UFC 258 kicks off a six-week stretch with three major pay-per-view events, which could leave the promotion's hierarchy in a much different place by the end of March. Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns square off Saturday in the first of six title fights, and the backdrop is an intriguing one as the former teammates have sparred over 200 rounds together.
Saturday's other major storylines include the return of Maycee Barber, whose aspiration of becoming the youngest UFC champion ever was put on hold last year by an injury suffered in her first career loss. Then there's Kelvin Gastelum, who has lost three big fights in a row and hopes to turn the tide against Ian Heinisch.
So what could the fallout look like? Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim separate what's real and what's not heading into UFC 258, and also weigh in on this week's unveiling of a Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix.
The familiarity between the two will help Burns more than Usman
Raimondi: I'll say "real" on this one. I subscribe to the theory that familiarity can help the underdog in these situations. Usman is nearly a 3-to-1 (-280) betting favorite at the Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill, which seems ridiculously high. But that's a conversation for another day. Usman is the top dog in the welterweight division. That's inarguable. When most opponents face him, they're seeing his skills, techniques and technical attributes on film and think they know what to expect inside the Octagon. But ask any coach: Seeing the video is not at all the same as experiencing being in the cage with that person.
Remember Dustin Poirier's shock between rounds in 2019 that he couldn't get Khabib Nurmagomedov off him? Nurmagomedov was even better than what the film on him might have indicated. Burns won't have any such surprises against Usman. Now, that's not to say Usman hasn't tweaked his game under coach Trevor Wittman in Colorado. His Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, Jorge Santiago, told me last week that Usman looks like a whole different fighter. But Burns knows Usman as well as anyone. Henri Hooft, their coach at Sanford MMA, told me they have sparred about 200 rounds against one another. That experience helps Burns.
Burns has one more advantage: The coaches and teammates who are helping Burns at Sanford MMA were Usman's coaches and teammates. That excludes Hooft, who is not coaching Burns for this fight and won't be in his corner as Hooft tries to remain neutral after working with both men.
On the other hand, Usman knows Burns well, too -- much better than he knew any of his other challengers. But Usman would be the favorite even if that were not the case.
It'll be a very interesting chess match, and fascinating to see how both fighters will try to reach each other based on all those times they've sparred and trained together. But I do believe Burns gets an edge from that familiarity as the up-and-coming guy going against the established champion.
The Usman/Burns winner should defend against the winner of the Leon Edwards-Khamzat Chimaev bout on March 13
Okamoto: Yeah, this is real. And it's real under just about any scenario I can think of, other than a draw in that title fight or a highly controversial finish. Let's say Usman were to lose the title. As great as he is, I don't think the UFC would have to give him an immediate rematch.
So, whether it's Usman or Burns as the champ, I think you move on to a new matchup. And if that's the case, what are the options for No. 1 contender? It's either the winner of Edwards vs. Chimaev, Colby Covington or Jorge Masvidal.
Now, if Covington and Masvidal were fighting one another on this week's pay-per-view, I might have gone with one of them. As fantastic as Edwards and Chimaev have been, if Covington and Masvidal were fighting this month, I could see a scenario in which you give the winner of that fight the next title shot and keep Edwards or Chimaev on deck for immediately after.
But with Covington and Masvidal currently on the bench, it's a no-brainer. That main event between Edwards and Chimaev will probably go down as one of the best non-PPV headliners of 2021, and the winner should 100% be next up for the title.
Maycee Barber's dream of being the youngest UFC champ ever is over
Wagenheim: Never say never, but the dream fades a little further into the ether with each passing day. Get out your calendar and circle this date: Jan. 18, 2022. On that day, just over 11 months from now, Barber will be 23 years, 8 months and 1 day old -- the same age Jon Jones was on the night in 2011 when he dethroned Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at light heavyweight to become the youngest champion in UFC history.
Is it impossible for Barber to be wearing the women's flyweight belt within the time frame she laid out for herself? No, of course not. Barber could smash Alexa Grasso on Saturday, deliver a fiery callout that puts her in the cage with a top-10 opponent within the next few months, and that could propel Barber up the rankings in a hurry. But even if all of the pieces fall into place for her, Barber would not get to have Dana White wrap that gold belt around her waist unless she could handle the indomitable Valentina Shevchenko. That's a tall order for even the most experienced 125-pounders, much less a 22-year-old barely two years into her UFC career.
For that reason, I'm going to say the above dream-dousing statement is real. It's not that I see Barber's quest as unthinkable, it's more that I believe it would be in her best interests to rethink the timing of her goal. She has been out of the Octagon for over a year while healing a knee injury suffered in her first career defeat, an upset loss to Roxanne Modafferi. That's a lot to overcome, so why rush?
Boil down your ambitious goal to its essence, Maycee. You want to be a champion? Take your time refining your game, then take your shot. Whenever you're ready.
Despite a three-fight losing streak, Kelvin Gastelum is not far from title contention
Helwani: Not real.
Let's say he wins on Saturday against Ian Heinisch. These names will still be ahead of him, and I'm not including the champion, Israel Adesanya, who already has a win over Gastelum:
Possibly Uriah Hall, too.
In short, it's going to be a long road back to title contention for Gastelum.
I hope this doesn't come across the wrong way, but I think we've seen Kelvin Gastelum's ceiling, and I'm not sure he has enough to become champion any time soon. Do I think he can snap his losing streak this weekend? Of course. Heck, he can go on a winning streak, too. But title contention? As long as the Adesanyas and Whittakers of the world are in the mix, I just don't see it happening for Gastelum. And it's a shame, of course, because he was so close to winning a title a couple of years ago.
Amazingly, he's still only 29. Crazier things have happened. So, I'm not saying he can never fight for a belt again. But regardless of what happens against Heinisch, he's still a considerable distance from title contention.
With this week's World Grand Prix announcement, Bellator now has the most exciting light heavyweight division in MMA
Wagenheim: It's always fashionable to back the underdog, and in any comparison of MMA organizations, Bellator is going to play David to the UFC's Goliath. But I do think this assertion is legitimately real -- although I reserve the right to change my mind on March 6. That's the night when UFC middleweight titlist Israel Adesanya will seek to become a double champ. If "The Last Stylebender" takes over at 205 pounds, his star power will outshine just about everything else in the sport.
For now, though, Bellator has my most high-voltage interest at light heavyweight. It wasn't just this week's announcement of a World Grand Prix, it was the fiery matchups contained within the eight-man bracket. The highlight is an April 16 matchup of new signees Yoel Romero and Anthony "Rumble" Johnson. Romero was one of the UFC's top 185-pounders, last seen dropping a decision to Adesanya almost a year ago. And "Rumble," a fellow UFC alum and title challenger in the Octagon, personifies his nickname. This is as must-see as any fight upcoming in the sport.
There's a lot of UFC DNA in this tournament. Another notable example: Ex-Bellator champion Ryan Bader (who still reigns at heavyweight) takes on former UFC champ Lyoto Machida in an April 9 rematch of a 2012 UFC fight, which Machida won by one-punch knockout.
The UFC still is state of the art when it comes to mixed techniques. That goes for any weight class, including 205 pounds, where seven of the top 10 in the ESPN rankings compete in the UFC. But top-ranked Jon Jones is moving to heavyweight, and the matchmakers had to dip into the 185-pound ranks to find champion Jan Blachowicz his first challenger. That leaves an opening for Bellator to step into the spotlight, and the World Grand Prix could be its big splash.