The Nigerian Nightmare is living the dream.
Over five convincing rounds, Kamaru Usman (17-1) defended his UFC welterweight title in the main event of UFC 251, overpowering the great Jorge Masvidal (35-14) with dominant if unglamorous sequences in the clinch and in side control on the mat.
The champ got the "and still" nod via unanimous decision, 50-45, 50-45 and 49-46 on the judges' scorecards. As you may have heard, UFC 251 went down on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates—better known to sports fans, of course, as Fight Island.
As for the Nightmare, Usman hasn't lost since 2013, and he's never dropped a contest inside the Octagon. He hasn't gotten any easy breaks, either. Maybe the question now is: If this is the Nightmare, do we really want to wake up? It probably depends on what you value most in your MMA diet.
"Masvidal is one of the biggest, baddest dudes out there right now, and I had to switch gears and get ready for him on six days' notice," Usman told broadcaster Jon Anik after the fight. "I had to make a mental shift ...[but] all these guys are out here preparing for one guy, and that's me."
As for Saturday, the main event reached a new level when Masvidal stepped in to replace Gilbert Burns—who tested positive for COVID-19 on July 3—because Masvidal attracts drama like a magnet in an iron filings factory.
Usman and Masvidal were not friendly coming in and were originally set to clash a few months ago until Masvidal's understandable financial demands were (unsurprisingly, given the well-documented history of lowballing fighters in that department) rebuffed by the UFC.
But with more favorable terms for Gamebred this time around—a needy UFC likely bolstered Masvidal's negotiating position—things were all set to go. The flip side for Masvidal is that he needed to cut 20-plus pounds in a week to make weight, but to his credit, he made it and came in ready for his first non-made-up UFC title. Put it all together, and you've permeated the membrane between sport and spectacle.
Masvidal's first round was easily his best behind a sharp jab and an overall striking edge. In the second round, Usman quite literally leaned on Masvidal to wear him down. Masvidal is pretty good in the clinch, but he was a sitting duck against Usman's strength, body shots and Conor McGregor-style shoulder strikes. Usman not only won the round but also had Masvidal panting on the stool between rounds.
Usman's second takedown of the third round, however, was the beginning of the end. In the blink of an eye, Usman had Masvidal in side control and was looking for elbows. That's the way it played out down the stretch, with Usman ultimately racking up five takedowns and 10 minutes, six seconds of clinch control time, according to the UFC broadcast.
Masvidal's cardio wasn't all it could have been, thanks to the aforementioned short notice. But what he lacked there he seemed to try to make up with posturing. Gamebred was all gamesman here, insouciantly swaggering around and trying to grin the damage away. You'd expect nothing less from the BMF champ. But it stood in perfect contrast to Usman's performance, which wasn't exactly overflowing with style but stood out for its workmanlike effectiveness.
So what does the future hold for Usman? The name on everyone's lips is Leon Edwards (18-3), the hard-hitting Brit on an eight-fight win streak of his own.
Edwards is a very good fighter, but he doesn't appear to have the wrestling (offensive or defensive) to stand up to Usman's takedowns and clinch work. Burns, Usman's original opponent, has rock-solid jiu-jitsu, to say the least, and could pose a stiff challenge. Between Edwards and Burns, the latter is easily my personal preference, assuming a clean bill of health. After those two, things start to thin out—unless you want to watch the champ break Colby Covington's jaw again.
Of course, fighters and fights don't paint the whole picture on their own, at least not these days. Fight Island, and just the question of venues in general, is a big part of the story. Fight Island now seems well-prepared for any virus-related possibility, and with testing shortages less acute than they were when this whole Fight Island business began, there are fewer moral concerns surrounding the situation.
Still, this pandemic remains uncontained, and more positive tests and scuttled bouts are inevitable. To address this, the UFC has built understudies into their matchmaking equation, as evidenced by the quick insertion of Alexandre Pantoja into a July 18 flyweight title fight with Joseph Benavidez following a positive test from Deiveson Figueiredo.
So it could be that Edwards and Burns are both called upon to challenge Usman next. The way this Nightmare is going, you may need to put them both in the cage, because the champ is going to continue to be a problem for the welterweight division—and a bigger factor in the pound-for-pound discussion as his story continues to unfold.
Scott Harris is a feature writer and columnist with Bleacher Report.