Repeated title defense is extremely difficult in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC); it requires the ability to change your fighting style and defend against the toughest fighters in the world, most of them talented in unique ways. Kamaru Usman proved his ability to do so last weekend, defending his welterweight title against Gilbert Burns in UFC 258. This will be Usman’s third title defense in the welterweight class.
Usman and Burns were already fierce opponents of each other before the match began. Both were teammates together in the Sanford Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Gym, where over 200 sparring matches between them went down and where their children became friends. According to Usman, Burns’s decision to try and dethrone him felt personal, as he assumed they were better friends: “When you spend so much time with a team — I’ve always been there, that’s where my career has always been, and I was there from the start — and when you go in and you give them the world championship, and then things play out the way that they are, it’s kind of tough when people start taking sides.” Burns’s own statements in an interview with ESPN reporter Marc Raimondi contradict Usman’s own feelings: “We were never … He was the guy that always gave me good work. I would see the guy twice a day. [He is] like a guy that you see in your [workplace] every single day and work with [that] guy, [but] that doesn’t mean he is your friend. [It is not someone] that if you got problems, [you are] going to call the guy.” These tensions are clear in the pre-fight weigh-in — Burns and Usman stared each other down for an uncomfortable length of time, only moving because referee Herb Dean had to literally get between them.
The fight definitely lived up to its hype but not in the way many expected. Usman’s previous weakness was his striking ability; despite his superior wrestling skills, Burns had proven himself in previous contest to be an expert boxer. It was a surprise (mostly to Burns), in that respect, to watch Usman throwing heavy hits in the same way as Burns. Round one saw powerful hits from both of them, but Burns had the upper hand early, pinning Usman against the cage and unloading huge hits on him. Luckily for Usman, Burns slipped and was forced to take a wrestling stance on the ground, as he wanted to avoid Usman’s unpredictable hands. Throwing heavy body punches as Burns lay in a defensive position, he was forced to stand up and continue boxing, where he regained the upper hand by landing more explosive hits. Returning to their respective corners, Usman looked hurt and for good reason. Burns won the round 10-9.
Round two began with Burns mixing up his strikes to throw off Usman; even though his explosive punches were already effective, he began adding leg kicks to his arsenal. Though he was backing up Burns for the fight’s start, Usman threw a massive right straight that visibly hurt Burns, and this is where the tables turned for the rest of the fight. Reversing Burns’s technique from the previous round, Usman pinned Burns’s back against the octagon and began pummeling him, knocking him down. Before the round ended, Burns was able to stand back up, but Usman’s confidence was far higher here. Burns was clearly slowing down, not throwing punches in order to protect his head and getting his weaker kicks blocked by Usman. It ended 10-9 Usman, and while the score was technically tied at this point, everybody and their mother could tell the direction this fight was headed.
Round three began the same way round two ended — with Burns in a visible position of discomfort and forcing him to defend his wounded head. Almost immediately, Usman toppled Burns with vicious strikes, ceaselessly attacking him. The beating only ended when Herb Dean stepped in, as Burns was obviously close to passing out. Usman won round three in just 34 seconds, the technical knockout giving Usman his third straight welterweight title defense. The massive change-up in Usman’s game, as well as the string of difficult victories, has the UFC community talking: is Usman on his way to becoming the best pound-for-pound welterweight of all time? How many more defenses before he rivals the likes of Georges St-Pierre, a fighter with 11 wins in the welterweight division and a title in the middleweight division also? Time will tell, but Jorge Masvidal will be the next fighter to dethrone the welterweight class’s king.