The Kamaru U-Turn
By James Lee
As Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington prepare to face off for the UFC welterweight championship for the second time in less than two years, it is amusing to observe how different the circumstances are this time, just under twenty-three months since they last fought.
It might have been thought that the status and popularity of Covington would have been most affected by the outcome of the fight, yet, it is Usman whose status has surprisingly changed the most in the period since the initial contest.
Leading into the first encounter, it was expected that Usman would be vastly more popular than Covington. The antics, political-leaning, and imitative character of ‘Chaos’ made him an instant adversary to the fanbase since changed his professional outlook following a lack of popularity. That persona peaked in the lead up to UFC 245 and all it seemed like Usman had to do was play the counterpart, and he would be universally favoured by the fanbase. However, as Covington was predictably criticised, the fanbase reserved appreciation for Usman, as he inherited a comparable dislike.
The original opportunity to beat Colby Covington and end his schtick seemed like the perfect opportunity for Usman to become a bonafide star. The admitted, forced persona of Covington made him the most disliked in the sport. Thus, the stakes rose every time he fought as the majority craved to see him lose.
Usman got that chance and took it. Yet, he was neglected by the fanbase following, and was neither loved or hated.
Such objection continued well into 2021. At the time of UFC 258 earlier this year, it was the least appealing pay-per-view main event in recent memory, with that rationale falling solely on Usman himself. Usually, a fight with a former teammate is historically guaranteed to entice excitement, but it did not.
The Covington fight was not the only chance for Usman to become a favourite among the fanbase as well. A lacklustre title defence against popular Jorge Masvidal and the dethroning of widely-disliked Tyron Woodley did more to hinder his popularity than aid it.
Likewise, an extensive win streak, including victories over Leon Edwards, Sean Strickland and Warlley Alves holds immense competitive value, but did not translate into acclaim. Moreover, his successful stint on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ television series should have set him on the same path as Nate Diaz, Michael Bisping, Tony Ferguson, Matt Serra, Forrest Griffin, and many more. Yet, the same admiration was not afforded to him.
All the factors listed above should have assured Usman of fame. For most in combat, obtaining that big break and capturing it usually does. It would have been thought the Woodley fight would have done that, but if not, definitely his conflict with Covington afterwards.
The most likely reasoning behind that prolonged lack of popularity was his lack of a finishing instinct. However, that belief changed, and as did his dwindling popularity in April, as thousands crowded the Jacksonville Arena to see state favourite Jorge Masvidal dethrone ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’.
They did not witness that, however. Instead, they saw Kamaru Usman produce one of the most shocking and unpredictable knockouts in UFC history to usher the entire area into complete silence.
What has followed since is enhanced popularity and a spot at the top of the male pound for pound rankings for Usman. As a result, his popularity has shifted immensely and the fanbase is craving not only his return, but the chance for him to definitively end one of the most intense rivalries in welterweight history, and Colby Covington’s championship ambitions at the same time.
So, as Kamaru Usman will defend his welterweight title over Colby Covington for a second time, the state of his popularity is vastly different. Before and after the first contest, Usman was not quite as unpopular as Covington, but similarly disliked. Now, he is advancing towards becoming a star in the sport and another empathetic victory over Covington will be sure to advance that perception further.