The Curious Case of Kamaru Usman
The UFC Welterweight Division is a thing of beauty, it contains everything you need to keep the fans interested and is stacked highly enough that the matchmakers quite literally couldn’t produce a bad fight. You have the Champ, Tyron Woodley who has proven to be a jack-of-all-trades, and doesn’t need to be asked twice to open his mouth to sell a fight. You then have Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson who is a walking highlight reel and offers something slightly different to all other contenders, the always exciting Robbie Lawler, the provocative villain in Colby Covington, a former Champion looking to conquer a new division with Rafael Dos Anjos, the slippery and ever-dangerous Demian Maia, the tantalising young prospect Darren Till, the returning fan favourite in Carlos Condit and that’s still not mentioning the likes of Jorge Masvidal, Donald Cerrone, Santiago Ponzinibbio, Neil Magny, Gunnar Nelson and many more. Entwined in this stacked division is a contender-in-waiting and as the title suggests - the curious case of ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ Kamaru Usman.
The former collegiate wrestler turned top level MMA fighter now sits atop a ten fight winning streak, but somewhat confusingly still seems to be stuck in the mud when it comes to cracking the top 10 division rankings. To take it back to the beginning, Usman began wrestling in high school and continued through to college, where he would cross paths with a certain Jon ‘Bones’ Jones. While Jones continued his path and eventually entered the UFC (you know the rest of this story), Kamaru continued competing within wrestling, although it soon became clear that there were more enticing paths in front of him; ‘While I was wrestling still, I was also helping a lot of fighters; I would go overseas and wrestle, and if you placed then you’d make like fifteen-hundred dollars from the wrestling organisation. At the same time, I’d be helping these fighters, and then they’d go out and make like fifty/sixty thousand dollars and I was like ‘I think I’m in the wrong sport’’. Following some encouragement from UFC Legend Rashad Evans, Kamaru decided to take his talents into the world of MMA and began his path into the UFC.
A loss in only his second pro-fight proved to be the catalyst for Usman’s future success; he lost via a rear naked choke and was taught a valuable lesson in terms of how diverse you must be to truly have success in this sport. ‘I’ve really spent a lot of time working on my craft on the mat, especially since I lost my second fight from being lazy on the ground. I used to think that I could just wrestle, and that’s a lesson that I needed to learn very early to push me in the direction that it has’ he explained.
Having entered the organisation with his team ‘The Blackzilians’ on a special series of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, Kamaru Usman has racked up a 6 fight win streak within the UFC and it seems strange that his progress has been stifled. ‘I’ve tried it all – I’ve been promised bigger, higher ranked opponents for my last 3 fights, but that never seems to happen. I’m fed up with it, at the end of the day, I’m here to fight’ he told me. ‘We’re prizefighters, but for me this was never really about money; of course the money helps, I’d be stupid to say ‘no, I don’t like the money’, but I’m doing this because I want to prove that I’m the best at this. I’ve put everything into this competition and I want to be the best at it’ he explained.
It seems like Usman needs his ‘Cerrone’ moment, much like the fight that fell in the lap of Scouser Darren Till; Unfortunately for Till though, there simply aren’t many fighters like Donald Cerrone. The UFC ranking system, as flawed as it is provides no motivation for any of the top contenders to accept a fight with Usman, no matter how ridiculous his low ranking is. The main appeal of the UFC for me was always that the best would fight the best (unlike what is often the case in boxing) and so it really is down to the matchmakers involved now to at least provide the 29 year old with an opportunity to back up his words. A clearly frustrated Usman spoke on the rankings and pleaded ‘If you’re gonna say that these guys are ahead of me, if you’re gonna say that these guys are better than me, then put them up and give me my chance to prove that I’m the best. If they’re not seeming to do that, then all I can do is continue to fight and get paid, because they’re ruining all the other aspects for me’. It’s worth noting that if the rumours are to be believed, and a fight really is in the works between perennial lightweight contender Nate Diaz and welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, then this would add further fuel to the fire as far as Kamaru is concerned, that the rankings system clearly is becoming farcical.
As it stands, ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ is booked to face Emil Meek at UFC219, although there has been increasing uncertainty over the last week that Meek may be unavailable to fight, and this has left Kamaru looking towards the likes of Covington and Till to fill the void. I asked how he felt about the matchup, and he responded assertively, asking me ‘Think about it, is that a match-up that you would make for me?’ before continuing to answer his own question (not that I disagreed) saying ‘I don’t think that’s a matchup that anyone would make for me at this part of my career. I’ve proven that I can beat all those guys, but if you’re gonna put these guys ahead of me in the rankings, then like I said they don’t really mean shit. But for the casual fan, the fans that don’t know the detailed intricacies of the sport, all they’re gonna look at is ‘oh that guy’s ranked tenth’ , ‘that guy is ranked fifth’, you know? So they need to give me my opportunity to move up and it seems like they’re not doing that, why? I don’t know’. So for Kamaru, this fight will just be business as usual and when asked on how he would approach the fight, he responded quite simply by saying ‘I’m gonna go in there and continue to do what I do, and that’s just dominate from start to finish’.
If you follow the word of Usman then it doesn’t sound like any potential opponent will have a good time when entering the octagon with him. ‘When people prepare to fight me now, the number one focus is ‘what can I do to survive? Winning is out of the window, they shouldn’t even think about that, it’s not gonna happen. They just focus on how they can hang on for the fifteen or twenty-five minutes and not die in there’ and he echoed this sentiment when he tweeted in the direction of Dos Anjos, Magny and Covington saying ‘it’s only 15-25 minutes of pain. Stop acting like I’m a murderer!’.
In the long run, the goal is simple for Kamaru – ‘As long as God permits, I feel I can reign for as long as I want, but I don’t want to do this forever. The goal is to prove that I am the best at this, and so once I’ve done that and I’m satisfied that I’ve done that, then I wanna take this into the next avenue – whether that be commentating, being an analyst or doing movies, that’s ultimately what the goal is’.
The pressure will clearly be on the shoulders of Kamaru Usman when he steps into the octagon on December 30th, regardless of who his opponent is. He knows better than anyone just how much talent he possesses and is simply desperate to show it. As fans we can only hope that a top contender accepts the challenge soon, and ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ will be able to show us just how much of a nightmare he is. It remains unclear as to why Kamaru is being held back as much as he is, but as long as he continues winning then soon his position will be undeniable.