Kamaru Usman defends the UFC welterweight championship this Saturday against Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261.
This marks the fourth title defense for Usman (18-1), who has already defeated Colby Covington, Masvidal and Gilbert Burns during his reign as champ. The first meeting with Masvidal took place last July, with Masvidal a late fill-in for Burns, who could not fight after testing positive for COVID-19. Masvidal (35-14) accepted the fight on six days’ notice, and while he added a considerable amount of excitement to the pay per view, he was no match for Usman in the cage.
Masvidal has vowed that, following a full training camp, the outcome will be different. Yet this scenario also applies for Usman, who now has a full camp to specifically train and prepare for Masvidal. And after a thoroughly dominating showing against Burns in February, it would be foolish to doubt the champ.
Prior to the bout, which is the centerpiece of three title fights on Saturday’s card, Usman spoke with Sports Illustrated about his fight against Masvidal, working with UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, and his unrelenting pursuit of greatness.
Sports Illustrated: Entering your bout against Gilbert Burns at UFC 258, we already knew your elite level in the cage. But that performance was so dominant, as you simply outskilled and outclassed a top-tier opponent.
Kamaru Usman: That was a testament to how much I work and how much I put into my craft. I say it often, I let these guys know that I’m different than the guys they’ve fought previously. One guy [Masvidal] seems to not be buying it, so I’m giving him another opportunity to go out there and prove it.
SI: Considering you are still in the prime of your career, we are a long way from discussing your legacy. But it’s the everyday pursuit of greatness that defines you. As champion, how do you stay so sharp when you’re already at the top of your craft?
KU: At the end of the day, I’m not sitting around saying, “I’m the greatest of all-time.” There are some greats that have done this sport. That’s not my energy right now. My focus is each and every guy that’s in front of me. If I keep doing that, then you’ll see I was a guy that fought and conquered everybody.
That’s my focus, the next guy in front of me. Everything else, I can discuss later. I’ll talk about it some day with my grandkids, when they realize grandpa did some pretty incredible things.
SI: That singular focus has helped elevate you into one of the most distinguished fighters in the world. I’m always fascinated by how those at the top of their game handle challenges. A skill you have harnessed over time allows you to block out noise and focus on the task at hand. How do you it?
KU: That’s what sets me apart from all these guys. When I say I’m on a different level, that is exactly what I mean by it. Most people have a hard time with what’s going on around them. I don’t. That’s where I thrive, and that allows me to prevail.
SI: A lot of discussion has been centered around Masvidal having a full camp before this fight to prepare for you, and rightfully so. You also have a full camp to prepare for Masvidal, who is a much different type of fighter than Burns, who you had been preparing to meet last July. The rematch is a much more captivating fight, considering you’ll both be arriving fully prepared and at your best.
KU: That’s what I’ve been saying. There is a lot being made that he took the fight on only six days, but I risked everything to take that fight. So look what happens to me when I have a full camp to train for this guy. He’s getting a full camp, yes, but so am I. And I’m the champion, and I’ll show everyone on April 24 why I am the undisputed champion of the world.
SI: UFC 261 will be fought in front of a live crowd. Could the crowd play a factor?
KU: For me, it doesn’t really make that big of a difference. I know I need to perform at my absolute best. If anything, it helps him a little bit more because he’s the type of guy that feeds off the fans getting behind him. But at the end of the day, I aim to go in there and dominate the fight from start to finish.
SI: Looking at your string of title defenses, you are showing new layers in every fight in terms of psychology, pacing, and even finishes. These are extremely tough competitors—was there ever a point during this run where you questioned yourself?
KU: I question myself all the time. I question myself every Tuesday and Friday before going to sparring. I question myself on Wednesday nights going to wrestling practice. I get nervous. But I’m OK with that. I’m fine with that. I’ve made friends with that feeling.
I doubt myself every time, and that gives me the opportunity to surprise and shock myself in each and every fight. Over time, I want to set this bar so high that it’s going to take a spectacular human being to reach these levels.
SI: In addition to this fight, you worked with Ngannou in his pursuit of the heavyweight title, which he won last month when he defeated Stipe Miocic. Has that motivated you even further for this bout against Masvidal?
KU: I don’t think Francis realizes how much me motivates me. He motivates me every time I’m around him. Watching him achieve that was special, and it motivated me big-time, to the point where I feel like I have Francis’ hands now. It’s given me even more added motivation.
SI: Francis is a great fighter, and he didn’t need to take your advice. But he embraced your help, which speaks to him as a person and mixed martial artist.
KU: Francis is a tremendous competitor. Knowing his story, it’s hard not to respect a guy like that. And he listened and took our advice. He didn’t have to ask, but he did. Francis knew we’d help him get to where he wanted to go. He went out there and accomplished his mission, and it still gives me goosebumps thinking about it.
SI: Saturday’s bout against Masvidal is great matchup featuring two extraordinary fighters. Why will we see your hand raised at the end of UFC 261?
KU: I didn’t get involved in this because I could do nothing else. I chose to be a fighter. A lot of people fall into this. I chose this. I know it’s a movie, but it’s like Apollo Creed’s son choosing to box. I have that burning desire to compete and be the best.
I am going to break him. I am going to take a piece of his soul. At UFC 261, that’s going to be a lot of fun for me.