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It’s good to be Kamaru Usman these days. In the past couple years, the Nigerian-American competitor has put together a string of career-making wins. First, he dominated from beginning to end a proud champion in Tyron Woodley and likely finished his tenure at the top level of the sport. Just scoring that victory put Usman in elite company, as only 10 men have held the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title in the 22 years the belt has existed.
Beating a longtime champion and capturing the title is obviously a career milestone for any fighter, but that was arguably the least significant of Usman’s last three wins. Usman followed it with a classic war against Colby Covington that might have won “Fight of the Year” had UFC 236 not taken place on the same calendar. That was satisfying on a number of fronts. It was a grudge match that had personal stakes well beyond just the professional ones, and Usman got to shut Covington’s mouth—literally and figuratively. Moreover, on top of the fight being thrilling, Usman got the sort of emphatic finish that has often been missing in a UFC career full of decisions.
From there, Usman got the highest-profile win of his life. Jorge Masvidal improbably captured the public imagination 16 years into his career with his knockout of Ben Askren and subsequent BMF title bout with Nate Diaz at Madison Square Garden in New York. That led to a title fight on short notice with Usman, and while the bout was underwhelming in the cage, it was a box-office bonanza. It remains to be seen if Masvidal can retain his recent drawing power, but if that power fades, Usman can count himself as the biggest beneficiary of the “Gamebred” phenomenon.
In many cases, Usman’s run would clearly herald the arrival of a new superstar. In the case of Usman specifically, it’s uncertain where exactly he stands. His UFC 258 main event against Gilbert Burns this Saturday in Las Vegas will be a good test of that question. Burns enters the fight a deserving challenger, having won six straight in increasingly impressive fashion. For a fighter who has captured the public imagination, a fight with Burns is strong enough to move the needle. However, Burns is certainly not a major star in his own right. He needs to be matched with someone of note. Thus, the interest level for UFC 258 will tell us a lot about how people perceive Usman.
Obviously, the card won’t have the interest level or pay-per-view buys of Conor McGregor-Dustin Poirier or even Khabib Nurmagomedov-Justin Gaethje. However, if it can be much closer to Israel Adesanya-Paulo Costa than Deiveson Figueiredo-Alex Perez, it will be a good sign that the Masvidal fight has moved Usman into a different phase of his career.
In a number of ways, Usman’s career mirrors that of Matt Hughes. The two wrestlers proved themselves to be among the all-time great welterweights with long runs of success. At the same time, neither man early in their title runs was among the UFC’s more popular champions. Neither has a boisterous personality, and many of their wins were dominant but anticlimactic. That didn’t create a lot of fight-to-fight interest.
As we’ve seen many times over the years in MMA, fighters can go from not meaning much to being major attractions in a hurry. Hughes, like Usman, was highly respected and thus ripe for greater notoriety if the right opponent came along. When Usman was 33 and Hughes was 32, those opportunities arrived. Just as Usman’s fight with Masvidal was by far the biggest of his career, Hughes had his breakthrough fight with UFC pioneer Royce Gracie. UFC fans were largely unfamiliar with Gracie’s loss to Kazushi Sakuraba in Japan, and he still had the aura of invincibility that Hughes took. That win made Hughes, which in turn was a big part of making an even bigger star of Georges St. Pierre at the end of his rivalry with the Pat Miletich protégé.
The Usman-Masvidal fight did significantly more business than Hughes-Gracie, and it got a lot more mainstream coverage. The question centers on how much of that interest transferred to Usman. A big part of what elevated Hughes back in 2006 was the sense that Gracie’s jiu-jitsu was unstoppable. As a result, Hughes’ win said a lot about him. By contrast, Masvidal’s persona was what intrigued fans, not some sort of sense that he could not lose. It’s thus unclear how much beating Masvidal will mean. There were a lot of eyeballs, but those Masvidal fans won’t necessarily gravitate to Usman just because he won.
Even if Usman isn’t a big star to the broader public yet and his fight with Burns doesn’t move numbers in a big way, there is still the possibility that the payoff to his success comes later. It may be the case that fans know Usman is really good and will wait for the right opponent to come along. Still, the early returns on Usman’s recent high-profile victories will be interesting to monitor. Fights become more fun the more excitement there is surrounding them.
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