Say this about UFC 245, which will be held Saturday night in Las Vegas: it will give new zest to the phrase “red corner” and “blue corner.” The main event pitting the welterweight champion Kamaru Usman against challenger Colby Covington is the country’s culture wars playing out in a steel cage. Clad in a MAGA hat and—as he does when fighting—pulling no punches, Covington sat down with Sports Illustrated last summer and this week. Now it’s Usman’s turn.
SI: Status update. How has this camp been?
Kamaru Usman: This camp has been not necessarily different from any other ones in the past, because I have always trained for domination in each and every fight. I have always trained to control and assess what my opponent brings, and just be able to use that against them. So this fight hasn’t been different. The only difference that I would say is the amount of scrutiny and media attention and all the outside influences that go into it. That is the only difference so far.
SI: At what point did this become a career option—did you enter college knowing that after wrestling, you might to try this growing sport? What you being doing if there were no MMA?
KU: MMA became a career option I believe in 2011, mid-2011, after I left college. I left college in 2010 to go chase the Olympic dream. And I lived at the Olympic training center for two years chasing that [dream] and it was at that moment to where this was born. I had been exposed to MMA but I had no real interest in wanting to be able to do it. So it was at that point to where I started to kind of divulge into that, into the sport. And I start to think, man, I might be able to do this. But it wasn’t something I grew up thinking I was gonna do.
And of course if this wasn’t the career path, I would be a marriage counselor right now. I really thought that that was my calling. I still think it is my calling! Until later on in life after being the UFC champion, reigning supreme for a long time, being a big movie star and all of the above, I might still go back to school and start my own practice as a marriage counselor.
SI: You haven’t lost in six-plus years. Do you even remember what defeat tastes like?
KU: Yes. I absolutely remember what losing feels like. Of course, the feeling starts to get more and more faint as you progress in your life but I remember that it was not a feeling that I liked. I remember that it was not something that I ever want again. I would say the fear of losing is 100% bigger than the thrill of winning. And so it is a feeling that kind of changes you and it changed me for the better.
SI: Your last fight, your opponent’s mom hugged you afterwards and made you (and us) cry. Things are a little different this time....
KU: Yes that was a great moment, that was an amazing moment. But the feeling now the opposite of that. We still live for moments like these, to where you have an opponent to where there is so much animosity. You want to get in there, you want to get that option, you want to get that ability to go in there and shut them down. And this is what that is. This is what that represents. And you know, I can’t wait to get in there and be that man to actually go in there and stop him.
SI: When did you first cross paths with Colby Covington?
KU: First time we actually face-to-face crossed paths was at the airport. After he had started putting on this little personal game that he is putting on, I ran into him at the airport. And he was a nice guy, he was very nice. He was like, oh man, how are you, how is everything, you doing ok? He was a super nice guy to where I kind of felt like a jerk for being upset about this kind of character he is kind of putting on.
Of course he has dialed it up 20x. And he became the—I don’t know, for lack of a better word—kind of became the a**hole you see today. But all in all, you know, it doesn’t matter to me. Nothing really matters. When you sign on that dotted line, I have to go out there and I have to do my job as a professional prize fighter.
SI: How does having a conflict with your opponent change the mentality? What additional challenges/ benefits are there?
KU: Yes there are challenges, because you have to be able to be a competitor as well. This is not a bar fight. This is not a street fight. This is a sport. And you have to be able to go out there and compete as well. And so, yeah, having all that animosity, all that talk, if you’re not able to control and hone all of that, yes it could eat you up—not for the better.
SI: “Bro, you gotta kill this dude”….what's it like to have a fight with this much fan passion?
KU: It is great! Of course there is that added pressure but you know being a professional that is my job. I have to be able to go in there and I have to be able to put all of that aside and actually take care of business as a professional. So yeah all the fan support, the fan love is great. But I have to still be able to go in there and execute and take care of business.
SI: A guy with a MAGA hat calling an African American “Marty Fake News Man” obvious comes with a certain set of optics. To what extent to you see this as more than a fight?
KU: In a sense, it definitely is more than a fight because this is what we live under. He is basically playing on the prejudice that we live day-to-day. He is playing on that. And yes, he can try to say he is selling something. But at the end of the day, at what point does it become OK to continue to do that? Just because you are selling something, I am supposed to be okay with you trying to degrade someone based on race or based on ethnicity or based on religion? No, that has never been ok. There have been wars fought for less. And you know it just goes to attest to how privileged he feels and where his mind is at. So it is what it is. With all that aside, I get to be the guy to actually go in and humble him.
SI: I spoke with Israel Adesanya last month who mentioned his eagerness to fight in Africa. Assume you would, too? What’s your relationship to Africa? How often you get back? To what extent is that a growth area for MMA?
KU: Man, having an event in Africa is something that is big, something that is major, something that absolutely needs to happen as soon as possible. And one of the reasons being: that’s our tie. In Africa we are subjected to a lot of the things that a lot of countries aren’t subjected to. To where there might not necessarily be jobs, there might not necessarily be the schools or the willingness to go to school and actually learn those ways to be able to get those jobs. Because there are no jobs! So one of the things that we can all do is use our God-given abilities, which are our hands, our feet, and just our minds. Using those to compete and to fight or to wrestle or to do whatever it takes. And that is something every African can partake in. And so now having two champions, going out and showing everyone that yes, we can accomplish these things and reach great heights like this. I think it’s tremendous. Now we have to have an event there to really solidify that motivation that let Africa know that, Hey, you guys can do it too.