There is only one person that can say for certain how the head kick knockout that ended Kamaru Usman’s reign atop the welterweight division at UFC 278 last summer has impacted the former champion, and that is the man himself. And as of right now, the 35-year-old standout is mainly choosing to remain coy when it comes to the blow that halted his unbeaten run inside the Octagon and set up Saturday night’s championship rematch with Leon “Rocky” Edwards at UFC 286 at The O2 Arena in London.
“Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the last eight months are keep your hands up, so you don’t get kicked in the head; that’s one,” Usman told the UFC digital team, speaking in his trademark clear, deliberate tone while flashing a smile. “But, of course, just being thankful for the journey, being thankful for all of it that comes — the good, the bad, all of it, because this is what it is to live life.”
The latter part of that answer is the boiled down, well-worn version of how Usman has spoken about his loss to Edwards last summer in Salt Lake City since the night it happened: that getting knocked out in the final minute of a fight he was 60 seconds from winning is just a thing that happened, a mistake that was made, and nothing more.
In joking about keeping his hands up, he playfully puts the onus for the loss on his own shoulders, rather than crediting Edwards for finding an opening and exploiting it, because doing so would cede a little ground to the new champion, and that’s not something Usman has any interest in doing, at least not publicly.
Main Event Preview | UFC 286: Edwards vs Usman 3
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Main Event Preview | UFC 286: Edwards vs Usman 3
You hear it in the way he speaks about immediate rematches in general, this one in particular, and the way things played out at UFC 278 right up until the point where the welterweight title was snatched from his hands.
“When it comes to championships and defenses, immediate rematches — I’m not gonna say they aren’t necessarily important if the challenger goes out there and dominates the champion, like myself when I won the title,” Usman said, pointing to his one-sided unanimous decision win over Tyron Woodley as an instance where running it back right away wasn’t needed. “How could you make a case for a rematch? Why would you want to watch the challenger dominate the champion again?
“I think in this case, it’s important. When the challenger gets the dog s*** beat out of him and something like that happens, we’ve gotta see it again because you’ve gotta prove that you really are the new champion.
“What it says about Leon that he accepted an immediate rematch, I think Leon didn’t really have a choice,” he added when asked about Edwards readily and happily agreeing to turn around and face him again. “If I tell Leon, ‘I’m gonna fight you’ three times out of four times, we’re gonna fight, so it is what it is.
“It’s good on him — I think he’s looking for that validation, as well, to really stake that claim that he’s the champion.”
There has always been this accepted thought in mixed martial arts that you’re not really the champion until you successfully defend your title — that winning the belt is easier than keeping the belt — and there is some logical truth to the idea that hanging onto UFC gold when you’re facing a steady stream of top contenders is a more difficult exercise than getting up for a title fight as the challenger.
But like the desire or need for immediate rematches, it’s another one of those things you only really hear when an upset occurs and an unexpected challenger ascends to the throne.
No one questioned Usman’s place atop the division after he outworked Woodley at UFC 235, or Brandon Moreno’s standing as the flyweight champion following his victory over Deiveson Figueiredo earlier this year, even though Moreno previously won the title and lost it back to the Brazilian in his first title defense.
But Edwards heads into UFC 286 with his name penciled in atop the division, with fans, media, and everyone else waiting to see if he can beat Usman for a second time before they’re willing to acknowledge him as UFC welterweight champion by writing his name in big, bold, indelible ink.
As for Usman, the fact that he’ll be the first to make the walk to the Octagon this weekend and won’t be introduced as “the reigning, defending, undisputed UFC welterweight champion” for the first time in four years doesn’t seem to bother him.
“When Bruce says, ‘the challenger,’ I will feel nothing; I feel nothing,” he said when asked about Bruce Buffer’s impending introduction of him on Saturday evening. “The only thing is when he announces my name, I step forward and let the whole cage feel my presence, including anyone that is in it, and that’s the only thing they feel, and then we get to rumble.
“When he introduces me as ‘the challenger,’ it doesn’t really matter,” he reiterated. “I’ve run through plenty of different stadiums and schools and whooped the guys from that school, so it doesn’t matter.”