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Kamaru Usman on Tyron Woodley: ‘I will push all the right buttons until I break him’

‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ could be first African-born fighter to win UFC title


BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — It’s late on a Tuesday night at the Xcell Jiu-Jitsu Academy and Kamaru Usman has his back to the mat while being smothered by his opponent.

It’s practice, but it’s a precarious position for Usman, a position that takes him back to a night in 2013 when he was a mixed martial arts newbie and a late addition to a local fight card in Miami. In the opening moments of that fight, his opponent, Jose “The Fresh Prince of Kendall” Caceres, wrapped his legs around him in a way that was foreign to him, completely neutralizing the abilities that made Usman an All-American wrestler in college.

Usman struggled before eventually submitting, his strengths negated by the rear naked choke.

“I felt emasculated,” Usman said as he sat outside the jiu-jitsu facility in mid-February, still noticeably distressed six years after that defeat. “Losing like that takes something out of you. My only thought that night was that I would never feel that way again.”

So far, he hasn’t.

Since that loss, Usman has won 13 straight fights (seven decisions, five knockouts and one win by submission) while rising from reality television fame (he won the clinching bout in the 2015 Ultimate Fighter 21 tournament) to become the No. 2-ranked UFC welterweight fighter in the world.

On Saturday, Usman (14-1) will compete in the co-main event of UFC 235 against welterweight champion Tyron Woodley (19-3-1). Handpicked by UFC president Dana White to take on Woodley, Usman is attempting to add legitimacy to his meteoric rise in the sport against the MMA legend who has held the belt for the better part of the past three years.

“Everyone wants to see Tyron tested, and everyone knows I can do it,” Usman said. “I will push all the right buttons until I break him.”

There’s a lot more than a title at stake for Usman. If he’s successful on Saturday, Usman, who was born in Nigeria, would become the first African-born fighter to win a UFC title. He reps his country proudly, carrying the green-and-white Nigerian flag into the ring for each of his fights and embracing his “The Nigerian Nightmare” nickname.

Kamaru Usman stands in front of the Nigerian flag before a welterweight bout.

Al Powers for ESPN

“The name symbolizes the most elite athlete,” Usman said. “[Former NFL star] Christian Okoye was ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ in his era because he was one of the elite running backs in football.”

Okoye, who has the nickname trademarked, gave his blessing for Usman to use it.

“It is flattering for sure,” Okoye said via text message. “If using it will help him succeed, more power to him.”

For most of his early morning workout at the FTX Sports Performance gym in Boca Raton, Usman has the entire second floor to himself. Stepping into the weight room, Usman picks up a 6-foot weighted chain, wraps it around his shoulders and proceeds to the chin-up bar.

He raises his body up to the bar one time, and then another and another. At the height of the final rep, he holds his position with ease for five seconds, the bulge of his massive biceps placing a strain on the sleeves of his black T-shirt.

Standing off to Usman’s side is his trainer, Corey Peacock, who provides strength and conditioning training and physiological analysis to several UFC fighters as well as athletes in other sports. Peacock, who would probably be the most jacked guy in the room if not for the company he keeps, smiles as Usman’s workout comes to an end.

“He’s the strongest athlete that I’ve coached and has the best cardio, which is a great combination for this sport,” Peacock said. “That’s why we’re seeing him fight for the title. I think he’s fully prepared for what’s ahead of him.”

Usman didn’t know it at the time, but the preparation for this fight began long before he thought he’d make a living knocking people out.

As an immigrant who came to the United States at the age of 8 from Benin City, Nigeria, Usman had to learn to throw hands early as a rite of passage for any kid forced to adapt to new surroundings, learn a different language and adjust to a dissimilar culture.

“Kids are going to be kids, and I got teased a lot,” said Usman, whose family moved to Texas. “Oh, man, there were so many nicknames. So many.”

Asked about a nickname that stood out, Usman paused for a moment and then burst out laughing. “African booty scratcher, that was the famous one,” Usman said. “When you’re a kid, it’s a mean thing to hear. I never knew where it came from until later when I watched Boyz N the Hood.”

Being different, and thus an easy target, Usman couldn’t avoid the altercations, which he approached with a two-step strategy: Step one was to talk himself out of a fight; step two was to provoke his opponent to throw the first punch.

“I’d give him a hard push to where the only response was for him to swing,” Usman said. “He swings and overcommits, and I’m changing levels to take him down. By the time I got off four or five body shots, they’d have to pull me off of him. Fight’s over, and everybody’s talking about it in the school the next day.”

In time, Usman’s fighting skills helped him gain respect. But he never thought to take up fighting in an organized way until after football season during his freshman year in high school, when he sought another sport to occupy his free time.

By his senior year at Arlington, Texas’ Bowie High School (where he fought at 145 pounds), Usman was one of the best wrestlers in the state. He finished third in the state meet as a senior, finishing his career with a 53-3 record.

Next for Usman was a scholarship to William Penn University in Iowa, where he won an NAIA regional title as a freshman. The reason he wasn’t a national champ? Part of the team got snowed in before the national meet and never made it to the tournament.

Kamaru Usman (center) and the Nebraska-Kearney University wrestling team after winning its first national title.

Courtesy: Marc Bauer

Usman transferred to Nebraska-Kearney, where in his first season he was third in the nation while helping the wrestling team win its first national title. Usman was second in the nation as a junior and national champion as a senior.

“Just one of those young men where, when the lights go on, it’s showtime,” said Marc Bauer, the Division II Hall of Fame coach who spent 17 years coaching at Nebraska-Kearney and is now the school’s interim athletic director. “Extremely athletic, explosive, quick and long. And smart, extremely intelligent. He’s the kid every college coach loves to have on the team.”

After college, Usman set his sights on wrestling in the Olympics. He lived briefly at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado while fighting in several qualifiers. While Usman didn’t make the team, he did meet Rashad Evans, the former UFC light heavyweight champion, while he was in Colorado and helped Evans train for fights. Each time they’d get together, Evans would try to entice him. “You have to come give this a shot,” Evans would say of mixed martial arts fighting.

Usman traveled overseas to wrestle, making maybe “$1,500 if he won.” At the same time, Evans and his UFC comrades, guys Usman assisted in training, were cashing checks that were a lot bigger. “I was in the wrong sport,” Usman said. “I was 25 and didn’t have a place to call my own. So I had to make a grown-up decision.”

He switched to mixed martial arts in 2012, winning his first fight in Nebraska. But he was still a wrestler, and his vulnerabilities were exposed six months later in that 2013 loss to Caceres.

From there, Usman became a hybrid. He learned how to box and won his next four matches via TKO (punches). In recent years he’s taken up jiu-jitsu, a martial art that has taught him how to both force opponents into submission using locks and choke holds as well as escape tough situations.

“One of the biggest things I took from that loss was that I had a lot to learn,” Usman said. “I was going up against jiu-jitsu, and I didn’t think I needed that skill because I felt I could out-wrestle them. So I got a [martial arts] gi, went to the gym and started to learn a skill where I had a huge deficiency.”

Usman’s big break came during the 2015 reality show The Ultimate Fighter: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians. The show featured welterweight fighters from two of the sport’s top gyms, both based in South Florida. The series was shot in Florida, with the finale shifting to Las Vegas, where Usman represented the Blackzilians in the final bout. Usman beat Hayder Hassan by submission in the second round, earning $300,000 for his gym.

Kamaru Usman steps onto the scale during The Ultimate Fighter 21 finale weigh-in during the UFC Fan Expo at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas on July 11, 2015.

Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Winning the title, and the reality television exposure that led up to it, made Usman marketable. He made appearances during nationally televised UFC fights and fought at UFC 210 in Buffalo, New York, in 2017. “No doubt, The Ultimate Fighter show gave me a leg up because fans got a chance to see me week after week,” Usman said. “I didn’t have to start at the very bottom.”

That ascension had Woodley questioning Usman’s legitimacy during a Jan. 31 news conference that included the participants on the March 2 main card.

“Who has you fought?” Woodley asked during the heated back-and-forth. “What have you done? … Bruh, I’m your mentor.”

Woodley, who has a regular video segment on TMZ and who has dabbled in rap, won that Jan. 31 verbal sparring session by a knockout.

Woodley’s greatness is a known commodity. Usman’s ability to be great will be determined in front of a worldwide audience in his effort against the champion on Saturday.

“I know he’s a tough, experienced guy, and I know when it comes to wrestling he possesses a lot of the tools I possess,” Usman said of Woodley, who was an All-American wrestler at Missouri. “What’s it going to take for me to win the fight? Just me being me.”

Usman is still on the mat at Xcell Jiu-Jitsu Academy getting stifled during the training session. But he’s slipping away easily, practicing various escape moves while preparing for the most challenging fight of his career. He’s sure to face arduous situations against Woodley.

“I have to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” Usman said. “If I find myself up against that again, I don’t want it to be foreign to me. I think I’ve learned how to handle it.”

Usman has handled the likes of Sergio Moraes, Marcus Hicks and Leon Edwards. He fought on the preliminary card at UFC 210. But can he handle the emotions, demands and pressures that come with fighting “The Chosen One” under the bright lights of a pay-per-view main event?

“I’m from the Show Me State,” Woodley, born in Missouri, told Usman during their January news conference. “What you gonna show me?”

Asked that very question in his final weeks of training, Usman didn’t hesitate with his response.

“If he brings his A-game, it’s going to be a dogfight,” Usman said. “If he doesn’t, it’s going to be a short night.

“On March 2, I want people to walk away knowing that I’m the best in my weight class,” Usman said. “On March 2, I want people to know I’m the real deal.”

On March 2, we will find out if Usman is worthy of being called “The Nigerian Nightmare.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.