01 Jan Kamaru Usman has become the master of squashing hype
However fanciful your story is, it means nothing to Kamaru Usman once that cage door closes.
Call him “methodical.” Call him “boring.” Call him “The Ultimate Buzzkill.” At the end of the day, the UFC’s reigning welterweight champion will take any narrative that’s been driven into the ground and make sure that it’s buried six feet deep by the time he’s done with his challengers.
Jorge Masvidal—and accordingly, anyone expecting Masvidal to bestow one of his infamous baptisms upon Usman—was the latest to face this reality. Heading into Saturday’s UFC 251 main event, his 17-year journey (or six-day journey, depending when you want to start counting) was rife with intrigue. Once he agreed to step in for Gilbert Burns on less than a week’s notice to fight Usman, Masvidal instantly became the most interesting man on “Fight Island.”
“Gamebred” already carried over much of the buzz from a hellacious 2019 campaign, despite not actually competing in the first half of 2020. His consecutive finishes of Darren Till, Ben Askren, and Nate Diaz became the stuff of legend overnight, each victory exponentially increasing the mainstream fame that at one point seemed impossible for an MMA lifer like Masvidal.
A UFC title wasn’t necessary (or “super necessary” as Masvidal himself would put it) to validate Masvidal’s star turn, but it would have been an incredible way to cap off a 16-month journey, especially when you consider that just weeks ago most of the talk about Masvidal revolved around his public dispute with the UFC over fighter compensation.
After 25 grueling minutes with Usman, the only journey that mattered was how many trips to the canvas Masvidal was taken on by the champion. It wasn’t a thrilling performance, at least not when viewed with a casual eye, but it was a masterful display of defusing a dangerous opponent with nothing to lose, a man who had rediscovered his nose for emphatic finishes in recent years after developing a reputation for going the distance.
Even as the commentary team gave Masvidal his props for producing a solid first-round performance on short notice, one got the sense early on that Usman was biding his time and analyzing his foe, breaking him down mentally before breaking him down physically. With Masvidal’s experience and explosiveness, he was considered a live dog, but conservative wisdom led one to predict that Usman would use his wrestling to control Masvidal and remove any chance of a highlight-reel KO.
In other words, Masvidal fans expecting the worst were right.
Masvidal wasn’t the first to hear the proverbial Price is Right losing horn after crossing paths with Usman. Go back through Usman’s entire UFC resume and you can find examples of him taking the hype trains of his peers and detonating the tracks.
In the finals of The Ultimate Fighter 21, he put away promising American Top Team prospect Hayder Hassan, essentially sending Hassan back to the regional scene. In his second UFC fight, Usman won a convincing decision against a rising British star named Leon Edwards. He snuffed out fellow TUF champ Warlley Alves and exposed Emil Meek, who was touted as a can’t-miss prospect at 170 pounds after punching Rousimar Palhares out in just 45 seconds.
Tyron Woodley proclaimed himself to be the greatest welterweight of all-time only to have Usman completely overwhelm him for 25 minutes when they fought at UFC 235. And then there’s Colby Covington.
Covington’s rise to notoriety took some time, but once he developed an outsized persona to help draw attention to his significant in-cage accomplishments, he became one of MMA’s most talked-about fighters with his ubiquitious quotes providing endless headline fodder. He was destined to fight Woodley, but when Usman stepped into the picture it led to an equally compelling feud with Covington taking on most of the promotional load.
Again, when fight night rolled around, it was Usman who delivered when it mattered most, ending a back-and-forth fight with “Chaos” by breaking Covington’s jaw. In both the Covington and Masvidal situations, Usman was the B-side when it came to who generated the most buzz heading into their contests; he has inarguably been the A-side as far as actual results.
Yes, his style has a lot to do with the fan perception that five-round Usman fights are where excitement goes to die. He’s not a dynamic finisher, and outside of his brawl with Covington, his UFC fights have been lopsided affairs where his opponents were given little room to operate, much less look for a splashy KO or submission. If Usman is at his best, whoever steps into the cage with him ends up at their worst and that’s typically not a recipe for high drama.
As Usman himself said, it’s not his job to create drama. Leave that to the UFC marketing team and the Masvidals and the Covingtons of the world. Leave that to the fans who are already itching for Burns’ title shot to be rescheduled with the hopes that the surging Brazilian is the one to end Usman’s championship run and his 12-fight UFC winning streak (a welterweight record in the promotion that Usman just so happens to share with Georges St-Pierre). Leave that to whoever is waiting in the wings, looking to make their name off of the champion.
Like it or not, Usman is the man standing at the end of every welterweights road to glory right now and when the time comes, he’s more than willing to take a sledgehammer to that road, leaving nothing but detritus and only the glimmer of countless unpublished articles announcing his downfall.