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Volkanovski defeats Holloway by split decision

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Kamaru Usman retained his welterweight title with a smothering victory over short-notice challenger Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251 on Sunday.

Alexander Volkanovski retained his featherweight title with a narrow split decision over Oahu resident Max Holloway, and Petr Yan won the vacant UFC bantamweight championship with a fifth-round stoppage victory over José Aldo on Yas Island, the UAE tourist destination turned into a secure bubble by the UFC during the coronavius pandemic.

Former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas avenged her loss to Jéssica Andrade with a split-decision win in their rematch on the UFC’s so-called “Fight Island.” The mixed martial arts promotion will host four shows this month at the arena, with more expected in the upcoming months at its haven from the coronavirus.

Usman (17-1) earned his 16th straight MMA victory and defended his belt for the second time with a cerebral, technical performance against the 35-year-old Masvidal (35-14), who gallantly accepted his first UFC title shot on six days’ notice when Gilbert Burns tested positive for the coronavirus.

“(Masvidal) is the biggest, baddest dude out there right now,” Usman said. “I had to switch gears and prepare for him on six days’ notice. I know a lot was made of him taking the fight on short notice, but all these guys are preparing for one guy, and that’s me at the top of the mountain. I had to make a mental shift. I had a completely different game plan.”

Masvidal was eager for a knockout, and the former backyard brawler came out swinging in an exciting first round. But while Masvidal’s wind faded, Usman coolly took charge with wrestling takedowns, foot stomps and judicious strikes mixed with superior conditioning.

Two judges scored it 50-45 for Usman, and a third had it 49-46.

Some fans might have booed Usman’s strategy, but there were no fans inside the temporary arena. UFC 251 began well before dawn Sunday morning in Abu Dhabi to meet the time demands of the lucrative North American pay-per-view audience, and the sun rose as the card progressed.

Volkanovski (22-1) earned his 19th consecutive MMA victory since 2013 by a razor-thin margin, winning 48-47 on two of the three cards when his leg kicks and takedowns earned the decision over Holloway’s overall striking game.

“It was a tough fight,” Volkanovski said. “He stood there and didn’t really take a backward step. I couldn’t use the kicks as much as I liked. I knew I had to win that last round. It’s tough. He’s a gamer. We’re both hard workers, but I got the job done.”

The Australian champion won his belt last December with a virtuoso technical performance against Holloway (21-6), who had reigned atop the division for the previous three years.

In the rematch, Holloway showed off another level of his superb striking skills while weathering dozens more leg kicks from Volkanovski, who relied largely on that strike to win the first bout. Holloway largely controlled the first two rounds, but Volkanovski increased his output starting in the third round and added a few takedowns to bolster his case with the judges.

Three title belts were on the line on the same card for only the sixth time in UFC history, and Yan (15-1) claimed the first one by persevering for a beating of Aldo (28-7), the former featherweight champion dethroned by Conor McGregor in 2015.