Undisputed UFC welterweight champion, Kamaru Usman is somewhat flying below many of the communities radar, without much good reason. It’s not in regards to recognition, but more so popularity, which leads to a biased view of his ability. Undefeated in more than seven years. 12-0 under the UFC’s banner. A dominant wrestler with a crushing-clinch style which has drawn comparisons to some of the bygone 170-pound wrestling talents.
Attempting his third defence of the welterweight crown, Usman has taken on all comers to his throne without hesitation or complaint. Whether faced with putting fierce-animosity to the back of his mind, or tackle a surging, wily veteran who has recently come into his own on just six day’s notice — it’s been full steam ahead.
Criticised for some lacklustre performances in his initial promotional run, as well as a poor choice statement in which he claimed he was only exerting “thirty per cent” of his ability against Emil Webber Meek — it’s undeniably haunted Usman somewhat. However. when it’s all said and done and the Auchi native eventually calls it a career, no matter if it’s five years from now or even this weekend, it should be crystal clear for all to see how impressive, dominant and formidable a champion Usman has been — in a time where the welterweight division has thrown up some considerably lofty challengers.
The next of such challengers is an all too familiar face for the incumbent titleholder. Jorge Masvidal may have come into his own over the last twenty-four months, however, few have risen through the ranks of 170-pounds in recent years looking as impressive as UFC 258 challenger, Gilbert Burns — apart from Usman and Covington of course.
Former training partners at Sanford MMA in South Florida under head coach, Henri Hooft — Usman and Burns were considered major standouts at the facility, alongside recent lightweight debutante, Michael Chandler, and former champion, Robbie Lawler — as well as ONE Championship staples, Aung La Nsang and Martin Nguyen.
Undefeated at 170-pounds since his 2019 division return and attempting to become the first Brazilian in promotional history to lift the welterweight crown, Burns, per Usman, presents the sternest challenge to his champion status since he assumed the throne during their time as training partners.
Relocating to Colorado at altitude, Usman has landed on the wings of renowned striking coach, Trevor Wittman — the mastermind behind recent championship successes for both Justin Gaethje and Rose Namajunas.
In the past, both Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw boasted about who had the better of their training sessions during their pair of bad-blooded matchups, with the former releasing footage of him dropping the latter in a sparring session prior to fight week. While things haven’t gotten that ugly between both Usman and Burns, they both maintain they respectively know who’s come out on the winning side of their exchanges.
There is a certain familiarity and knowledge that must come with sharing the training room alongside a teammate who now becomes an opponent, however, Usman’s time under the tutelage of Wittman could bring the premiere of some new tools come fight night — with Burns particularly wary of the potential improvements Usman could’ve made with his hands.
Delving into Usman’s last performance, he managed to score a one-sided, relatively straight-forward 50-45 (x2) unanimous decision win over short-notice replacement, Jorge Masvidal — in a wrestling and particularly clinch-heavy approach to the fight. While Usman’s likely to dominate in some portion of the fight utilising his unmatched clinch ability, Burns simply has more tools on his belt in that particular position when compared with Masvidal, and while we never saw Usman and Covington engage in a clinch, I’d favour the Brazilian to holds distinct advantages in that position when compared with Covington as well.
Granted I’d favour Burns in the clinch defensively in particular against Masvidal and possibly against Covington, although, it’ll prove a taxable task to prevent Usman landing you on your back at least once over the course of a five-round sanctioned bout. The ball isn’t necessarily in Burns’ court either if he ends up on the bottom, despite recent claims that he can submit Usman from anywhere or at any time. Usman rarely makes mistakes or leaves punishable openings for opponents to exploit, and Burns would fair much better in possible grappling scenarios if he can get the Nigerian down, and crucially, remain in top-position for an extended period.
Burns’ Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu credentials speak for themself. Backed by a 2nd. degree black belt under Fofitio Barros, as well as a whopping four world championship wins, I just don’t envisinge how he’d implement that against a customer like Usman who fails to ever really put a foot wrong, while he’s in control of a fight. He’s simply that dominant.
There’s no questioning Usman’s ability to make a fight largely uncomfortable for his opponent, and Burns has managed to do just the same — most recently at his title shot earning shutout against common-foe, former champion, Tyron Woodley last May. Backing the St. Louis native to the fence time and time again with pressure and punching-power, Burns would have to exact a performance rivalling one of the best championship-clinching displays of all-time if he’s to have the same success against his former teammate.
I agree with Usman’s sentiment that Burns presents his most dangerous test to date as champion. He’s got considerable a power for welterweight, a smothering wrestling style of his own, as well as an almost unmatched Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu game, however, Usman has all the tools to mitigate each of those outliers from Burns’ bag of tricks.
Key to success for Burns would see him turn the tables on Usman and utilise a similar approach to how the defending champion has knocked back recent challengers, as well as former champion, Woodley. Pace, pressure, perseverance — the last particularly in the sure to be plentiful clinch exchanges. But that’s easier said than exacted against Usman who is going to shoot or meet fire with fire if under the cosh. And if Burns finds himself on his back, there’s no denying his grappling proficiency, but unless Usman debuts a mistake from top-position — wrapping up a submission is a long shot.
I’m ultimately siding with Usman to wear on Burns with his typical clinch-heavy and hugely-effective pace-pushing style which led him to title success, as well as knockback his most recent opposition.
Prediction: Kamaru Usman def. Gilbert Burns via decision.