Kamaru Usman connects with a stiff jab

Currently embroiled in the most annoying matchmaking debate in recent memory are the top three welterweights in the world: Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington, and Kamaru Usman.

Usman looks to fight on March 2 at UFC 235, and claims to deserve a title shot off his win over Rafael dos Anjos, but Covington (and Covington’s supporters) take severe exception to that. While Covington’s situation may seem unfair, especially considering that Woodley faced Darren Till as Colby Covington was the interim champion, passing up Covington for the next title shot is the UFC’s most prudent option. Despite the heated feud, despite all of Covington’s claims, the facts are that Usman’s claim to a title shot is far superior to that of Covington.

The biggest obstacle to Usman’s claim is the interim belt in Covington’s possession. At UFC 225, Covington was given a belt that is traditionally unified with the original champion’s, and while Covington was supposed to be stripped of that belt in September, that intention seems to have quietly fizzled. Of course, this raises the question of what the interim championship is intended to mean, and that is twofold: the interim champion primarily serves as a backup if the champion is stripped or vacates the belt, and then as the #1 contender. The former is irrelevant in a division with an active champion in no danger of being stripped; Tyron Woodley fought fairly recently, so no backup champion is necessary and the belt lost that function as soon as Woodley fought in September. The latter is relevant, obviously, but the “#1 contender” slot is historically fluid in MMA. Darren Till fought the champion in a fight that totally ignored the interim belt, as did Georges St-Pierre, so it realistically doesn’t constitute the next crack at the champion. There’s no reason to treat the interim belt as anything other than a symbol of the informal #1 contender spot, which is inhabited by whoever has the strongest resume at any given time.

So the question is fairly straightforward: whose resume is stronger, Covington’s or Usman’s? Strength of resume has two components, strength of competition and strength of performance.

On the strength of competition side, both Covington and Usman are identical at the top end. Both defeated Demian Maia and then defeated Rafael dos Anjos, with Covington getting to both first (which doesn’t matter much, both Usman and Covington fought the same versions of Maia and dos Anjos). There is, however, a marked difference in non-elite wins, which is clear in looking at each’s #3 win. For Usman, that third-best win is Leon Edwards (ranked #10 with a decisive decision over the well-respected Donald Cerrone and over top prospect Vicente Luque) where for Covington, it’s Dong Hyun Kim. Kim had just stolen an indefensible decision against Tarec Saffiedine, and his previous two wins over Waters and Burkman weren’t particularly notable. Sean Strickland is also more relevant than Kim, in the sense that Strickland recently knocked out a streaking Nordine Taleb where Kim doesn’t have any currently relevant welterweight wins. The edge there is clear for Usman.

Of course, this wouldn’t matter if Covington were more successful among the elite than Usman has been, and yet that isn’t true either. Strength of performance also clearly favors the Nigerian, especially looking at each’s most recent win over Rafael dos Anjos. While both decisively defeated Maia (Usman over five rounds, Covington over three), the gulf in the dos Anjos performances is incredibly wide, enough that even if all else were equal, it would be enough to justify an Usman title shot before a Covington one. Where Covington was cleanly outstruck in the clinch and at distance and won a terrible decision over dos Anjos at UFC 225 on the basis of pressure and control, Usman dominated dos Anjos in rounds 3-5 on the ground and on the feet to a level that no one had prior. Dos Anjos was the clear #1 contender before (and even after) the fight against Covington, so Usman beating him so decisively is an independent reason to favor him in title shot talks, even disregarding his previous resume. Given his previous resume, Usman is undeniable.

In sum, Usman beat better fighters and beat mutual opponents in more decisive fashion than Covington did, where Covington’s only independent claim is a historically meaningless interim belt that he won in a decision that he shouldn’t have won. There is no question that Usman is first-in-line.

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