A simple question surrounds the reconstituted main event of UFC 251 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi: Who really has more to lose when Kamaru Usman defends the welterweight title against Jorge Masvidal on Fight Island?
The conventional wisdom is that Masvidal has all the risk. He took the bout on six days’ notice after Gilbert Burns failed a COVID-19 test and was forced to withdraw.
Masvidal has to drop 22 pounds by Friday morning to make the welterweight division’s 170-pound title fight limit, and though he’s been in the gym helping teammates, including Dustin Poirier, prepare for their bouts, it’s different than actually going through one’s own fight camp.
But while Masvidal clearly saved the show and helped boost its pay-per-view prospects, the risk lies primarily on the side of the champion.
Masvidal has morphed into one of the best promoters in the game, and his disdain for Usman makes it easy for him to sell a card that includes two other title fights. Early tracking indicates a higher-than-expected sales rate.
All of that, though, overlooks the risks that Usman faces and what is at stake for him:
• He trained for a fighter with a grappling-heavy style, and now has to switch to prepare for a kickboxer.
• If he loses to a guy who did not have a legitimate training camp, he’ll look less than the dominant fighter who blew out Tyron Woodley and who rallied to stop Colby Covington in the final round of his first title defense.
• If Masvidal loses, he has the built-in excuse of having taken the fight on short notice and then had to quarantine in his room for 48 hours upon his arrival in Abu Dhabi. Usman has no such luxury.
• A Masvidal win would send him into a lucrative payday against the likes of Nate Diaz or Conor McGregor. An Usman loss would like put him into a difficult rematch with either Covington or Leon Edwards, because he’s unlikely to fight Burns, his close friend, unless there is a title at stake.
So this isn’t just a breeze for Usman, who found out Masvidal had accepted the bout while he was about to eat a Mexican dinner at the Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport while he was en route home to Florida.
“Each and every time you step in there, there’s always a risk, especially in my situation,” Usman said. “First of all, I have everything to lose. I’m the champion of the world. It was my decision [to accept the Masvidal fight]. I could have said no. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, this guy’s stepping in on short notice.’ Yeah, I understand that, but he had one guy to train for and that’s me. I’m the champion. I’m the guy everyone’s training for.
“But I had to be the one to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that fight. I’ll take on that challenge.’ There’s always a risk to step in there, but especially doing it on seven, six, seven days’ notice after you just trained for a different opponent [with] a different style and now having to make that mental switch. But at the end of the day, this is what champions are made of. This is what champions are remembered for.”
Usman and Masvidal could have been remembered for a brawl in a Las Vegas hotel lobby if each of them had been looking in slightly the opposite direction. On Sunday, Masvidal had arrived in Las Vegas to undergo his COVID-19 test and other medical tests needed to compete. Usman was in the hotel awaiting a flight on Monday to Abu Dhabi.
Masvidal was in the lobby at a bank of elevators waiting to go to his room. Two elevators arrived and opened at the same time. Masvidal got in the one on the left just as Usman was exiting the one on the right.
They didn’t see each other, but if they had, the fight Saturday could have been a rematch.
Usman, though, said he’s not interested in brawling in a hotel lobby.
“When I saw the video, he had a beanie on and a sweatsuit on and he had his back turned as he walked into the elevator,” Usman said. “I’m coming off. I had had my coaches behind me and my brother, and [referee] Herb Dean was getting on. You know how it is when you’re moving and you’re not paying attention to what’s going on. I glanced over and someone was talking to me. I was saying something, I think to Herb, and I’m greeting someone, and I turned, and it was that quick: Boom. Boom.
“And they went, ‘Yo, he was just right there.’ I went, ‘Who?’ And they were like, ‘Masvidal.’ I went ‘Where?’ And they said, ‘He was walking into the elevator as you were coming out of the other elevator. But at the end of the day, he likes to put on this act. He’s going around saying, ‘I would have done this,’ or ‘I would have done that,’ or ‘I would have said this.’ He wouldn’t have said nothing because at the end of the day, we’re not going to let this mess up millions of dollars for us.”
The next time they see each other, things won’t be so simple. As Masvidal has said repeatedly, it’s going to be violent.
Masvidal is getting a lot of mileage out of coming up with clever ways of saying the same thing and talking an extraordinary amount of trash.
But for those who believe Usman is scared, think again. He could have chosen to go home and wait for Burns to recover and then do it again.
He took the fight not only because he dislikes Masvidal and wants to silence him, but for an even more meaningful reason.
“This is what champions do,” he said. “If you want to call yourself a champion, you have to be ready to defend that belt against whoever and whenever. That’s [what I’m doing].”
More from Yahoo Sports: