Kamaru Usman learned as a boy in Nigeria how to fend for himself, and not to expect something for nothing. He was born in Nigeria and lived the first eight years of his life there, before his parents moved to the U.S. in search of a brighter future.
Usman says he had a great life in Nigeria, even though he never heard of wrestling until he tried out for his high school team.
“I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t aspire to be a wrestler,” said Usman, who is 12-1 overall in MMA and 7-0 in the UFC heading into Saturday’s bout in Santiago, Chile, against Demian Maia. “You didn’t worry about [becoming a wrestler]. What we worried about was that mile walk we had to make to get water in the morning so we could eat and survive for the day.”
And so while Usman has run the table in the UFC, Maia will represent his first ranked opponent. That means he hasn’t been at all close to a championship bout.
He’s been seeking a big fight for a long time and first called Maia out in 2016, though Maia became his opponent for Saturday’s fight on short notice when Santiago Ponzinibbio had to pull out with an injury.
Usman, though, hasn’t allowed what others may see as a snub to bother him.
“Things happen in life and what I’ve learned is that you have to be able to deal with the fact that things might happen you don’t like or don’t believe are necessarily right or fair if you want to be successful,” Usman said. “Of course, I’d like things to go a different way. I’d like to have been able to say, ‘I want that fight,’ and then get that fight, or ‘I’d like that belt,’ and get that belt, or ‘I’d like that prize,’ and get that prize. But we all know, that’s not how life is. I may think I’ve earned a certain fight but there are a lot of things going on and I can’t control decisions others make.
“To me, a big part of being successful in life is learning to deal with disappointments and when things don’t go your way. I’ve learned to accept every opportunity and deal with every disappointment and to just keep on trucking in this thing we call life.”
Usman’s early life in the U.S. was difficult. Though he spoke English when he arrived, he had trouble in school because he knew British English, not American English, and he had difficulty picking up the idioms.
And because he was new and different, he faced teasing from so-called friends. One of his friends, upon realizing that Usman didn’t understand curse words, got him to curse at his teacher.
“He told me to ask the teacher for my test and to say the ‘F’ word,” Usman said. “I didn’t know any better. I thought that’s how you asked for something here. I was a fourth-grade kid and I said to my teacher, ‘Give me my [expletive] test.’ My buddy thought it was so funny, but I didn’t understand what he’d made me do.
“Let’s just say that not only did I get disciplined in school, but I also had to go home and deal with my African dad. So life is one big learning experience and it’s what you make of it. You will have setbacks in life you have to learn to overcome and you’ll have opportunities that you need to take advantage of.”
The bout with Maia, who challenged for the world title at middleweight against Anderson Silva and welterweight against Tyron Woodley, is an opportunity he needs to take advantage of in order to pursue his goal of becoming the welterweight king.
Though he trained for Ponzinibbio, who is a striker, going up against arguably the best jiu-jitsu fighter in the UFC in Maia hasn’t fazed him.
“Maia represents a different kind of problem that [Ponzinibbio] did, but it’s not necessarily a bigger problem,” Usman said. “The thing is, though, I learned early in my career to treat every opponent like he was the toughest fight I’d ever had.”
In his second pro fight, Usman was expecting an easy win and didn’t prepare, mentally or physically, the way he needed. He was submitted in the first round by Jose Caceres on May 24, 2013.
Since then, he’s won 11 straight, won Season 21 of “The Ultimate Fighter” and has become one of the best fighters in the world.
“It hurt at the time to lose like that, but I think in the long run, it helped me because it taught me a great lesson,” Usman said. “Of course an ‘oh’ next to your name looks a lot better than a one, but I learned in that fight what it means to be a professional and what is required of a professional.
“I’m a better fighter and a better person for having gone through it, so the way I see it, I was able to turn a negative into a positive. And never again have I looked past an opponent or failed to give whoever my opponent might be my complete respect. I respect Demian and what he brings to the table and so I’ve gone out to prepare to fight him the best way I know how.”
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