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There is no greater challenge in MMA than that which a champion faces in trying to stay on top. Fighters work so hard to focus on dethroning the champion of their division and reaching the top of the sport. Once they have accomplished that goal, they then find themselves targeted by a wide array of challengers with different stylistic strengths and weaknesses, all just as hungry to accomplish the same goal of winning the championship.
The problem facing MMA champions goes beyond simply the inherent human difficulty in summoning the motivation to grind and punish your body when you’re already rich and accomplished. The nature of the sport actively conspires against sustained dominance. It takes a long time to master all the necessary skills, leaving a limited period to capitalize on that knowledge before the body begins to decline. On top of that, the complex array of skills needed to thrive means there’s always a weakness to be exploited. Thus, we get a sport with constant turnover, with few champions who reign for long.
Kamaru Usman if he wins Saturday at UFC 268 will become only the 12th member of the five-defense club—Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders who were able to defend their title successfully five times before losing it in the Octagon or relinquishing it by some other means. There’s good reason that so few fighters have reached that level. Some of the greatest competitors of all-time have talked about the strain and pressure that comes from being on top for so long. That wears on a champion, but the alternative is even worse: complacency.
Usman’s predecessor as UFC welterweight champion, Tyron Woodley, spoke in media interviews after securing wins over the likes of Robbie Lawler and Stephen Thompson, discussing how he felt he had already tackled the toughest obstacles in the division. This was a worrisome mentality. Even if a division has largely been cleared out, there are always young new fighters rising through the ranks. Competition tends to get better, not worse, over time and indeed Usman has proved himself to be as formidable as any fighter to ever compete in the 170-pound division.
That naturally leads to the question of whether Usman might succumb to the same champion’s trap that has ensnared so many before. It seems unlikely given how dominant Usman has looked of late, but he would hardly be alone in seeming invincible right before the fall. It’s not as if Colby Covington is an underwhelming opponent, either. Covington gave Usman the toughest fight of his UFC career and would have won on the judges’ scorecards if he took the fifth round of their first bout. This is the most important fight of Covington’s career, and he knows it. He has no intentions of making it easy on the champion.
With that said, there are ample reasons to believe Usman can continue to dominate where others have faltered. In the short term, Covington is about as powerful a motivator as one can imagine. The loudmouthed chaos agent has taunted and berated Usman for years, and this is the opportunity for the champion to close the chapter for good. The fact that Covington gave him such a tough fight last time out is also likely to guard against complacency.
If Usman can get by Covington again, he will be close to clearing out the division. That’s not a positive when it comes to staying hungry, but luckily for Usman, there is a medium-term solution on the way. Just four fights into his UFC career, Khamzat Chimaev has announced his presence as a problem for anyone in the welterweight division. He’s young, dominant and undefeated. Usman knows Chimaev is coming, regardless of when that happens. The young emerging threat is the perfect way to keep a dominant champion hungry, like a 36-year-old Floyd Mayweather Jr. taking on Canelo Alvarez or Joe Montana winning his fourth Super Bowl while holding off the internal challenge of his hall-of-fame successor, Steve Young. Chimaev’s emergence is in some ways a blessing for Usman.
Regardless of individual opponents, Usman also has the ongoing motivational benefit of the ability to significantly enhance his legacy in the coming years. That may seem like a truism; any fighter can continue to build their legacy after all. However, some fighters have much more that they can do to carve out their place in history than others. For many fighters, winning the championship is the accomplishment in and of itself. Take Glover Teixeira. At 42, he isn’t going to emerge as the greatest light heavyweight of all-time. Whether he wins his next fight or not, the fact that he won the UFC light heavyweight title is almost certainly going to be his biggest career accomplishment.
On the flipside, take someone like Valentina Shevchenko. She has firmly established herself as the best 125-pound female fighter of all-time. She can of course continue to enhance her resume to make it harder for future fighters to match her accomplishments, but she retires in the same place in her division regardless of what she does in the coming years. That’s part of why another rematch with Amanda Nunes lingers as a discussion point.
Woodley, based on his resume heading into his welterweight title run and the way his title fights went, was no threat to the legacy of Georges St. Pierre as the greatest welterweight of all-time and possibly the best pound-for-pound fighter in history. The way GSP dominated his division for so long was just too much. For Usman, however, it’s a goal that’s more within range. It will be difficult to match GSP’s number of title defenses, but Usman still hasn’t lost in the UFC, and he appears to be getting markedly better. He deserves the accolade as the sport’s best pound-for-pound fighter, and if he keeps winning, he can move from a great champion to one of the all-time greats. If he loses in one of his next few fights, that potential stature will likely fade away. The stakes for him thus remain as high as ever.
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