- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
Trevor Wittman had one question for former pound-for-pound No. 1 Kamaru Usman in the aftermath of Usman’s knockout loss to Leon Edwards last August at UFC 278: Why did he lay off the gas in the final round?
Seven months ago, Usman (20-2) was on the verge of tying Anderson Silva’s UFC record of 16 consecutive wins when Edwards (20-3) landed a beautiful head kick in the final minute. That kick will forever be remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in UFC history, and it set the stage for an immediate title rematch at UFC 286 this weekend in Edwards’ backyard of 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 was clearly losing and appeared to be resigned to a decision defeat. The UFC commentary team saw it. Edwards’ own corner saw it. Wittman saw it too but still recognized Edwards as a threat. After all, it’s a fight and there is always a threat. And at that moment, Usman was giving that threat more space than the game plan had mapped out.
“I was like, ‘What’s he doing? Is he tired? Is the elevation affecting him?'” Wittman told ESPN. “I had to ask him [at some point after the fight], but I wanted to give him some time before I did.”
As it turned out, Wittman didn’t have to ask. After the loss in Salt Lake City, the two drove back to Wittman’s Denver home together. Midway through the eight-hour drive, Usman came out with it unprovoked.
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“He said, ‘I wanted the knockout,'” Wittman said. “Once you have that one-punch knockout like Kamaru had on Jorge Masvidal, you become addicted to it. He stopped fighting and started looking to set up a knockout and that’s not him.”
Going into Saturday’s trilogy bout, it is impossible to overstate what is at stake for Usman. Remember, Usman was 56 seconds from tying perhaps the greatest record in UFC history. He was universally considered the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. It would have been his sixth defense of the UFC’s welterweight title, and he likely would have moved up in weight to challenge for a second belt this year. Perhaps he would have moved up two weight classes.
Now, nearly eight years after beating Edwards the first time they squared off, he faces a scenario in which he could lose to the same man in back-to-back fights — a blow that would threaten his grip as even the greatest welterweight of his era. That is an enormous difference in legacy, made possible by a single mistake.
“I love how quickly everything can change in this sport when I watch 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 is under less pressure going into this fight than before, now that the weight of the title and historic win streak are gone. But there are small hints at a potentially different approach. For one, the normally very media friendly Usman told his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, to decline virtually all interview requests during his camp.
“When you’re on the come-up, your only job is going to the gym and that’s when you’re catching up, you’re covering ground,” Usman said. “When you’re a champion you have to do this, this and this and it’s just a lot of noise. Obviously, the loss silenced a lot of that, and I decided to keep that silence through my preparation.”
Being a champion comes with those additional responsibilities. Usman took it a step further and invested in his brand on the big screen, playing a role in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” He had sponsors and was elevating himself beyond the Octagon.
“There was a little moment there to where I thought, ‘Man, I just want this noise to calm down,'” Usman told the “DC & RC” show Wednesday. “This has given me that opportunity to feel that again. Given me the opportunity to quiet the noise where it was just me and my daughter driving to the gym and coming back. Or me just driving and coming back. I got that opportunity again. I feel like I’m restored and ready to go out there and put on a performance.”
According to Wittman, Usman has also studied a lot more film. And while he used to mostly study opponents, he has placed a greater emphasis on watching himself. What are his tendencies? What is the other side trying to exploit? What openings does he allow to let something like that head kick happen?
“I can’t say what Leon did was a fluke,” Usman said. “I’m sure he’s trained that technique before. I gave him an opportunity and that’s what ‘luck’ is, right? When preparation meets opportunity.”
At UFC 286, Usman is prepared to not offer Edwards any opportunities. He has been calling this fight a “business trip” to London. A necessary transaction that won’t erase the past, but will greatly influence how that past is remembered.
Perfection is never coming back for Usman, who had been unbeaten in the UFC prior to August. He will never again be in that class of Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Floyd Mayweather — essentially perfect combat athletes. Does that pick at him, or does he like this story better?
“That’s a great question,” Usman said. “I went over that in my head a lot when UFC 278 happened. Of course, being perfect is great but not a lot of people can relate to that. So, I’ve come to just feel blessed with the opportunity I’m in. When I first started MMA, I watched the Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard rivalry and I thought, ‘Man, I would love to be a part of that.’ What I didn’t account for is that to have a rivalry or a trilogy you have to lose. Lo and behold, I’m in a position for that now.”
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