Put Some Respect on His Name: Kamaru Usman Dominates at UFC 258
Often underappreciated, UFC fighter Kamaru Usman once again proved his worth with a victory over Gilbert Burns at UFC 258.
Updated: Feb. 14, 2021 • 8:05 PM ET
Las Vegas hosted this weekend's UFC 258 event.
Riding a 16-fight winning streak and 12-0 in the UFC, Kamaru Usman entered UFC 258 as the undisputed welterweight champion. Yet, within the MMA community, he still didn’t seem to be the favorite over No. 1 contender Gilbert Burns. A victory would have been his fourth championship win and third title defense, putting him even with Tyron Woodley in UFC welterweight championship history. So why was more of the chatter about Burns and not Usman entering the bout?
Online commentary during the event was strong for Usman, but it not so quietly leaned in Burns’ favor as the fight started. Once Burns landed a big overhand right in the first round that struck Usman’s temple, briefly staggering the champion, the online narrative of Burns as the new champion had already been written with sudden confidence. Usman was not only able to weather the storm of Burns power punches, he began to slowly take over the fight with a barrage of weapons we hadn’t necessarily seen from him before.
As the second round began, the talk shifted to Usman’s jab, which found a home late in the first round. Usman’s coach, Trevor Wittman, was adamant in the corner before the second round that Usman’s jab would win him the fight. Usman continued to throw the jab with lightning speed, stunning Burns with every landing. Usman then landed a beautiful step-back right hand, dropping Burns, but he continued to be patient by picking his shots and not immediately going for the kill. He continued to use the jab and some rarely seen leg kicks throughout the round.
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As the second round came to a close, Usman continued to land his jab, but also proved one more thing: he has one of the best chins in the UFC. Burns landed a few more big shots, but the champion shook them off and continued to move forward. After the horn sounded the end of the second round, Usman walked directly to Burns and stared into his eyes, as if he knew he was finished. The two men engaged in a staredown, but Usman looked like the more confident fighter.
The third round opened with Burns being dropped by yet another jab, and Usman then devastated Burns with powerful ground-and-pound, giving referee Herb Dean no choice but to stop the fight. Usman immediately ran to one of the Octagon side cameras and screamed, “Put some respect on my name!” Clearly, the champion felt disrespected entering the fight, and can you blame him?
The victory put Usman into legendary status, as he broke George St-Pierre’s record for consecutive wins at welterweight with 13. The champion now stands in a class all to his own, but is he still underrated? The answer is yes, but the question is how and why?
Fans of the most casual outfit should have begun respecting Usman after his fifth-round stoppage of heated rival Colby Covington in his first title defense at UFC 245 in 2019. The fight was a five-round war and one of the best fights in 2019.
It’s a wonder how people within the MMA community, including journalists and analysts, still overlooked Usman after the fight with Covington. Nevertheless, they confusingly did. After his win over Covington, Usman was originally scheduled to fight Burns at UFC 251 last July. The buildup was largely in Burns’ favor, as he was hyped as the new blood of the welterweight division, despite being older than Usman.
Much of the talk about Burns when the two were originally booked and before the fight at UFC 258 was about how the duo were former longtime training partners. The insinuation was that Burns had Usman figured out. The UFC removed Burns from UFC 251 due to COVID-19, and Usman defeated fan favorite and replacement Jorge Masvidal by unanimous decision on short notice. Even against a last-minute opponent, Usman wasn’t the consensus favorite, and many fans and fighters chimed in during the fight in support of “new champion” Masvidal. This can be easily tracked if one pays attention to the live tweeting that UFC broadcasts now include, all heavily in favor of Masvidal.
Usman and Burns finally met in the Octagon last night in Las Vegas, and once again the narrative was that Burns had figured out a way to slow Usman down because of their previous training and sparring. Usman, though, proved to the world that he has the ability to get better as a champion, and he finds new ways to break his opponents’ spirit when they are in the cage with him.
You could see in the second round that Burns’ confidence level had changed, and he was visibly frustrated that he did not finish Usman in the first round. Usman wears and wears on his opponents until he smells blood and once they’ve realized he has taken over, it’s too late. But is this why Usman is underrated and underappreciated? Do fans of all kinds consider him to be a boring champion?
Many people voiced their displeasure that Usman was not able to finish Masvidal, a guy who had nothing to lose and took the fight on short notice. Their opinion was that with a full training camp, Masvidal would defeat Usman. Those people clearly didn’t understand what a dangerous opponent Usman had in front of him, even without a training camp.
Usman proved at UFC 258 that he does not have a boring style and can finish a fight with complete skill when he wants to. You will never see the champion throwing caution to the wind, which should garner praise; but to the casual fan, it’s just not that interesting. The casuals want fighters to enter the Octagon and slug it out. Usman will engage in a war, but it will always be calculated.
Is the casual fan capable of understanding Usman’s strategies, or will they continue to latch on to the convenience of stating that Usman is boring? Will Usman's pundits jump on board with the dominant champion, or will they continue to disrespect Usman leading up to his next fight? What does the casual fan see in him that is so distinctly unlikable?
Usman can be a trash talker, but only when he is forced to engage. Typically, his opponent will take the first jab and Usman will indulge. So, he’s not brash in his approach with the media before and after fights, but he was visibly angered and annoyed after he finished Burns. It looked like he was trying to make a statement, because he knows just how underappreciated he is.
One can’t help but notice a small trend, that trend being that Usman is the second consecutive welterweight champion of color to be widely disrespected within the MMA world. The man he took the belt from, Tyron Woodley, experienced the same sort of backlash when he was champion. Woodley was consistently called boring and criticized for not finishing fights, albeit while dominating his opponents. Does the overall majority of casual fans want to see champions of color lose?
In sports, there are talking heads that will find a way to work in the racial component of competition, because it’s easier than analyzing skill. The casual fan finds it much easier to follow that narrative than one of training and hard work. Has this happened to Usman? One could argue that there certainly was an overall feeling of racial tension when he fought Covington, but that was largely due to Covington’s outspoken support of the Trump family and not anything Usman was doing. So again, if there is a racial motivation to Usman’s overall lack of appreciation, it’s not due to anything he can control. What he can and does control are his performances.
If we are assessing how “boring” the last two welterweight champions are, it doesn’t really add up. Woodley won the belt with a devastating first-round knockout and of Woodley’s three title defenses, one resulted in a finish. Usman dominated Woodley like no other fighter has to win the belt and has now finished two of his title defenses. His most recent finish was more brutal and more impressive than the first.
After his performance at UFC 258, calling Usman boring at this point doesn’t logically make any sense. But will people find a way to do it? Was last night’s victory enough to reel in the haters, or will Usman continue to be a fighter people tune in to see lose?