If there is such a thing as the art of losing, former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman created a masterpiece for himself following his knockout defeat to Leon Edwards at UFC 278 last August.
No, there isn’t a proven formula for how a famous athlete should act in public when they are at their lowest point. After being knocked out cold by a head kick in one of the most shocking upsets in sports history, the idea of quickly laying the groundwork for a potential triumphant comeback might be the last thing on one’s mind.
But there was Usman (20-2) in the cage, alert and humble despite having just failed in his attempt to match Anderson Silva’s celebrated streak of 16 consecutive victories (not to mention his title at 170-pounds and position as the top pound-for-pound fighter). One day later, he appeared just as composed and unperturbed in an Instagram live video in which he applauded Edwards (20-3, 1 NC) and pleaded with his followers to stick around for him to reclaim his title.
Usman, who will be 36 in May, just ended a protracted (and largely deliberate) media blackout ahead of the trilogy title match at UFC 286 on Saturday in London, where he will face Edwards in the O2 Arena as the betting favorite. Anyone concerned about Usman’s mental health following such a crushing setback should know that he believes he is as uniquely prepared to succeed here as he was for any other of his battles.
Usman said on Tuesday’s “Morning Kombat” that he thought he had received “traditional training” for this. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to experience and observe certain things that have equipped me for this moment,” the speaker said.
Usman, a native of Nigeria, moved to Arlington, Texas with his family when he was eight years old. He later went on to the University of Nebraska at Kearney where he won two national championships and was a three-time NCAA Division II All-American. He attributes his roughly 300 amateur wrestling battles with teaching him how to lose. These matches frequently took place in one-day tournaments with a double-elimination structure, where a wrestler could need to win up to seven times to reach the metal podium.
Usman is also eager to remind out that he had previously lost as a professional, against Jose Caceres in just his second MMA match (by first-round submission in 2013), only to come back and begin a 19-bout winning streak throughout three different fight promotions seven months later.
However, the core of Usman’s training for a championship came when he sought out apprenticeships with more seasoned teammates, like former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, to deeply understand what it takes to get to the top and, more importantly, the pitfalls that prevent one from staying there.
Usman stated, “Having the opportunity to follow all of these elite athletes in the sport, I learned that once you win the title, a lot of noise comes with it. “Numerous persons and decisions are being made [for you], such as whether you must attend this or that interview. Your judgment starts to become impaired.”
Noise? When Usman entered UFC 278 this summer as the overwhelming favorite to repeat the spectacular grappling display he displayed during his first victory over Edwards inside the Octagon back in 2015, there was no doubt that he had a lot of it surrounding him.
Not only was Usman being groomed for MMA immortality through potential inclusion on the short list of all-time greats either within or near the G.O.A.T. discussion had he equaled Silva’s record, Usman was openly pondering both a boxing match against Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez and ambitious talk about moving up to light heavyweight to avoid challenging then-middleweight champion, and fellow Nigerian, Israel Adesanya in an attempt to become a two-division king.
Usman’s speaking appearance in the “Black Panther” sequel “Wakanda Forever,” which was released just two months after his knockout loss, also caused him to become well-known in Hollywood circles.
Yet for anyone anticipating Usman’s emotions to burst after the defeat through more natural exclamations of sadness or anger, what he instead experienced — almost instantly — was something entirely different: relief, not just from the noise around him but also from the same stress to remain on top that once drove another great welterweight champion, Georges St-Pierre, to relinquish his title and temporarily retire for five years in 2013.
It’s odd because I was already over it on the journey to the hospital that evening, Usman said. “I had had it. All of the anticipation simply disappears when you get that sense of relief. The whole population that was boarding the ship and making it too heavy to stay has now essentially leapt off.
“For me, it makes the sport enjoyable, and the noise made it less so. I’m grateful for the position I’ve achieved since I realize how much effort it took to get there. Yet it wasn’t necessarily as enjoyable as the trip. I adore that I can one more take full pleasure in the activity. I’ve liked being able to drive my daughter and myself to the gym every day and back.”
Usman believes that his knowledge helped him recover from his fall so swiftly even though it couldn’t have stopped him from falling. He acknowledged that it was easy for him to see the loss again, and he feels that it served as a reminder that Edwards’ failures—namely, his lack of concentration after dominating Rounds 2-4 and finding himself comfortably up on the scorecards—were more to blame than his own actions.
“I believe there were a few instances in that battle when I was careless, and I just need to address it because I know a stingy Usman in a fight is a very, very dangerous Usman,” he said. “Edwards has experienced [my cardio] twice and has both felt and melted. Therefore, other from that Hail Mary he scored in the fifth round, he hasn’t demonstrated anything that would lead me to believe he is a superior mixed martial artist than I am.”
Even though his opponents can watch endless amounts of tape to identify his tendencies, Usman hasn’t really focused on changing his game at all. This is likely why Edwards was able to take advantage of Usman’s tendency to dip his head to the right when dodging a jab, even though Usman won’t admit it. He has concentrated on developing the humility necessary to listen to his squad, which is managed by head coach Trevor Wittman, in a way that his ego occasionally hindered him from doing as a champion.
There is a simple method to win the bout, Usman declared. “But because I’m such a competitor, I occasionally get stubborn and insist on doing things my way. They must be broken in my fashion. I want to be able to finish them my way.”
Although Usman doesn’t think that losing to Edwards a second time will significantly change his legacy or all that he has accomplished, the must-win mentality he brings to the trilogy has more to do with the lesson he wants to impart about perseverance. Usman has read enough history to know that even some of the greatest MMA fighters, such as GSP or Amanda Nunes, have lost their championships in shocking upsets like the Edwards rematch before avenging the loss when given another chance.
“I can tell where individuals are coming from when they talk about how [the loss] could leave a receipt or trauma when they talk about regular folks. This or that might happen when you talk about regular folks, Usman remarked. But I believe it’s my responsibility to prove to Leon and the rest of the world that I am special rather than ordinary on Saturday.
“Most significantly, I need this because you need to change course and find new inspiration in order to truly sate your appetite when you reach a point where you feel like you’ve tried everything. I’m in a situation where I really need this to inspire the world—and, most significantly, my daughter. I need this to teach my daughter that it’s Fine to fall down occasionally in life, but you still have to get back up and put forth your best effort. For all of that, I require this.”