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Kamaru Usman has thus far carried the crown with ease.
“The Nigerian Nightmare” will meet the latest threat to his throne head-on when he defends the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title against former Sanford MMA stablemate Gilbert Burns in the UFC 258 headliner on Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Now training at elevation under the watchful eye of Grudge Training Center founder Trevor Wittman, Usman carries a 16-fight winning streak into the cage. The 33-year-old champion has not competed since he turned away American Top Team’s Jorge Masvidal some seven months ago.
While Usman has already packed his career full of defining moments, here are five that stand out:
1. Being Mortal
If Usman thought he was invincible, Jose Caceres taught him otherwise. Caceres submitted “The Nigerian Nightmare” with a standing rear-naked choke in the first round of their Championship Fighting Alliance 11 confrontation on May 24, 2013 in Coral Gables, Florida. The end came 3:47 into Round 1. Usman executed an early takedown, applied his ground-and-pound and advanced to full mount, as their encounter began to take the shape of a rout. However, Caceres stayed calm under duress, forced a scramble, made his way to his counterpart’s back and cinched the rear-naked choke to coax the tapout. Having occurred in Usman’s second professional appearance, it remains his only career defeat.
2. Respectful Beatdown
Usman had the antidote for Demian Maia’s venom. A crushing sprawl, superior athleticism and efficient standup spurred Usman to a unanimous decision over Maia in the UFC Fight Night 129 headliner on May 19, 2018 at the Movistar Arena in Santiago, Chile. Scores were 50-45, 49-46 and 49-46 for Usman, whose stock soared ever higher in the UFC’s welterweight division. Only the first round was competitive. A replacement for the injured Santiago Ponzinibbio, Maia spent the last 20 minutes shooting low-percentage takedowns, eating punches and backpedaling around the cage. Usman dropped the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with a straight right in the fourth round, pounced with punches and exacted further damage on Maia’s face, opening a cut near his left eye. Though a finish failed to materialize, the outcome was never in doubt.
3. Top of the Mountain
In a performance that fell somewhere between sublime and flawless, Usman seized the undisputed welterweight championship with a one-sided unanimous decision over Tyron Woodley in the UFC 235 co-main event on March 2, 2019 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The scorecards told a tale of utter domination: 50-44, 50-44 and 50-45. Usman dismantled the two-time NCAA All-American wrestler in the clinch and consolidated his takedowns with punishing ground-and-pound. By the time the fight reached the championship rounds, Woodley seemed resigned to his fate. Usman flirted with a finish in Round 4, where he cut loose with a volley of uppercuts and hooks along the fence. Though Woodley survived, a changing of the guard was inevitable. Usman connected on 336 total strikes in the five-round affair—the second-highest total in UFC history at the time.
4. Quieting the Chaos
Colby Covington’s ego finally wrote a check his body could not cash. Usman vanquished the American Top Team lightning rod with fifth-round punches to retain his welterweight title in the UFC 245 headliner on Dec. 14, 2019 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Covington succumbed to blows 4:10 into Round 5, as referee Marc Goddard opted to rescue him from further abuse. Neither man attempted a takedown, choosing instead to leave their amateur wrestling credentials in the dressing room. Usman was credited with a career-best 175 significant strikes landed, one of which rattled the challenger in the third round. Covington responded with 143 such strikes of his own, and while he was the busier fighter, he lacked the firepower he needed to give the champion true pause. He hit the deck twice in Round 5 before a burst of Usman hammerfists did him in.
5. Game Over
Masvidal ran stride for stride with Usman for five-plus minutes. Then the reality of his situation set in. Usman utilized a physical clinch, landed multiple takedowns and applied suffocating top control, as he kept his stranglehold on the Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title with a unanimous decision over “Gamebred” in the UFC 251 headliner on July 11, 2020 at the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Scores were 50-45, 50-45 and 49-46. Masvidal—who replaced Gilbert Burns on short notice after the Brazilian tested positive for COVID-19—outstruck the champion in the first round but enjoyed considerably less success as the fight unfolded. Usman corralled him along the fence, where he scored with shoulder strikes, foot stomps and knees to the body. “The Nigerian Nightmare” even had his moments in standup exchanges, his lead growing with the passage of each five-minute period. Usman delivered takedowns in the third, fourth and fifth rounds, as he salted away his 16th win in a row and improved to a perfect 12-0 in the UFC.
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