Usman has finished his opponent in three of the last four and each has felt more devastating than the last
If Kamaru Usman could’ve had his pick ahead of time for the best post-fight narrative to exit his welterweight title defense at UFC 261 on Saturday with, it would’ve probably sounded like this: Usman finishes Jorge Masvidal in their rematch while ascending the top of the sport’s pound-for-pound throne.
The crazy thing about how perfect Usman’s performance turned out to be in dismantling Masvidal via one-punch knockout was that, depending upon your voting stance, it may have actually been devastating enough to earn such lofty respect.
“That’s up to them, that’s not up to me. I just need to continue to do what I do, which is to dominate each and every individual,” Usman said during the post-fight press conference following his second-round knockout. “But I do believe that right now I am the best fighter on the planet.”
Usman’s argument for P4P king consideration is bolstered by the timing of his evolution into a complete fighter considering Khabib Nurmagomedov is retired, Jon Jones has twice been recently tested and Israel Adesanya is fresh off defeat. Yet the jaw-dropping nature of Usman’s signature victory might lend itself even more to a post-fight narrative even more ambitious: the idea of whether Usman exited UFC 261 as the promotion’s next big star.
It’s a proposition that might be hard to swallow at first had you followed Usman up the ranks since his 2015 UFC debut. The season 21 winner of “The Ultimate Fighter” is currently in the midst of an insane 14-fight win streak that has him two short of Anderson Silva’s UFC record but very few of those — nine of Usman’s first 12 UFC fights went the distance — were all that exciting.
Not only was Usman seen as a one-dimensional fighter thanks to his reliance on wrestling, he was downgraded by his critics as being both boring and unwilling to take the risk of going for the finish. Combine that with his lack of charismatic charm or trash-talking ability and it all played a part in Usman needing to run off nine consecutive victories at welterweight before finally earning a title shot against Tyron Woodley in 2019.
But something happened along the way to the fighter Usman was becoming, aided by the addition of new coach Trevor Wittman. Usman, 33, started to see his confidence and effectiveness grow the more he looked to expand his craft on the feet and found he had the power and technique to deliver on the elite level.
Usman couldn’t have asked for a better stage ahead of each one of his Masvidal wins considering the first one in 2020 was the main event of the promotion’s first PPV card at the much-hyped Fight Island setup in Abu Dhabi at the peak of the quarantine. The rematch then saw Usman headlining the UFC’s first show in front of a sold-out audience in more than a year as 15,000-plus jammed the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, and provided a manic soundtrack to an evening filled with explosive performances.
The fact that Usman had the final — and most vicious — statement of all on Saturday in nearly beheading Masvidal felt apropos, especially considering the full spectrum of what he accomplished by elevating his game to such a high level when it mattered most.
Now, Usman suddenly has three knockout wins in four title defenses, which goes a long way in making oneself a marketable brand for repeat customers to follow. UFC 261 also marked the fourth straight time in which Usman’s name was at the top of a PPV card.
While he doesn’t have the kind of personality to immediately gain fans in a viral way similar to that of Conor McGregor, Masvidal or Covington, Usman’s blue-collar work ethic mixes well with his CEO wardrobe and placement as a key power player in UFC’s eventual move to Africa to suggest the native of Nigeria may have found his groove as a consistent draw moving forward.
“I’m growing in this sport and I’m growing with integrity. I worked my ass off to get to where I am,” Usman said. “A lot is being made of [Masvidal] being a superstar or this and that. I understand that and more power to him. But to myself, I am all those things as well. I just show it in a different way.
“I didn’t have to show myself flying in on a private jet. I like nice things too, don’t get me wrong. But I think it’s important for them to see the work that goes behind it. I worked for the shot to deserve all those nice things. I may have not come in a private jet but damn sure I’m leaving [in one].”
Should Usman draw Covington next for a rematch, as White confirmed late Saturday was the fight to make, the welterweight champion will have fought both Masvidal and Covington twice apiece over a five-fight stretch as a UFC leading man that began immediately after his one-sided triumph of Woodley to win the title.
Considering the long tradition of one fighter needing to convincingly defeat a PPV draw in order to take his or her fans along with him, Usman couldn’t have asked for better wingmen to help him build his name. But his newfound brand potential wouldn’t have appeared this strong had he not followed through on the performances, which include an instant classic against Covington and an iconic finish of Masvidal (who hadn’t lost via knockout since 2008).
“I have finished my last three opponents, I have finished them all. But [the remaining welterweight contenders] have to show me something,” Usman said. “Right now, I’m the champ and the most active guy in the division. These guys can’t just wait around for me to call their number, they need to show me something. This is like a track meet and I am so far ahead of these guys and I’m coming around the track and coming for vengeance right now.”
There are many fighters who can talk a good game describing what they hope to do to their opponents, but Usman is delivering upon it and he doesn’t show any signs he’s slowing down in terms of his evolution. The champion once dismissed as boring now seems as if he’s on the fast track toward becoming an all-time great and that alone, even separate from the sudden rise in knockouts, is worth the price of admission.
Culled from CBS Sports