The champ’s breakdown: Kamaru Usman reflects on his 80 minutes of Octagon time with Covington and Masvidal

No one can match Kamaru Usman for the depth of his hard-won expertise on Colby Covington vs. Jorge Masvidal. The headliners for Saturday’s UFC 272 have each challenged Usman twice for his UFC welterweight championship. As Usman was winning all four of those fights, the champ piled up knowledge along the way.

Usman spent nearly 50 minutes inside the cage with Covington, knocking him out in the final minute of Round 5 in their first meeting in 2019, and then earning a unanimous decision in last November’s rematch. Usman went the distance in his first fight with Masvidal, winning a unanimous decision in 2020, and then knocked Masvidal out about a minute into the second round when they met again last April.

That adds up to 80 minutes, 12 seconds of total accumulated data on these two men for Usman, who recently sat with the UFC’s Megan Olivi and shared what he learned. He identified what each man will have to adjust to in competing against the other in the spotlight of the UFC 272 main event, beyond their years of shared history as training partners at American Top Team.

Usman also pointed to an X-factor, and projected how the fight could play out. Here’s some of what Usman had to say ahead of Saturday’s fight between Covington and Masvidal.

Editor’s note: The full interview can be found on ESPN MMA’s YouTube channel.

The real storyline … beyond the grudge:

“What stands out is the fact that Covington wanted this. … You [Covington] went down to South Florida [to train at ATT], and this guy [Masvidal] was already a professional fighter and he’s allowing you to come into his home. You guys got a place together; you stayed together. At that point, he [Masvidal] was the only one really kind of making a little bit of money, but he was able to allow you to stay with him. And so you see kind of that big brother-type figure in him, but then years later you chose to ask for the fight. You asked for it. So that tells you a little bit of something there as far as the confidence that Colby has going into this fight, his confidence in his abilities.”

Familiarity breeds … confidence?

“These guys have spent a lot of time [training] together, and they know each other. Colby knows that on wrestling days [in the gym] he tormented Masvidal. And vice versa — Masvidal knows that on striking days, early on, he tormented Covington.”

But memories can be deceiving

“You grow. … Masvidal and Covington haven’t trained together for a little while now. … That’s ample time for both guys to grow, improve, add new wrinkles to their game. … Colby, training with his new team, has definitely slowed down a little bit. He’s more calculated with how he goes about things. Masvidal is Masvidal. Minus the setbacks with me, he’s riding ultra confidence that he has what it takes to, as he calls it, ‘baptize’ every individual.”

The fight starts on the feet, so is that a Masvidal advantage?

“Masvidal has got a wealth of experience there, because that’s where he’s spent most of his time. If you watch every one of his promos, every one of his clips, how many times have you seen Masvidal shooting takedowns to wrestle? [Standup is] where he’s most comfortable. That’s where he makes money.

“On the other hand, Colby Covington is not a bad striker. I know he gets the nod for his grappling and for his wrestling ability, but he’s not a bad striker, which he showed when he fought Robbie Lawler. … I think his ability to make you think [he’s going to wrestle] is what’s very, very good [when he’s in standup].

“[When we fought], Covington had some sneaky shots in there. They weren’t hard; they were sneaky. And those are the ones that always hurt you. … But Masvidal is definitely very creative [as a striker]. And he’s very fast. I would say the speed edge I give to Masvidal with his hands.”

Will Covington’s wrestling give him a big edge on the canvas?

“No, I don’t think so. One of the things Jorge does very well is his ability to get back up. I was actually shocked in my fights with him, because I am more of a control guy. So his ability to get back up a few times let me know that this is something that he’s done for a long, long time. I think Covington understands that as well.”

So Covington’s game plan won’t be to just smother Masvidal?

“I don’t think his plan is to hold him down. I think his plan is to get a hold of him, drag him down, make him get up and drag him back down, make him get up and drag him back down, to eventually wear him out.”

And Masvidal’s game plan?

“Run across the Octagon and land a flying knee. [Laughs.] Win the fight and we go home!”

One outcome not to expect

“I don’t think Masvidal is willing to submit him. I think Masvidal is willing to hurt him. So there’s no submission when it comes to hurting the guy.”

The X factor is all in their mind

“When you’re in a fight camp, you’re physically training your body. … But when it comes down to fight week, it’s 90% mental. You have to prepare your mind to be able to go in there and just use all of the physical attributes you’ve trained to be able to get the job done. So I believe whoever can keep their ego in check is going to have the slight edge.

“We can already see how it’s playing out here, who’s kind of getting the better of who. … I want to say Colby, kind of. With Covington, there’s no line. He’s willing to step all on that line and around it and over it and maybe pee on the line. He’s willing to do all that to potentially get that reaction.

“[For Masvidal], this fight is important, but I just don’t think it’s as important to Masvidal as fighting for the title, being the champion of the world. It’s important for a different reason, of course, but I don’t think it’s so important that he can’t be sucked into that emotional battle.”

If the going gets tough, who will be able to improvise?

“Covington. He’s a wrestler. That’s what we’re used to doing. We’re used to adjusting on the fly and finding out what works in order to get the job done. … You can go out and be down by a lot of points in the first period. But then you have to find a way to crawl back into the match and get the finish.

“With Masvidal, in some of the fights where he has been losing rounds — i.e., the Wonderboy fight — it was very difficult for him to find his way back into that fight. [Masvidal lost a unanimous decision to Stephen Thompson in 2017.] He does do a very good job of staying in it and being very competitive. It’s just a little more foreign for him to claw his way back, being down deficits.”

Masvidal knows how to make a stand

“When Masvidal starts clicking, he’s a tough one to deal with. And he’s probably one of the only guys who can stay in a [tall, upright] stance like that and still defend takedowns. So hats off to him. It’s very tough to just get underneath him in the center of the Octagon and get him down to the ground.”

The fight could go two ways

“My prediction is Jorge Masvidal could, in an exchange, land something that potentially gets Covington out of there. Or Colby Covington can go there, get a hold of him, drag him down, make him stand up, drag him down, exchange with him, get a hold of him, drag him down and just slowly wear on him and wear on him and wear on him until he is able to squeak out that unanimous decision.”