Kamaru Usman has a problem of his own creation: He’s already beaten all the top-ranked fighters in his weight class.
“It’s like we’re running a race on a track, and I’m just so far ahead of everybody that I’m coming around, and I’m lapping these guys now,” Usman told The Post over the phone recently.
With wins over each of the top four ranked welterweight contenders on the UFC’s proprietary rankings, including a TKO of former training partner Gilbert Burns in February, Usman is going back to the well and competing in the first rematch of his MMA career. That goes down Saturday at Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. — in front of a full arena of fans for the first time in more than a year — as the pay-per-view headliner among three championship bouts for UFC 261, when he faces Jorge Masvidal just nine months after earning a one-sided decision over the veteran.
Usman (18-1, nine finishes) didn’t shy away from the fact Masvidal (35-14, 18 finishes) “does bring a lot of eyeballs” as one of the top draws in the sport at the moment, even if he doesn’t quite get the challenger’s appeal. UFC 248, which the two headlined, reportedly sold 900,000 pay-per-views through ESPN+ and 1.3 million overall, making it one of the most successful of the UFC-ESPN partnership.
“I don’t know why [he draws so many viewers], but he does,” Usman said. “And I have to respect that. And as a businessman as well, I have to make the best decision that make sense for myself.”
In that context, it’s a no-brainer why Usman would grant Masvidal a second crack at his crown despite the challenger not taking a fight since the July 12 loss in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. But the champ added that the nature of how the fight came about left him missing “the fix that I get” from winning in the octagon.
Until about a week before UFC 251, Usman was slated to face Burns. But when the original challenger contracted COVID-19 and was forced to withdraw, Masvidal stepped in and cut 20 pounds in under a week. As much as Masvidal maintains he wasn’t training, Usman isn’t buying it and says the challenger brought in wrestlers to get him ready for Usman’s strength.
Even on the champ’s side, circumstances were far from ideal coming into that fight, especially after Burns withdrew.
“I had a lot of major things going on with myself,” Usman says. “I had my nose broken in two different places going into the fight. And then my opponent catches COVID, and they tell me the fight’s off. So I go out and have a grand buffet as far as food and what I eat that night, breaking my diet and everything of that nature.
“And then I get on the flight the next day to fly back home and they tell me, ‘Oh, sorry, we have an opponent for you that agreed to take this fight.’ So then I have to get to get off, spend a night in Texas, run all night, try to diet and get that food off that I had just put on the night before. And now I fly all the way back to [Las] Vegas.”
Usman, 33, said he had only about four days to prepare for the fight once he arrived in Abu Dhabi. He had difficulty acclimating to the time-zone change. He didn’t sleep well. And while he’s proud that he was able to win handily under less-than-ideal conditions, he says the more normalized circumstances of this weekend make the rematch intriguing.
“With all that, knowing that, I’m anxious to see what I do when I’m fully trained and prepared for a fight like that,” he said.
It would be a mistake to fully write off the 36-year-old Masvidal, an 18-year veteran who only in the past few years attained stardom and UFC title contention. He’s 6-3 over the past five years, with his five most recent wins coming by (T)KO and no opponent finding a way to finish him. His five-second, flying-knee KO of Ben Askren in 2019 is the embodiment of the quick-strike violence that makes him dangerous for opponents and enticing to fans.
Despite the challenger clearly fading as the first Usman fight plodded to its end, Masvidal typically has shown better endurance when not under the unusual circumstance of a 20-pound weight cut just to make their title fight official. And the champ doesn’t view his opponent as someone who’s threat level will decline as the fight goes.
“He’s dangerous the whole fight, honestly,” Usman said. “A fight’s a fight. Someone can always land that shot that can put you out. I’m not naïve to that. I’m not ignorant to the point that I’m like, ‘Yeah, that can’t happen.’ He could always land a shot that can hurt you and, eventually, get you out of there.”