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When Kamaru Usman steps inside the chain link Saturday for his rematch with Colby Covington, the bad blood will stay backstage.
That may be the biggest change from their original bout, but it's hardly the only one. The truth is, the champ and his recent evolution—physical, emotional, mental, psychological—portends big trouble for Covington in the main event of UFC 268 at New York's venerable Madison Square Garden.
In fact, I might go so far as to predict that Usman will dominate Covington this time, unlike the more back-and-forth affair we saw in the 2019 original. Why? Let's dive into the details.
Before we get to Covington, it's instructive to look at another rematch: his run-back with Jorge Masvidal (35-15) back in April. The original bout saw Usman (19-1) lay a gavel-to-gavel clinic on the Miami street-fighting legend, making the second bout a bit unnecessary unless you're counting dollars and cents. There's plenty of money in this rematch with Covington (16-2) too, but it's a different dynamic this time. Usman finished Covington in the fifth round, but not before Covington took rounds off the champ.
Still, there's symmetry between the two rematches, and it rests with Usman's ongoing evolution from a scary competitor to a champion to a fully self-actualized fighter.
In their initial matchup, Masvidal actually had some success with wrestling, stopping 11 of 16 Usman takedown attempts. In response, Usman used the clinch to slow down the action (16:38 of control time to none for Masvidal). This plus a high work rate (263 total strikes landed to Masvidal's 88) exhausted Masvidal and kept his boxing under wraps. But it didn't exactly light the world on fire.
Usman heard the "boring" labels and played the "put some respect on my name" card, even as he sat at No. 5 in the pound-for-pound rankings. But he knew the stigma wouldn't go away unless he did something about it.
His humiliation of Gilbert Burns (20-4) was a good first step. After that, in an interview with UFC broadcaster and podcasting king Joe Rogan, Usman called for the Masvidal rematch, predicting a stoppage this time around.
MMA World encapsulated both moments in one video:
"Guess what? It's not done," Usman said. "I'll give [Masvidal] a whole training camp. I guarantee you he won't sign on that dotted line. Because this time I'm gonna finish your ass."
Masvidal did ultimately sign, but maybe he shouldn't have.
In that rematch, Usman's standup game was, if not fully reinvented, massively improved. He managed range better, threw more effective combinations and landed everything with more precision. He relied less on wall-and-stall and stay-busy striking and racked up a lot more damage en route to a second-round KO. A laser-guided right hand to the chin, set up by takedown feints, was the decisive sequence.
Fast-forward to this week, when Usman made comments reminiscent of those he made before the Masvidal rematch.
"I want to make it a little bit more flawless this time around," Usman told reporters.
At Thursday's news conference, Usman went into more detail. Spoiler alert: it doesn't seem like these two will be sharing a frosty beverage any time soon, but Usman is working to detach that from the competition at hand.
“It’s changed a lot because I actually grew a little bit of appreciation for the guy,” Usman said, per MMA Junkie. “I appreciate everything that he does, everything that he comes with. I love it because it’s another challenge for me to get over and at this point in life, at this point in my career, I look forward to those challenges. On Saturday night, I’ll do what I do best and that’s smash another challenge.”
There's that symmetry again, and there's every reason to believe this mental shift as well as the new wrinkles in his standup game will make him an even better fighter come Saturday night. Ever since joining up with vaunted coach Trevor Wittman, Usman is more adept than ever at game-planning, with Wittman bringing out Usman's already high fight IQ. Usman now evokes memories of fighters like Anderson Silva or Demetrious Johnson, learning computers capable of following complex decision trees even as the live bullets fly.
This is good, because this will likely be another standup war. In their first contest, neither Usman nor Covington attempted a takedown the entire contest. Both men are very strong offensive and defensive wrestlers (Usman has a 100 percent takedown defense rate, while Covington sits at 75), meaning the skill sets cancel each other out. Let's also not forget this is still a grudge match. With so many eyeballs on this rematch and two large personalities in the cage, both men will seek the knockout.
Covington won't be a sitting duck on the feet. He has power, skill and a boatload of cardio, but he's far from a black-belt standup fighter, at least not based on what we've seen to date. In the Masvidal rematch, Usman outstruck a striker. The way he strings together combinations and conserves energy are powerful assets.
But Usman's real adjustment will come between the ears. The champ has admitted being a bit overwound in their original. But it's something Usman said he has cleaned up.
"For me, the wrong that I want to right is in that fight, I fought with emotion," Usman told reporters. "As much emotion I was willing to display is what I fought with, which is why I think I got hit quite a bit."
Given the physical and mental improvements we saw against Masvidal, as well as the calmness and poise he exuded, it looks like we'll see an even better Usman in Saturday's rematch, likely with yet another coat of polish applied. If past is prologue, he'll be more dynamic and more ready to bully the bully even more than last time. That will spell curtains for Covington.
Chimaev Is the Belle at the Ball
Last week before his utter destruction of Li Jinliang (18-7), Khamzat Chimaev (10-0) told me he still believed he was flying under the UFC radar.
Well, that's not the case any longer. He has the attention of the most important figures in the welterweight division and beyond.
The first is the champ himself. This week, Usman took time out from hyping UFC 268 to answer a question about the native Chechnyan. He wasn't committal either way, but there was a suggestion that Chimaev could move even further up the rankings sooner than later.
"He's done a tremendous job with the opposition he's been presented with," Usman said. "No shame in that, he's doing great. I like it, I love all the hype that's been there, but let's all be honest. Life is not fair. We learn that as kids. Some guys get a faster push, some guys don't. It is what it is."
Another potential name in the mix? One Nate Diaz (21-13). Chimaev called him out after his win, and the idea was quickly backstopped by UFC President Dana White.
The UFC would likely have to open its checkbook wide in order for Diaz to take the fight. But just the fact that Chimaev is mentioned in the same breath with either of these immortals is a testament to how far he rose up the ranks based largely on one of the most emphatic performances in recent UFC memory.
The Squeamish Bettor
Record to date: 22-7
OK, time for a name change. Time to call this what it is. If you're a conservative bettor, if you're looking for a solid anchor for a parlay or if you're just looking for a way to impress your friends, you've come to the right place. Welcome to the low-risk end of the pool.
As always, I'm walking my talk and betting these picks myself.
We'll do two this week. First, it would be disingenuous of me not to go for an Usman knockout after talking him up this much. That's currently +140.
The other pick goes for the legendary Frankie Edgar (24-9-1), the former lightweight champ who at 40 is near the end of his career. But here's guessing he still has enough quickness and mental acuity to defeat Marlon "Chito" Vera (17-7-1), a more deliberate opponent who won't be able to handle Edgar's work rate. Edgar is currently a slight underdog at +150, but if anyone knows anything about how to succeed as an underdog, it's Edgar.
Don't be surprised to see Edgar grab the win and then ride off into the sunset. The New Jersey native is fighting in friendly confines, and he surely knows what a storybook ending this would provide. Get your tissues ready, Edgar fans.
All stats courtesy of UFC Stats unless otherwise noted.
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