Well, UFC fans – was that good enough? Has Kamaru Usman finally, belatedly, did he laboriously earn his recognition as a champion to celebrate?
Usman drops methodically Jorge Masvidal at the UFC 251 main event on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, when the UFC launched its residency in the Middle East with a fight card headed by three fights in the championship and a rematch of former champions. The night culminated with Usman making an emphatic statement about who is the chief among the middleweights. He's still the boss. The defense of the second title in Usman's reign of almost a year and a half was efficient and complete.
Masvidal came out aggressively and had his moments early, winning the first round on a judge's scoreboard. But, for the most part, this fight was entirely from Usman. He landed five falls and, even when Usman failed to fight the screen, arrested the challenger in clinics against the cage, punishing Masvidal with shots from all angles and wearing him out. In the championship rounds, Masvidal was giving in, despite still showing some dangerous explosions.
"Jorge is a tough guy, and I give him credit. They call him" Gamebred "for a reason; he is always ready to fight," said Usman. "But I'm only at better levels, you know? I have more tools in the toolbox, and when I need to take them out, I can take them out and use them."
In these cage clinics, Usman pulled body shots, tapped feet, tapped shoulders and elbows, nearly emptying the toolbox. When he was in the first position on the screen, Usman made sharp attacks on the elbow and more body work. The champion got what he wanted.
It was an impressive ending to the debut of "Fight Island", which actually it wasn't a real debut and it wasn't even on a real island. But do we really need to sweat the details? This whole Fight Island tour represents fun and unusual fun for the fighting game, at a time when local fans and fighters need something to believe in. And what better way to end the beach party than for a dominant champion to kick the sport's "BMF" face in the sand?
If Usman's story predicts the future, however, what we are likely to be hearing louder in the coming days will not be praise for Usman's third virtuous consecutive championship performance, but rather rationalizations about how Masvidal led the fight within six days and was simply not prepared. Or that Masvidal was not all there was to start with, anyway – just a mature "traveler" to crush.
Usman's lack of appreciation really started before he finished beating Masvidal. While many on social media recognized full control of the champion, some found themselves yawning as the fight progressed in the last hour. In one of the most ironic examples of the pot calling the kettle black, Ben Askren tweeted: "This fight is boring as s —." Perhaps he is right. It wasn't as exciting as a 5 second KO.
It is disconcerting that Usman's narrative always seems to unfold in this way, as if he were a little participant in the story of a fight he just won. It has become a recurring theme. The guy he defeated arrived in a short time (Masvidal). He was assaulted by the judge (Colby Covington) Had external distractions (Tyron Woodley) Usman, not necessarily on his own, became as well known for dodging radar as for dodging punches. What was there to say about him, really? He was just the guy who didn't lose.
Part of the reason for this apparent indifference among the public has Usman is doing. He behaves with the quiet confidence of a great star. But while those in the fighting game who shine most often reach that point by emphasizing their confidence (see McGregor, Conor), Usman leans towards silence. He announces his arrival not with words of struggle, but with struggle itself, tenacious and relentless struggle. Its extended monologues are the blows and punches and rebounds, kicks and falls.
But words are important in the fight business. You can make a statement with your fists, but your mouth is what spreads your message. A gift of chatter won't keep you going when the Octagon door locks, of course, but it sure can make the trip even more luminous and profitable.
Usman's early performances in the UFC also helped slow his pace. After winning his debut five years ago, with a submission, he went to the judges' decisions in eight of his next nine appearances. Most nights, he made an easy call to the score cards on the side of the box. But even a clear victory in the decision does not indicate your case with the clarity and certainty of a finish. When the latest victories in the decision made Usman a champion, he won a metal and leather bracelet, but did not earn the right level of public support for everything he achieved inside a cage.
Even with the lack of flash, how is this possible? On the night of March 2019, when Usman won the 170-pound belt, he did so by dominating MMA's highest average weight in southern Quebec. However, there were opponents saying that Woodley's downfall was not Usman's relentless pressure forward, but Woodley's quest for a rap career. This narrative conveniently ignores that Woodley was rhyming with freestyle six months earlier, in preparation for his Darren Till fight. Woodley certainly didn't seem distracted when, just a few days before releasing a single he had recorded with Wiz Khalifa, he dropped Till and choked him.
If Woodley's complete defeat by Usman was not enough to impress, what followed should have been. His first defense for the title was against Covington, a villainous cartoonist and, because of that, the preparation for the December showdown had all the melodramatic spirit that a fight promotion needs to gain strength. And what a fight it turned out to be. Those who watched the fight did not know this when the fighters entered Round 5, of course, but the judges had the fight scheduled until the four rounds. The fight, the belt and the dominance over a bitter rivalry were in dispute in that final round, and Usman won them all. His TKO with 50 seconds remaining was thrilling.
But even in the face of such a decisive ending under the brightest spotlight the UFC can offer, any praise that was coming on Usman's path was drowned out by Covington's incessant drone, making excuses. The challenger had fought a tremendous fight, and being caught late and knocked out in the final minute did not lessen that. But Covington playing everything from "the judge tricked me" to "the dog ate my homework" did not cover him with glory. But it distracted Usman's glory.
It's time to turn the narrative around. On Sunday, Usman showed why he is at the top of the welterweight mountain and why it will take a demanding climb to bring him down. He acknowledges that there are many fighters eager to take the shot, and he thanks. After taking down the "BMF", Usman did not say a word about money fights. He kept his focus on the 170 pounds below.
"All these guys are getting ready for a guy," he said, "and this is me, at the top of the mountain."
It's time to recognize – and even celebrate – what we have at Kamaru Usman. No excuses.