With his stoppage of Gilbert Burns at UFC 258, Kamaru Usman has successfully defended his title for the third time, and remains unbeaten since his second professional bout — a fight that dates back eight years ago. I’ve written a lot about Usman, especially in the context of a division that seems to breed the best champions, but today we’re not interested in how many, but how.
Usman remains an interesting mix of blue collar pugilism, technical acumen, and grit wizardry. Burns represented an interesting contrast: one Phil and I felt represented more ‘interest’ than ‘obstacle.’ What transpired was something both expected — Burns unable to fight going backwards — and unexpected — Burns having success moving forward, and forcing Usman to adjust his otherwise rote(ish) attack.
I’m missing a lot of details in this broad descriptions, so let’s revisit this brilliant performance, shall we?
Everything burns… (round one)
First, let’s give some love for Burns. He was well-prepared, and that preparation was highlighted in the raw emotion he poured out after losing. There’s never a question about whether challengers come in prepared for a title fight (well…for the most part), but there are questions about degree. This meant a lot to Burns, and I think the first round and his reaction to defeat showed exactly what he put into this bout.
Fight-wise, he came out banging, but not in a one-note way. Something Burns does extremely well to layer what looks like a superficial attack (in, out, and in and out again) is his somewhat atypical combinations. When the first round began, Burns threw a body kick that was immediately followed by a right hand. These aren’t combinations in the traditional sense. I prefer to think of them as ‘sequences’ and I think Burns’ sequencing is what allowed Burns to step in with an overhand right — perhaps getting Usman to think a kick would come first — as Usman was pawing with the jab, and crack Usman hard to wound the champ early on.
Burns kind of got caught headhunting at this point. He threw more overhand rights, and the head kick he landed came when he threw an overhand right first. Usman stuck some duct tape on the situation by throwing the most potent weapon of the fight: the jab.
Turning the corner
There’s a really interesting sequence while Burns is on his back and Usman is just standing, kicking at his legs. Usman swings in for a body punch that Burns clearly didn’t like. Rogan and the crew made a big deal about it, as usual, but unlike usual, I think it was a salient observation. Usman got serious torque on that punch. And Burns’ exposed abdomen absorbed it all.
Once they got back up, Burns regained some of his offensive output, landing a knee, and doing an excellent job of trip spinning Usman out of the clinch to avoid the clinch body punches and knees that would have surely accumulated had he not. It was an impressive display of strength as well.
The rest of the first round was Usman not so much dominating as taking more control, and establishing position. In fact, the last two minutes was basically foreshadowing. Usman crushed Burns with a counter jab, and followed it up with an overhand right that just missed. It was a great first round that saw both men do their best to avoid the worst.
Position before attrition (round two)
Any practicing mixed martial artist or hobbyist knows the phrase ‘position before submission.’ It’s said in the context of jiu jitsu, obviously, but it applies to boxing as well. After all, to punch meaningfully or effectively, you have to have a proper stance. Ideally, your stance helps weight distribution, and that distribution is critical to backing up, moving forward, engineering power on offense, and keeping options open on defense.
I mention this back-to-basics tutorial because I found Usman and Burns to be on completely different wavelengths. Burns had a very top-down approach: leg kicks, overhand rights — I cracked him already, so if I just plant my feet, and dig in for another overhand right, I’ll get him. Yes, Usman was catching Burns at the end of the first round, but you can see why Burns was so confident. You got me good, but I got you better — it’s only a matter of time before you crack.
Usman, on the other hand, had a very left-to-right approach: position, then jab, and gradually deviate only when opportunities present themselves — keep your feet planted, pump the jab, and don’t stray the path unless I’m left with only one option.
The end result was two guys feeling each other out for much of the opening stanza in the second. Burns calmed down, and threw more leg kicks. Usman starting switching stances more. There wasn’t a lot going on in the second. At least on the surface. It was largely a battle of positioning. Burns was looking for that one sequence (kick-then-overhand, or vice versa), while Usman was establishing a series of sequences (jab, jab, overhand; overhand, stance switch, jab, etc). If Usman was to win, he’d win on curve.
When Usman finally cracked Burns with a big overhand right, I hadn’t noticed how it actually happened. He was in the middle of pulling his head away while Burns flicked a jab. It was a kind of reversal of how Usman himself got cracked in the first. Usman did a great job of keeping the pressure going without overwhelming himself or Burns.
The rest of the round was academic. Burns, as Connor noted, is heavier on his front foot and therefore more likely to be in range of counterpressure, and sure enough, he got dropped by a jab as he was throwing a leg kick within range. If you started watching this fight once the second round began, there’s no way you could have guess what happened in the first round. That’s a testament to Usman, really.
On curve, and on time (round three)
I keep using the phrase ‘on curve’ because I want to use more Magic: the Gathering analogies. Every deck can play up to four copies of a single spell. When you play an aggressive strategy in Magic, it’s typically because there are one or two powerful cards that you’re looking to find, and then jam in order to play through the opposing deck. When you play a control strategy, it’s less about the specific number of powerful cards you have, and more about ‘mana efficiency’: being able to play spells turn one, turn two, turn three, or turn-forty for however long the game goes so that you’re never out of gas, and always able to manage the boardstate.
This was Usman in a nutshell: controlling the octagon state with output efficiency. Burns had to either throw strikes, or move, but couldn’t do both with Usman’s positioning. Usman kept striking, and kept moving, until the end when Usman switched to southpaw, and caught Burns with a jab as he was feinting a low kick.
The man on the wall
I usually avoid obvious summaries and grand narratives for these. I want the sober play-by-plays to feel like the Pensees, minus the lasting insights and thoughtfulness. But a few things worth noting: Usman still has a lot to prove — less to the division and more to the ‘men on the wall’ like Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes.
From a technical standpoint, I think there are still things he can improve on. His head movement remains an issue, even though he did a lot of subtle things in this fight that he hadn’t shown before (credit to Wittman there, as well). And I think Burns remains a challenge to everyone in the division if he can sideboard effectively. I’ve never been high on Burns’ ceiling as a welterweight challenger, but while I think his performance was fairly standard in terms what he’s traditionally offered, the fact that he was able to wobble Usman at all should not be understated.
Still, it’s hard to come away anything other than impressed with how thoroughly composed Usman looked. It was the kind of performance that defines champions. And legends.
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