Who's next for Kamaru Usman? Only Gilbert Burns makes sense

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·5 min read

If you expected crazy, you were never going to get crazy. You were bound to be disappointed.

Much of the lure of the new main event in UFC 251 was the anger that the new challenger, Jorge Masvidal, had for the champion, Kamaru Usman. It was never clear where the beef between the two had begun, or why, but Masvidal for months let Usman have it with the mouth.

It was a series of 10-8 wins for Masvidal, from radio row at the Super Bowl in February to his interviews all week after he accepted the bout for the welterweight title after Gilbert Burns was pulled because of a positive COVID-19 test.

A fight between Usman and Masvidal was always going to turn out this way, not a crazy slugfest in which bodies are flying all over the place but a battle for control, a bout against the cage.

Usman’s only way to lose was to play Masvidal’s game, and he’s far too smart to do that.

Usman successfully defended his title Saturday in the main event of UFC 251 at Flash Forum on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, using his wrestling to grind down the Cuban American striker and win in a waltz.

He won all five rounds on the cards of Ben Cartlidge and Mark Collett and won all but the first on David Lethaby’s, cruising to a one-sided, drama-free decision. And after the bout, they hugged, shook hands and seemed to put all the bad blood that marked the brief but intense promotion behind them.

Would Masvidal have performed better had he had a full training camp? Most likely. But would he have been been able to cover enough ground to make up the massive gulf between the two of them that was evident on Saturday? Most likely not.

The fight that would have provided the greatest threat to Usman’s title is the one which would have begun with a hug instead of a snarl.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 12: (L-R) Kamaru Usman of Nigeria and Jorge Masvidal talk after the conclusion of their UFC welterweight championship fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
(L-R) Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal talk after the conclusion of their UFC welterweight championship fight during UFC 251 at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Burns a bigger threat to Usman than Masvidal

On Saturday, the fighters didn’t touch gloves, as happens in 98 percent of MMA bouts in a sign of respect. Had it been Burns, Usman’s close friend, there would have been much respect shown, and they’d have each been deferential to the other, hugging, bowing and acknowledging each other’s good work.

But Burns’ jiu-jitsu backed game would, and will, provide the most serious threat to Usman’s reign. Burns has good wrestling, is a hard puncher and is one of the best in the sport with jiu-jitsu.

Against Masvidal, Usman was able to shoot and, except for worrying about Masvidal coming up with a knee, he could do it with impunity. He took Masvidal down five times and controlled him against the cage for more than 20 percent of the fight.

It won’t be so easy for Usman against Burns, whose style, both personally and professionally, couldn’t be more different than Masvidal’s.

There would have been smiles and pats on the back during the pre-fight appearances and UFC president Dana White wouldn’t have looked so tense standing between them as they faced off following the weigh-in.

But Usman will have a much more difficult time cracking Burns’ style than he did Masvidal’s. Burns may be the harder hitter of the two. He has the better submissions.

“I have no doubt in my mind I’m the toughest matchup for Kamaru there is in this division,” Burns told Yahoo Sports prior to the bout.

In Usman’s last three fights, he’s beaten the guys who were ranked No. 3 (Masvidal), No. 2 (Colby Covington) and No. 5 (Tyron Woodley). In his second UFC fight, he defeated No. 4 Leon Edwards. And he’s also got a win over No. 9 Rafael dos Anjos.

Burns is the only fighter who makes sense and really has the game to beat him. White said at the post-fight news conference on Saturday that Burns, indeed, would get the next shot.

If he gets by Burns, Usman will have clear sailing for a while. Oh, MMA is the one sport where anything can happen. A 1960s pro wrestling television show used to begin with the slogan, “ … where anything can happen, usually does and probably will.”

If Usman beats Burns, it’s not a guarantee, say, that he’d waltz past Covington. That was a grueling, difficult fight at UFC 245, but the fact Usman stopped him once would make you believe he could do it again.

There are no others up there that you’d say would really present a great challenge following Burns. Perhaps Michael Chiesa, who is ranked No. 8, with his jiu-jitsu and a frame similar to Usman’s, could give him a problem, but Usman would be a big favorite.

Burns, thus, is the guy who stands between Usman and utter dominance in the division.

Usman will be the Super Bowl for any opponent he faces from here on out, given he’s 3-0 in welterweight title fights and riding a 16-fight overall winning streak. Going to the post time after time and being fresh, being at one’s best, is a tall order for a champ. He’s not so difficult for a challenger to peak for what could be his only shot at glory.

So Usman is no guarantee to hang around at the top for a long run.

I wouldn’t bet against him, though, especially if he defeats Burns.

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