Kamaru Usman is fighting for legacy at UFC 286

Trevor Wittman had a question for former pound-for-pound No. 1 Kamaru Usman following Usman’s KO loss to Leon Edwards at UFC 278 last August: Why did he slow down on the final lap?

Seven months ago, Usman (20-2) was close to beating Anderson Silva’s UFC record of 16 straight wins when Edwards (20-3) landed a nice headbutt in the last minute. That kick will forever be remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in UFC history and set the stage for an immediate title rematch at UFC 286 this weekend in Edwards’ backyard in London.

Wittman, Usman’s head coach for the past two years, didn’t necessarily see the kick coming – but he did notice the space Usman suddenly seemed to be giving his opponent. Edwards clearly lost and appeared to have settled for a decision loss. The UFC commentary team saw it. Edward’s own corner saw it. Wittman saw it too, but still recognized Edwards as a threat. After all, it’s a fight and there’s always a threat. And at that moment, Usman gave this threat more room than the game plan indicated.

“I was like, ‘What’s he doing? Is he tired? Is the altitude affecting him?'” Wittman told ESPN. “I had to ask him [at some point after the fight]but I wanted to give him some time first.”

As it turned out, Wittman didn’t have to ask. After the loss in Salt Lake City, the two drove back to Wittman’s home in Denver together. Halfway through the eight-hour drive, Usman came out with it for no reason.

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“He said, ‘I wanted the knockout,'” Wittman said. “Once you get that one-punch knockout like Kamaru had with Jorge Masvidal, you get hooked on it. He stopped fighting and started scoring a knockout and that’s not him.”

Going into Saturday’s trilogy fight, it’s impossible to overstate what’s at stake for Usman. Remember Usman did it 56 seconds from tying what may be the greatest record in UFC history. He was widely regarded as the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. It would have been his sixth defense of the UFC welterweight title, and he likely would have gained weight to fight for a second belt this year. Maybe he would have gone up two weight classes.

Now, almost eight years after he first defeated Edwards, he faces a scenario where he could lose to the same man in back-to-back bouts – a blow that would threaten his grip on even the greatest welterweight of his era. That’s a huge difference in heritage made possible by a single mistake.

“I love how quickly things can change in this sport when I… regard it,” Usman joked to ESPN. “But I don’t love it when I’m a part of it.”

Despite what’s at stake, Usman says he’s under less pressure in this fight than before now that the weight of the title and historic winning streak are gone. But there are small hints of a possibly different approach. For one, Usman, who is usually very media-friendly, urged his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, to turn down virtually all interview requests during his camp.

“When you’re on the come-up, your only job is going to the gym, and then you’re catching up, you’re creating ground,” Usman said. “When you’re a champion, you have to do this, this, and that, and it’s just a lot of noise. Obviously, the loss has silenced a lot of that, and I’ve decided to keep that silence during my preparation.”

Being a champion comes with these additional responsibilities. Usman took it a step further and invested in his brand on the big screen by playing a role in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. He had sponsors and rose above the Octagon.

“There was a little moment where I was like, ‘Man, I just want this noise to quiet down,'” Usman told the DC & RC show on Wednesday. “This has given me an opportunity to feel that again. Given me the opportunity to quiet the noise where only me and my daughter drove to and from the gym. Or I just drove and came back. I got this opportunity again. I feel like I’m whole and ready to go out and do a performance.”

According to Wittman, Usman also studied film a lot more. And while he used to mainly study opponents, he has put more emphasis on studying himself. What are his tendencies? What is the other side trying to exploit? What openings does he allow for something like that headbutt to happen?



UFC crowd, announcers incredulous after Leon Edwards wins title

The Salt Lake City crowd and announcers can’t believe what they see after Kamaru Usman was knocked out by Leon Edwards.

“I can’t say what Leon did was a coincidence,” Usman said. “I’m sure he’s practiced this technique before. I gave him an opportunity, and that’s ‘luck’, right? When preparation meets opportunity.”

At UFC 286, Usman is ready to give Edwards no chances. He has described this fight as a “business trip” to London. A necessary transaction that does not erase the past but has a major impact on how that past is remembered.

Perfection will never return for Usman, who was undefeated in the UFC prior to August. He’ll never be in that class of Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Floyd Mayweather again – essentially perfect martial artists. Does that get on his nerves, or does he like this story better?

“That’s a great question,” Usman said. “As UFC 278, I thought about it a lot. Of course, being perfect is great, but not many people can identify with that. So I just feel blessed with the opportunity that I’m in. When I first started out in MMA, I looked at the Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard rivalry and I was like, ‘Man, I’d love to be a part of that.’ What I didn’t take into account is that to have a rivalry or a trilogy you have to lose. Lo and behold, I am able to do that now.

https://www.espn.com/mma/story/_/id/35871526/ufc-286-edwards-vs-usman-another-loss-leon-edwards-cost-kamaru-usman-everything Kamaru Usman is fighting for legacy at UFC 286

Emma Bowman

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