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The Weekly Takedown: Kamaru Usman laser-focused on 'Best MMA fighter Award,' UFC 278 headliner

UFC's welterweight champ wants to win at all costs, from the ESPYs stage to the octagon in his August bout vs. Leon Edwards.

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated's in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Kamaru Usman is the best mixed martial arts on the planet.

And he wants the hardware to back up that claim.

The reigning UFC welterweight champion and No. 1-ranked men's pound-for-pound fighter, Usman is one of four mixed martial artists nominated for Best MMA Fighter at the 2022 ESPYS.

"I never thought I could be nominated for such a tremendous award," says Usman, who is competing against Alexander Volkanovski, Kayla Harrison and Charles Oliveira for the award. "I'm also extremely competitive. No matter what it is, I want to win. I hope I get the votes for the win."

The award would recognize Usman's excellence in 2021, a year in which he successfully defended the welterweight title on three separate occasions against Gilbert Burns, Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington.

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Two of those three victories came via a finish. Usman (20-1 MMA, 15-0 UFC) defeated Burns by TKO at UFC 258, overcoming an elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist and counter striker. While Khamzat Chimaev is generating hype and seeking to become the one to dethrone Usman, it is worth remembering that Usman finished Burns – yet Chimaev did not.

Usman's next victory was Masvidal at UFC 261, which ended in a picturesque knockout. Usman sent Masvidal to another realm with a loaded right hand, finally quieting his sharp-talking opponent.

"I hit him for every annoyance, every infraction, every negative word he spoke," Usman says. "I called for that fight, and the stars aligned when it happened. I was able to cement myself as the best."

Usman's most recent fight headlined UFC 268 this past November, ending with him silencing Covington, the sport's most controversial voice.

"I should have been more systematic when I beat him in our first fight (at UFC 245)," Usman says. "That wasn't my approach. The world wanted to see me bang it out with him and break his jaw for everyone he offended."

Eternal rivals, their rematch sold out New York's famed Madison Square Garden. It almost didn't take place, as Usman broke a bone in his right hand only weeks before the bout.

"That happened when I was training and I hit Justin Gaethje, who has a really hard head," Usman says. "I could have asked to postpone, but that wasn't even an option for me. That fight wasn't just for me. I was fighting for my fans. I was fighting for my family."

Usman won by unanimous decision, removing Covington from the title picture.

"I believe I am the best in the world, so I needed to go out there and find a way to win," Usman says. "That's what a champion does."

Usman's next title bout takes place this August against Leon Edwards at UFC 278. It will mark their second fight, with Usman winning the first by unanimous decision in 2015. He plans to collect another victory, then move weight classes and win a second world title by adding the light heavyweight title to his legacy.

The talk of Usman moving to light heavyweight has gained the attention of reigning champ Jiri Prochazka, and Usman just had a backstage stare-down at UFC 276 with former champ Jan Blachowicz.

"Jiri, Jan, they're big, athletic specimens," Usman says. "They're phenomenal athletes, which is why they have had the success they've had. But I'm better. Maybe they feel disrespected by this, but there are levels to this. I'm a level above what they bring to the table."

Serious potential exists for either of those fights to take place in 2023. A bout that is unlikely to occur is one pitting Usman against Georges St-Pierre. A former two-time welterweight champion – and middleweight champ – St-Pierre set the standard which all other welterweights try to attain.

St-Pierre last fought in 2017, and he has repeatedly stated he is comfortable in retirement – but he did recently share his strategy on how he would fight Usman. He stated he would "try to put him on his back because I've never seen him there," which, to no one's surprise, was a comment that seized Usman's attention.

"I would love to see him try," Usman says. "I asked for that fight once upon a time. I love Georges as a champion and what he did for the sport, and I would love to challenge myself against him. I asked for him, but that was a mountain Georges didn't want to climb.

"And when he says he'd put me on my back, I'm guilty of saying things like that, too. I'll watch a fight and say, ‘Why didn't he do this? Why not do that?' It's a lot harder to do when you step in the cage."

A plethora of options are within reach for Usman's future, but his sole priority right now is training for Edwards. And, of course, taking home that ESPY.

"I spent nine out of those 12 months last year in a training camp, and I fought three humongous title fights," Usman says. "I put the work in, and I'm grateful for the nomination. Hopefully, I can win that award."

* * * * *

Yair Rodriguez wants title shot against Alexander Volkanovski – but first, he needs to defeat Brian Ortega.

Rodríguez's most memorable performance in the cage came during a defeat. He plans to change that Saturday.

Rodríguez (13-3 MMA, 8-1 UFC) headlines the UFC on ABC 3 card against the wildly talented Ortega (15-2 MMA, 7-2 UFC). Following a spectacular performance against Max Holloway last November that ended in a unanimous decision loss, Rodriguez needs a victory against Ortega to assert himself as the top contender for featherweight champion Volkanovski.

"I'm looking to win any way I can," Rodriguez says. "I'm looking for the KO or TKO, but Brian Ortega is a very dangerous opponent. I'll take a win any way I can."

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Like Rodriguez, Ortega is also coming off a loss. He fell short in an extraordinary performance against Volkanovski last September at UFC 266. The only blemishes to Ortega's record came in his two title bouts, and he enters this bout as the favorite. His wide arsenal of submissions is the most likely route to victory.

"He's real explosive with his submissions," said Rodriguez. "In order to do that, he has to be in close distance. I'm really good at managing my distance.

"It's going to be interesting if he comes ready to fight and stand up with me. His striking is really good, and I'll beware of everything with him. I don't think I'm that easy, either. We'll see who is better."

The 29-year-old Rodriguez has only gone a full five rounds on three occasions in his career, sharing he relished those moments. This five-round bout is a chance to show he belongs in the title picture.

"I love fighting five rounds," Rodriguez says. "I think I'm a five-round fighter. I love those later rounds. That's when anything can happen. I'm ready.

"I'm pushing myself and doing the best I can. I go to exhaustion every time I train. This camp is no different. Now all I can do is wait until the fight and see what I can do. We're both coming off a loss, so we both are hungry for this win."

The Pick 'Em Section:

UFC on ABC main event: Brian Ortega vs. Yair Rodriguez

  • Pick: Brian Ortega

UFC on ABC women's strawweight bout: Michelle Waterson vs. Amanda Lemos

  • Pick: Amanda Lemos

UFC on ABC welterweight bout: Li Jingliang vs. Muslim Salikhov

  • Pick: Li Jingliang

UFC on ABC flyweight bout: Matt Schnell vs. Su Mudaerji

  • Pick: Su Mudaerji

UFC on ABC women's flyweight bout: Lauren Murphy vs. Miesha Tate

  • Pick: Miesha Tate

Last week: 3-2

2022 record: 77-44

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.