Kamaru Usman, UFC 258 & A Lack Of Attention
By James Lee
The headliner of UFC 258 this weekend incorporates one of the oldest folk tales in combat history and what can be defined as any promoter’s ideal.
Two former teammates opposing one another to grasp championship status. Much like some notable rivalries of the past like Chuck Liddell vs Tito Ortiz, Jon Jones vs Rashad Evans, and Cody Garbandt vs TJ Dillashaw.
However, despite the distinctive narrative, Kamaru Usman vs Gilbert Burns has failed to amass the same level of attention as the rivalries prior. In fact, it can be noted as the least appealing pay-per-view main event in recent memory. Instead, fans are looking ahead to pay-per-view title fights scheduled for March including Israel Adesanya, Stipe Miocic, and Amanda Nunes.
Thus, as recognition for the event is slim, it should be noted the main rationale for that reasonably falls onto current welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. However, it is not like Usman has not been afforded the opportunity to become a favourite amongst viewers, because he has.
His last bout against Jorge Masvidal particularly presented a chance to heighten his popularity. Aside from Conor McGregor, Masvidal is the sport’s most popular, and any fight against him is guaranteed to amass significant awareness.
The bout between the pair at UFC 251 did just that, as it became the second biggest pay-per-view of the year with 1.3 million North American buys. That totalled the eleventh biggest pay-per-view event of all time, trending amongst the likes of McGregor, Lesnar and Rousey. That vast amount of attention should have ensured approval, yet Usman detracted in popularity.
Before that, he had a bonafide chance to become a star after he came out on top in a competitive championship fight against Colby Covington. The main reasoning behind the likely change in popularity was not bound by the first defence of his title, but primarily the opportunity to be the fighter that beat Covington.
Since developing his schtick several years ago, Covington has used political polarisation to irritate the entire fanbase; becoming the most disliked fighter in the sport. After self-admittedly forcing a persona to boost attention, the stakes rose every time he fought as most wanted to see him lose. Usman got that chance and finished the contest. Yet, he is still neglected by the fanbase, and neither loved or hated.
Usman likewise dethroned a widely-disliked Tyron Woodley. Although Woodley was nowhere near as disliked as Covington, his title reign was a frustrating one, whereby a large section of the fanbase were desperate for the title to change hands by the end. Again, Usman was the man for the job as he dominated Woodley over twenty-five minutes.
His preceding performances against Demain Maia and Rafael dos Anjos highlighted his dominance but proved that skill is not the signifying factor to fan intrigue. If that was the case, he would be sincerely popular, as his domination in the welterweight division has only been matched by Georges St-Pierre recently.
A twelve win streak since joining the promotion in 2015 has been unbelievable considering the welterweight climate, with some wins over Leon Edwards, Sean Strickland and Warlley Alves holding even more value now. Though, as Georges St-Pierre became a major pay-per-view draw with a similar grappling-heavy style to that of Usman, the gap in popularity between the pair is insurmountable in this moment.
Another factor that should have increased his popularity was his successful stint on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ television series. Although the popularity of the show has decreased, season twenty-one was one of the most compelling in recent times. As opposition between coaches became monotonous, the rivalry between the American Top Team and Blackzillians had genuine animosity. As the action and rivalry was intense throughout the season, Usman came out on top, beating Hayder Hassan in the finale. Though, as the likes of Nate Diaz, Michael Bisping, Tony Ferguson, Matt Serra, Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, and many more all became vastly popular during one period of time, that same admiration has not been afforded to Usman.
The factors listed above should have assured Usman of fame. For most fighters, it is primarily about obtaining that big break to open the possibility of stardom. It would have been thought the Woodley fight would have been that, but if not, definitely his conflict with Covington and Masvidal.
The reasoning for his lack of appeal might solely be because of his lack of a finishing instinct. Just three of his twelve UFC wins have come inside the distance. His last fight saw him cruise through twenty-five minutes by initiating very little damage on the proclaimed BMF in the sport. Maybe, he is currently in an awkward middle point whereby his dominance is not enough to sell itself individually, but he is still undoubtedly the best in the division.
Regardless, Usman cannot continue to cruise down a path of indifference amongst the fanbase and although UFC 258 will not give him the chance to radically transform that, it may be the beginning providing he impresses.
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