Kamaru Usman channels his inner Allen Iverson, the iconic NBA superstar, when explaining why his former training partner Gilbert Burns shouldn’t invest too much hope into the time they spent together at Sanford MMA.
“We talkin’ bout practice,” Usman told UFC.com. “It’s different when you step inside that cage. It’s a whole different savage, and he’s going to realize that.”
The “training partners turned foes” narrative has dominated the lead-up to their welterweight title fight at UFC 258. It’s understandable. For years, the two helped each other prepare for their fights as they made their way up the rankings, and when Burns originally earned a title shot last summer, it was Usman, the incumbent champion, who left South Florida for Colorado.
There, he has taken to working with Trevor Wittman, the man in the corner of Justin Gaethje and Rose Namajunas. The two were successful in their first outing together as Usman defended his belt rather comfortably against Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251, but the extra time since then has brought its share of benefits.
“We’ve grown a tremendous amount because that first one was kind of rushed,” Usman said. “Trevor likes to build a foundation in certain things where you want to be able to get that camaraderie from your coach, and you want to be able to have them understand and know you so they can better advise you, and that first one seemed kind of rushed, but having this extended period of time for us to really, truly work at it, it’s amazing.”
In particular, Usman has enjoyed being in the same training room as Gaethje and Namajunas. The latter has especially left an impression on Usman, who holds a high amount of respect for “Thug Rose.”
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“Sometimes I get caught after I’m done training, and I’ve showered, and it’s time for me to go home, I get caught kind of just sitting there watching (Namajunas) train,” he said. “I’m just like, ‘Wow.’ I’m amazed by how good she is and the things that she does, and it’s added motivation for me. I want to be able to do all the techniques as good, as smooth as she does them.”
Already one of the most well-rounded and dominant fighters in the UFC, the idea of a smoother-striking Usman is an intimidating one, but it’s one that’ll need to show up against Burns. Since the Brazilian moved to welterweight full-time, he’s been a true force, going 4-0, including a knockout of Demian Maia and a unanimous decision sweep over Tyron Woodley.
Burns is a legitimate, world championship-level jiu-jitsu player who possesses one-punch power. It’s that combination of skills that has people so interested in this matchup. The former teammate angle is juicy as well, but on both ends, it doesn’t feel like there’s animosity more so than a competitive rivalry you’d expect on the highest level. The fact that Usman somewhat blazed the trail, however, is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by “The Nigerian Nightmare.”
“He’s tough, and he’s followed the example that’s been put in front of him for years,” Usman said. “Him actually believing and following that example, look where it’s gotten him in recent years. I commend him for that. I’m, in a way, proud of him for being able to come up the rankings like that. At the end of the day, you have to step up to the guy that knows how to do this, that’s been doing this, and that’s what’s going to happen.”
Usman’s resume is already up there with the best ever at 170 lbs. Twelve fights, 12 wins and rarely any moments of true adversity. As the wins and accolades take him to another echelon, the next logical comparison is to Georges St-Pierre. Although Usman is still several fights away from St-Pierre in terms of title defenses, a win against Burns gives Usman the longest winning streak in welterweight history.
Legacy is something Usman is well-aware of, even if it’s not on top of his mind. It’s not out of pocket to wonder if he’s someone who could get there, though. His competitive fire and focus, combined with the physical tools and techniques, certainly seem like a recipe for entrance into that discussion sooner or later. Luckily for Usman, welterweight seems as competitive and deep as ever, and so the challenges are going to keep coming. First things first, though – Usman knows none of that will matter if he can’t get past Burns.
“I want to take it one fight at a time,” Usman said. “That’s the biggest piece of advice that some of my mentors have given me. I want to take it one fight at a time because as long as I do that and I go out there and I take care of business that’s in front of me, by the time I’m said and done, everyone is going to look back and say, ‘Wow, he really was the greatest to ever do this.’”