UFC 261 on April 24 will be the first time Zhang Weili enters the Octagon since a capacity crowd at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas roared in appreciation of her first title defense on March 7, 2020. It will also mark the first time a packed house will be on hand for a UFC event since Weili's thrilling win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk over a year ago.
VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, sold out within hours, and 15,000 fans are expected to be on hand for three title fights and numerous intriguing storylines:
Welterweight champ Kamaru Usman makes his fourth title defense, and his second against Jorge Masvidal, in the main event. Usman dominated Masvidal in a unanimous decision win last July, but Masvidal took the fight on six days' notice, and he had to cut around 20 pounds and fly halfway around the world for the fight in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Usman said Masvidal took the fight only because he had a built-in excuse, and the champ wants to put an exclamation mark on his superiority of Masvidal, who believes the fact he went the distance with Usman despite the circumstances bodes well for his chances in the rematch.
Zhang makes her second defense when she faces former champion Rose Namajunas. Zhang's win over Jedrzejczyk was a violent classic, considered perhaps the greatest women's title fight in UFC history, and the champ will need a strong encore to put away Namajunas.
Women's flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko defends against Jessica Andrade, whose first-round stoppage of Katlyn Chookagian -- which she accomplished primarily with body shots -- in October raises the specter of an upset. Shevchenko also had moments of adversity, which for her was surprising, against Jennifer Maia in November, before earning a unanimous decision win.
All three titleholders are favored to win, but 2021 already has crowned one new champ when Francis Ngannou dethroned heavyweight king Stipe Miocic at UFC 260. Will Bruce Buffer get another chance to say "and new" on April 24?
The inside story of how a scrap and a 'soda' helped turned Masvidal into a star
It was March 16, 2019, and London's O2 Arena was packed for a UFC Fight Night. Darren Till, a popular local fighter from Liverpool, was facing Jorge Masvidal in the main event. Till was favored to beat Masvidal and then face Ben Askren, who was in attendance, for a shot at the welterweight title.
But plans -- and Masvidal's career -- took a dramatic turn that night. It was a turn that eventually led Masvidal to Saturday's UFC 261 main event in Jacksonville, Florida, where he will get his second crack at champion Kamaru Usman.
Predictions: Is anyone picking Masvidal in an upset?
Will a full camp (for both fighters) result in a much different fight? ESPN asked several experts for their breakdowns and predictions.
Why Kamaru Usman wants to break Jorge Masvidal's soul
Last summer, after he defeated Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251 and flew back to his home in Denver, Colorado, Kamaru Usman thought he might die. He woke up in his bed one morning and felt weak and sick. He spent the day inside trying to shake it off. He lost his appetite and hardly ate for three days.
"Man, I just made all this money and I'm not gonna be able to spend it," he thought to himself, only half kidding.
Four days later, he was so dehydrated that he was urinating blood. He lost his sense of smell and taste. On Day 5, having surmised that he might have COVID-19, he drove himself to the emergency room. After being admitted, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was prescribed antibiotics. He lived on fruit and vegetable smoothies delivered to his door and told his mother and other family members to stay away from his apartment for their protection. Eight days after that first morning of symptoms, he had lost 17 pounds.
MMA's welterweight Mount Rushmore, ranking Kamaru Usman among the greats
Check out who's on Kamaru Usman's MMA welterweight Mount Rushmore.
And what experts believe Usman can potentially surpass GSP as the welterweight GOAT?
Expert predictions: Will Andrade dethrone Shevchenko?
UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko has looked more or less unbeatable since claiming the title in 2018 -- but she might be facing her toughest test to date at flyweight on Saturday in Jessica Andrade.
Will the power of Andrade be enough to upset Shevchenko's dominance? ESPN asked several experts for their breakdowns and predictions.
A showcase of women's MMA
Saturday's UFC 261 pay-per-view will not be the first card in UFC history to have two women's championships on the line. That distinction goes to a 2015 event in Melbourne, Australia, which is notable for two other reasons: first, for filling Etihad Stadium with 56,214 fans, the most ever to attend a UFC event; and second, for producing the biggest upset in UFC history.
The upset victim that night at UFC 193 was the big-draw headliner, Ronda Rousey, who was knocked out by Holly Holm and dethroned as UFC women's bantamweight champion, stunning the MMA world. The aura surrounding that fight and its time in women's MMA stands in distinct contrast with the women's game we now see just 5½ years later.
Real or Not: Is Usman vs. Masvidal 3 going to happen?
Fight week for UFC 261 has arrived, and with a card of this magnitude, the stakes could not be much higher. Three title fights could reshape the trajectory of the welterweight, strawweight and women's flyweight divisions overnight.
The topics our panel breaks down are: If Masvidal wins, would a trilogy bout vs. Usman make the most sense? Will it help Usman to have Ngannou in his corner? Will ring rust play a role in Zhang vs. Namajunas? Is this Shevchenko's toughest matchup at 125 pounds?
Returning the favor: Ngannou will work Usman's corner
Kamaru Usman was in the corner for Francis Ngannou when Ngannou won the UFC heavyweight title last month. Now, Ngannou will return the favor for his fellow champion friend.
Ngannou will be a cornerman for Usman's welterweight title defense against Jorge Masvidal in the main event of UFC 261 on April 24 in Jacksonville, Florida, Usman told ESPN on Thursday.
Namajunas says anti-communism motivates her vs. Zhang
Kamaru Usman's extraordinary path to becoming a UFC champion
Kamaru Usman details his journey from Nigeria to the states and becoming a UFC star. Produced by Dale Mauldin; Editing by Lamarr C. English, Diego Martini, Josh De Leon.
UFC strawweight contender Rose Namajunas said she doesn't regret saying her opposition to communism is at least part of her motivation for her April 24 fight against champion Zhang Weili at UFC 261.
Zhang is UFC's first and only champion from China.
Real or Not: Is this Jorge Masvidal's last title chance?
Jorge Masvidal doesn't view his UFC 261 main event as his last shot at UFC gold, but only because he won't allow himself to accept the possibility he'll lose to champion Kamaru Usman.
"I feel like every fight, I have to win," Masvidal told ESPN. "But no, I don't feel like [this is his last title opportunity] at all. I just feel like I'm going to win this fight, and I'm going to continue to do bigger and better things before I close the chapter on this MMA thing."
But what if the oddsmakers are right? Masvidal is currently a +310 underdog, according to Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. If Masvidal, 36, loses, he'll be 0-2 against Usman with several other elite contenders in the division ready to take shots of their own, or get their own rematches.
Masvidal easing into weight ahead of rematch
The biggest difference for Jorge Masvidal ahead of his rematch with Kamaru Usman is that he didn't have to cut about 20 pounds after taking the fight on six days' notice.
Masvidal has had a longer camp, less weight to cut, and he didn't have to fly halfway around the world.
What will it mean?
Real or Not: Namajunas, Andrade will dethrone the champs
This will be Zhang Weili's first fight since her epic split decision win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk on March 7, 2020. She'll face a fighter in Rose Namajunas with a complete arsenal of skills who will be looking to regain her title.
Meanwhile, Valentina Shevchenko was challenged more than expected by Jennifer Maia on Nov. 21, 2020, before pulling out the unanimous decision. Did Jessica Andrade learn something from that fight that could help her dethrone the champ?
What they're saying
How Zhang Weili's unorthodox striking throws off opponents
On Unlocking Victory, Gilbert Melendez breaks down Zhang Weili's striking and what makes her different.
Shevchenko's kicks can keep Andrade away
On Unlocking Victory, Dominick Cruz displays how Valentina Shevchenko can avoid Jessica Andrade's power and pressure.