Opinion: Is Kamaru Usman a Victim of His Own Success?

By Jacob Debets Jul 17, 2020

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Jorge Masvidal may have been the vehicle for fan imagination leading into UFC 251 on July 11, the cold-blooded “Street Jesus” flying in from Miami on seven days’ notice to put a hurting on the undisputed welterweight champion after extracting some serious but still-undisclosed compensation from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. However, 20 seconds into his main event clash with incumbent 170-pound titleholder Kamaru Usman, “Gamebred” was on his back and hopes of a baptism started very quickly to feel like flights of fancy.

Masvidal had his moments over the 25-minute affair, firing periodic salvos of punches and kicks which every-so-briefly reignited the MMA community’s deflating sense of anticipation. However, his adversary seemed largely impervious to these blitzkriegs and more than happy to counter with his own highly effective combination of clinches, takedowns and the occasional rip to the body. Usman backed Masvidal into the cage and kept him there, softening him with shoulder strikes and foot stomps while depriving him of the space necessary to do any serious damage. By halfway through the fight a Masvidal victory seemed improbable, and when the championship rounds rolled around, they felt very much like formalities.

Usman remains the undisputed welterweight champion of the world, entering rarefied air by recording 12 consecutive victories in the UFC since his debut nearly five years ago. However, despite holding victories over six of the Top 10-ranked 170-pounders, he remains a champion largely devoid of fanfare. The props “The Nigerian Nightmare” received on social media for neutralizing “Gamebred” seemed comfortably outnumbered out by foot stomp gifs and complaints of a boring performance. His willingness to accept a new opponent on seven days’ notice and defuse his every threat seemed afterthoughts in a narrative singularly defined by unmet expectations.

Usman is in many ways the victim of his own success, a fighter whose takedowns and grappling provide a linear, decidedly unsexy path from the opening bell to the final siren. Whereas he has put on the occasional exciting performance—his fifth-round knockout of Colby Covington in December springs to mind—he usually does not have to put himself in harm’s way; and he’s hardly going to apologize for that. “We’re risking our lives in there,” he said at the post-fight press conference when asked to comment on social media backlash. “What’s the point of training each and every day and going in there and slugging it out [and] taking punches? You train to make someone miss, to be able to control them in a certain way. That’s what training’s for, so you’re not in there taking punishment.”

Usman’s rhetoric (and actions) vis-à-vis the virtues of self-preservation aren’t anything that MMA fans haven’t seen before. As he was at pains to point out in that same presser, a lot of George St. Pierre’s fights towards the latter part of his career looked a lot like Usman-Masvidal. However, unlike GSP, who had his fair share of competitive bouts and even a couple of stoppage losses in the early days, Usman’s run has been as close to perfect as you can get in the UFC. With the exception of his title shot against then-champion Tyron Woodley, who was himself riding a seven-fight undefeated streak with three title defenses to his name, Usman has marched into the Octagon as the favorite in all of his UFC fights. He’s efficiently, methodically and scientifically met those lofty expectations 12 times in a row, and though nothing’s for certain in MMA, one anticipates he will continue to turn back challengers into the foreseeable future.

The logical question then involves whether or not Usman’s reign can reasonably be expected to translate into celebrity and whether or not there’s anything the champion can—or should—be doing to push that transition in spite of his polarizing fighting style. After all, his upbringing and career narrative to date are littered with plenty of plot points which should make him a commodity capable of appealing to a mainstream audience. The Nigerian-turned-Texan who came to the United States at 8 years old and took up wrestling before going on to win a NCAA Division II national championship for the University of Nebraska at Kearney. The stud on the mat who pursued a career in MMA, winning a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and then putting together a nine-fight winning streak in the Octagon to earn a shot at the title. The guy who wanted so badly for his father—who would serve nearly a decade in prison for healthcare fraud—to see him compete that he requested his fights not appear on pay-per-view so his dad could watch them from the Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution. The loving and committed father, whose idea of a good time is watching his daughter’s gymnastic videos, whose physique might as well have been cut from a boulder.

Yet at the same time, with a fighting style that has so-far done little to inspire imagination and lacking eloquence on microphone, Usman’s star potential seems limited.

The good news? He should have plenty of time to figure out how to turn that around, whether that’s by virtue of rivalries with the likes of Covington, Masvidal and Conor McGregor or by goading GSP back out of retirement. If he can’t manage that, something tells me he’ll be fine settling for legacy of dominance.

Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com. Advertisement
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