After Paulo Costa was withdrawn from his middleweight bout with Khamzat Chimaev it was rumoured that a big name would come in to replace him. In steps former welterweight champion Kamrau Usman who fought at middleweight for the first time in his UFC career.
Usman came in to replace Costa and arguably somehow made the card better. The Nigerian nightmare was rumoured to be fighting Chimaev for years and we finally saw it at UFC 294.
Despite losing Usman still put in an admirable performance on short notice.
Kamaru Usman was one of the greatest welterweight champions in recent years. Usman was compared to GSP at one point for the greatest welterweight of all time. Despite having five title defences the 36-year-old never really got the support of the MMA fanbase. Even in his two losses to Leon Edwards Usman still performed well.
The Nigerian-born wrestler has had his fair share of exciting fights but still doesn’t garner the love that he deserves.
I look at why Kamaru Usman should get a lot more love than he deserves and why we should appreciate him while he’s here.
Kamaru Usman’s Title Reign
During his title reign, the Nigerian nightmare took on all challengers in his way. Usman beat the likes of Colby Covington, Masvidal and Gilbert Burns. If you couple this with the fact that he took the belt of long-time champion Tyrone Woodley then Usman’s record is impressive. Whilst he did fight Covinton and Masvidal twice he beat both in two different ways.
With Colby Covington, the 36-year-old had a back-and-forth war with Covington the first time around. With the fight in the balance, Usman pushed the action and finished Colby in the fifth round.
In the second fight, the Nigerian nightmare walked Covington down in the first two rounds and scored a knockdown in the second round. Usman was able to edge a five-round decision after a close fight. Against Jorge Masvidal Usman was able to outwrestle the Miami-born fighter to a five-round decision.
The second time the former champion produced one of the cleanest knockouts you will ever see.
Kamaru Usman landed a flush straight right hand which put Masvidal to sleep. When put up against former training partner and friend Gilbert Burns the Nigerian nightmare showed his championship spirit. After getting dropped in round one Usman recovered and knocked Burns down multiple times with his laser-sharp jab. The former champ then finished Burns in the third round to retain his title.
Gilbert Burns was a BJJ expert, Covington was a fantastic striker and Masvidal was a deadly striker. Yet Kamaru Usman dealt with all these styles of matchups and finished all three of them. The former champ was an expert at turning your weakness against you.
His streak of wins at the time was something to behold.
Switch of style
When he won the belt Usman was primarily known as a wrestler who would smother you in the clinch. You only have to look at the 36-year-old’s fight with Woodley to look at his style of fighting. Kamaru Usman had a 33% takedown percentage but had a control time of 18 minutes. This was all done in the clinch where Usman would land knees to the body and occasionally utilise foot stomps. This was Usman’s style of fighting against everyone up until his first Masvidal fight. In this fight, the Nigerian-born fighter was heavily criticised for his ‘boring’ style.
However, this all changed when the champ was booked to fight Gilbert Burns. Both Usman and Burns trained in the same gym so naturally, this forced the champ to switch camps. Usman then trained with Trevor Wittman at team Elevation where his striker improved massively. Usman was scheduled to fight Burns initially but due to COVID had to fight Masvidal instead. On short notice, the champ played it safe and decided not to strike too much.
After this fight, Usman was able to spend more time training with Wittman which would have improved his striking even more. When the Burns fight got rebooked the Nigerians striking was on full display.
Usman faced adversity in the first round but was able to compose himself. The former champion showed his ability to strike from either stance. What was most impressive from Usman was his razor-sharp jab from both his left and right. If it came from his left it shot out like a piston stinging Burns.
If it was with his right which is the Nigerian’s power hand it would act as a power jab which eventually knocked Burns down. Usman got the finish in the third but it was down to his jab that he was able to stop the Brazilian. This was all down to the coaching implemented by Trevor Wittman. Usman’s striking became a lot cleaner and when he faced Jorge Masvidal the second time it was even more evident.
The narrative coming into the second fight is that Usman would just have to utilise his wrestling to beat Gamebred. Mavidal was prepared for this and in total Usman landed one takedown. What Masvidal was not prepared for was how the champions striking had evolved. In the second round, Kamaru Usman landed an emphatic straight right hand which knocked the Miami-born fighter out cold.
It was on this night that everyone saw how much Usman had evolved. The Nigerian went from being seen as one of the most boring champions to one of the most exciting.
One thing you cannot question Usman on is his activity as a champion. The former champ regularly defended his belt and would not take a year out of the game like we see nowadays with some champions. If we look at current champ Leon Edwards who is undoubtedly one of the best in the game.
His second fight with Usman was in March of this year and he is set to Colby Covington in December of this year. That is nine months of inactivity and waiting on the sidelines. In comparison, Usman made his defence of his belt against Covington in December 2019 and fought Jorge Masvidal in July 2020. Bearing in mind this was during COVID when training camps were difficult for fighters.
The champ then fought Gilbert Burns in February 2021 and switched camps in the middle of all of this. What is more impressive is that Usman fought two months after the fight with Burns. In his fight with Burns Usman got dropped in the first round so it would be conceivable that the champ would want time to recover.
Instead, he jumped back into training camp and fought Jorge Masvidal in April. Seven months after knocking out Masvidal Usman fought Colby Covington for a second time in November of 2021. This is three title defences against three elite-level contenders in a space of a year. Not to mention three contenders who all boast completely different styles.
Most champions may take time to carefully prepare for these fighters and fight them in a longer spaced-out period. However, Kamaru Usman was willing to take on all comers.
Many champions would use the reason for having an injury to why they don’t fight as often. The Nigerian Nightmare is a living example of why this reason doesn’t always apply. After he fought Masvidal the champ had a broken nose an injury he sustained before the fight. Yet he still fought Burns months after. When he fought Colby Covington Usman had a broken hand three weeks before the fight. Yet he still fought and defended his belt. The former welterweight king has notoriously bad knees but this never stopped him from defending his belt time and time again.
Maybe you like Usman maybe you don’t but you have to respect him. Whether it’s his activity, his switch up of styles or his resume you cannot deny how exciting his title reign was. Was Usman a better welterweight than GSP perhaps not but he was one of the best champions the UFC has ever had. A complete fighter who fought anyone who was in his way and someone who produced some of the most exciting moments ever seen in the Octagon. As MMA fans we should appreciate the Nigerian Nightmare while he’s here because who knows how long it will be until we see a champion of his calibre.