Classy, mature Kamaru Usman at the top of his game both in and out of the cage

·Combat columnist
·6-min read

Maybe a few years ago, Kamaru Usman would have gotten exorcised by the notion that just four fights into his UFC career, some credible people in MMA are saying publicly that Khamzat Chimaev is ready and qualified to challenge for the welterweight title that Usman will defend against Colby Covington on Saturday in the main event of UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

On his YouTube channel, ex-UFC title challenger Chael Sonnen was discussing Chimaev’s decimation of Li Jingliang last week at UFC 267.

“I’m very confident telling you guys that Chimaev, maximum, is one fight away from a world championship,” Sonnen said. “There is a scenario right now where you don't fight him at all, you put him in a world championship [match] against Colby or Usman and nobody complains. Nobody says, 'That's not right.’”

UFC Hall of Famer Michael Bisping also was aboard the Chimaev hype train and said he suspects Usman is paying close attention.

Bisping believes, as Sonnen said, that Chimaev is on the verge

“The guy is unreal,” Bisping said on YouTube. “What a freak, and I mean that in a good way. To have the confidence to go forward and just grab [Jingliang] like that, throw him down, and this is what he’s done in every fight.

“Four fights, four finishes, four quick fights, only hit one time. He’s going to get to fight for the belt pretty soon. But I think he needs one more, and that would be a five-fight win streak and then he’ll fight for the belt.”

There were more, but you get the point. Usman, by contrast, came up the hard way. He fought on the regional circuit before getting an opportunity on "The Ultimate Fighter." He won Season 21 and has won everything else since.

Including his two exhibitions on TUF, he fought 11 times before getting a title shot. Along the way, he beat the likes of Leon Edwards, Sean Strickland, Rafael dos Anjos and Demian Maia.

Many would be jealous or angered by the attention that Chimaev is receiving, but Usman views things differently.

He’s not only developed over the last decade into the nearly consensus No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, he’s become one of the best interviews in the UFC and he’s got a great business sense.

This is a guy who has everything in perspective as he heads into a grudge match Saturday against the guy who gave him arguably his toughest fight ever.

Covington got off quickly at UFC 245 when he fought Usman the first time. But Usman eventually came back and wore Covington down with his power.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - APRIL 25: Kamaru Usman of Nigeria celebrates his victory over Jorge Masvidal of the United States during the Welterweight Title bout of UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 25, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Kamaru Usman celebrates his victory over Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 25, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

They fought the same style and did many of the same things. But UFC president Dana White said he felt “100 percent” that Usman’s pop was the difference in the fight. Usman stopped Covington at 4:10 of the fifth to retain his belt.

“I would imagine that Usman’s power and hands have only gotten better since the last time they fought,” White said.

They have, as has every other part of his game. But Usman’s understanding of the business and of the sport, and his role and place in it, is what has changed most.

He’s a poised, articulate advocate for MMA and a thoughtful businessman.

Usman on Canelo: 'Why not merge?'

He’s fighting on the same night as boxer Canelo Alvarez, who in his sport is, like Usman, widely regarded as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the game.

He admitted that it is fun to try to put on a better show than Alvarez.

“Absolutely, there is always competition to go out there, both of us being the pound-for-pound in our respective sports, there’s always competition to see who puts on the better entertainment,” Usman said. “We’re in the entertainment business, so who put on the better event? He’s going to go out there and do his thing on pay-per-view for the people [against Caleb Plant] and I’m going to go out there and do my thing on pay-per-view for the people.

“So yes, there is that friendly competition between us to see who does better and who puts on a better event. If we really want to break the internet, break the world and break the bank, as well, why not merge? When have we ever seen the pound-for-pound [champions] in their respective combat sports both in the prime of their careers go at it?”

But though that’s probably just a pipe dream, it shows that Usman is aware of his stature within his sport and what his presence means to a show.

It all comes because of winning, though, and Usman hasn’t lost since his second professional fight in 2013. He’s since reeled off 18 in a row, including 14 in a row in the UFC. Since winning the title from Tyron Woodley in 2019, he’s beaten Covington, Jorge Masvidal twice and Gilbert Burns.

His belief in himself is absolute, and while Covington says the first fight was stopped too quickly by referee Marc Goddard, Usman carefully breaks down why he believes it wasn’t so.

Retirement on Usman's mind ahead of UFC 268

But all good things must come to an end and at 34, Usman's on the backstretch of his career. He knows it, though he hasn’t shown any signs in the cage. Being away from his young daughter for months at a time, though, is enough to make him reevaluate his life’s choices.

“It’s a good question,” Usman said when asked how much longer he wants to sacrifice for his job. “I’ve got to the wealth of my most respected guys who have been champions and at the top of this sport and taking in [what they said]. I’m starting to understand, and being a father helps here, that this isn’t something I can do forever. It’s not something I necessarily want to do forever. Being away from my daughter for 12 weeks takes its toll.

“I do consider what the trade-off is. How motivated am I to really be gone for 12 weeks away from my growing daughter and compete with these guys? So yeah, it’s something I’m thinking about. Who knows? I’m not going to put a time limit on it, but I am starting to recognize that the body’s not 21 any more. It’s starting to change.”

His departure isn’t in any way imminent, but when he does walk away, it will be a huge loss, not only for the UFC but for all of MMA.

Like the legendary Georges St-Pierre before him, he’s a guy who does just about everything right. Those guys are hard to find and harder to let go.

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