After emerging victorious in one of the defining fights of the year, we take a look at why 2019 has been the year that "The Nigerian Nightmare" became a star.
Whatever way you slice it, conflict is the lifeblood of combat sports. Whether physical or verbal, that explosiveness is what takes MMA from an exhibition of skill for financial gain into something that’ll captivate an audience worldwide. Sometimes waged over petty squabbles or machismo-laden posturing, these grudges can be easily manufactured for the good of the pay-per-view numbers. But on other occasions, these issues can come from a place of real division between the two athletes.
On Saturday at UFC 245, fans around the world bore witness to a fight that treaded both personal and ideological lines. Contested over the course of five brutal rounds, one of the sport’s leading motormouthed villains in Colby Covington was left with a broken jaw while Kamaru Usman walked out with the Welterweight Title via TKO. As Dana White wrapped that gold-plated championship around his waist and Joe Rogan placed the mic in front of his face, Kamaru made his feelings clear as he proclaimed, "man, this one’s not just for me, it’s for the whole entire world right now." Kamaru’s win not only gratified all of his hard work and extended his UFC win streak to 11 straight fights but capped off a storybook year for "The Nigerian Nightmare."
UFC 245 - Steve Marcus/Getty Images
While both men were in the preparatory stages for their square-off at MSG, Covington didn’t mince his words when it came to his intentions for Kamaru. "I'm looking to knock his head into the front row and leave him unconscious and send his ass off to the ER," he told Bleacher Report. "I promise you: I'm going to melt this snowflake just like the rest."
Bolstered by claims that he’d finish him within three rounds or “cripple” him, Usman saw the divisive us-vs-them narrative that Colby had eked out and used it as fuel to carry him though. "I’m an immigrant who came here, worked his tail off to get to where I am," Usman informed FAIR GAME. "I did everything right. I didn’t cheat anybody. I didn’t lie, I didn’t do any of the things that they’re trying to say immigrants do. I didn’t do any of that. I paid my dues, and I got what he wanted. I’m sitting up here, and he’s down here looking up at me, so I need to remind him, I’m more American than he is. I’m the one living the American Dream."
And sure enough, when all was said and done, Usman had kept that perception in place. But for all that he displayed an immaculately cold and calculated exterior for the duration of the 24 minutes and 10 seconds, the post-fight press conference allowed Kamaru to expand on how he felt in a way that’d endear him to millions around the world. "This is what kept me sane is this moment right here," Usman said during the press conference. "There was a lot emotionally, a lot that he said. When I said this one is for the world, I meant it. When you push hate and separation, love and unity does win sometimes. And tonight, it won." Yet amid the rapturous celebrations of fans around the world, another man that was quick to sing the praises of Usman was none other than Dana White.
Speaking to BT Sport, the UFC President vocalized his thoughts on the legacy of this fight and what it represented for the Nigerian-American’s stock as a whole. "If you think about some of the greatest grudge matches of all time, the fights suck. It’s true, they never live up to the hype. I hoped that because these guys match up so well stylistically that it would make for a great fight. How many takedown attempts did you guys see? 0. They just went in there and went at it. At the end of the day, when you’re on your way up and you become a world champion, when you go in and perform like he performed tonight, that’s the stuff people love," Dana continued. "Tonight, was his coming out party man, this is a big night."
Unreserved as Dana’s praise was, it only tells one half of the story of Usman’s unprecedented 2019. After besting former Lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos at "The Ultimate Fighter: Heavy Hitters Finale" and earning "Performance Of The Night" honours in the process, Usman was set on a collision course with the welterweight division’s reigning king, Tyron Woodley.
Five fights into his reign at the top of the heap, Woodley was feeling understandably confident as he prepared for the fight against Usman who, despite defeating veterans such as Demian Maia, Sean Strickland and Alexander Yakovlev, was still a relative unknown in the eyes of many fans heading into UFC 235 in March. Woodley claimed that his opponent didn’t even believe that he was capable of defeating one of "the greats," and likened himself to be Usman's "mentor." Undeterred, Kamaru remained calm and let him know what he could bring to the table. "I got the biggest shovel out here, when it comes down to digging deep, ain’t nobody can dig as deep as I can dig," he said during a promo run, promoting ridicule from T-Wood. Kamaru would look over and deliver a prophetic warning: "Don’t back up."
UFC 235 - Isaac Brekken/Getty Images
Stepping into the octagon as a rank underdog, Usman pushed the pace and kept on top of Woodley at every turn with relentless takedowns and dirty boxing. Made all the more startling by Woodley’s pre-fight claims that he could beat him through wrestling alone, Usman was awarded an unanimous decision victory. As important as it’s been to the narrative of the Colby fight, the prescience of his rags-to-riches journey was displayed for all to see in his championship-winning interview. Holding his daughter aloft, the 32-year-old fighter proclaimed, "I come from humble beginnings, all the way from Auchi, Nigeria. I never dreamed that I’d have a platform like this. When this little girl came along, she lit a fire under my ass and I got going."
But after the lights dimmed, the lore that surrounded Usman’s victory has only increased and made him into one of the most compelling titleholders that we’ve seen in recent years. In one of the moments that typified the humanity that resides at the centre of the sport, footage emerged of Tyron Woodley’s mother, Deborah, hugging a crying Usman while telling him, "It’s your turn. It ain’t his turn. It’s your time. Be encouraged, you hear me? And keep on working, cause they gonna come for you. And you take it to ‘em. It’s all good."
Then, as if that moment that made Joe Rogan cry wasn’t inspiring enough, it would soon be revealed that Usman had entered the biggest fight of his life with a fractured foot, relying on a cortisone shot to get him through the pain. Now, after he bested a valiant champion and a personal nemesis, Usman has the world at his feet as we enter 2020. And if the coming year is anything like the one that preceded it, it’s going to take the Nigerian-born fighter into the stratosphere. As for what Dana White’s got in store for him, it seems like he’s on a collision course with none other than the “resurrected” BMF Champion Jorge Masvidal. That, as they say in the business, is a "money fight."