The pound-for-pound rankings in MMA usually exist as a portal for spirited debate over who really is the best fighter in the world.
Thanks to Kamaru Usman, there is no debate at the top. The UFC welterweight champion has been the clear choice throughout much of 2021, on virtually every credible list. Looking for debate? Skip down to No. 2.
Such a distinction isn’t something Usman spends much of his time soaking in, especially not ahead of UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, when he defends his crown against bitter rival Colby Covington for the second time in just under two years.
“I do take pride in a sense; as an athlete, you want to be recognized as the best at what you do, that you’ve put so much time in,” Usman told The Post via Zoom on Tuesday. “But I don’t dwell on it.”
Add potential Fighter of the Year awards to the list of accolades that may be bestowed upon Usman if he completes his first 3-0 calendar year as champion. The welterweight division is historically one of the marquee weight classes. It has been ruled by dominant champions, such as Georges St-Pierre, and the title hasn’t been successfully defended three times in one year in 19 years, dating back to Matt Hughes’ reign before “The Ultimate Fighter” put the UFC on the path to it’s modern success.
Few 170-pounders can say they’ve accomplished anything in the octagon that the legendary GSP could not, but Usman is making a habit of it with his run to the pinnacle of the sport. With his third-round TKO of Gilbert Burns in February, Usman surpassed St-Pierre’s record for consecutive welterweight victories in the UFC. Usman later extended the mark to 14 in a row when he floored Jorge Masvidal in the second round of their April rematch.
Usman says he only learns of these sorts of cleared hurdles once reporters bring them to his attention.
“I don’t really look into that’” Usman says. “I’ll let the media do that. I’ll let the people do that. As long as I’m doing my job, which is one thing that I’ve said and I continue to believe, as long as I’m doing my job and taking the one fight at a time, all the stats and all the records will continue to pile up. I don’t need to chase that.”
“One fight at a time” is about as cliché as it gets, but Usman does admit one record held by St-Pierre may withstand the Nigerian-born, American-raised champion’s reign. The French-Canadian Hall of Famer’s mark of 12 victories in welterweight championship bouts — including one for an interim crown — could be safe.
To match that mark, the current champ would need to win seven more championship fights at 170, beginning Saturday against Covington. Even for an active titleholder like Usman, that’s two to three more years of successfully running the gauntlet while maintaining a pace that exceeds most modern champions, who typically don’t fight more than once or twice a year.
“I don’t know if I want to do this seven more times,” the 34-year-old Usman said. “God willing, I’m able to, but I understand that time waits for no man, and the sport’s evolving, and it’s changing so fast.”
And that’s not at the forefront of his mind, either. “One fight a time,” remember? His gaze is set upon Covington, the bile-spewing challenger who gave Usman a “tough one” when they first faced off for Usman’s title in December 2019. A back-and-forth classic unfolded in the octagon in Las Vegas, but it was Usman who emerged with a TKO victory while Covington sprinted to the back of T-Mobile Arena with what the Nevada State Athletic Commission would term a nondisplaced midline mandibular fracture — a broken jaw.
“I give credit where credit is due: He’s a tough individual,” Usman said. “He works hard, [has] good cardio, a good gas tank, and is an incredible athlete. And he went in there, and he pushed me in on that first fight. I like that.”
Usman expects the same stiff test from Covington this time around, even with the challenger not having competed since a victory over fading ex-champ Tyron Woodley 14 months ago. But combat sports sequels rarely play out the same way as the original. The champ’s two fights with Masvidal are a prime example, with Usman coasting to a forgettable, clinch-heavy decision last July before his thunderous KO of the durable veteran known for big finishes late in his career.
At the Garden on Saturday, Usman is banking on his edge in activity combined with his 2020 shift to training in Colorado under coach Trevor Wittman leading to less of a war and more of a dominant victory, perhaps one that doesn’t creep into the 25th and final minute of the fight.
“I’ve been a little more active. I think I have a lot more wisdom than in that first fight,” Usman said. “And then, of course, the [training] camp changed. I think in applying some of the new materials and the new sense and the wisdom that I have now, I think hopefully it makes the fight a lot smoother and a lot easier to where I can go home a lot faster or get to my afterparty a lot faster.”
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