My MMA News regulars will remember the section I wrote on Chris Weidman ahead of UFC 261. If you haven’t, I highly suggest reading that column. It’s a deep dive into what takes good fighters and makes them greats (click the link below). In the midst of all that, I completely overlooked one fighter who actually did go from good to great: Kamaru Usman. While we didn’t get to see much of Chris Weidman due to his gruesome injury, we did see a new side of Kamaru Usman. Let’s dive in.
Usman’s performance was nothing short of fantastic at UFC 261. His second round knockout of the ever popular Jorge Masvidal thrust him into superstardom and has him sitting second on the UFC’s pound for pound ranking behind Jon Jones.
For the lazy who think my writing is a joke, the previous article talked about Chris Weidman missing the mark on his quest for greatness by never evolving as a fighter, taking what his body has given him. Unfortunately the results from UFC 261 have nothing to do with his decline and lack of change. But the point from the article still stands. When comparing Weidman to combat sports greats like Floyd Mayweather and Henry Cejudo, he’s simply one dimensional.
Looking at Kamaru Usman, he’s quite possibly made that leap. Looking at Usman’s rise to superstardom has really shown the evolution of the champion becoming a complete mixed martial artist.
The Kamaru Usman of Old: 30% Effort
Kamaru Usman really turned me off to him at UFC St. Louis in 2018. In that fight, he defeated Emil Weber Meek in a boring, but dominating performance. After that fight, Usman said in his post fight interview that he fought at 30% and was the most well rounded fighter in the UFC. Have a listen for yourself:
Being showered with boos, fans scorned Usman knowing he was not the most well rounded and that fighting at 30% was unacceptable. But Usman didn’t change there. He went on to win some very boring decisions against Demian Maia, Rafael Dos Anjos and eventually the title against Tyron Woodley. Then there was the exciting Covington fight but we got more of the old Usman when he defeated Jorge Masvidal the first time.
The first Masvidal fight was necessary, however, for fans to start appreciating Usman and his evolution. That fight was a snooze fest, worse than the Meek fight. Usman hugged Masvidal against the cage, worked the body, and stomped the toes. Fans admitted that while Usman was very effective, he was bad for the PPV business. Then all of that changed.
The Nigerian Nightmare Re-Imagined
Kamaru Usman then changed champs. He teamed up with the seemingly invincible Trevor Whitman. Whitman is very well known for taking fighters and making them better including the reinvention and evolution of Justin Gaethje. Whitman takes these fighters and uses their skills to make them better while curbing bad habits.
While changing camps is not uncommon, Usman needed it. It’s well documented that his knees are absolutely shot from wrestling for years. One thing wrestling is tough on is the knees.
While not explicitly stated, if Kamaru Usman wanted his legacy to go beyond a few title defenses and thrust his name into the upper echelon of legendary fighters, he would have to adjust to what he was dealt by his body. Eventually his knees will give out and Kamaru Usman won’t be as effective in his wrestling. At the level he is at, the game is played in inches and one small regression in something so pivotal to how Usman fought would have been the end of his title reign.
Whitman works on what the fighters need to be better at. Rose Namajunas worked on distance control. Gaethje on patience. Usman has worked on his boxing and the dividends are immense.
Fans got a glimpse of what the Whitman-Usman team up offered against Gilbert Burns. That fight saw Usman clipped in the first round and in trouble. But Usman persevered and finished the fight with his fists, not his wrestling.
Usman needed to change. He needed to fix his weaknesses. His endless gas tank and his relentless wrestling got him to the top. His striking will keep him at the top.
Earlier, I mentioned the first Masvidal fight was necessary for fans to come around in Usman. Sure he looked fantastic in the Burns fight. But that fight isn’t as easy as a comparison as it is to the two Masvidal fights. It provides an easy comparison. Fans see the same two fighters but with two very different results.
On one hand, we see a very boring but very effective. The fight featured Usman’s strength and will to defeat Masvidal. The second fight showed the change in Usman in his striking and becoming a more improved and comprehensive martial artist.
To challengers, this should strike fear into their hearts. Usman is rumored to be fighting Covington next in a rematch. It’s going to be another example of how the striking of Kamaru Usman has become a step above his old self.
Long live The Nigerian Nightmare.