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Editorial: Kamaru Usman may not be a ‘star’ but he’s something far more important

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Kamaru Usman isn’t what the UFC can sell. He’s simply what the UFC is.

Kamaru Usman faces Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261 Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

In the annals of welterweight history, some of the sport’s biggest names stand out. I’ve called it the ‘division of champions’ not because it’s the best division, or the most entertaining. But because it always seems to offer a true champion: not guys who just kept the belt warm, like Matt Serra, Luke Rockhold, or Michael Bisping. That’s not to trample over anyone’s reputation, but welterweight has a consistency and staying power within it that few divisions can match.

Who compares to Georges St-Pierre, for example? This is obviously a rhetorical question, but not if you’re looking at welterweight. It took a long time for GSP to supplant the combined reign of Matt Hughes’ 1,577-day grip on the division. Even welterweight’s early years were marked by the sustained dominance of Pat Militech. And now we have Kamaru Usman.

Usman has held the title for 709 days, which is just longer than Robbie Lawler but just below Hughes’ second run. It’s been an impressive rise. He found his stride against the warhorse Rafael dos Anjos, and that momentum soared right through Tyron Woodley. It seemed like a tough matchup for Usman at the time. Boy was it ever...not.

Since then Usman has defended his title twice. Against Colby Covington, the fight was a five-round war; fitting for the animosity between both men. Or I should say, ‘fitting for the animosity Covington was willing to manufacture for himself.’ Ultimately Usman proved to be in complete control despite a competitive, but not necessarily close affair. It was a fantastic display of identity. His blue collar pugilism kept it simple, and crisp, just like his victory.

Then came Jorge Masvidal. Every tenured champion is thrown a curveball at some point. Think Jeremy Horn vs. Chuck Liddell, Chael Sonnen vs. Jon Jones, Patrick Cote vs. Anderson Silva, etc. These weren’t challengers who didn’t earn title shots, per se. Although you could certainly make cases for Sonnen and Horn. Rather, they were challengers able to sell a specific story. Masvidal, for example, was on a violent run culminating in the ‘BMF’ title. It was an easy sell. And Usman did what he’s been doing: he handled it like a professional. It wasn’t the most memorable fight, but a thorough title defense is always a feather in the cap.

And now he’s got his ex-teammate, Gilbert Burns, on the docket. Burns fills the classic narrative: a deserved title challenger, with a stylistic contrast. Burns, the darting brawler, and jiu jitsu ace, is as good as it gets. Not only is he a talented fighter with the DNA to become a champ in his own right, but he’s got momentum on his side, having won his last six fights in dominant fashion.

Still, it’s Usman’s belt to lose. To be sure, he’s feeling the pressure. Tyron Woodley has thrown him under the bus in some ways, arguing that the UFC is trying to make him the star that he really isn’t. Burns has criticized Usman for not being a finisher.

Welterweight’s ‘men on the wall’ have been here before. For the longest time, fighters like Hughes and GSP were criticized for lacking the ability to finish. It’s a funny criticism. I don’t know what the stats are on the number of finishes in title fights, but I imagine it’s a lot lower compared to non-title fights. Which makes intuitive sense; as the fights get harder, so does the ability to close them out.

I suspect that’s what makes great champions. Everyone wants a quick knockout, or a flashy submission. But at certain levels, you can’t get away with movie chop socky. Usman may not be a ‘star’ but, who cares? Stardom is not what fuels the absolute best. At certain levels, you can’t dominate so much as endure. There’s nothing glamorous about twenty-five minutes of brutality. The business of being a welterweight champ is calibration, and labor. For the welterweight champions of yore, simply put — this is the way.