Conor McGregor dusting Eddie Alvarez to become the first-ever UFC double champ.
Usman has been an unstoppable force in the UFC. He’s a perfect 14-0 inside the Octagon, an unprecedented streak that eclipses even that of the great Georges St-Pierre as the all-time welterweight record. Overall, he’s riding an 18-fight win streak. “The Nigerian Nightmare” is exactly that for opponents – a well-rounded dominator with no holes in his game.
Covington is undoubtedly the next-best welterweight in the world. While they match one another in wrestling and conditioning, Covington has the edge in output. He famously set the UFC record for most strikes thrown in a fight – an astonishing 541 – when he beat Robbie Lawler for the interim title in 2019. What that staggering stat also highlights is that he lacks punching power. He only has four knockouts and the same number of submission wins.
Usman has heavy hands, which ultimately won him the first fight, while he’s also the stronger man in general and the better natural athlete. The biggest cliché in the fight business when it comes to rematches is pugilists proclaiming to be completely different fighters than they were in the opening act.
In Usman’s case, there’s no question he’s become substantially more dangerous, his back-to-back knockouts of Gilbert Burns and Jorge Masvidal elevating him to the title of the pound-for-pound king. His brutal one-punch knockout of “Gamebred”, who’d never been stopped by strikes up to that point, was Usman’s ninth KO and one of the best in UFC history.
What that translates to is while Covington remains arguably his toughest stylistic match-up, the gap between the two has seemingly grown. Usman’s now finishing opponents without chasing a finish – the ultimate mark of a fighter in his prime – and that’s exactly what I’m expecting to happen, a good back-and-forth battle until Usman puts a definitive end to the rivalry.
Rose Namajunas (2.00) v Zhang Weili (1.83) (Strawweight Championship)
It must be said that Weili (21-2) is very fortunate to be getting an immediate opportunity to reclaim the belt after Namajunas (11-4) needed less than two minutes to dethrone her with a head kick at UFC 261.
As spectacular as it was, the flash knockout robbed fans of what promised to be an epic, which brings us to the rematch. Having had a taste of the now two-time champion’s speed, Weili will be wiser to it and the rematch should be the ballet of brutality the first encounter was expected to be.
The sensational stoppage was a case of history repeating itself. Namajunas had also been the underdog in her maiden title fight in 2017 in which she knocked out the previously unbeaten Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the first round to realise her dream. Coincidentally, it came at Madison Square Garden.
Weili had been on a dominant run on her march to becoming China’s first UFC champion. Her history-making moment came in 2019 when she knocked out Jessica Andrade, who’d won the belt from Namajunas, in the first round. It was Weili’s 17th stoppage win and 10th by KO.
She defended the belt against Jedrzejczyk in a five-round war that’s widely considered the greatest fight in women’s MMA history while Namajunas avenged her loss to Andrade to set up their first showdown in April, where fleet-footed “Thug” ended the Chinese star’s 21-fight win streak in lightning-quick fashion.
This is a clash between two complete yet contrasting fighters, with Weili – surprisingly in my eyes – again entering as the favourite. Namajunas is rangy and fluid on the feet, almost hypnotising. Her evolution and maturity can be seen in her now elite-level striking, where her fight IQ and composure also shine through.
“Magnum” on the other hand, is a compact crusher. She’s a wrecking ball who walks opponents down and pummels them with her heavy hands. She has a significant advantage when it comes to punching power, whereas Namajunas has a two-inch reach advantage to go along with her superior speed and footwork.
The champion’s biggest strength, however, is her jiu-jitsu. Her submission prowess, which has seen her tap out five foes, will not only counteract Weili’s wrestling but also add another layer of danger on the feet as she’s not shy to go for a flying armbar, which she famously pulled off against Kathina Catron in Invicta back in 2013.
“Thug” is so tough and durable that her speed advantage trumps the challenger’s power advantage. It should see her float like a butterfly and sting like a bee to quote the late great Muhammad Ali en route to a decision victory.
Justin Gaethje (1.47) v Michael Chandler (2.75) (Lightweight)
Fireworks are guaranteed in this lightweight dream match. This is a fight that shouldn’t be overanalysed. What you have is two killers of the highest calibre. The last two title challengers are like-minded savages, who possess all the skills and experience to win a tactical tilt yet go into battle with the solitary goal of stopping their opponent.
Both are standout wrestlers, but only the direst of circumstances will lead to one of them shooting in this one. The most dangerous 155-pounder on the planet, Gaethje (22-3) returns for the first time since being submitted by Khabib Nurmagomedov in their title showdown last October.
“The Highlight” has never been in a boring fight. A legendary brawler, he boasts 20 stoppages, 19 of those coming by knockout, and that all three of his losses were by finish further highlights the second-ranked contender’s kill-or-be-killed nature.
Chandler (22-6), ranked fourth, is also looking to jump-start another run at the belt after being knocked out by Charles Oliveira in their battle for the vacant championship in May. It was only his second fight in the promotion and came after the former three-time Bellator champion had knocked out Dan Hooker in his UFC debut.
“Iron” is more of a dual-threat with 10 knockouts and seven submissions on his record. His explosiveness is what makes him such a prolific predator. He’ll have the speed advantage, which has allowed him to close the distance against his rangier foes his whole career, whereas Gaethje – a former interim UFC champion – is the more durable of the two.
In a slugfest that could go either way, the safest bet is that the judges won’t be needed.
Alternative Bet: Chandler has every chance of catching Gaethje and has one-punch knockout power to close the show. With both promising to stand and trade, Chandler can win you some serious cheddar at 5.50 by knockout or 4.25 by KO/TKO/DQ/Submission.
Shane Burgos (1.51) v Billy Quarantillo (2.65) (Featherweight)
This should be a thrilling striking battle as well. Burgos (13-3) reminded in his last bout that he’ll never quit. He and Edson Barboza traded leather until his brain seemingly restarted due to accumulative damage, leading to a scary delayed knockout loss.
“Hurricane” won’t let that deter him from engaging in another fire-fight. He’s a hunter at heart with 10 finishes (evenly split between knockouts and submissions). Quarantillo (16-3) claimed his seventh knockout win in his last fight against Gabriel Benitez in July and also has five submissions to his name. Grappling should be a non-factor though.
Ranked 14th, Burgos is a significant step up in competition for “Billy Q”; he’s faced some of the best in the division and has a five-and-a-half-inch reach advantage, so he’s poised to bounce back, either via a late knockout or by decision.
Frankie Edgar (2.50) v Marlon Vera (1.58) (Bantamweight)
What does the legend have left? That’s what the main card opener comes down to. Edgar (24-9-1) is one of the greats, a well-rounded workhorse and a former lightweight champion. Time is catching up with him though. He’s 1-3 in his last four and the damage of the iconic wars he’s been in has been taking its toll.
Revered as a real-life Rocky, it was impossible to knockout “The Answer.” But alas, he’s been proven to be human after all as he’s been stopped three times in the last three years. The worst of those came in his last fight when Cory Sandhagen, who fought for the interim title last weekend, starched him with a brutal flying knee in February.
Vera (17-7-1) outpointed Davey Grant in June to rebound from a decision loss to another legendary former champion in Jose Aldo, but unlike eighth-ranked Edgar, “The King of Rio” is enjoying a late-career resurgence. Thirteenth-ranked “Chito” (six KOs and eight submissions) is a complete fighter and matches up well with Edgar (seven KOs and four submissions).
Both are Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belts who’ve never been submitted and have excellent takedown defence, which means the fight will most likely be won and lost on the feet. At this stage of their careers, that favours 28-year-old Vera, the significantly younger and faster man who’ll also have a two-and-a-half-inch reach advantage.