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Kamaru Usman still playing the waiting game, but is more than ready to jump in

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Kamaru Usman
Kamaru Usman
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

DALLAS – While the UFC 228 media day was taking place this afternoon with all the major players involved on the card, Kamaru Usman sat upstairs at the UFC host hotel biding his time. Like a lone wolf slunk in under cover of night, Usman has arrived in Texas as an insurance policy for the welterweight title fight between Darren Till and Tyron Woodley. He’s not part of the hoopla. But he is ready to go should anybody show up overweight, hurt, sick or otherwise unable to go.

“It’s definitely a weird position, especially at this stage of my career,” Usman told MMA Fighting. “But I attest my strength to deal with it with the training I’ve had, going through years and years of wrestling. Especially collegiately. You’re in a big tournament, you don’t know who you’ll get next. It’s whoever gets through that guy that you get next. I like to think that I’ve had a lot of training for moments like this.”

Usman, a former All-American who wrestled at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said of Thursday morning he was down to 181 pounds. He was drinking a gallon of water to stay hydrated, but he is just as far into his weight cut as either Till or Woodley. With the scrutiny following Till especially after a botched weight cut attempt in his last fight against Stephen Thompson, Usman is able to proceed in relative peace.

The hard part is not knowing if he’s back in his childhood home of Dallas to get the chance of a lifetime or not. He hopes so, though he’s also quick to add that he’s not rooting for something terrible to happen to either of the welterweight principals who are booked to fight.

Then again, he has to have a mindset that something weird will happen.

“It’s still nerve-wracking, because I’m still having to make weight,” he said. “It’s not like I’m a new guy in the UFC, where it’s like, oh you’re making your UFC debut, you’re going to do whatever it takes to make weight. It’s like, I still have to make weight and I’m not getting paid like I’m going to fight. But it’s something I’m willing to do to be a champion.

“At the end of the day, I’m a professional. I’ve been doing this shit for a long, long time. I don’t take this for granted. When I decided that I wanted to be a professional athlete…one thing about me is that my parents didn’t force me to be an athlete. My parents didn’t want me to do this. My dad, when I told him I wanted to wrestle, he told me no, if you’re going to play any sports play baseball. You get paid a lot and there’s not that much contact. But for some reason I chose to do this. I chose to embark on this journey.”

Amid the swirl of cameras and media and fighters with their factions, Usman is playing the waiting game by himself. He’s not central to the picture, but he is the threat on the periphery. He has his wrestling coach Greg Jones in Dallas with him, and his brother Muhammad lives in the area. Otherwise, he is going about his business on his own.

Waiting for the moment he can be inserted into the picture. Waiting, as he sees it, for the moment he can start morphing into the beast that has gone 8-0 in the UFC.

“Everything ties into training for these fights, because I had to train for two different styles, not knowing if I would even have a fight,” he said. “For what we do training, as a fighter, you have to be able to flip that switch where you turn into that savage, that guy that’s prepared to go to war. It’s been tough to try and do that, but the satisfying part of it all is that I have that peace of mind that I don’t know who it is. When you do know who it is you tend to put that extra anxiety on it, ‘man does this well, he does this well.’

“So for me it’s just like rolling with the punches. Whoever it is I’m whooping their ass, it doesn’t matter who it is.”

Of course, in the ever-shifting landscape of the UFC, there are no guarantees. Though Till has seemed open to a switch if need be, the current welterweight champion Woodley hasn’t been so keen on the idea of a last-minute opponent swap. In fact, Woodley said — point blank — that he would not fight Usman if Till misses weight.

Usman heard him say it, just as he’s heard many things over the course of his career. But he believes that strange things happen when circumstances change, and people change their minds.

“[What Woodley said is] for the organization to figure out,” he said. “I don’t have that anxiety. Somebody else gets to have that anxiety. Crazier things have been said. They also said that women would never fight in the UFC, and they’re some of the biggest stars right now. Things happen. Tyron Woodley might have felt that way, but hey, a lot of things can happen.

“When Dana [White] sits in front of you and says this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to make this fight, hey, minds can change. You never say never, that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned. But it’s not my job to worry about that. It’s my job to show up, make weight, and prepare to be a world champion if that opportunity presents itself.”

While Usman waits to find out his fate, so do his coaches. He said that Henri Hooft and Jorge Santiago are on “stand-by,” ready to jump on a plane from Florida on Friday, ready to corner him on the fly. As of Thursday of fight week, he felt there was still a little bit of destiny in the air. Last month, Usman tweeted that he just had a “deep feeling in my soul,” that “September 8th I will be the new welterweight champion of the world.”

A smile appears on his face when that tweet is brought up.

“When I had that thought, it was a part of camp where…there’s a moment to where you’re just done,” he said. “You’re tired, and you’re thinking why am I doing this? But when you’re signed to fight, you just have to get through it. For me, I didn’t have a fight. I wasn’t signed to fight. And so your mind will try and find every ounce of motivation, and I’ve always been that guy to where I felt like…I feel like a guy who hasn’t got his just due in the organization, so I always felt it was going to be through something chaotic like this, to be able to get that shot. To really open eyes that I’m good enough to be the champion.”

One way or another, it’s been adventure for Usman to play the role of alternative at such a pivotal moment.

“Once they came out and announced [Till-Woodley], mentally I was already like, fuck it, I’m going to prepare for that fight,” he said. “I’ve seen crazy things. I was in Brooklyn when Khabib went through three or four guys before he found an opponent. Crazy things happen in this sport, and you have to be ready. And for me, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. So I have to be ready to maximize that opportunity.”