"…I thank you T-Wood. This is a chance you did not get- to take that title off GSP. But when the cage door closes I will take the belt from you and I will say to you "you’ve been a good champion."
-Kamaru Usman to Tyron Woodley at the UFC 235 Pre-Fight Press Confrence
What should be the narrative surrounding Kamaru Usman should he defeat Gilbert Burns at UFC 258? This is a question that is borne as much from comments about Usman to the very real prospect that we are watching perhaps the most competitive Welterweight Champion in UFC History. Kamaru Usman was once labeled the ‘boogeyman of the welterweight division’. As legend has it, his manager, the infamous Ali Abdelaziz had to send the same fight offer to numerous athletes in the division. Ranked above and below, fighters turned down fights with Kamaru Usman so frequently and so blatantly that the Nigerian Nightmare once admitted in an interview with Ariel Helwani that he "…thought of quitting." Through providence and the fate that is the UFC Title Picture, Kamaru Usman became the replacement fighter to challenge for the Title after he had won against a replacement fighter as a replacement fighter two consecutive fights prior. At UFC 235, Usman dominated Tyron Woodley to end his aura; At UFC 247 Usman stopped Colby Covington to shut him up; At UFC 251, Usman shut-out Jorge Masvidal to kill the hype train. In all three lead-ups, Usman was rumoured to have met the person capable of making him fall by the wayside. So the question remains, what should be the narrative surrounding Kamaru Usman should he defeat Gilbert Burns at UFC 258?
On the 3rd of March 2019, Kamaru Usman stood across from Tyron Woodley wearing the same stare he has used in all his fights in the Octagon. He looked at the World Champion who had continually dubbed himself the Greatest Welterweight of All Time. Tyron Woodley, an elite American wrestler with a bazooka for a right hand, had defended his title against Stephen Thompson in a rematch, outlasted Damian Maia in a tactical contest and annihilated Darren Till in his third fourth title defense. And on his way to the belt, many had fallen. And so many had fallen because evading the right hand was only possible when you were not afraid to put Tyron’s wrestling to the test; and no one was mad enough to try that. But then Usman was.
At the pre-fight press conference, flanked by an interrupting Ben Askren, Tyron Woodley kept asking of Usman "How are you going to beat me? What are you going to do better than me?" and in what many did not think was genuine, Usman simply answered by saying "I am going to do everything better than you." It turned out, that it was not just posturing. Subsequent fights have shown us that Usman really had seen something most hadn’t seen but for the 30 minutes they spent in the Octagon, Usman made Tyron Woodley look second-best in every single department of Mixed Martial Arts. Woodley was outstruck, outpositionsed, outwrestled, outgrappled, outmaneuvered and outpaced. It was brutal in the same way that a wave of water crashes over anything in its path. Woodley did not look good, because Usman made sure he looked better. That was how he won the title. And in his post-fight press conference, Usman welcomed Colby.
Every fight needs a narrative. It’s how they are sold to the public. The narrative doesn’t have to be true, nor does it have to play out in the octagon. But the narrative is what fans would tune in to see. And Colby Covington, under the noise he made from his gimmick had created the narrative that he was simply more of an athlete than the competition. The phrases "weaponizes pace" "relentless volume" and "amazing cardio" were thrown out to remind people that Colby Covington had an in-fight weapon that Usman had to be wary of. And when the fight came to a head in the main event of UFC 245, that was the story… until it wasn’t.
Colby Covington seemed to be running away with the numbers in rounds 1 and 2 where he landed 80 significant strikes. Covington may not have won the second, but the pace he adopted was true to the narrative. In his corner, the mics were picking the exchanges of ‘breathe for me’ from Colby’s coach. And then Usman did what many did not consider… he rolled with Colby Covington.
By the end of round 4 (and also thanks to a broken jaw at the end of the third round) one of the commentators intrigued, pointed out that Colby Covington’s output had slowed considerably after the 2nd round; in round 3, Colby Covington only landed 8 strikes… Usman landed 29. And in round 5, the story steadily remained that Kamaru Usman despite throwing with more power and packing visibly more muscle, was landing more and landing harder. It was not something many saw coming; except Usman when they stood across each other. At the end of the fight the official significant strike count was 175 to Kamaru Usman and 143 to Colby Covigton. Usman would later reveal that inbetween rounds, he was asking Colby "where is that gas tank?"
"…Usman has the gift and ability to turn the fight into exactly what his opponent doesn’t want to do…"
-GSP wishing Usman well after a respectful Callout
Usman has done this numerous times in his career. And he has mostly done it in the big profile fights. Against Damien Maia, Usman officially scored one knockdown (but his pressure and jabs forced Maia to the ground on at least 4 occassions) and not once did Usman seek to establish top control. He simply stepped back and waited for the referee to stand Maia up. Usman knew that as long as there was no jiu-jitsu exchange, he would not lose to the legend. Against Rafael Dos Anjos, Usman ruffled the brazilian’s feathers so much the former champion lost track of time. Capitalizing on his bigger frame and nullifying Dos Anjos speed advantage saw Usman run away with the fight. In the Tyron Woodley fight, Usman simply closed the distance to be small enough that a looping right had would be useless. Woodley’s right hand was like a rocket launcher inside a wardrobe… useless. And in one sequence, Usman hit 13 consecutive body shots to tire Woodley out. Against Colby, Usman needed something different. He still used his power jab. And he still went after the body. But he had to make sure he did not clinch. A big part of Usman’s game, clinching was something Colby used to rack up points in more chaotic than devastating fashion. Numerous times during the match, Usman would reposition his feet far enough so he could catch Colby on the length of his shots rather than in the pocket. It was a brilliant strategy; but more crucially it was executed by someone with the ability to. He is a nightmare to fight.
It is perhaps responsible for some of the dislike that many fans have for Usman’s fighting. It is not majorly the wrestling or the control or the clinching (or the footstomps). It is more that Kamaru Usman is one of the few elite fighters that does not just focus on his primary skillset; he instead waits for the opponent to tell him what kind of fight they will fight. So when Israel Adesanya comes to a fight, everything else he is doing is to set up his spectacular striking offense. When khabib comes to a fight his pressure and false jabs are all a precursor to the ‘smeshing’. But not Kamaru. A heavy wrestler and control fighter, he could come into a match and turn it into a half-hour struggle in the clinch (like against Jorge Masvidal) or a slow punching match (like it was with Damian Maia) or a top control and positioning affair (against Emil Meek). Each time, he spoils the narrative. And it gets on people’s nerves, because people want to be able to follow their own stories of expectations and reality. This is the intrigue of his next fight.
Gilbert Burns is Usman’s challenger for the Welterweight Title at UFC 258. Both men are excellent welterweights. They are ably sized for the weight class such that no one will have any size advantages and they have trained together for more than three years which means they have studied one another too closely for comfort. The narrative for this fight is that ‘Gilbert Burns will be Usman’s toughest challenge in this division.’
Possessing a world-class jiu-jitsu resume, an extensive record of wrestling American top wrest;lers (including Usman) and a new range of striking that has seen him knock out Damian Maia and outstrike Tyron woodley at a 3 to 1 ratio, Gilbert Burns seems to wear a new mentality that his time is now and only now. Against Tyron Woodley, Gilbert photocopied Kamaru’s gameplan (they trained together for the fight) and replicated his success down to the scorecards. Against Damien Maia, Gilbert went one step further and knocked him out. Durinho (to borrow the words of Kamaru Usman himself) is a problem. And there are more than enough believers that Usman will meet a reckoning come Main Event Time at UFC 258.
Forget the Greatest of All Time Talk. In my opinion (and one as a fan of Kamaru Usman), anyone who claims this standard must first and foremost transcend the sport/genre. George St-Pierre is in that hall looking in a mirror.. Kamaru has not entered the room yet, he is still in the lobby. But a win over Gilbert Burns will gain him access to a class of chips that very few fighters have ever had to cash in. A Gilbert Burns win will pose questions to Usman- the same kind that GSP had to answer after his loss to Matt Serra at UFC 69. But right now, Usman remains the Champion, the first African UFC Champion. In this mould Israel Adesanya has joined him and Francis Ngannou just might too. He might grind to a win, or engage in a powerfight; but the narrative is that Gilbert Burns is someone who Kamaru Usman will be unable to bully in the Octagon… Gilbert Burns is someone who can win against Usman’s dominance. So the question is, what should be the narrative surrounding Kamaru Usman should he defeat Gilbert Burns at UFC 258? From where this writer is standing, a victory over Gilbert Burns will put Kamaru Usman in the untouchable category… the best of his generation.