Kamaru Usman improved to 17-1 with a unanimous decision about the late replacement Jorge Masvidal to keep his welterweight crown in UFC 251.
The 33-year-old, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States as a child before becoming wrestling champion at the university, won the lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov with 12 consecutive wins for the longest active series in the United States Sports.
Given Usman’s lineage, a Masvidal victory would have been a surprise. But all the more so since the fight ended only last week after Usman’s intended opponent Gilbert Burns withdrew when he tested positive for corona virus.
The ongoing pandemic prompted UFC President Dana White to find a safe place to fight, and in early June he selected Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, a former UFC target.
All fighters, their teams and workers were tested for the virus, which, according to Johns Hopkins University, killed 565,000 people worldwide and infected almost 1
In a peculiarity for big fights, the flagship bouts took place early Sunday morning local time for the US television market at prime time, but it didn’t seem to affect Usman.
All three judges gave him a strong advantage. Two scored 50-45, the third 49-46.
“Gamebred is the biggest and baddest guy out there right now,” Usman said, referring to Masvidal’s nickname. “I had to prepare for him and change gears six days in advance. I know he had a fight at short notice, but he’s prepared.
“All these guys were preparing for one, and that’s me up on the mountain. I had to change my mind. I trained for Gilbert, I had a completely different schedule.
“Gamebred is tough and he showed it out there. He took a lot of big elbows down there, but he kept getting up, fighting and not giving up.”
Masvidal, who posted the fastest UFC knockout in five seconds last year, admitted that Usman had won “fair and square”, but added that his “gas tank” was somewhat empty.
“But I’m still a dangerous man,” said the American, now 35-14. “I will come back better than ever. I will not get out of this sport without this belt being wrapped around my waist in one way or another.
“It wasn’t my best performance tonight, but everyone can see that I have a dog in me. This dog doesn’t shut up or turn around for anyone. I was very tired in some places.
“But I was able to dig up and get back on my feet. I am not satisfied with my performance, but I tell everyone that I will be strong again.”
Both men wanted a rematch. However, Usman is currently very keen to return to the US to spend time with his five-year-old daughter Samirah.
“I have to go back to my daughter,” he said. “I have to sit on my couch, eat some Thai food and watch Netflix with her. And then watch some (her) gymnastics and ju-jitsu training, and then we’ll think about fighting someone again.”
Elsewhere, Alexander Volkanovski successfully defended his featherweight title by defeating Max Holloway, whom he overthrew in December to get the belt first.
However, the result was not that easy.
Two judges scored 48-47 for the Australian while the other gave it to the American with the same score. White felt that Holloway had done enough to win.
Meanwhile, Russian Petr Yan became the bantamweight champion by stopping Brazilian veteran Jose Aldo in the fifth and final round.
Many viewers, including White, believed that the affair should have been stopped earlier.
“Terrible, terrible interruption from the referee. It should have stopped earlier,” said White. “Looks like we need to tighten our referees and judges on Fight Island.”
Three more events are planned for July 16.