Kamaru Usman improved to 17-1 with a unanimous decision on late replacement Jorge Masvidal to retain 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 a university wrestling champion – also won 12 straight wins by winning light champion Khabib Nurmagomedov for the longest active streak in sports.
Given Usman’s pedigree, a Masvidal win would have been shocked. But even more so because the bout was finalized only last week after Usman’s expected opponent Gilbert Burns retired when he tested positive for the coronavirus.
The ongoing pandemic prompted UFC President Dana White to seek the safest place to fight and in early June chose the island of Yas in Abu Dhabi, which was a previous UFC destination.
All fighters, their teams and workers have been tested for the virus which, according to Johns Hopkins University, has killed 565,000 people worldwide and infected nearly 1
In an oddity for the major fights, the streak meetings took place in the early hours of the local Sunday morning for the American TV market in the early evening, but it doesn’t seem to have affected Usman.
All three judges gave him a great advantage. Two scored 50-45 while the third scored 49-46.
“Gamebred is the biggest and baddest guy out there right now,” said Usman, referring to Masvidal’s nickname. “I had to prepare for him, change gears with six days’ notice. I know that a lot has been done of him that he quarreled on short notice, but he is prepared.
“All these guys got ready for a boy, and that’s me on top of the mountain. I had to make a mental change. I trained for Gilbert, I had a completely different game plan.
“Gamebred is tough and he showed it out there. He took a lot of big elbows down there but he kept getting up, he kept fighting and he didn’t let go.”
Masvidal – who recorded last year’s fastest UFC knockout in five seconds – acknowledged 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 return better than ever. I will not disappear from this sport without this belt that wraps my waist in one way or another.
“It wasn’t my best performance tonight, but everyone can see that I have a dog inside me. That dog doesn’t shut up or flips over anyone. I was very tired in some places.
“But I was able to dig and get back on my feet. I’m not happy with my performance, but I’m telling everyone that I’ll be strong again.”
Both men wanted a rematch. For the moment, however, Usman is keen to return to the United States 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 sofa, eat some Thai food and watch some Netflix with her. And then watch a couple of (her) gym workouts and ju-jitsu workouts, and then we’ll start thinking about fighting still with someone. “
Elsewhere, Alexander Volkanovski successfully defended his featherweight title by beating Max Holloway – who overthrew in December to take the belt.
But the result was not that simple.
Two judges scored 48-47 for the Australian while the other gave it to the American with the same score. White thought Holloway had done enough to win.
Russian Petr Yan, meanwhile, became the bantamweight champion by stopping Brazil’s veteran Jose Aldo in the fifth and final round.
Many onlookers, including White, felt that the matter should have stopped earlier.
“Horrible, horrible arrest by the referee. He should have been stopped earlier,” said White. “It looks like we need to strengthen our referees and judges on Fight Island.”
Three more events are scheduled, starting on July 16th.