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The Cerebral Kamaru Usman Is Showing Why He Is the Top Fighter in the World

Jon Jones remains the top men’s pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC rankings, but at the rate Kamaru Usman continues to dominate, it is only a matter of time before that changes.

That sheer dominance was on display in April when Usman defended his welterweight title in the performance of the night at UFC 261. That was the bout when he turned Jorge Masvidal’s face into mist with a devastating KO punch. Though that punch was divine, it contained far more than just power—it was also the result of a cerebral approach, showcasing why Usman doubles as the most advanced thinker when applying his craft.

“From the start of the fight, I was reading how he reacted,” said Usman. “In the first round, I kept throwing jabs to the body and to the head, calculating how he was processing them.”

MMA stands out as the purest form of sport, a mental chess match, where the chessboard is the canvas of the Octagon. Before the knockout shot that ended Masvidal’s night, Usman threw two left jabs. Like a predator ready to attack an unsuspecting prey, this marked the moment when an elite mixed martial artist exhibited complete command.

“In the second round, in the first 20 seconds, I needed to see how he’d respond to my level changes,” said Usman. “He’d thrown a couple kicks in that first round. He did the exact same thing in the second round. I read that, checked it, threw out a jab and finished up with the finishing combination. He didn’t even see it coming.”

Usman has won his last 18 fights. Since winning the welterweight championship in March 2019, he has defended the title on four occasions, dominating the likes of Masvidal and Gilbert Burns, while also silencing Colby Covington. With a record of 19–1, and winning fights in such a decisive fashion, Usman finds himself in a unique position: He has no equal in the cage.

“All I’m focused on is the next opponent,” said Usman. “I can’t dwell on rankings. If I don’t get past my next opponent, then I’m not on any list. That’s all I’m worried about—going out and solving the next puzzle in an emphatic fashion.”

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Usman’s path has him headed toward a rematch with Covington this fall, potentially as soon as September. The initial meeting took place in December 2019, ending in a hard-fought, fifth-round TKO Usman victory. And though there are other worthy opponents for a title shot, most notably Michael Chiesa, there is a distinct hero and villain in the Usman-Covington matchup, helping it serve as an even bigger pay-per-view draw.

Poise under pressure makes Usman so dynamic in the Octagon, which is why Covington is methodically attempting to weaken that strength. In addition to his world-class wrestling, Covington is a first-rate agitator, using a cruel, divisive rhetoric to crawl under an opponent’s skin and test his inner strength and resolve. With Usman’s operating on a level where he is head and shoulders better than every other fighter in the division, Covington is seeking to break Usman’s concentration, then pounce.

“Throughout that first fight, it was a lot of talk and a lot of turmoil, but I was still able to own it and control the task at hand,” said Usman. “When it’s time for the lights to come on and do work, I do it better than anybody.

“At the end of the day, he’s fought three times in the last three years. I’ve fought three times in the last nine months. It goes to show who’s the champion here and why I’m champion.”

Usman is relishing the chance to offer a new model of excellence for the fight world. Instead of bold trash talk, he is representing all of MMA with a sophisticated, respectful approach.

“I’m being true to myself,” said Usman. “In the position I’m in and the platform I’ve been blessed with, I have a responsibility to motivate, and let the guys and girls that are going to come after me know that there is a certain way to conduct yourself and do this. Of course, there is a lot of pressure to do the whole Conor McGregor schtick or [act like] Colby Covington, but I like to do it with class. I want to let people know you can still get it done without having to be that way.”

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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.