Kamaru Usman keeping it simple as goal remains 'being the best fighter in the world'

Exclusive interview with former welterweight champion, who tells 'The National' how he will avenge his knockout loss to Leon Edwards when they face off in their trilogy bout at UFC 286 in London

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Reflecting now on that knockout defeat to Leon Edwards last August, Kamaru Usman sounds perfectly at peace with it - even if it had prompted a period of serious introspection for the former long-time welterweight champion.

“I believe, honestly, it's been refreshing,” Usman tells The National from his current base in London, days out from this weekend’s trilogy with Edwards that headlines UFC 286 at the O2 Arena. “Because when you're champion, there's just so much noise around you and you don't realise it.

“I guess it's what they call part of the game. There's so much noise around you, so many people around you, to where you start to just get consumed by that and you start drowning in it, but you don't realise it.

“And I was never that guy. I never needed an entourage. I never needed that people around me. I was the guy that you could throw into the fire by himself and I'm going to come out on top at the end of it."

Usman, though, couldn't do that last summer. Three-one up on rounds in his rematch with Edwards at UFC 278 in Salt Lake City, Utah - Usman won their first clash, in 2015, by unanimous decision - and with less than a minute remaining, the champion was caught with left high-kick and sent shuddering to the canvas. In an instant, his lengthy reign was over. It represents one of the great shocks in UFC history.

Usman had been the dominant welterweight champion, unbeaten in 15 straight bouts, the promotion’s pound-for-pound No 1, and marching mercilessly – apparently – towards "Greatest Of All Time" status at 170 lbs. Potentially within the sport, too.

Now, having been conspicuously absent in the interim as he recovered from UFC 278 and rehabbed a hand injury before training sights again on Edwards, Usman has emerged to exude calm and confidence.

Evidently, the time away from the spotlight has been good to him.

“I understand that, of course, you need other people in order to be able to get to a certain place in a certain position, which I have in my team, but I like having it simplified,” Usman, 35, says. “And this camp was about that.

“I just wanted to simplify it. Yes, of course, doing the Hollywood thing, doing the movies [he had a cameo in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever], doing all these press conferences, all this media, all these shows, all this flying all about, it's great and all - that's what we aspire to get to one day.

“But right now I'm still plugged into being the best fighter in the world. I want to be there. I want to be as present because I know there's not much more to go, that this sport's passing each and every one of us. So I want to be present for that, those moments.”

Undoubtedly, the present has been shaped by the recent past. The saying goes that defeats change fighters, especially those of the kind Usman experienced last time out.

Yet he insists, ultimately, the change has been in the positive.

“I would say mentally, because you find yourself in a position you normally are not in,” Usman says. “And so, for the first time you find yourself questioning whether certain things work and certain things don't work, even though you know they work, even though they worked in a fight.

“But it's a psychological thing. You just find yourself in that position and you're like, ‘Can I do that? Oh yeah, I can do that. I do do that. I am that person. I am who that person is'.

“So, it's just been a psychological battle back and forth. But these are what makes it worthwhile. This is what makes you feel alive. Being able to battle through these battles and then come out on top and [prove] the lion that you are and really know that, ‘Hey, I can overcome anything.’

“I think that right there is how I've changed; being able to battle that battle again. Because I haven't felt that in a while.”

For Usman, that makes him much more dangerous this weekend.

“Leon Edwards is going to find out Saturday night,” he says, smiling. “I think a lot of people do think that and say, ‘Oh well, yeah, he's an old guy in the yard now.’ But they don't understand what I do to the young guys.

“So I think Leon's going to find that out Saturday night, what he's done.”

That Saturday night takes place on Edwards’ patch, so to speak, only strengthens Usman’s resolve. The Jamaican-born Brit, 20-3, has never been beaten in 13 bouts in the UK – he was disqualified for an illegal knee in his third pro outing, in 2012 – something he has reminded Usman in the build-up.

Usman, however, views that simply as another source of motivation.

“Absolutely,” he says. “There's a first time for everything. I'm going to go out there and let him understand that: that it's OK. It's OK to have a first loss in the UK.”

Not that Usman, 20-2, anticipates a particularly partisan crowd at O2 Arena. The Nigerian, who at age seven relocated with family to the United States, has always represented proudly his homeland.

This weekend, he says, is a way of giving back.

“It’s a huge part of it because I wanted this, I asked for this,” Usman says. “Of course, [Edwards] likes to push that narrative and say, ‘Yes, I told him they have to come to London.’ No, I asked for this.

“I've been wanting to come to London for so long. I have so many fans here and I kid you not, I'm not lying when I say I have more fans than him here in London. Half of London is Nigerian and Africans and he doesn't realise that.

“But I'm here to entertain. I'm here to entertain these fans."

Even so, Edwards heads into the bout as the hometown favourite. The guy with the gold, the first-time champion is very much in demand, the media commitments increased, the limelight shining brighter than ever.

As Usman mentioned, speaking from considerable experience, handling that is not always easy.

“I don't know, this is to be seen,” Usman says. “Just being who I am and being the good person that I am, I believe I could badmouth him in a way, but that's nothing about that.

“Myself being a fan of this sport and being a lover of this sport, I want to see how he handles that. I don't think this is for everybody. I don't think many people can handle it. We see some of the situations with [Conor] McGregor and some certain things.

“Once you get to a certain spot, a certain place, it's a lot. And so I would like to see how he handles it. But, as far as I'm concerned, he won't have to deal with it for far too long.”

Edwards would obviously argue otherwise. The Birmingham-based fighter warns that Usman will face an altogether different challenge than he did in Salt Lake City.

Edwards said training and fighting at altitude in Utah affected him so negatively that UFC 278 represented one of his worst performances. Conversely, Edwards claims that was the best of Usman.

“I heard that,” Usman says. “Someone told me about that, and I wanted to ask the media. Do you guys truly believe that that was my best performance and that was his worst?

“He won the fight. But, dude, does anyone in the world truly believe that statement? Because that's not the first time we fought. That's the second time we fought. So what do you say about the first time we fought? He lost.

“You've done it, you won a title. You could throw a Hail Mary and it worked and you won a title. So that little bit of happiness can have you a little dazed and confused and drunk in the success where you start saying outlandish statements like that.

“The world knows I'm the better mixed martial artist. And so if that's what he felt like he needed to say to make himself feel better, to make himself seem better, then that's OK for him, that's fine. I take nothing away from him.

“Even as a champion, this is one thing that I truly believe in myself is, I'm gracious in victory and I'm gracious in defeat. I've always shown him respect in that aspect, but proof is in the pudding, that's all.”

Proving he still has what it takes to be champion sits at the forefront of Usman’s mind.

“This is what I aim to prove to myself, to my daughter, to my fans, to people all around the world, is that even as great as I am, as great as any athlete in the world, you can stumble, you might even fall down, but you can get back up and keep going.

“And I think that's the message. Even the greats, doesn't matter: you can stumble, trip and fall, but you don't stay down there. You get up and you keep going.

“And so, Saturday night, I'm going to show the world that. That's what I'm here for, is to inspire.”

Usman visualises an inspired performance in London. The later part of his run as champion was highlighted by stoppages of Colby Covington, Gilbert Burns and Jorge Masvidal. The latter of that trio, in April 2021, was particularly devastating.

Usman envisions another coming.

“I've [imagined] a couple different finishes, definitely a stoppage,” he says. “But the one that replays more and more in my head, that's the one my heart is leaning towards more and more, is me stopping him either a Masvidal-esque knockout or just finishing him on the ground.

“But it's definitely me stopping him. For sure.”

Updated: March 15, 2023, 10:22 AM