If there’s such a thing as an art to losing, former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman painted himself a masterpiece in the aftermath of his UFC 278 loss last August via fifth-round knockout in his rematch with Leon Edwards.
No, there isn’t a working blueprint as to how a star athlete should publicly react in their lowest moment, when the idea of so quickly setting the groundwork for a potentially triumphant comeback might be the last thing on one’s mind, especially after being knocked out cold from a head kick in one of the most dramatic upsets in the sport’s history.
Yet there was Usman (20-2), who had just lost his bid to equal Anderson Silva’s vaunted UFC record of 16 consecutive wins (not too mention his 170-pound title and status as pound-for-pound best), alert and humble inside the cage. He was just as calm one day later, looking anything but damaged or devastated during an Instagram live video in which he congratulated Edwards (20-3, 1 NC) and implored his fans he would be back, better than ever, to regain his crown.
Usman, who turns 36 in May, recently broke a sustained (and largely calculated) media silence ahead of Saturday’s trilogy title fight at UFC 286 in London, where he’ll enter Edwards’ adopted home country as the betting favorite inside O2 Arena. And if one thing is clear for anyone worried about Usman’s mental state following such a devastating defeat, he feels he’s just as uniquely prepared to thrive here as he was for any other of his fights.
“I believe I was classically trained for this,” Usman told “Morning Kombat” on Tuesday. “I’ve just been blessed to be able to do and witness certain things that have prepared me for this moment.”
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A native of Nigeria, Usman and his family relocated to Arlington, Texas, when he was eight and he went on to become a three-time NCAA Division II All-American and two-time national champion at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He credits his nearly 300 amateur wrestling matches with teaching him how to lose, often during one-day tournaments with a double-elimination format in which a wrestler might need to win upwards of seven times to reach the metal podium, sometimes through the loser’s bracket after dropping an early match.
Usman is also quick to point out that he has lost before as a pro in just his second MMA fight (via first-round submission to Jose Caceres in 2013) only to return seven months later and start a 19-fight win streak that lasted nearly 10 years across three fight promotions.
The crux of Usman’s championship education, however, came as an up-and-coming MMA fighter when he sought out apprenticeships alongside more experienced teammates, like former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, to closely understand what it takes to get to the top and, most importantly, the pitfalls that remove one from staying there.
“Being able to shadow all of these top guys in the sport, I understood that once you become the champion, a lot of noise comes with it,” Usman said. “There are a lot of people and a lot of things being decided [for you], like you have to do this or that interview. It starts to cloud your judgment.”
Noise? Usman certainly had a lot of it surrounding him entering UFC 278 last summer, when he entered as a heavy favorite to duplicate the dominant grappling performance he turned in during his first victory over Edwards inside the Octagon back in 2015.
Not only was Usman being groomed for MMA immortality through potential inclusion on the short list of all-time greats either within or near the G.O.A.T. discussion had he equaled Silva’s record, Usman was openly pondering both a boxing match against Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez and ambitious talk about moving up to light heavyweight to avoid challenging then-middleweight champion, and fellow Nigerian, Israel Adesanya in an attempt to become a two-division king.
Usman also saw his name being talked about in Hollywood circles after landing a speaking role in the “Black Panther” movie sequel “Wakanda Forever,” which was released just two months after his knockout defeat.
Yet for anyone expecting Usman’s emotions to boil over after the loss through more natural exclamations of sadness or anger, what he instead experienced — almost instantaneously — was something much different: relief, not just from the noise around him but from the same stress to stay on top that once drove another great welterweight champion, Georges St-Pierre, to vacate his title and temporarily retire for five years in 2013.
“It’s weird because on the ride to the hospital that night, I was already over it,” Usman said. “I was over it. When you feel that sense of relief of all the expectations, you just hear it all quiet down. All of the people that were jumping on the ship making it heavy and needed to go, now have kind of jumped off.
“It makes the sport fun for me and it wasn’t as much fun with all the noise. I love the position I ascended to and I appreciated it because I know I put in all the work I did over the years. But it wasn’t as necessarily as fun as the journey. I love that I get to really enjoy the sport again. I’ve enjoyed the times of me and my daughter getting to drive to the gym every day, there and back.”
Although Usman’s education wasn’t enough to prevent his fall, he credits it with helping him pick up the pieces so quickly. Not only did he admit to having no trouble rewatching tape of the loss, he believes it reminded him that it wasn’t so much the result of what Edwards did, but more of what he failed to do through both a lack of focus after dominating Rounds 2-4 and finding himself handily ahead on the scorecards.
“I think there were a couple of spots in that fight where I was lackadaisical and I just need to correct that because I know a stingy Usman in a fight is a very, very dangerous Usman,” he said. “This individual [Edwards] has felt [my cardio] twice and he has melted twice. So he has shown me nothing to let me believe he is the better mixed martial artist than I am beyond that Hail Mary he landed in the fifth round.”
Usman hasn’t focused too much on altering his game at all, even with the endless amounts of tape that is out there for his opponents to pick up his tendencies (which no doubt played a role — even if Usman won’t admit it — in Edwards capitalizing on his tendency to dip his head to the right when avoiding a jab). What he has focused on is the humility that comes from listening to his team, led by head coach Trevor Wittman, in ways his ego prevented him from doing at times as champion.
“There is a clear-cut way to win the fight,” Usman said. “But me, being the competitor that I am, sometimes I get a bit hard-headed to where I want to do it my way. I want to break them my way. I want to potentially finish them my way.”
While he doesn’t believe his legacy or all that he has accomplished would be altered much should he lose a second time to Edwards, the must-win attitude Usman brings into the trilogy has more to do with the message he’s hoping to share about perseverance. Usman has studied history enough to know that even some of the greatest fighters in MMA history like GSP or Amanda Nunes have yielded their titles in massive upsets similar to the Edwards rematch only to right the wrong against the same fighter when given another chance.
“When people speak about how [the loss] might leave a receipt or trauma, I sense where they are coming from when they speak about ordinary people. When you speak about ordinary people, this or that can happen,” Usman said. “But I think it’s my job on Saturday to show Leon and the rest of the world that I am not ordinary, I am extraordinary.
“Most importantly, I need this because when you come to a place where you have kind of done it all, you need to pivot and you need new motivation and new ways to really satisfy the hunger that you crave. I find myself in the position where I need this to truly motivate the world and, most importantly, my daughter. When you are raising a child, I need this to let her know it’s OK to stumble sometimes in what you are doing in life but you have to get back up and you have to give maximum effort. I need this for all of that.”