By Alistair Hendrie
If the purpose of competition is to dominate your opponent as clinically as possible, Kamaru Usman did exactly that when he shut out Emil Meek on Sunday at UFC Fight Night 124. Although the crowd weren’t happy with Usman’s suffocating style of wrestling, the stats don’t lie. Not only did the sturdy welterweight land eight takedowns, he also scored 76% of his significant strikes. The St Louis crowd, booing in their droves, would have you think the Blackzilians welterweight stalled proceedings on the mat, whereas he in fact landed a higher number of strikes, and at a higher percentage. It seemed there was no pleasing the paying public, who jeered as Usman controlled the action on the mat.
Did Usman care? Of course not. He played up to his as boo-boy image, using his post-fight interview to declare: “I fought this fight sitting at about 30% and I still dominated a tough, so-called Viking... Dana, I'm coming to sit with you and then we can talk.” When Dana White also said he “didn’t love the fight,” Usman clarified his comments on social media and revealed that he fought at 30% of his health.
In his post-fight speech, Usman went further, and barked: “Listen, Colby (Covington), you can run but you can’t hide. The Nigerian Nightmare is looking for you, and I’m gonna find you.” That’s trash talk 101 right there, gunning for another in-form and relevant motor-mouth who doesn’t mind ruffling a few feathers.
So, although the UFC brass may not be handing Usman any Fight of the Night bonuses just yet, Usman’s recent victories and brash persona on the mic make him a formidable and marketable prospect. Sure, he’s been painted as a villain, but it’s a role he’s accepted and carried out better than anyone could hope for. Moving forward, he’s wise to recognise that this is the era of the bad guy. He and fellow welters Covington and Mike Perry have embraced the heel role in the past 18 months - all three have built their profiles in the process.
Keep in mind, too, Usman isn’t the first man to grind out a decision on the ground. Two of the best fighters in the world, Georges St-Pierre and Demetrious Johnson, have both wrestled their way to title defences without exerting themselves. Were they booed by those in the stands? Of course they weren’t. I’m not claiming Usman’s performance against Meek was highlight reel material, but it was nowhere near as unedifying as some would have you believe.
Usman probed with knees to the thighs, stayed a step ahead of his opponent, looked to take the back on numerous occasions, and also landed a handful of audacious suplexes. Always hooking limbs and maintaining safe head positioning, he exhibited a technical display of wrestling which should be appreciated. Fans pay for an evening’s entertainment and have a right to voice their opinions, but I disagree with the vitriol aimed as Usman. Not everyone likes wrestling-orientated tactics, but it’s a part of the sport.
Of course, Usman can fight a bit too, and packs serious power as evidenced by his four consecutive TKOs before joining the UFC. A thick-set 170lb-er with imposing core strength, he throws a broad selection of punches when he decides to trade and always uses a high guard and astute head movement.
Ironically enough, Usman and Covington’s styles might not gel for an all-out war, but the fact is that Usman is a smart fighter with his head screwed on. He could stand and bang if he wanted to, but he’s in the sport to learn, progress and get to the very top. He should also gain solace in the fact that Floyd Mayweather Jr and the Klitschko brothers were accused to playing it safe in their careers. Let’s face it, with that trio’s achievements, legacies and earnings, should they care about a few detractors? Don’t bet on it. As long as Usman keeps proving his skills and selling his name, he can forget the boos and play the bad guy all he wants.
Read more UFC reaction from Alistair Hendrie Sport, as a new contender emerges for Cyborg after her victory at UFC 219.