I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there isn’t nearly enough excitement going into UFC 268 as I would have expected. Kamaru Usman is considered by many to be the P4P best fighter in the world. I understand that isn’t reason enough to sell fans on a fighter (see, Demetrious Johnson) but Usman has been disposing of his opposition with the type of fashion that makes fighters can’t-miss. Even more confusing is the first fight between Usman and Colby Covington was an instant classic that some had Covington winning before being shut down in the final round.
I’ve heard some say it’s because they’re sick of Covington’s schtick, but he’s been largely quiet going into this fight. Plus, it’s not like the co-main event between Rose Namajunas and Weili Zhang is a bad fight either. Sure, there’s a large swathe of fans that are sick of instant rematches for champion who recently lost their belts – such as Zhang – but it doesn’t mean it won’t be a fun fight. Whatever the reasoning, it feels like the hype around UFC 268 is falling flat.
Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington, Welterweight
I often wonder how many title defenses Usman would have under his belt already had the UFC not slow played his road to the title. Of course, you don’t get fast tracked unless you have the gift of gab, so it took Usman nine consecutive wins before getting his shot at the gold. By contrast, the challenger in the co-main event of the evening only needed three wins in what is considered to be the deepest women’s division in the UFC before she received a title shot, but I digress. As of now, Usman is sitting at 14-0 in the UFC, creeping up on Anderson Silva’s record of 16 wins to open up his run within the organization. Premature to refer to Usman as an all-time great? I think not.
There are many who are even saying Usman’s legacy is greater than GSP’s. I don’t know if I’d go that far, at least not yet. But I certainly understand the sentiment. While Usman utilized his dominant brand of wrestling to claim the belt, he’s slowly been able to take his simplistic striking game and expand upon it. The raw power has always been there for him to work with. Now, he’s becoming more technical and – more importantly – growing more comfortable standing and trading. Now it isn’t just a matter of him grounding his opponent whenever he wants; he can win a battle on the feet with the likes of Jorge Masvidal.
Of course, while Usman does appear to be at the height of his powers, that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to win. I’m amazed at how many people forget Covington was arguably winning up until the point the fight was stopped in their first fight. Many had him up 3 rounds to 1, several others had it 2-2 going into the final round with Covington ahead in the fifth right before the finishing sequence. Covington pushed Usman farther than anyone has pushed the reigning champion... and all most seem to remember is Usman won. Covington came thisclose to becoming champion.
Covington is a very mysterious figure himself going into this contest. His only fight since the first fight with Usman was a dominant performance over Tyron Woodley. Of course, that’s the same Woodley who closed his UFC career being unable to be competitive in any of his last four fights prior to his release, so it’s impossible to know just how much Covington has improved in the time since their first fight. Hell, he very well may have regressed. He does have a new camp, leaving the vaunted ATT, but Covington also states he’s getting more one-on-one time with the coaching staff at MMA Masters. It’s hard to say for sure, but we’ll find out.
While many are quick to point out Usman beat Covington without going to his wrestling, it’s not like Covington’s striking is considered to be his best feature either. In fact, Usman was utterly flustered on several occasions as Covington stayed up in his face, maintaining an insane pace that had Usman flagging. That’s not a knock on Usman’s stamina. The champion’s ability to go a hard five rounds is one of his best features. But Covington’s gas tank may be the best in the sport. That he was able to maintain his hard pace despite having his jaw broken in the third round is a testament to his mental fortitude as well.
There is one X-factor that I haven’t seen mentioned that is always in the back of my mind with regards to Usman: his knees. The champ has acknowledged he has bad knees, limiting some of what he can do in training. Clearly, Usman has been able to intelligently work his way around that to maintain the talk of him being an all-time great, but he is also taking his third fight within this calendar year. Is he pushing too hard of a fight schedule on himself? He knows the answer to that question far better than I do, but professional athletes are known for pushing themselves beyond their limits. What happens when a fighter really does go beyond their limits?
All that said, about the only outcome that would surprise me would be if Covington stops Usman with a single strike. Everything else seems to be on the table. I can see Covington putting Usman on his heels and wearing him down. I could see Usman doing the same to Covington. I can see Usman catching Covington in a guillotine or an RNC. I can see Covington doing the same to Usman. There’s a real smorgasbord of possibilities to this contest, which is a big part of the reason I can’t wait for it. In the end, I’ll pick Covington to score the upset. Not because I think he’s a better fighter than Usman, but because everyone loses when they hang around this sport long enough and nobody seems better equipped to upend Usman than Covington. Covington via decision
Rose Namajunas vs. Weili Zhang, Women’s Strawweight
It wasn’t that long ago I made a case for Carla Esparza to receive this title shot. Is that impacting my decision making for this contest? Yes, but we’ll get to that later.
As it sits, no one denies that Zhang is worthy of being champion. She wrested the crown from Jessica Andrade in 42 seconds and proceeded to defend her title in what I would opine to be the greatest women’s fight in MMA history against Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Zhang proved she has the ability can dig deep in that contest, not to mention having a stellar gas tank by going five hard rounds against an opponent who seemed just as worthy to be champion as she was. To many, it appeared all the questions about Zhang were answered in that one spectacular performance.
Of course, that wasn’t the actual case. For someone who has won, defended, and lost a title, Zhang is still very much a mystery. She proved she has power when she disposed of Andrade in quick fashion, but that has been her only KO in the UFC. Despite not having a traditional wrestling background, Zhang has proven exceptionally difficult to take down. But has she really faced anyone truly capable of taking her down? The best wrestler Zhang has faced in her UFC run was probably Jessica Aguilar... and she was well past her prime when they faced off.
For all the questions surrounding Zhang, it would be wise to establish what she does well: stay up in her opponents face, throwing non-stop kick-punch combinations, benefitting from her incredibly fast hands. While it’s true Zhang isn’t the type of pressure fighter in the mold of Jessica Andrade – who gets by almost on pure aggression – she can be more effective than Andrade as makes better use of angles while being more mindful defensively. Given Andrade gave Namajunas problems thanks to her pressure in their contest, it isn’t out of the question Zhang can secure a win in the rematch.
However, while Zhang doesn’t appear to be a finished product, neither is Namajunas. The two-time champion has grown exponentially since her first title fight all the way back in 2014. At that time, she was a ball of athleticism with unmatched and unrestrained dynamism. While the dynamism is still there, it is now harnessed with technique and discipline. While she isn’t exceptionally tall for the division, Namajunas knows how to fight long and does so better than anyone thanks to her distance management and use of angles. It isn’t a fluke she was able to take out Zhang and Jedrzejczyk early on both of the occasions she won the belt.
I’ve seen it stated that Zhang’s training in Arizona to improve her wrestling could be the difference in this contest. Perhaps, but have they forgotten how skilled Namajunas is on the mat? I’m not saying Namajunas is indestructible on the mat, far from it. However, she isn’t the fighter who was controlled by Esparza for long stretches in their contest. These days, Namajunas finds a way pop back up in a hurry if she’s taken down. Plus, she’s an excellent scrambler with keen instincts. I’m not sure Zhang will want to go that route.
What I anticipate being the difference in this contest is Zhang’s state of mind. She has always displayed supreme confidence going into every one of her UFC contests. Of course, she wasn’t facing someone who disposed of her in a quick manner previously in any of those contests. She is this time and given her reaction after that fight and her desperation to get an immediate rematch, I question her confidence. Did I mention the history of those taking immediate rematches for titles in UFC history is poor? I discussed that in my op-ed on why Esparza should get a title shot and I’ll reiterate that point here: the record of those who have secured an immediate rematch after losing the title in the UFC is either 1-9 or 2-9, depending on what your definition of an immediate rematch is. Given that track record, I would say it’s safe to assume confidence has regularly been a problem for those who become the challenger the second time around. Namajunas knows she can beat Zhang. Zhang will say she knows she can beat Namajunas, but would you expect her to say otherwise? My shock level won’t be very high should Zhang win, but history says Namajunas wins this. Namajunas via decision