When UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and his challenger, Gilbert Burns, step into the Octagon on Saturday night, they will be kicking off an unprecedented run of title bouts. From this weekend’s UFC 258 event through UFC 260 six weeks later, there will be six fights in which a belt is on the line. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that is more than in any other 42-day period in the UFC’s 27-year history.
One of those title bouts is a champion vs. champion superfight, and that means seven of the UFC’s 11 belt holders will be in action before the end of March.
There’s also a long-awaited rematch. There’s a meeting of two fighters who were teammates until last year. There’s an appearance by a two-division champ who also happens to be the women’s GOAT.
Every one of the upcoming championship bouts is an example of top-shelf UFC matchmaking. You will not find a puzzling pairing among them — nothing like Jose Aldo getting a bantamweight title shot coming off two straight losses, as happened in July. These fights pit champions against No. 1 or No. 2 contenders, with the superfight having even loftier credentials. What’s more impressive, two of the defending champs are actually betting underdogs.
Which of the title fights is the crème de la crème? Here’s one observer’s ranking:
1. Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou, UFC 260, March 27 at site to be determined
Odds: Ngannou -160 | Miocic +135
At stake: Miocic’s heavyweight championship
Why it’s ranked where it is: Heavyweight. Championship. Of. The. World. That alone makes this fight the biggest of big deals. But when the greatest heavyweight ever is an underdog? This one simply can’t be beat.
Story line: It’s a rematch of a 2018 title bout won by Miocic, halting Ngannou’s previous scary run of fast finishes (10 straight, six in Round 1, four in Round 2). Can Ngannou avenge a loss against the greatest heavyweight in MMA history?
Notable numbers: 45, 26, 71 and 20. That is the amount of seconds it took Ngannou to finish each of his four most recent fights. Those lightning-fast knockout victories came against notable opponents, too: two former champions (Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos) and two rising contenders (Curtis Blaydes, Jairzinho Rozenstruik).
X factor: Ngannou has been a terror with his fists, for sure, but he has been so quick with his KOs that we have seen no evidence that he has shored up the grappling deficiencies that plagued him in the first Miocic fight. The champ took him down six times and made the fight largely a five-round wrestling match, nullifying the big man’s dangerous power. Ngannou landed just two significant strikes in the final three rounds combined. Sure, he has been known to put out an opponent’s lights with a single punch, but that scenario is unlikely to play out if he’s fighting from his back.
2. Jan Blachowicz vs. Israel Adesanya, UFC 259, March 6 in Las Vegas
Odds: Adesanya -275 | Blachowicz +210 (At Bet MGM; not yet listed by Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill)
At stake: Blachowicz’s light heavyweight championship
Why it’s ranked where it is: Double champs tend to clog up both of the weight classes they rule, and that’s not great for the sport. Still, watching the coronation process unfold as it happens — or doesn’t — is magical. Actually, watching Adesanya in any context is magical.
Story line: Champion meets champion, in just the sixth such superfight in UFC history. Can Adesanya, who already reigns at middleweight, take over the sport in the wake of pound-for-pound king Khabib Nurmagomedov‘s retirement?
Notable number: 0. Although he will be the challenger on this night, Adesanya (20-0) is the only unbeaten fighter in this run of distinguished title bouts.
X factor: Adesanya will be going for the belt in a weight class 20 pounds above his middleweight domain. That might sound like a daunting challenge, but history tells us it’s doable. In the five champ-vs.-champ matchups so far in UFC history, the fighter from the lighter weight class has won all but one of them. The sportsbooks apparently keep up on those stats, as “The Last Stylebender” has been installed as a betting favorite.
3. Amanda Nunes vs. Megan Anderson, UFC 259, March 6 in Las Vegas
Odds: Nunes -1100 | Anderson +700
At stake: Nunes’ featherweight championship
Why it’s ranked where it is: This is a mismatch, for sure, but what elevates the fight to must-see status is this: Any opportunity to see the greatest female fighter in history do her thing is not to be missed.
Story line: Two-division champ defends one of her belts — in a weight class that may or may not have staying power in the UFC.
Notable number: 5. That is how many fighters are on the women’s featherweight roster posted on the UFC website. Other than Nunes and Anderson, there’s just Felicia Spencer, whom Nunes defeated last June in her most recent title defense, plus a 36-year old who is 0-2 in the Octagon (Zarah Fairn) and a fighter with just one UFC appearance — in 2018 (Leah Letson). By allowing Cris Cyborg and Cat Zingano to leave for Bellator, the UFC is down to slim pickings at 145 pounds.
X factor: This is Nunes’ first fight after becoming a mother in September, when her wife, UFC strawweight Nina Ansaroff, gave birth to a baby girl. How has parenthood affected the champ’s preparation and performance? Nunes is not the first UFC fighter to juggle parenthood and fighting, but it’s a first for her. Will the greatest female fighter of all time — and one of the best ever regardless of gender — be at the top of her game?
4. Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns, UFC 258, Feb. 13 in Las Vegas
Chael Sonnen contends that it is time to start considering Gilbert Burns for a welterweight title shot after his victory over Tyron Woodley.
Odds: Usman -280 | Burns +230
At stake: Usman’s welterweight championship
Why it’s ranked where it is: Some fans are most drawn in by hate-filled rivalries, which is why this meeting of respectful ex-teammates has flown under the radar. But to fans who put fighting first, Usman is special — top five pound-for-pound, and hasn’t lost in nearly eight years.
Story line: Ex-teammates meet in a real fight with real stakes.
Notable number: 2. That is the number of seconds that Usman has spent on the bottom in grappling exchanges during his 12-fight UFC career. It’s the shortest total time on bottom in welterweight division history, and it’s significant because he will be in the cage with a four-time submission grappling world champion. The more control Usman has over where the fight with Burns takes place, the better his chances of extending his 16-fight winning streak and remaining champ.
X factor: How different will Usman be from the fighter Burns used to train with? They were teammates for years in the Blackzilians gym in South Florida before both moved to a new Hard Knocks 365 team in 2017 with trainer Henri Hooft, later rebranded as Sanford MMA. They remained teammates until Burns defeated former champion Tyron Woodley last May to earn a title shot. With this bout originally scheduled for July 12, Usman moved his training to Colorado so he could work with Trevor Wittman, who also trains Justin Gaethje and Rose Namajunas. Burns did not make it to the July title fight, testing positive for COVID-19 and being replaced by Jorge Masvidal, whom Usman dominated. After a December rebooking fell through, the matchup is back on, with the champ having put in even more work with his new coach. How will that benefit him in this meeting of familiar faces?
5. Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling, UFC 259, March 6 in Las Vegas
Odds: Yan -130 | Sterling +110
At stake: Yan’s bantamweight championship
Why it’s ranked where it is: Of all these title fights, this is the one for which it’s most difficult to formulate a prediction. That’s a good thing. The lack of star power might be a downer for some fans, but the evenly matched competitiveness raises the stock of this matchup.
Story line: This is the title fight that should have happened eight months ago. When Henry Cejudo announced his retirement last May, Yan and Sterling were the first to call for the UFC to declare the bantamweight title vacant and let them fight for it. But the promotion instead booked Yan against Jose Aldo, despite the former featherweight champ having lost both of his fights at 135 pounds. Sterling was the odd man out then, but now he gets his chance.
Notable number: 3.07. That’s the amount of strikes landed by Yan in the UFC for every one he absorbs, the best ratio in bantamweight division history. Sterling comes in at No. 3 of all time, at 2.82. Who will find his target?
X factor: Yan vs. Sterling originally was scheduled for December, but the champ pulled out of the fight, citing unspecified personal reasons. Then, when the matchup was rebooked for March, Yan moved his fight preparation to American Top Team in Florida — a strong camp with excellent fighters. Yan has been working with his boxing coach from Thailand since January, but changing up the routine right before his first title defense? That bears watching.
6. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega, UFC 260, March 27 at a site to be determined
Odds: Volkanovski -195 | Ortega +165
At stake: Volkanovski’s featherweight championship
Why it’s ranked where it is: Last place, eh? Amidst this run of title fights, there’s no shame in being sixth best. Volkanovski has been unstoppable, and so has Ortega other than his one bad night against Max Holloway. We might end up looking back on this fight and proclaiming it the best one of all.
Story line: A champ on a 19-fight winning streak finds himself having to prove his worth. The predicament stems from Volkanovski’s title defense in July, a split-decision win over Holloway, the man he had dethroned seven months earlier. Many observers thought Holloway should have had his hand raised in the rematch. But it was Volkanovski who got the “W,” and now he has a chance to put a stamp on his title reign.
Notable number: 55. That’s the percentage of Volkanovski’s significant strike attempts in the UFC that have found their mark, the best accuracy among active 145-pounders. When a fighter is connecting at such a clip, it leaves the opponent with little room for defensive errors.
X factor: Ortega took a beating from Holloway in a TKO loss in 2018, then sat out for over 20 months before returning in October against Chan Sung Jung. Ortega put on a masterful performance against “The Korean Zombie,” showing enhanced standup skills to complement his high-level grappling, looking like a new man. Will Volkanovski be better prepared than Jung was for the new Ortega, having watched and broken down those five rounds? Will Ortega be able to sustain the momentum he built in the fall?
Note: Unless otherwise noted, betting odds provided by Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill as of Feb. 8.