Across the MMA Universe: Kamaru Usman on UFC 258 'Chess Match'

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterFebruary 12, 2021

Kamaru Usman (left) kicks Colby Covington.
Kamaru Usman (left) kicks Colby Covington.Associated Press

Welcome back to Across the MMA Universe. Publishing every Friday morning, this column will scour the sport's landscape, preview upcoming cards, tell interesting stories and put some shine on the fighters and topics we think have it coming. Let's get it on.

There is no antecedent for Gilbert Burns, at least not on Kamaru Usman's record.

Not Demian Maia, who shares Burns' world-championship jiu-jitsu pedigree. Not Jorge Masvidal, an elite standup fighter. And not Colby Covington, who has some of the best wrestling in the UFC's welterweight division.

When Usman (17-1) defends his welterweight title Saturday against Burns (19-3) in the main event of UFC 258, it will be his 13th UFC contest (all wins to date, by the way). When I spoke to Usman earlier this week, he told me that none of his other opponents have ever presented the same kind of problem as Burns.

And since the two were training partners for several years, Usman knows of what he speaks.

"Gilbert is different," Usman told me. "Basically, when I'm about to fight guys, I look at their skill sets and I look at the problem they may present. Gilbert is different from these other guys because he's more well-rounded to where these other guys have some type of holes. ... There are different types of challenges with Gilbert. It's going to be more of a chess match, instead of just a skill deficit."

The two men were longtime teammates at Sanford MMA in Florida, but they go back even further than that; both were members of the once-vaunted but now-defunct Blackzilians squad.

The intricacies of the Usman-Burns relationship have been a reliable source of speculation all fight week, with people suggesting Usman left Sanford either to avoid sharing a roof with a potential opponent once Burns moved from lightweight to welterweight. (The mutual respect between these two makes Usman's grudge match with Covington feel a thousand miles away.)

Gilbert Burns (left)
Gilbert Burns (left)Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

But to hear Usman tell it, the relationship is somewhere in the gray area, as are most things when it comes down to it. 

"He was a lightweight then and I was a welterweight, so I never had to look at him as an opponent," Usman said. "But he started looking at me as an opponent before I ever looked at him that way. ... He was a good training partner. When I'm in the gym, I'm there to train. He came to work, and that was something I admired and liked about him."

The book on beating Burns—tie him up, tire him out—is familiar to many a scouting report, and it's one Usman's power-grinding style appears ready to exploit.

If you find that style boring, you may have a long night ahead of you. Usman takes a calculated approach to the fight game, a sort of Moneyball-style efficiency applied to a fighter.

"With Gilbert, I have to be a little bit more wary with how I conserve energy and how I expend energy," he said. "Because he's also good in the grappling aspect. Of course, my wrestling will probably trump his wrestling, but he's dangerous on the ground, so I have to be aware of that and watch my positioning. His striking is dangerous as well." 

Another topic of fight week chatter has been Usman's new home—in a one-on-one camp with super-coach Trevor Wittman in Colorado. The real reason Usman departed Sanford MMA, Usman said, had nothing to do with Burns and everything to do with seeking more individualized coaching—something he indicated wasn't available at Sanford. 

"The change in my overall game as far as benefits [from Wittman] are the fundamentals, the little things," he said. "When I was with a big team before, I never got that one-on-one time to pay attention to my movement, my footwork or the way I was punching. Now I have to pay attention to that. I like it at this part of my career. This is the kind of attention I need in order to be able to hold on to that belt."

You certainly can't accuse Usman of not having a plan. On Saturday, we'll see if he can checkmate the most unique opponent he's ever faced across the chessboard.


It's Showtime

There's no fight fan alive who doesn't salivate like a dog at two simple words: Grand Prix.

Bellator MMA honcho Scott Coker on Tuesday announced that Bellator will be airing events on premium cable outlet Showtime.

For Coker, he's back on familiar ground.

Scott Coker
Scott CokerGregory Payan/Associated Press

Coker was the longtime head of Strikeforce, a now-defunct promotion that aired on Showtime. What's more, Showtime is owned by ViacomCBS, the same parent company as previous Bellator haunts like Spike and Paramount Network.

The move gives Bellator an immediate shot in the arm.

The inaugural broadcast takes place April 2. The two tournaments will occur at light heavyweight and featherweight. Among those in the eight-man 205-pound bracket? Former UFC standouts Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, Yoel Romero, Ryan Bader and Phil Davis, not to mention current champ Vadim Nemkov. Sign me up. 

The featherweight version holds plenty of intrigue on its own. That's somewhat because AJ McKee is part of it, and he pretty much carries intrigue wherever he goes. That guy is the truth, and he'll be a favorite to go all the way in this tournament.

Buckle your seat belts, because Bellator may have just upped the ante. It may not be neck and neck with the mighty UFC, but it just pulled a step closer. The question is whether it will have staying power.


Fighter Walkout Song of the Week

"Kick in the Door" by The Notorious B.I.G.

UFC @ufc

Start the run 🏃 @FrankieEdgar is making his way to the Octagon. [ #UFCVegas18 - LIVE on #ESPNPlus ] https://t.co/3fooRQSHpZ

Pour out a cold one for Frankie Edgar, who has pledged to fight on after suffering a ghastly knockout at the hands—or rather knee—of Cory Sandhagen.

These might not be halcyon days for the 39-year-old ex-champ, but he remains as popular as ever and will probably remain so for the rest of recorded time.

So in solidarity with the New Jersey native, let us listen to "Kick in the Door," from one of the best tri-state-area rappers ever (Warning: song contains profanity).


Movie Fighter of the Week: Martin Riggs, Lethal Weapon

(Warning: clip contains profanity)

Mel Gibson's character in the Lethal Weapon franchise is quite possibly more beloved than he is. But Riggs isn't just a nostalgia source; he's a dyed-in-the-wool pioneer. 

Check out Gibson here, all the way back in 1988, fighting mano a mano with the immortal Gary Busey. Look at the technique...did he just try to pull an armbar? Wait...does he have a triangle cinched in? Indeed he did, in all its glory. Props to whomever choreographed that. They were ahead of their time.