Kamaru Usman is facing a new challenge at UFC 258. That is fighting an opponent who knows his ins-and-outs and has spent countless hours sparring with him.
For eight years, Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns grew as fighters together. In fact, Usman has cornered Burns in the UFC in the past. At UFC 258, they’ll be on opposite sides of the Octagon.
That familiarity cannot be understated. It will force both men to go deeper into their repertoire with the anticipation that the opponent will know most of what comes before. Now training on different sides of the country, we’ll see the best versions of Usman and Burns on Saturday.
Since Burns has moved up to welterweight, he has gone 4-0 and displayed absolute dominance against both Demian Maia and former champion Tyron Woodley. Usman believes he’s part of what sparked this run by Burns.
“It helps when you have the champion in the building, the champions,” Usman said. “Feeling and training with them, fighting and competing with them, it gives you that edge. Him moving up [is another factor]. He was cutting a lot of weight. I think that might have played a factor. But I think also it’s the belief in himself. When enough people tell you that, ‘Hey, you can be successful,’ at your thing, at some point, you start to believe it. I think that belief in himself has really helped him and guided him.”
With that in mind, Usman plans on doing what he’s done in nearly all of his UFC appearances: break his opponent’s will.
“He’s talking big,” he said. “Confidence is a crazy drug and he’s riding that confidence wave right now. He believes that he has what it takes to be champion. That’s something that’s very, very tough to go up and take away from someone. So it’s gonna be up to me to go out there and break that confidence and let him know that, ‘Hey, you’re not ready to be a champion yet.'”
Usman expects Burns to test him and challenge him similar to their sparring sessions in the past. A lot of things can change in a few months, and the champion will be looking to defy his opponent’s expectations.
“He’s tough,” Usman said. “He’s well rounded. He’s gonna come hard and of course, be familiar with me. He’s helped me sometimes. Being able to get over that and let him know that I’m a completely different savage when we step in across from each other inside that cage.”
Primarily, changes in Usman’s game at this point in his career could be attributed to getting a new perspective over the past several months. He’s currently training with Trevor Wittman and the Elevation Fight Team in Colorado.
“Basically, you’re starting over,” Usman said. “As human beings, we like to be comfortable. And so, in order to be comfortable, we want to continue to do what we’re familiar with. So something like that, having to switch teams and go to new guys, it’s tough initially, but it’s reassuring when you’re doing the right things and they’re letting you know, because these are guys that haven’t known you forever. It’s very, very reassuring.”
Kamaru Usman can hear those doubters, still. The ones that thought Colby Covington would outwork him. The ones who though Jorge Masvidal would turn him into another highlight. The ones who are now saying Burns will be ready for his every move. He’s prepared to show that he can dominate challengers in any circumstance.
“The main challenge that this fight presents is when it’s someone that’s familiar with you, and they feel like they know you and you’re familiar with them,” he said. “It’s very easy to be pulled out of character when you step in. It’s going to be a challenge for me to stay who I am, be The Nigerian Nightmare, go in there and take care of business the way that I always do.”
With a win at UFC 258, Kamaru Usman would break Georges St-Pierre’s record for longest win streak in welterweight history. He’ll have to beat a friend to do so, but that’s just part of taking care of business.