Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight kingpin, Kamaru Usman, will defend his crown opposite former team mate, Gilbert Burns, this Saturday (Feb. 13, 2021) at UFC 258 from UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Usman wins fights. More specifically, he wins rounds, and even more accurately, he wins the individual minutes of bouts with great consistency. The wrestler grows more comfortable with his kickboxing in each bout, but ultimately, immense physicality and outstanding wrestling have proven a suffocating combination. Will it work against an outstanding grappling and fellow physical specimen with inside information as to Usman’s style? That’s really the story of this title defense, which presents a different challenge than most.
Let’s take a closer look at the champion’s skill set:
Usman has been training under an excellent kickboxer and coach in Henri Hooft for many years. As such, he’s always shown pretty decent fundamentals, but a lifetime of wrestling and his inexperience made him stiff on the feet. Over time, he’s slowly grown more fluid and more confident.
Against a Southpaw in Covington, Usman willingly fought a high-volume kickboxing match in perhaps his best striking performance. It was extremely close overall, but Usman’s body work was a major factor in his victory. From early in the fight, Usman was jamming hard right hands into the solar plexus. In addition, his snap kick to the body landed well.
By the fifth round, Usman really found the timing and distance on his right hand. Earlier in the fight, Covington did well to jab, dip off the center line, and land as Usman tried to fire back. That combination of Usman’s body work and general fatigue left Covington a bit slower, however, and Usman capitalized by shuffling into range before unleashing his accurate cross (GIF).
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.
While more relaxed, Usman is a pretty dangerous kickboxer from either stance. In fact, he switches well enough that I genuinely am not sure which of his hands is dominant. 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.
Training under a kickboxer like 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.
In his bout with Tyron Woodley, Usman’s goal was to close the distance, and he did a lot correctly to accomplish that mission. He fought from the Orthodox stance, keeping his left shoulder to his chin and left arm extended, fully prepared to intercept Woodley’s overhand. As he pursued, Usman stayed behind his shoulder and jabbed, walking Woodley towards the fence.
Once in the clinch, Usman went to work. At times, he was able to pull a hand down and fold over hard elbow strikes, but it was often even more simple than that. Usman found his best success by pushing off and unloading combinations while Woodley’s back was still to the fence, and he did a lot of damage simply by hammering the ribs from the over-under position (GIF).
Usman’s clinch work was a major theme against Jorge Masvidal as well. Though he received a lot of Internet hate for excessive foot stomping, Usman also did real damage. His uppercuts into the mid-section looked painful similar to the Woodley fight, but Usman found a home for nice elbows as well. At one point, he landed a slick setup from the over-under, using his underhook hand to reach across the body and control Masvidal’s wrist. This freed up a path for Usman’s overhand side to elbow “Gamebred” in the face.
A multiple time All-American and National champion at the Division II level, Usman also accrued experience as a Freestyle wrestler after college. More than any one technique, both as an athlete and wrestler, Usman is a devastating combination of great physical strength and relentless conditioning.
Because of his ability to switch stances, Usman is very slick at blinding his opponent with straight shots and setting up a high-crotch takedown entry on the lead leg. Once in on the leg, Usman will threaten a dump takedown. When his opponent shifts his weight back, Usman is able to instead catch the far leg and lift to complete a double leg.
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 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). This proved true from the front of the body as well opposite Woodley, as Usman stepped outside of his knee while attempting a body lock takedown, scoring a big slam when Woodley attempted to turn and face him again.
Usman’s takedown defense was seriously tested opposite Demian 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.
Usman’s top game is almost entirely wrestling, pinning wrists and battering 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 The Ultimate Fighter (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.
Usman is an incredibly effective fighter, even if his style does not often create highlights. He can stymie elite opponents and exhaust them, making them appear far more average. If he can replicate that success against a serious threat in Burns, it once again proves just how special Usman is.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 258 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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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.