“I want to take his title. I want to take his soul.”
Kamaru Usman is currently on the wrong side of history.
And that’s one part of his story he fully intends to rewrite. Usman lost in dramatic fashion to Leon Edwards in the main event of UFC 278 last summer, getting knocked out by a head kick with less than a minute left in the fifth round. Despite controlling the second, third, fourth and the vast majority of the fifth, staying close to a unanimous decision and a record-tying victory, Usman became a permanent part of Edwards’ reel.
“He got me,” says Usman, who lost his welterweight title to Edwards. “It broke me. Now he can taste what it’s like to be a champion.”
For someone suffering a rare defeat in the cage, Usman (20–2) claims it doesn’t haunt him right now. And there is no reason to doubt its authenticity.
Sitting in his London hotel room sipping a cup of ginger and lemon tea, Usman expressed his passion for a chance to make history again when he meets Edwards for the third time – he won the original fight in 2015 – for the welterweight title this Saturday at the O2 Arena in the main event of UFC 286.
“Everyone keeps asking me if it bothers me [the knockout], and I keep thinking, “Is there something I don’t care about right now?” Usman says. “It’s not the first time I’ve been kicked. I come from a Dutch kickboxing gym where everyone kicks legs and heads. I don’t think about it. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s just a reminder not to be lazy and keep my hands up, a reminder not to stop until the job is done. I know I will watch the replay again and again and again. That’s it, but all I’m thinking about is going out there and competing.”
Usman had seemingly broken Edwards’ spirit 18 minutes into their fight at 278. He was on the verge of making history by tying the great Anderson Silva for 16 consecutive UFC victories, further cementing his legacy as one of the all-time greats. Then came the headbutt, and in an instant, the sudden end of his title reign.
“I think even Leon forgot what was going on in our fight before that leg kick,” Usman says. “So I’m going to go out there and remind him who he is, and he’s the second best guy in the division. It’s time to show the world why I’m the best.”
Usman is still presented as the champion, even without the belt. He handled a tough loss with grace and never hesitated to credit Edwards with the win.
“I’ve done a lot in this sport,” says Usman. “I’ve hit a lot of guys and sent them home upset. Through it all, I have come to love and respect this sport. I’ve grown to understand what winning does to someone, and I’ve grown to understand what losing does to someone. I am blessed with the opportunity to compete and I am blessed with the opportunity to take care of myself and my family. But it’s bigger than me. Every race is an opportunity to inspire millions around the world. I have to show how to deal with being a winner as well as how to deal with defeat. I aim to be gracious in victory and I aim to be gracious in defeat.”
The defeat did not erode Usman’s confidence. On the contrary, he encouraged it.
There isn’t a shred of doubt in his mind that he is the most accomplished mixed martial artist. After five successful title defenses, the response to this unexpected loss to Edwards is exactly the kind of challenge Usman has been craving — whether he realizes it or not.
“When I was first introduced to this great sport, I remember watching Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard,” says Usman. “I watched their big trilogy and wanted, even then, to be a part of something so huge. What I didn’t take into account is that for there to be a trilogy I had to lose.”
Usman laughs. An unstoppable force in the cage, he had reeled off 19 straight wins before Edwards knocked him out. The thought of losing is still foreign to him, causing him to burst out laughing. His smile is infectious, breaking up a serious conversation about overcoming obstacles. After a brief pause, he continues to capture what this fight – this opportunity – means to him.
“God has blessed me with this position, to be a part of something so great,” says Usman. “It’s my first time here in London and I’m here to do my job: to dominate this race from start to finish. It is a blessing to be in this position. It is a blessing to be heading towards this destination of greatness. I have been thrown from the horse, but I will mount again and ride to my destination. That’s all it is. This is an opportunity to show my daughter that if you stumble and fall, you get back up.
“My goal is to inspire in this race. I’m the best welterweight in the world. I don’t have the gold right now, but even the guy with the gold understands that I’m the best mixed martial artist. This Saturday, I have the opportunity to go there and prove it. Even if I lose the belt, my mindset remains the same. I am looking to dominate and defeat my opponent. That’s my plan for Saturday.”
An underrated aspect of this fight is that it marks Edwards’ first title defense. This is completely new territory for the champion, uncharted waters full of pressure and expectations. It’s also a terrain Usman knows intimately.
“This is where I thrive, this is where I excel,” says Usman. “Leon was never here. He doesn’t understand how difficult the first defense of the title is. And he has to do it at home, with his family and friends sitting right there, against a guy who dominated seven of eight rounds. Leon has his work cut out for him.”
Despite suffering the most devastating loss of his career, Usman is only moving in one direction: forward. He vows that will also happen in the Octagon, where he intends to finish what he started, rewriting this chapter in his legacy.
“I want to take his title. I want to take his soul,” says Usman. “I would like to do both. I always want my opponents to walk away and say, ‘I don’t want to fight this guy again.’ I have to let Leon know. He was really starting to sink until he threw a Hail Mary and landed. So now I have to go over there and remind him and then come home with this big gold belt.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.