The Ultimate Fighting Championship announced that surging welterweight Kamaru Usman has been chosen as a backup for the Tyron Woodley-Darren Till title fight headlining UFC 228 on Sept. 8.
This is not the first time the UFC has had a fighter on call who was not otherwise scheduled to fight on the card in question. The promotion had Alexander Volkov in town and had him weigh in at UFC 226 in case either of the two heavyweight contests atop the card needed a last-minute replacement. In hindsight, they should have had him step in for Francis Ngannou or Derrick Lewis, or just run in the cage with them and start throwing. Anything would have been an improvement over the fight we got.
However, since Volkov is a heavyweight who doesn’t need to cut weight to make the 265-pound limit, having him on standby wasn’t a huge deal. I imagine it amounted to a nice paid vacation for the towering Russian. It is a much different matter having Usman go through a training camp and weight cut -- to the championship weight, in fact -- and then probably not fight at all.
On principle, I’m not against having a contingency plan in place for important fights where there is good reason to believe a replacement might be needed. I know there are many fans out there who clamor for it every time a card undergoes last-minute bout cancellations due to injury, happenstance or the increasingly common blown weight cuts. I oppose it in this case on pragmatic grounds; Usman is one of the welterweight division’s most exciting new contenders and in his athletic prime. I want to see him fight as often as possible, not redshirt for months at a time and look on while other Top-10 welterweights fight each other. Sure, he could be booked again fairly soon if he isn’t needed at UFC 228, but fighters are pretty much unanimous in saying how much they hate fights being postponed once they’re already in training camp, let alone once they’ve begun to cut weight. For Usman’s body and training routine, that’s what this situation will amount to.
Usman isn’t really what’s foremost in my mind right now, though. At best, he collects a tidy check on Sept. 8 for watching a great fight from cageside while sipping water. However, his mere presence on this card, or in this story, underscores the stupidity of this matchup and situation.
Just three weeks ago, I dedicated a column to discussing how ridiculous it was that the UFC was stripping Colby Covington of his interim title to make way for the Woodley-Till fight. While I thought it was silly and unnecessary to make his fight with Rafael dos Anjos for an interim title in the first place, taking said title away from him after a month and a half was even worse. It further reinforced how meaningless UFC interim titles have become, and it was a pretty shabby way to treat Covington who, no matter what a willfully churlish troll he may be on the mic, has always been a solid professional in the cage.
I would have been content to leave it at that and move on, but the addition of Usman to the equation compounds and highlights the silliness and short-sightedness of the whole thing to the point that I now find myself in the uncomfortable position of sticking up for Covington for the second time in a month. Not that he needs me to speak up for him. He’s a grown man, a veteran mixed martial artist and someone who is not exactly a shrinking violet with the media, though he did get strangely quiet for a few weeks there after being shown just how expendable the UFC found him and his belt.
Covington isn’t really the story here either, though, just another one of the players. Think of this: Covington was stripped of his interim belt because he needed some time to recuperate from nasal surgery and was not going to be ready to fight in September. He reportedly asked to fight in October or November. That delay was enough to make the UFC take back his interim belt. That’s how badly the UFC wanted the welterweight championship defended sooner.
Whom did the company replace him with? Till, a man in whom it has so little confidence that it went to the relatively rare measure of having another contender on hand just in case. Make no mistake, while Usman is nominally there to replace either half of the UFC 228 headliner, he’s really there to replace Till. Woodley has never pulled out of a UFC bout and has never missed weight. Till, on the other hand, has missed weight -- non-championship weight -- twice in his last four bouts, by five pounds and by three and a half pounds. By the eyeball test, he’s the biggest welterweight in the history of the sport, other than perhaps Anthony Johnson. I think he might blow weight, you think he might blow weight and Usman’s presence is testament that the UFC thinks he might blow weight. This is what the UFC pushed Covington aside for? It couldn’t wait another month or two? A fight so shaky that they have a replacement challenger weighing in?
One might think that this title shot, this life-changing opportunity, might inspire “The Gorilla” to train harder and smarter than ever before. Alas, while details have yet to be confirmed, video surfaced yesterday of what appears to be Till scuffling with multiple people outside a Liverpool, England, nightclub. If that’s the case, even if Till suffered no physical damage or legal consequences, his mere presence there, less than a month out from the biggest fight of his career, speaks eloquently. It also casts his jarring recent statements about legacy and greatness coming first -- and his pregnant girlfriend and baby daughter coming second -- in a new and less flattering light.
Ultimately, the UFC 228 main event is the story of four men: Woodley, Till, Usman and Covington. While all four of them are supposedly professional fighters, three of them habitually act like it and have all either been asked or forced to accommodate the fourth.