Sunday, March 3, 2019 | 2:36 a.m.
Kamaru Usman barely gave Tyron Woodley enough space to breathe, let alone strike.
In an upset victory to win the welterweight championship Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena in the co-main event of UFC 235, the challenger looked possessed as he pressured the champion for 25 minutes without a second of restraint. Usman set a UFC championship-bout record for strike differential after out-landing the long-time belt-holder 336-60.
“It was just knowing all the things I was fighting for,” Usman said after earning his unanimous decision (50-45, 50-44, 50-44).
Usman’s driving force was the journey to his goal, a path so adverse that finishing it off with such ease against Woodley felt ill-fitting. The 31-year-old likely came from more, “humble beginnings,” to borrow a phrase he repeatedly used, than any previous UFC champion
Usman was born in the Edo state of Nigeria, a world away from the bright lights he shined underneath to become the first African-born champion in UFC history. He lived there for nearly eight years before his family immigrated to the United States, without as much as running water in his native village.
“There was a stint where I lived with my grandma and we had to walk miles to get water, bring it over to the house and you had to boil it because you didn’t know what parasites were in the water,” Usman reflected.
He said diseases like malaria continue to inflict the area, and that he hoped his new platform would help bring about change. It’s one he’s worked for ever since he started wrestling in high school in Texas.
Usman went on to wrestle in college, at University Nebraska at Kearney, but figured it was just a hobby before an eventual a career in medicine or mathematics. It wasn’t until he watched Jon Jones set the record as the youngest champion in UFC history in March 2011 that he became inspired to go all-in to pursue mixed martial arts professionally.
Jones followed Usman’s win at UFC 235 with his own lopsided unanimous-decision title win over Anthony Smith in the co-main event, a coincidence that made the evening even more special to the new welterweight champion.
“It was the night I watched you win the title," the UFC cameras caught Usman telling Jones when they encountered each other backstage post-fight on Saturday. “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going. This is what I’m doing.' I have it written down in my journal.”
More adversity would assure Usman’s ascent wasn’t as rapid as Jones’, though. He lost his second professional fight, via submission in May 2013, and wouldn’t really see his career take off until he linked up with former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans shortly after.
The relationship with Evans led to an appearance on “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2015, and although Usman won the reality show, it came at a price. He injured his left foot, and said he underwent microfracture surgery but returned in three months instead of the recommended eight months in order to fight at the finale against Hayder Hassan.
He’s dealt with the repercussions ever since, as the ailment has often flared up including this week, according to Usman. He wore a walking boot when out of public view during fight week, and was pushed in a wheelchair to the post-fight press conference before limping to the dais.
“But nothing was going to deter me from achieving what I set out to achieve,” Usman said. “I’m hoping I can go back and have the doctor look at it now that I have a little bit of time. I don’t want that much time because there’s a couple guys that I need to beat up but I need to let these injuries heal so I can not just be 30 percent but so I can be 100 percent inside that cage.”
Immediately after the win, Usman didn’t have much trouble moving. A number of security guards had to restrain him from former interim champion Colby Covington, who heckled Usman in his customary “Make America Great Again” hat from the front row.
UFC President Dana White confirmed that Covington would be the opponent for Usman’s first attempted title defense.
“I can’t be in a room with that guy,” Usman said of Covington. “I can’t wait to be healed up and really get to put my hands on him. That’s one I’m really going to enjoy — brutalizing him.”
Usman is expected to open as a significant favorite, especially following a performance that was more dominant than anyone expected. White was among those in awe.
“Normally Woodley is so fast with his hands and he’s such a good wrestler that most guys can’t do both with him,” White said. “Usman can do both. What I didn’t see coming is Usman going in there and absolutely dominate him the entire time wherever he wanted to go.”
The way Usman told it, he had no other choice. He had come too far to do anything else.
The fight was nearly 8,000 miles from his birthplace, but he carried its spirit.
“It was for all of us in the world who come from humble beginnings who don’t know where their next meal is coming from or if they’re going to get clean water the next water the next day,” Usman said. “I was doing this to motivate and inspire them that just because they’re in their current situation, it isn’t always going to determine where their life is going to be later on.”