Before we talk about the greatest MMA fighter in the world, let’s hear it for the volcanic eruption of combat-sports excellence that was UFC 268. If Saturday's card in New York's Madison Square Garden wasn't the event of the year, it'll do just fine until the event of the year gets here.
There was as much high emotion as there were highlight-reel knockouts, including a spinning knockout—from a dang heavyweight no less—and KOs on all four of the ESPN prelims. Oh, and there was at least one Fight of the Year short-lister too.
But we're here this early Sunday morning to talk about the one and only Kamaru Usman (20-1), who defended his welterweight title and cemented his status as MMA's pound-for-pound kingpin by defeating Colby Covington (16-3) in a close but unanimous-decision victory (48-47, 48-47, 49-46).
The bout was a rematch of Usman's fifth-round TKO of Covington back in 2019, and a dirty and noticeably political feud has been simmering lo these intervening years. Both men were openly pining for a knockout, but Usman ultimately needed all 25 grueling minutes to once again best his archrival.
"I am the pound-for-pound best alive right now," Usman told UFC broadcaster and podcasting megalith Joe Rogan in the cage after the fight. "I'm gonna tell you right now, he was tough. I wanted to get crazy in there, try to get him out of there, but we took our time…but he's a tough son of a gun and he wasn't going to let me find that finish."
This was a back-and-forth contest, with Usman snagging the first two rounds, Covington nabbing the fourth, and the third and fifth being razor-thin.
Although both men landed big shots, this was a more muted affair than their first go-around. While Usman and Covington landed a respective 175 and 143 strikes in their first bout, per UFC stats, they landed only 123 and 107 in the runback despite having nearly a full minute more to work with.
There were potential explanations on both sides to explain the lower activity rates. For the challenger, it could've been a fear, or at least an acute awareness, of Usman's jaw-breaking power. Usman himself may have been his own worst enemy. After telling everyone who would listen about his desire not to let adrenaline get the best of him, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction, binding him when he could have benefitted from more aggression.
Perhaps the more notable example of such came at the end of the second round. After a dull first round in which the signature offense was a lone Usman takedown, the second round saw the champ open up. Down the stretch, Usman connected with one of his vicious left hooks. The challenger hit the mat like a bag of potatoes but quickly and rather impressively regained his feet, only to be sent right back to the mat with another left hook. Usman might have earned the stoppage had he allowed himself to swarm, but he played it safe and rode out the round on Colby's back.
Round 3 saw Covington look to wrestle, only for Usman to sprawl or otherwise turn back all four of his attempts. All in all, Covington, a distinguished wrestler, went a dismal 0-11 on takedown attempts—keeping Usman's remarkable 100 percent takedown defense rate intact. (Honestly, if that stat alone doesn't tell you he's the best, nothing will. And this is over the course of 15 fights in the UFC, making it decidedly non-fluky.)
Covington clearly took Round 4, out-landing Usman 33 significant strikes to 23. As Usman stayed behind his jab, Covington started to take more risks, charging forward to land combinations. A nifty uppercut found the mark. A kick to the body appeared to hurt the champ. After such a strong showing, Usman started to fade. Now it was Covington, always a cardio machine, who looked to have the wind at his back.
"I had my moments," Covington told Rogan afterward. "I wobbled him a couple times at the end of [some of] the rounds, I just wasn’t able to capitalize. It was his night, he had a better night.”
The crowd was primed for big action in the final, potentially decisive stanza. But it never materialized. Usman was content to pump the jab, which, fine. It worked as far as it went, even if it left a faint hint of disappointment in the air.
If nothing else, the end result wiped away the Usman-Covington rivalry. Covington is a very good fighter, and he'll continue to move units with his dog-whistle-turned-up-to-11 approach to his own career and the fight game in general. But new challenges are emerging that could breathe fresh air into the welterweight division, which just a few months ago looked on the verge of growing stodgy.
The first is Vicente Luque (21-7-1), who was backstage at MSG as the emergency backup. The well-rounded 29-year-old took a big step forward in August at UFC 265 when he submitted veteran Michael Chiesa (18-5) to run his consecutive win streak to four and his consecutive post-fight bonus streak to three. He's been angling for a bout with Nate Diaz, but who isn't? Another shocker: So far, nothing concrete has materialized. He may not be the understudy the next time he's that close to the title.
The second and—let's be quite clear—more compelling of the options is a 27-year-old Chechen-Swede named Khamzat Chimaev (10-0). Most fight fans will recall Chimaev's mauling of a tough out in Li Jingliang (18-7) just a week ago at UFC 267.
Too early to discuss a title shot? UFC President Dana White doesn't think so. Usman doesn't seem to either. Yeah, Chimaev is probably still one or two fights away. But he's No. 10 on the divisional rankings, and if he keeps looking the way he did against Jingliang, he'll be fighting for the belt next year.
In the meantime, it's just nice to remember that Usman has options. Four of his last five fights came against either Covington or Jorge Masvidal. With Usman's personal business settled, we can all welcome some fresh blood into the division's inner circle. And it could be sooner rather than later.
All stats from UFC stats unless otherwise noted.