Monday, August 3, 2020

Kamaru Usman & The Words That Matter

“170, get ready. I’m a problem.”

Perhaps the first major soundbite from Kamaru Usman turned out to be as true as anything he has said since.

Kamaru Usman has been a problem for the welterweight division. He was a problem for other welterweights when he was running through the division as an up-and-comer, and he is still a problem for anyone who dreams of becoming the UFC welterweight champion anytime soon. When Usman knocked out Sergio Moraes in the first round and screamed those words into the camera, many welterweights followed what any good advisor tells their student to do when confronted with a difficult problem: skip the hardest and go to the next one. And judging by the difficulty Usman had in finding an opponent during his slow ascent up the welterweight rankings, that’s precisely what they did.

When Usman was on his way up the ranks, there was some questioning if he would ever receive a title shot for the same reasons Colby Covington claimed that he was nearly released by the UFC: he wasn’t a needle-mover and his style was branded as “boring.” So with Usman not resonating with a large portion of the audience and with criticisms against him reaching its peak after his victory over Emil Meek because of his fighting style and the infamous 30% post-fight interview, if Usman was going to get a title shot, it would need to be created by himself. And that growing win streak without dropping a round? A great percentage of the public looked at it, yawned, and said, “It doesn’t matter.”

In an episode of Anatomy of a Fighter, Usman described himself as self-made. He referenced the mental toughness and work ethic that he commonly speaks of as the determining factors of his success. As an underprivileged boy growing up in a Nigerian village that lacked basic necessities like running water, when Usman’s family immigrated to the United States, he took control of his own destiny, eventually leading himself all the way to the premier mixed martial arts organization in the world. And during his UFC career, like any fighter, he has been confronted with opinions, whether about his fighting style, his social media popularity, or anything else. Meanwhile, he has consistently been a walking facts machine, throwing opinions and apathy back into faces with a more actionable and fact-driven expression of the phrase, “It doesn’t matter.”

In the UFC 235 press conference, Tyron Woodley asked Usman who he has beaten. Usman coolly replied, “It doesn’t matter.” He then proved it at UFC 235 when he defeated Tyron Woodley for the welterweight championship. He achieved this in part by outwrestling Woodley throughout the fight, something most people did not anticipate due to Woodley’s wrestling credentials. Prior to the fight, Usman broke down why those credentials also didn’t matter:

“Every now and again, you’ll get that Division II or Division III kid that chose to go to a Division II or Division III that’s better than everybody. And (Woodley) knows that.

“I beat a lot of Division I guys, a lot of them…All Americans and champions. He’s the type of guy that I would have beat the shit out of in college because he thought like that,” Usman concluded. “And there was nothing that I loved more, even wrestling in college, than being able to go in there and shut up guys like that.”

Usman was not expected to outwrestle a Division I wrestler and dominate a champion of Woodley’s caliber from bell to bell. The opinions of those who scoffed at this and failed to see a path to victory for Usman didn’t matter. Usman outwrestled and dominated Woodley in every facet as he said he would. Usman even said what he would tell Woodley after the fight:

“After I take that belt from you, you know what I’m gonna tell you in your ear?” said Usman at the press conference. “I’m gonna tell you just like this: ‘You’ve been a good champion. You’ve been a good champion, T.”

Some may have brushed the comments aside as passive-aggressive trash talk, but after capturing the title, Usman got on the microphone and stuck to his word:

“Give it up for Tyron Woodley, this is a champ right here who has dominated,” he said. 

“A lot of people hate on that man, but when you talk about the greatest welterweights of all time, that man’s gotta be in the conversation.”

Ahead of his first title defense against nemesis Colby Covington, the facts machine kept spewing, telling fans exactly how he envisioned the fight playing out:

“I would love to punish him for four rounds and then knock him out in a brutal manner. I don’t think people would like it if I knocked him out quickly. I think they would prefer it if I tortured him and left his face all bloody and bruised for four and a half rounds and only then knock him out.”

As competitive as the fight was, there is no denying that Usman did “punish” Covington and that his face was bloodied, bruised, and even fractured. And most importantly, Usman earned the finish after four and a half rounds of that, as he said he would. Fans certainly didn’t expect the wrestler to brutalize Covington’s face throughout the fight before getting a late TKO. They had already typecast him as a one-dimensional fighter despite past evidence. Usman’s prophecy would once again show that those outside opinions didn’t matter.

There’s an African proverb: “Examine what is said, not him who speaks.” Regardless of where Usman ranks in terms of popularity among UFC champions, he has exemplified the universally respected attribute of backing up your words with action as well as anyone.

They said he was never going to get a world title shot because he was one-dimensional and doesn’t move the needle. It didn’t matter.

They said he would not defeat Tyron Woodley because Woodley was a stylistic nightmare for Usman and that Usman could not outwrestle him. It didn’t matter.

They said his fight with Colby Covington would be a “hugfest” with limited striking. Clearly, those opinions didn’t matter, either.

Usman vowed to become the first Nigerian world champion. Fact. He said he’d dominate Woodley and could outwrestle him. Facts. He then called his shot with Colby Covington Mystic Mac-style but without the ostentation. Usman may not speak as loudly or with the same following as a Conor McGregor, but he, too, has earned the reputation of someone who puts his words into actions. And now, as the reigning, defending welterweight champion, Usman can now sit comfortably on the throne while he lets his actions respond to each opinion the same way those opinions used to smugly respond to his actions:

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