Well, UFC fans? Was that good enough? Has Kamaru Usman finally, belatedly, laboriously earned his recognition as a champion to celebrate?
Usman methodically beat down Jorge Masvidal in the main event of UFC 251 on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as the UFC launched its Middle East residency with a fight card headlined by three championship bouts and a rematch of ex-champs. The night culminated with Usman making an emphatic statement about who’s boss among welterweights. Still the boss, that is. This second title defense in Usman’s reign of nearly a year and a half was efficient and thorough.
Masvidal came out aggressively and had his moments early, winning the first round on one judge’s scorecard. But for the most part, this fight was all Usman. He landed five takedowns, and even when Usman couldn’t get the fight to the canvas, he trapped the challenger in clinches against the cage, punishing Masvidal with shots from all angles and wearing him down. By the championship rounds, Masvidal was sagging, though he did still show some dangerous bursts.
“Jorge is a tough guy, and I give him credit for that. They call him ‘Gamebred’ for a reason; he’s always game to fight,” Usman said. “But I’m just levels better, you know? I have more tools in the toolbox, and when I need to pull them out, I can pull them out and use them.”
In those clinches against the cage, Usman pulled out body shots, foot stomps, shoulder strikes and elbows, all but emptying that toolbox. When he was in top position on the canvas, Usman delivered sharp elbow attacks and more body work. The champ had his way.
It was a commanding finish to the trumpeted debut of “Fight Island,” which actually wasn’t a real debut and wasn’t even on a real island. But do we really need to sweat the details? This whole Fight Island excursion represents a fun, offbeat diversion for the fight game, at a time when homebound fans and fighters alike need something to believe in. And what better way to wrap up the beach party than for a dominant champion to kick sand in the face of the sport’s “BMF”?
If Usman’s history foretells the future, though, what we’ll probably be hearing loudest in days to come will not be accolades for Usman’s third consecutive virtuoso championship performance, but instead rationalizations about how Masvidal took the fight on six days’ notice and was simply not prepared. Or that Masvidal wasn’t all that to begin with, anyway — just a “journeyman” ripe for the squashing.
The lack of appreciation for Usman actually began before he was finished beating up Masvidal. While many on social media recognized the champ’s total control, some found themselves yawning as the bout wore on at the late hour. In one of the more ironic examples of the pot calling the kettle black, Ben Askren tweeted, “This fight is boring as s—.” Maybe he has a point. It wasn’t as exciting as a 5-second KO.
It’s perplexing that the Usman narrative always seems to unroll this way, as if he were a bit player in the story of a fight he just won. It’s become a recurring theme. The guy he beat came in on short notice (Masvidal). Got robbed by the ref (Colby Covington). Had outside distractions (Tyron Woodley). Usman, not necessarily of his own doing, has become as known for ducking under the radar as he is for dodging punches. What was there to say about him, really? He was just the guy who didn’t lose.
Part of the reason for this seeming indifference among the public has been Usman’s doing. He carries himself with the quiet confidence of a major star. But while those in the fight game who shine the brightest typically reach that point by emphasizing their confidence (see McGregor, Conor), Usman leans in to the quiet. He announces his arrival not with fighting words but with fighting itself, tenacious and relentless fighting. His extended monologues are the thumps and thwacks of punches and clinches, kicks and takedowns.
But words do matter in the fight business. You can make a statement with your fists, but your mouth is what spreads your message. A gift of gab isn’t going to keep you standing once the Octagon door locks, of course, but it sure can make the trip there more luminous and lucrative.
Usman’s early performances in the UFC also contributed to slowing his roll. After winning his debut five years ago with a submission, he slogged along to judges’ decisions in eight of his next nine appearances. Most of those nights, he made it an easy call on the cageside scorecards. But even a clear decision win does not state your case with the clarity and certitude of a finish. When the last in that run of decision victories made Usman a champion, it won him a fancy brass-and-leather strap, but it did not win him the level of public support suitable for everything he’s accomplished inside a cage.
Even given his lack of flash, how is this possible? The night in March 2019 when Usman captured that 170-pound title belt, he did so by dominating MMA’s greatest welterweight south of Quebec. Yet there were naysayers saying Woodley’s downfall was not Usman’s unrelenting forward pressure but rather Woodley’s own pursuit … of a rap career. This narrative conveniently ignores that Woodley was freestyling rhymes six months earlier during preparation for his Darren Till fight. Woodley sure didn’t look distracted when, just days before dropping a single he’d recorded with Wiz Khalifa, he dropped Till and choked him out.
If Usman’s thorough beatdown of Woodley wasn’t enough to impress, what followed should have been. His first title defense was against the cartoonishly villainous Covington, and because of that, the buildup to the December clash had all of the melodramatic animus that a fight promotion needs to gather steam. And what a fight it turned out to be. Those watching the fight didn’t know it as the fighters entered Round 5, of course, but the judges had the bout scored even through four rounds. The fight, the belt and dominion over a bitter rivalry were up for grabs in that final round, and Usman seized them all. His TKO with 50 seconds left was exhilarating.
But even in the face of such a decisive finish under the brightest of spotlights the UFC can provide, any praise that was coming Usman’s way was drowned out by the incessant drone of Covington making excuses. The challenger had fought a tremendous fight, and getting caught late and KO’d in the final minute did not diminish that. But Covington tossing out everything from “the ref cheated me” to “the dog ate my homework” did not cover him in glory. It did distract from Usman’s glory, though.
It’s time to flip the narrative. On Saturday night, Usman showed off why he’s at the top of the welterweight mountain and why it’s going to take a demanding climb to unseat him. He recognizes that there are plenty of fighters eager to take their shot, and he welcomes that. After taking down the “BMF,” Usman said not a word about money fights. He kept his focus on the 170-pounders down below.
“All these guys are preparing for one guy,” he said, “and that’s me, at the top of the mountain.”
It’s time to acknowledge, even celebrate, what we have in Kamaru Usman. No excuses.
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