Rarely does a champion get eclipsed in the way that Kamaru Usman did during UFC 245 fight week. There was little he could do to prevent it. With opponent Colby Covington willing to say or do anything to get the spotlight—from wearing garish suits to accusing the champion of using performance-enhancing drugs to bringing up a family member’s legal troubles—Usman had to bide his time and silence him the old-fashioned way.
Last night, he did, finishing Covington with a fifth-round technical knockout. There was a lot of poetry in the stoppage:
- Usman had promised not to win quickly but to “punish” Covington
- Covington had been the one lauded for his stamina while falling late
- Usman’s late stoppage resulted in a broken jaw for the challenger
Yes, he literally shut Covington’s mouth by the end of their welterweight championship bout.
“When you push hate and you push separation, love and unity does win sometimes, and tonight it won,” Usman said at Saturday’s post-fight press conference.
Even if Covington made one final statement by running from the cage before the final decision was read, his objection over what he considered an early stoppage felt fairly hollow after he was dropped twice in the round before referee Marc Goddard called a halt to the fight.
His poor sportsmanship was in character, but in a way, it was just as well, leaving Usman with a coup de grâce, and finally in the limelight, alone.
He is incredibly deserving of the solo attention. This is how good he has been: prior to last night, in the history of the UFC, there have only been three fighters to start their Octagon careers with 11 straight wins—Royce Gracie, Anderson Silva and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Now, Usman stands alongside of them, having never experienced defeat since winning The Ultimate Fighter 21 four years ago.
Still, until now he has mostly been overshadowed, and it’s not just by Covington. Even after his surprise win over Tyron Woodley in March, he was quickly out-shined by the “BMF” belt, by the return of Nate Diaz and the rise of Jorge Masvidal.
Even as the champion, he has never been the focus of the welterweight division, but there was at least a shift back in his direction last night, and largely on the strength of his late rally. Judges scorecards had the fight tied heading into the fifth, a round which many thought would be Covington’s time to shine. That prediction was always a bit curious given that prior to last night, Usman had actually thrown more volume in five-round fights, and it wasn’t particularly close. In his last two fights, Usman had thrown 336 and 227 strikes, compared to Covington’s 201 and 142.
Still, Usman had the pressure of beating Covington on behalf of the many people who had tired of Covington’s antics. Prior to the fight, he noted being approached multiple times by fans who pleaded with him to end the challenger’s rise. Usman never met Covington’s behavior but he sure met his challenge.
“I work my ass off, and I’m going to continue to work my ass off, and with good integrity,” Usman said. “I don’t have to walk around like a punk and say certain things and abuse a whole country, abuse the whole world and talk about people and religions and things like that. I don’t have to. I’m going to walk with integrity because at the end of the day I want everyone that’s watching me and every eye that’s on me to look at me and say, ‘You know what? That’s what we want to be. That’s the example we like.’”
The biggest surprise in the fight came down to tactics. After all Covington’s talk about his superior wrestling, he never even tried to take Usman down, instead choosing to engage in a kickboxing match. Up until last night, he had been one of the most prolific takedown artists in the game, fighting on the heels of bouts with 10 and seven takedowns, respectively. Usman, himself an excellent wrestler, also put that skill in his back pocket for the duration of the match.
With only two knockouts in 17 pro matches, that meant Covington was going to have to outwork and outpoint Usman, something that no one has yet been able to do.
Whether Covington planned it out this way or let the fight evolve as it did, he may one day regret at least not taking a shot to put his top strength forward. Whether he’ll also regret raising Usman’s wrath? Well, that’s another story, even if Usman thinks it ultimately works against him.
“It takes a lot to be able to carry all that negativity, that act, that whole fake bravado,” he said. “It takes a whole lot out of you to be able to come in here and try to fight. I imagine now what he’s going to be going through. That takes a lot out of you physically and mentally. We’ll see. He’s a tough guy, I give him his credit, he’s a very, very tough fighter, but on to the next.”
Unprompted, Usman offered some nice words for a fighter who had nothing nice to say about him. That’s the kind of person he is, and that’s the kind of champion he is. At least finally, we’re all getting around to noticing it.