Not even Fight Island can compare to the sort of isolated distance UFC champion Kamaru Usman is putting between himself and the rest of the welterweight division. He didn’t leave UFC 251 as the people’s champ, but through his lopsided win over Jorge Masvidal, the reigning welterweight king did manage to prove, unequivocally, that he’s the best the division has seen since Georges St-Pierre.
There’s no denying the boo birds would have been in full force if the UFC allowed fans to attend its sundered tropical island event, which looked like a crossbreed of “Mortal Kombat” and David Fincher’s “Fight Club.” The Twitter birds have already been chirping unrelentingly with complaints.
Usman did what he needed to do to defend his throne in dominant fashion, while assuring he took the least amount of damage in doing so. He implemented the exact grappling-heavy game plan that every talking head—ranging on an MMA aficionado scale of Daniel Cormier to Stephen A. Smith—predicted as his best path to victory.
Yet, MMA fans seemed aghast when he utilized those very tactics against a menacing striker that turned a standout athlete like Ben Askren into a walking highlight reel.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) July 12, 2020
There were shades of Randy Couture with the clinch-work against the cage, Chris Leben with the foot stomps and Khabib Nurmagomedov with the relentless grappling pursuits in Usman’s five-round shutout over Masvidal. More importantly, however, the dominance was reminiscent of arguably the greatest fighter in MMA history, Georges St-Pierre.
Sure, there was nothing flashy about Usman’s performance, but he did manage to shut down a dangerous knockout artist that has put more grown men to sleep than Bob Ross. St-Pierre made a name off taking opponents out of their comfort zone and being well-rounded enough to compete in all aspects of a fight—whether it’s standing, in the clinch or on the ground.
There are no glaring holes in Usman’s game, and we haven’t seen that since St-Pierre was running out of UFC tunnels in his martial arts gi with a karate headband and French rap music blasting in the background. It’s like the worst case of amnesia has befallen a fan base that has somehow forgotten Usman’s brutal, “Fight of the Night” slugfest with Colby Covington last December.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) December 15, 2019
His victory over Masvidal tied St-Pierre’s UFC record (12) for the longest win streak in the welterweight division.
So he already walks alongside MMA royalty in his sustained dominance in the promotion. That isn’t to say he’s anywhere close to actually overtaking St-Pierre as the best the division has ever seen. The French-Canadian legend completed and compiled the sort of hit list that would make Jason Bourne envious.
Make no mistake, this isn’t some veiled attempt to rush the baton to Kamaru Usman as the greatest welterweight of all time. With only two successful title defenses, he still has a ways to go before that can even be a legitimate discussion.
But there’s also no arguing the fact that he’s the best the division has seen since St-Pierre relinquished the title and blindsided the world with an early retirement. In just his last five fights alone, he ran through two former UFC champions in Tyron Woodley and Rafael dos Anjos, stopped a former interim champ in Covington and dominated two respectable, yet terrifying, veteran contenders in Masvidal and Demian Maia.
Go ahead and stick a fork in that argument. It’s kaput at this point—over and done.
Masvidal should be respected for stepping up and accepting the fight on six days’ notice, but Usman deserves the same credit for staying in and agreeing to compete against a completely different opponent after Gilbert Burns was forced off the card. Adjusting to new opponents on the fly at that level is no cakewalk.
Perhaps the only lingering criticism surrounding Usman is the fact that he utilized his world-class grappling to coast to a decision win over a true fan favorite in Masvidal. In a blended sport filled with combat experts from all aspects, people only cheer for the art when their guy is winning. Anything outside of that is perceived as irredeemably boring.
“We’re risking our lives in there,” Usman wisely pointed out at the post-fight press conference. “What’s the point of training each and every day and going in and just slugging around and taking punches? You train to be able to make someone miss, to be able to control them in a certain way.”
This makes the St-Pierre comparisons even more intriguing considering the former champ was the king of implementing effective strategies and shutting down opponents. If people want to bash Usman for not having a shtick to go along with his UFC gold, it’s their prerogative as paying customers of a show to take that stance.
But flamboyancy and manufactured drama can only get a fighter so far in a sport with the slimmest margin for error at the top of the heap. Kamaru Usman is digging his toes into the backs of the best fighters on the planet and prioritizing making history, rather than simply being a part of it.