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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down TUF 28 Finale’s Kamaru Usman

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Hard-hitting wrestler, Kamaru Usman, will throw down with former champion, Rafael dos Anjos, this Friday (Nov. 30, 2018) at The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 28 Finale inside Pearl Theatre at Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada.

I am not one of those writers who maintains a giant list of obscure mixed martial arts (MMA) stats and facts somewhere on his desktop, but I can tell you that the list of people with eight or more consecutive victories is slim and filled with legendary fighters. Usman is already there, and frankly, he’s hardly lost a round inside the Octagon. This is not merely hype, Usman is the real deal, something he proved by cruising to victory over Demian Maia. However, his long desired title shot still eludes him, but that could change with one more win.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Usman is still relatively young as a fighter — six years deep as a professional but with just 14 fights. As such, his striking is still growing at a fast pace, though he does show some inexperience. At the same time, when Usman is relaxed and flowing into his combinations, he’s a tricky kickboxer with considerable power.

Usman’s kickboxing varies quite a bit from fight-to-fight, partially because of his development and in part because of Usman’s mentality. In back-to-back fights opposite Sean Strickland and Sergio Moraes, Usman’s attack was very different. Usman was extremely loose against Strickland, resulting in a lot of stinging punches with the occasional haymaker, whereas he rushed things against Moraes. The result was a more tense Usman who ate some extra counter shots, but it did produce a ridiculous one-punch knockout once he loosened up a bit.

Relaxed Usman is a very dangerous kickboxer who is nasty from both stances. Unlike many fighters, Usman spends a pretty equal amount of time fighting from each stance, though he is naturally a Southpaw. Regardless, Usman applies consistent forward pressure and attacks with single strikes and short combinations.

From either stance, Usman makes the most of his 76-inch reach with a fast jab. In Orthodox, his goal is generally to snap his opponent’s head back and establish range. As a Southpaw, however, it’s more common for Usman to flick the jab, slip his head off the center line to avoid the counter and find a home for his left. The cross is a major weapon for Usman from either stance, and again it’s a difference or power vs. loose precision. Fighting right-handed, Usman will fully commit to the cross nearly every time and try to blast his opponent (GIF). As a Southpaw, Usman is far more likely to pitch the left hand smoothly, and he’s also more likely to follow up with a second cross or right hook.

Usman does a great job of shifting between stances with the cross. For example, he can throw a cross as an Orthodox and step into Southpaw, allowing him to follow up with lead hand right hooks as his opponent circles away. Against Moraes, Usman used the established threat of the left cross to shift back right-handed, taking a new angle while Moraes covered up. From this angle, Usman dropped a right-handed cross straight to the jaw (GIF).

Another layer to Usman’s offense is his ability to use level change feints. Usman doesn’t just squat down, he reaches for the leg in a very convincing feint of a snatch single. Opposite Sean Strickland, Usman repeatedly used level-change feints from the Southpaw stance to great effect. Strickland is a right-handed fighter, and the opposite stance dynamic meant that his lead leg was vulnerable to the snatch single. Usman would reach out for the single frequently, instead coming up with a left cross or right uppercut-left high kick. It was seriously effective, and having to guess whether to defend a takedown or punch really stymied Strickland’s own offense.

Check out this week’s technique highlight for further explanation:

Training under Henri Hooft, it shouldn’t be surprising that Usman is a pretty smart kicker as well. He mostly relies on his hands, but Usman is active in attacking his foe’s lead leg. Usman tends to set the low kick up with feints rather than combinations, helping himself out by mixing targets to the thigh and calf. He’ll also suddenly go Southpaw and punt the inside of the leg. Similarly, Usman will shift Southpaw and kick to the body, a very effective strategy.

Opposite Demian Maia, Usman fought largely as a Southpaw opposite the leftie, likely to avoid leaving the high-crotch takedown open to the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace. As such, things were a bit awkward — Southpaws rarely look good fighting each other. Still, Usman made the correct adjustments, working his jab for more often and kicking at Maia’s calf often. Defensively, Usman is far less hittable when he’s relaxed and flowing. When tense or uncomfortable, Usman is a bit slower, which is all the time needed for a counter strike to slip through.

Wrestling

A multiple time All-American and one-time National champion in Division II collegiate wrestling, Usman is a very accomplished wrestler. More than that, both as an athlete and wrestler, Usman is a devastating combination of great physical strength and relentless conditioning.

Inside the cage, Usman very much likes to shoot from the Southpaw stance when facing Orthodox opponents. It’s mentioned in the article and video above repeatedly, but the lead legs are very close in such exchanges — it’s common to accidentally step on the foot of an opposite stance opponent. Because of that, Usman can easily snatch up the lead leg in a single-leg takedown.

From the high-crotch position, Usman will commonly dump his opponent to the mat. If his opponent maintains his balance, Usman can quickly convert to a double leg takedown, as the motion of the attempted dump perfectly sets up the lift.

Although shooting with his head to the outside does leave him more at risk of landing in a guillotine, it also has the benefit of making it easier to cut an angle and take the back if his opponent defends the shot. In his recent bout with Emil Meek, Usman reminded the world that his mat returns from that position are excellent. Usman has the physical strength to lift and slam any opponent that isn’t properly defending easily, but he’ll also mix inside trips into his offense. Generally, if his opponent is able to defend the inside trip, the slam will be available, and the inverse is true as well (GIF).

Usman’s takedown defense was seriously tested opposite Maia. In one exchange, Maia shot for a high-crotch single and achieved solid position. From there, he switched to the double leg, but Usman got his hips back. Maia attempted to transition both to trip out the far leg and to score a body lock throw, but both times Usman was able to defend, either by switching his hips or applying pressure from the whizzer.

It was fantastic defense.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Usman’s top game is almost entirely wrestling, as he pins wrists and batters opponents largely from either the guard or turtle. That said, he does work to pass into mount and will attack with submissions if his opponent presents the opportunity — such as when he tried to kimura Strickland from half guard.

The sole submission win of Usman’s career named him TUF 21 champion. Opposite Hayder Hassan, Usman’s dominant takedowns and ground striking were overwhelming his American Top Team foe. Hassan tried to latch onto Usman’s head to control him, but Usman passed into mount, creating the perfect situation for an arm triangle. Once Usman’s hands were locked, it was easy for someone of Usman’s strength to drop his weight and finish the hold.

Against Maia, Usman nearly fell victim to Maia’s high-crotch to back clinch to back take transition in the first round. It’s a fantastic sequence, one even Tyron Woodley was forced to grab the fence to fully avoid. However, Usman countered by somehow maintaining an overhook even as Maia climbed to his back. It was an interesting display of flexibility, strength and technique, and he managed to stall out the Brazilian.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Maia vs Usman Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Conclusion

Usman is already one of the best Welterweights in the world, improving fight-to-fight. Dos Anjos is the stiffest and most well-rounded test of his career, though, someone who could conceivably force a kickboxing match for long periods of time and actually win those exchanges. Plus, no one has every attempted to bully Usman — “RDA” surely will try. All in all, it makes for an intriguing match up.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.