LAS VEGAS — It only takes a quick glance at Kamaru Usman to know he’s an athlete. Usman, though, says his physical skills are only about 10 percent of what he brings to the table.
He’ll fight welterweight champion Tyron Woodley on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in the co-main event of UFC 235 for the title in a battle of two of the most physically gifted men in the sport.
Usman believes that what separates him from the pack is his ability to think.
“One of the hardest parts of this game, and what I don’t think people understand, is the mental side of it,” Usman told Yahoo Sports. “They think, ‘Oh, he’s a big, stronger guy.’ But let me tell you, and I believe this without question: It’s not always the biggest, strongest, meanest, toughest-looking who gets the job done.
“Being a great physical athlete is wonderful, and you need it at this level to be able to train and prepare accordingly. But the closer it comes time to perform, the ratio switches. When you’re in camp, it’s 90 percent physical and 10 percent mental. But as you get to fight night, it’s the opposite. It goes from 90-10 to 10-90, where it’s only 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental.”
Usman came to firmly believe this when he fought Warlley Alves on Nov. 19, 2016, in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
Virtually no fighter goes into a bout 100-percent healthy. The rigor of training camp, and all of the disciplines an MMA fighter needs to work on to prepare usually means that something is hurting by fight night.
Usman, though, had no minor injuries as he prepared to fight Alves. Two weeks before the bout, Usman fractured a rib.
It’s hard to move with a bruised rib, let alone a broken one. But imagine going into an event where you know it’s likely you’re going to get punched, kicked, kneed and elbowed in the very place that’s causing so much pain.
Usman, who won an NCAA Division II national title in wrestling in 2010 at Nebraska-Kearney, couldn’t wrestle in training after suffering the injury.
“When you aren’t able to do what makes you dominant, what separates you from the pack, it can throw your mind off,” Usman said. “My wrestling and grappling was putting me in position to win fights, and I couldn’t wrestle. And if you watch that fight, you can tell the whole time Warlley was waiting for me to take him down.”
Usman, though, knew that probably wasn’t a good idea because of his injured rib. So he turned the bout into a kickboxing match and won going away, finishing with a dominant third-round.
That victory resonated with Usman.
“[Alves] was a dangerous guy and I went in there and I beat the dog crap out of him,” Usman said. “After that fight, I said to myself, ‘It doesn’t matter what the situation is. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. I’ll always find a way to get it done.’ And I think that’s what sets me apart from everybody else.
“The thing is, I knew that even with the state I was in, I could beat that guy. And you know that injuries are a part of this game and you know your opponent is going to be dealing with things, too. I had pulled out of a fight in Brazil once before and I didn’t want to do it again, so I made up my mind I’d have to find a way to win no matter what. That led me to this realization that the mind is the strongest thing we have and that if you have a strong mind and belief, you can do a lot of things.”
Usman said part of his toughness comes from having been born into poverty in Nigeria. His family moved to the U.S. when he was 8, and he always dreamed big.
For as long as he can remember, Usman believed he was destined to do big things. And he wasn’t going to let a little thing like some pain from a broken rib stop him from reaching one of his goals.
It’s part of the sacrifice that fighters make, torturing their bodies past the point of breaking in pursuit of that elusive prize.
“Why I do it is wrapped up in a couple of things, one being how I was raised, where I’m from, the culture I was in,” he said. “I come from a place where your current situation determines the rest of your life. If I wake up and my family’s poor and we’re living in huts and don’t have anything to eat with no job in sight, no way to make money, you can’t accept that. That’s all I knew since I was a child. It’s easy to feel like it’s always going to be like that, and you say, ‘I’m never going to be anything. I’ll never amount to anything.’ I’ll be honest: I lived like that for a little while.
“I never in my wildest dreams dreamt of being in a position like this, of having a platform like this, where I can really show the world, not just Africa, but the entire world, people in Asia, India, wherever, that your current situation doesn’t have to determine your future. That’s one of the biggest motivating factors for me behind my willingness to sacrifice just about everything for this goal. Think about the impact I could have if I show these poor kids from places where they can’t even imagine what we have here [in the United States] that just because they are poor and struggling now doesn’t mean they’ll always have to be poor and struggling. I can do a lot of good and I want to use the platform I have to make that point.”
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