Evolution of Kamaru Usman: From boo-birds to must-see

Dec 14, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Kamaru Usman (red gloves) reacts before a bout against Colby Covington (not pictured) during UFC 245 at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last six years, Kamaru Usman has solidified a place as one of the best fighters on the planet. With 13 straight wins and three welterweight title defenses, he is now in the conversation as one of the best 170-pound fighters the Ultimate Fighting Championship has ever employed. However, his run to elite status has not been paved with highlight-reel finishes, and displays of freakish athleticism that turned him into a viral sensation. Yet, in what has been at times an unexciting run to prominence, he’s become a must-watch talent in the industry. It’s why I believe Usman is the most excitingly unexciting UFC champion in recent memory.

Long delays at the bandwagon station

This piece isn’t an attempt to diminish the UFC’s current welterweight king. It’s more an analysis of why such a skilled fighter on a historic run, somehow went unappreciated for so long. Because it wasn’t until the last year or so that the “Kamaru Usman Bandwagon Express” really started filling up seats amongst the mixed martial arts fan base. 

Despite being on an 11-fight winning streak, with seven in the UFC, it took three years for “The Nigerian Nightmare” to gain some traction with fans. That moment came in 2018 after scoring a dominant win over former title contender Demian Maia, in his first UFC headlining gig. He then followed that up six months later with a commanding victory over former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos.

However, when he entered 2019 as the challenger to Tyron Woodley’s welterweight crown, Usman was known by casuals as much for being called “Marty” by UFC debutante Ben Askren, as he was for his fighting resume. In the lead-up to his UFC 235 title fight, some fans finally took notice of the future champion from an altercation video with Askren at a media event.

So, what made fans overlook Usman for so long, despite seemingly being an unstoppable force rising up the division ranks?

An early stat sheet lacking sizzle

In Usman’s 18 career wins, 50% have gone to a decision. Of the 13 that came in the UFC, nine went to the judges. If you include his two victories on The Ultimate Fighter Season 21, 73% of the time Usman stepped into the Octagon he and his opponent were listening to the scorecards at the end. If not for his dramatic TKO stoppage of Colby Covington at UFC 245, with 50 seconds left in the fight, those numbers would be higher.

Now, if those long distances affairs were highlighting Usman’s ability to throw axe-kicks, back-fists, and “Showtime kicks,” then that would be a sight to see. However, his bouts were clear victories based around a wrestling style that often (unfairly) called down the boo-birds from restless and bloodthirsty fans.

Over 46 rounds in the Octagon, the Nigerian has logged 47 takedowns. With high watermarks of twelve against Dos Anjos, and eight versus Emil Meek at UFC Fight Night 124. Before most of those takedowns even occurred, he usually began that process in the clinch. During his UFC run, Usman has landed 1020 significant strikes, with 496 coming in the clinch or on the ground (via UFCStats.com). Meaning, 49% of the significant strikes he landed during his UFC tenure was while grappling. In six of those wins, 63% or more significant strikes came on the mat or against the cage. Two notable instances were when he landed all of his significant strikes that way against Alexander Yakovlev, and 84% from the same positions against Emil Meek.

It can be a divisive fight style when it comes to garnering fan and media interest, as well as championship opportunities. It’s why Jon Fitch needed eight wins to get his first welterweight title fight. It’s why some fans turned on Georges St-Pierre during his title reign, after having seven straight decision victories, and probably why Usman needed nine wins to score his first title shot. In comparison, dominant wrestler and current lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov likely staved off fan hate by racking up finishes in 54% of his 13 UFC victories.

Excitement elicited by elite competition

Since the aforementioned bout with Maia, there has been an evolution on several levels for Usman. His status in the division grew, fan interest increased, and so did the level of his competition. Which makes it all the more impressive that the reigning champion’s fight style oddly enough got more fan-friendly while facing the best welterweights the division has to offer.

Over his last six fights, he has twice ended the night inside the distance via strikes. That’s something he did only once during his first seven fights in the promotion, and against the less-lethal competition. In only half of those six did 55% or more significant strikes come during grappling exchanges. This serves as examples of his growth in skills, techniques, and a showcase of his elite fight IQ. When he needs to wrestle to win, he will do so successfully. If standing makes more strategic sense, he will make the most of his outstanding gas tank, and pressure with a technically sound striking attack, something he showed when landing 83% and 89% of significant strikes from distance against Maia and Covington, respectively.

Usman’s championship win over Woodley was far from fan-friendly style. As he racked up 18 minutes of control time, and 80% of his significant strikes came grappling during a five-round unanimous decision slog. However, he followed that up with a 2019 fight of the year contender against Covington at UFC 245. He followed that up with a tactically brilliant mauling of the UFC’s preeminent BMF Jorge Masvidal. Then outdid that performance by overcoming adversity, beating the hottest fighter in the division, and handing Gilbert Burns only his second knockout loss in 23 fights.

Was Kamaru Usman considered a “boring” fighter at one time? Sure, probably. However, he isn’t that guy anymore, and he is proving that against the best welterweights on the planet. With skill and mindset that has evolved to a level where excitement and smart strategy have merged, “The Nigerian Nightmare” is forming a legend in the making with two very different fighting narratives in his career.

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