Usman, who captured the NCAA Division II national championship in wrestling in 2010 at Nebraska-Kearney, came into the fight on an 11-fight win streak, and 7-0 in UFC competition.
His victims include fighters like Leon Edwards, Warlley Alves, Sergio Moraes, Sean Strickland and Emil Meek. All are solid fighters, but the big names in the division, until Saturday, steered clear of him. That’s also something he hasn’t been shy about bringing up.
Usman was one of those guys who was a difficult opponent. He wasn’t a big name, but he could shut down big names with his wrestling. He was hard to beat and hard to look good against, a grinder, with five decision wins out of his seven UFC fights.
On Saturday, he got something of a break. He was to face Santiago Ponzinibbio, a fighter much like himself, a better fighter who is also not a top name. But when Ponzinibbio got hurt, he was replaced by Demian Maia. That was both good and bad luck.
Maia came into the fight as the No. 5 contender in the welterweight division. He’d been in the UFC for a decade, had title fights with both Anderson Silva and Tyron Woodley. He’s well-known as one of the best ground fighters who ever stepped foot in the organization.
And therein lies the problem. There is exactly one way to fight him, if you can. The idea is to keep the fight standing, pick him apart, but not to get too aggressive. It’s about shutting down Maia’s paths to victory, which above all, means keeping the fight standing.
Unfortunately, those make the worst of fights. Usman did what champion Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington had done. They took few risks and kept Maia from implementing his ground game. And they won boring decisions.
For Woodley, he was the champion, so as long as he wins, pretty or ugly, he’s guaranteed a top spot. For Covington, it was his mouth more than his win that allowed him to get into an interim title fight with Rafael dos Anjos. While Usman called for a title shot, as he should after beating a top contender and going to 8-0 in UFC competition, the win wasn’t fan-friendly enough to make anyone clamor for him to get that shot, nor would it make a marquee headline attraction.
Is it his fault? Probably not. The basics of the risk/reward game with Maia, particularly over five rounds, are such that his winning strategy, and he was never in trouble and largely cruised to victory, was going to be the exact fight it was.
The same strategy that won him his biggest fight also gave him no real momentum with fans coming out of that win. But in a loaded up welterweight division, winning ugly is a lot better than losing pretty at the level he’s at.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars on Saturday.
KAMARU USMAN - Now 13-1, Usman put himself into the top mix with the win. But unless there are a series of injuries, he’s unlikely to be considered right now for a title shot. Woodley is expected to next face the winner of the June 9 UFC 225 interim title fight with Rafael dos Anjos (28-9) against Covington (13-1) .
For Usman, his best bet is to get the winner of Sunday’s fight in Liverpool with Darren Till (16-0-1) against Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson (14-2-1). That winner and Usman would be in a position where such a match should determine a title contender. Whoever the survivor of the three with Till, Thompson or Usman, would clearly deserve a title shot.
DEMIAN MAIA - Maia, at 40, is still dangerous to anyone who doesn’t have strong takedown defense. But high-level wrestlers who can strike is a difficult matchup for him, and at his age, that’s not going to get better.
He could face the Till vs. Thompson loser next. But for any opponent, he’s tough because a Till vs. Thompson loser would need an exciting win, and not just a win over a name, to rebound. Maia isn’t the best bet for that kind of fight.
TATIANA SUAREZ - Suarez (7-0) could not have come across better than shutting Alexa Grasso (10-2) down and submitting her in 2:44.
Suarez came into UFC winning the spring 2016 season of The Ultimate Fighter. She came across like a potential star. She was dominant, had strong wrestling credentials and had some charisma as well. But, due to injuries, it was 16 months before she was back in the Octagon, which slowed down her ascension.
Suarez could go with Angela Hill (8-4) if there’s a need for one more fight before challenging the top tier. If not, the way to get to the top the fastest would be against the winner of the June 9 fight with Carla Esparza (13-4) against Claudia Gadelha (15-3). The big question is what happens with Suarez if she faces someone who can defend her wrestling, and either of those women will test her in that game.
DOMINICK REYES - Reyes (9-0) knocked out Jared Cannonier in just 2:55 of the first round with an uppercut. A next test should be Corey Anderson (10-4), who has faced a higher-level of competition than Reyes and would answer a lot of questions regarding Reyes’ potential.
ALEXANDRE PANTOJA - Pantoja (19-3) rebounded from a loss to Ray Borg and got a strong win over Brandon Moreno in one of the night’s most exciting fights. Pantoja nearly finished the fight late in the first round.