Kamaru Usman’s dominant performance in winning the welterweight title from Tyron Woodley at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night in the co-main event of UFC 235 was the culmination of an improbable journey.
He hopes it can serve as an inspiration to others.
“I always envisioned hearing them say, ‘and new’ and wrapping that belt around me and thinking of all the things I was fighting for,” Usman said after becoming the first African-born champion in UFC history. “Not just for me and my family and not just the continent, but for everyone around the world that comes from humble beginnings and doesn’t know where their next meal is going to come from or if they’re going to get clean water the next day.”
Usman’s life has certainly followed an unlikely course. Born in Benin City, Nigeria, his family came to the United States when he was 8 years old and settled in Texas.
He started wrestling in high school and eventually won a Division II national title at Nebraska-Kearney. Usman started training in MMA after college and made his professional debut in 2012. After splitting his first two fights, he won his next four to earn a spot on Season 21 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which he also won.
Usman never looked back. His winning streak stands at 14 and his UFC mark is 10-0.
The 31-year-old brought former boxer Samuel Peter and former NFL running back Christian Okoye with him as special guests on Saturday night because they were the sports stars who inspired his generation of Nigerian kids. He hopes to take the baton from them and run with it.
Usman said he wants to use his platform to facilitate change and improve the lives of those in his native country.
“We’ve got some things cooking,” he said of his plans to organize a foundation. “In my village where I’m from, there’s still not running water everywhere. People are still struggling to get clean water.”
Usman recalls a stint of his childhood living with his grandmother when the closest well was several miles away.
“You’d walk all this way to get it and bring it home and you’d have to boil it because you never knew what parasites were in the water, so you had to boil it in order to be able to cook, wash your clothes or shower or anything. A lot of people are still suffering from water-borne diseases. … We want to create something where we can make life better for everyone.”
Those same good vibes don’t apply to Colby Covington, the likely first challenger for Usman. Covington has become one of the most polarizing figures in the sport with his bombastic trash-talking, but Usman isn’t laughing.
“I want to (expletive) that guy up so badly,” Usman said. “I can’t be in a room with that guy. I just can’t. I can’t wait to heal up and really put my hands on him. That’s one I’m going to enjoy brutalizing him.”
In the main event, Jon Jones retained the light heavyweight title with a unanimous decision over Anthony Smith. He still has hopes of fighting Brock Lesnar some day, but UFC president Dana White said heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier will get the first chance at Lesnar should the pro wrestling superstar return to the UFC.
Instead, White wants Jones to fight Thiago Santos. The Brazilian is 3-0 with three knockouts since moving up to light heavyweight.
“Thiago looks unbelievable at that weight,” White said. “He’s big and I like his fighting style. And when you put Jon Jones in those types of fights, Jones shines. Jones is one of those guys that rises to the level of his opponent.”
White also indicated he would book a rematch of a welterweight bout between Ben Askren and Robbie Lawler, which ended controversially when referee Herb Dean ruled Lawler had passed out in a bulldog choke despite Lawler’s immediate protests.
Facts and figures from Saturday’s event at T-Mobile Arena
Performances of the Night: Johnny Walker and Diego Sanchez
Fight of the Night: Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz