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Editorial: Usman is not GSP, but great legacies don’t have to be the same legacies

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Kamaru Usman will go down as an all-time great. Whether or not it’s enough to dethrone GSP’s is a terrible discussion for a terrible philosophy.

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Kamaru Usman walks away from a fallen Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Kamaru Usman walks away from a fallen Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

The leadup to Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal 2 for UFC 261 felt like the leadup to its matchmaking: lukewarm. It wasn’t the sexiest fight to make at welterweight. If anything, it felt like a step backwards for a champion who had nothing but momentum on his side. In spite of that, Usman took a crushing step forward.

That Kamaru would win was predictable enough. BE was unanimous in picking Usman. It was the ‘how’ that made the knockout win so impressive. Dominating the first round with clean fundamentals and a bit of spice, Usman capped the first round off with his trademark clinch and matwork, and got out of the first round with all the momentum on his side.

Daniel Cormier made the astute observation (something I wish he’d focus on more) that Usman ‘may not have speed, but he just lands.’ That’s not an accident. Working with Trevor Wittman at Mile High City, Usman has developed better mixups, and more range boxing so that his jab and the punches that follow have greater consequence.

To talk fight philosophy for a second, it’s not enough to have speed. For one, speed and tempo are not the same thing. Speed is about mechanics. Tempo is about resources. Speed doesn’t create tempo unless your strikes have a tangible presence on the opponent, whether explicit (strikes that land), or implicit (anticipating strikes that could land). Melvin Guillard, for example, had incredible speed, but how often did his strikes dictate the pace of a fight? How often did his speed create resources, either tactically, such as pressuring, or tangibly, such as landing to the body to decrease his opponent’s output?

Usman manages to dictate the pace without an obvious speed advantage. Against Masvidal, his jab dictated how often he could step on the gas or step off, and in turn, made every return investment of Masvidal’s a risky one. This is why fighters very clearly losing don’t sellout for the hail mary punch. It’s not that they’re unwilling to risk getting knocked out. It’s that they’ve unwillingly lost control of what can be used to get there.

In the final moments, Usman’s jab plowed right through Masvidal’s parry, only to step in with a chopping straight, very similar to the one Mike Tyson used to put away Francois Botha. As always, the discussion now turns to: ‘what have you done for me lately, oh great one?’ The MMA Legacy gods must be pleased. Only four months into the new year, and Usman has two knockout wins. He’s also two fights behind Anderson Silva on the UFC record for consecutive wins — with the record for consecutive welterweight wins already under Usman’s ownership.

Thanks to MMA’s short attention span, Usman’s greatness will now be stacked up against Georges St-Pierre’s legacy. It’s the kind of debate that’s very on-brand for the new media age. In this silicon universe, discussions depend on the anxiety of how quickly questions can be answered, and how readily people’s input can resolve a dispute. As if legacies are built on the amount of likes of a Quora response. This is all horseshit, of course.

After all, Usman and GSP are no more different than the opponents who built their respective legacies: from Masvidal to Koscheck, Covington to Hendricks, and Burns to Shields. Similarly, the fighters that passed their respective torches couldn’t be more at odds. GSP submitted Hughes to end an otherwise competitive trilogy to signal the end of the pre-Zuffa era, while Usman’s top control clinic of Tyron Woodley signaled the end of the post-GSP landscape. These are links in the chain of welterweight history, not two individually-built sandcastles whose integrity depends on which one is taller.

To the extent that Usman and GSP’s legacies compare or overlap, we could probably talk more openly about the enduring brand of meaty jabs followed by commodious top control, and why that style seems to define the welterweights specifically. Or certainly moreso than who qualifies for ‘GOAT status.’ GSP’s opinions on the matter are on point: ‘who cares? Different fighters, different eras.’ More or less.

The irony here is that in terms of what defines greatness, we can’t talk about the sum without the parts. Yes, GSP successfully defending his title for the seventh straight fight in a row against Carlos Condit was impressive, but wouldn’t we say GSP’s greatness in that fight was just as defined but what it meant as to how it occurred? Surviving that head kick and battling on? Start taking away the great moments of great champions — from DJ’s reverse flying armbar to Anderson Silva’s last-minute triangle choke — and the legacy may not change, but certainly the tenor, and tone of these discussions, will.

Sure, Masvidal wasn’t the strongest challenger. But Masvidal had never been knocked out. His entire aura was built around a toughness that went street deep. Usman took that away, and all the sweat beads that were attached. It’s what I imagine those half-baked ‘I’ll hit you so hard’ jokes would look like if they happened in real life. It was a great moment, by a great champion. Exactly what legacies are made of.