When Kamaru Usman stepped into the Octagon with Colby Covington at UFC 245, he wasn’t just fighting to defend his welterweight title—it was personal. Leading up to their bout, Covington didn’t pull any stops when it came to the line-crossing trash talk he’s notorious for, taking shots at everything from Usman’s Nigerian heritage to his late manager Glenn Robinson.
The vocally MAGA-supporting Covington levied several blew-the-belt insults at Usman, boasting about his support from the Trump family and asking if Usman got calls from “the chief tribe of Nigeria with smoke signals.” In response to Usman’s claim that he’s “more American” than Covington, he said, “What has his family ever done for America beside serve in the Federal penitentiary?” But the only thing that snuck its way under Usman’s skin was when he brought Robinson into their beef, saying, “[Usman] was ducking me so long that Glenn Robinson died from it because he was ducking me so hard and wouldn’t fight me.” Robinson passed away suddenly from a heart attack in September 2018.
On December 14, 2019 Usman got the final word when he responded by wiring Covington’s jaw shut. He defeated Covington by TKO in the fifth round, breaking his jaw in the process. It was poetic justice for Usman, who admits that the insults helped fuel his fight once he was in the Octagon, but had otherwise stayed largely silent.
Speaking to Usman, it’s clear that he keeps his edge confined to the cage and the gym. In everyday life, the Nigerian-born, Texas-raised bruiser is gracious and articulate. He spoke to Muscle & Fitness about his career, preparing for fights, and his surprising backup career.
Leading up to this fight, things got pretty personal. Can you talk about that and do you think it helped fuel your win?
Things got personal because Colby’s the kind of individual that doesn’t have the integrity to preserve what it means to be a mixed martial artist. The principles of what martial arts were built upon are honor, respect, and discipline. And nowadays we have guys who are solely focused on the entertainment aspect of the game and they throw away all of those principles.
I think he felt like the more disrespectful he got, he would be able to rattle me and pull me out of character and get me angry enough to fight emotionally. Fighting for me is about competition. I chose to go into this because I had a burning desire to compete and be the best, and these guys don’t understand. So, he said everything that he said. I just told myself, “OK, I’ll put that one in the bank.” Kind of like when officers read you your Miranda rights: Anything you say can and will be used against you when we are locked inside that Octagon.
I’m all about this competition. People aren’t going to beat me in any aspect of this game. When a guy like him is such a loud mouth, it makes it so much easier for me because you’re just given all the momentum and all that motivation that I need to really want to punish you. And he did just that.
What made you decide to go into mixed martial arts?
I made the decision during my final years as a wrestler at the Olympic training center. I had been introduced to mixed martial arts in college early on, but I was still kind of afraid of it. In wrestling, it’s pretty controlled, so I had that initial fear of not being in a controlled sport. But I knew that I had to leave the Olympic training center after 2012 because I had suffered a few injuries and the possibility of making the Olympic team was starting to slip.
I was being real with myself and thought, “OK, what am I going to do here? I need to do something else because I still have this burning desire to compete.” I was very interested in boxing, so I decided to start boxing and grind through another four-year cycle to try to make the Olympic team in boxing, which is ridiculous. When I eventually left the training center, I thought, “Am I going to just give up this skill that I have spent 12 years building? Or am I going to go into a sport that allows me to still uses wrestling principles and incorporates boxing, which I’m starting to fall in love with?” After that, it was a no-brainer. And with guys like Rashad Evans calling me and telling me I should be doing this, it made it an easy decision for me to go into mixed martial arts.
How do you prepare for fights? Is there anything specific you did as far as training and nutrition to prepare for your fight with Covington?
I’ll be honest, I don’t really do anything crazy special at all. I work the way that I work. The only difference this time was I brought in a wrestler. I brought in my former trading partner who wrestled with Colby Covington while they were at college together, and I also brought in former NCAA champion Jason Tsirtsis. They gave me that extra push with my wrestling to keep me sharp and keep me honest.
My nutrition was similar to what it’s been, which is working with Trifecta. I work with Clint [Wattenberg, director of nutrition at the UFC Performance Institute]. He did a full assessment of what my needs are because the same plan doesn’t work for everyone. For someone like myself, I’m extremely lean, and my body requires food that fuels the high level of endurance that fits my fighting style.
Speaking of Trifecta, tell me about your relationship with them and what attracted you to them.
I’ve always cooked for myself all through my career. I like to cook. But the higher you get in your career, the bigger the fight, the more stakes are on the line, and it makes it harder to cook for myself. I was looking for a convenient meal plan company that could step in to help me, but also make sure I was eating quality food.
I reached out to Clint and he told me that there’s this great company Trifecta that [the UFC] is starting to work with that he thinks would be a good fit for me. And Clint’s somebody I trust—he was a wrestler at the highest level at Cornell. So, I said, “Let’s give it a shot.” And I’ve been with them now for my last three fights, which happened to be my three biggest fights. I still like to cook, so I opt for the a la carte option, which means I get all the bulk, pre-prepared ingredients and I can assemble my own meals. I can put things over a hot stove to give myself that illusion of cooking it—I still love to do that. But it’s so much simpler now that the food’s already there and available and I don’t have to worry about getting the right macros and going grocery shopping.
If you hadn’t gotten into MMA, what would you be doing?
I would be a marriage counselor.
Really? Marriage counselor?
It’s just something that I was passionate about in college. One of my favorite things to study was family studies. I loved it so much because you got the chance to study the child—the infant, the adolescent, and that development to the aging adult. I really started to see the effects of the family structure and what it does to each individual, what it does to a child. And it just basically got to see the importance of a marriage and a family to build a strong foundation.
All throughout my life, I’ve always been that guy that people come to for advice. I guess I’m something of a rational to a fault. Even in my own situations if I’m the one who’s at fault, I can step back and say, “OK, I was wrong.” So, I was always the guy that all my roommates in college came to for relationship advice. And even my parents, to this day, I’m the one they complain to—when mom’s sick of dad, she wants to call me and talk to me about it, and when dad’s sick of mom, he calls me to talk to me about it. So, that was one of my things. The divorce rate in this country is really scary and I wanted to be part of that solution.
How are you feeling now that you’ve had some time to process this fight?
I’m a pretty rational person, and this victory, this last fight was huge for me because I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. Everywhere I went, I couldn’t go anywhere without people telling me how much they dislike this guy and they needed me to hurt this guy. And for my former manager, that was something that was very personal. Glenn was a guy who essentially kicked off my career and helped me get to the point where I did make it to the UFC. Him passing was very heartbreaking.
Having my opponent mention that and poke fun at that just showed how classless he is and how low an individual can go just for entertainment. That was very personal, and if I did it for nothing else, I had to go out there and do it for him. I know he’s looking down on us right now, smiling.
Photo credits (from top to bottom): Ryan Loco; Chris Millington; Zuffa LLC / Chris Unger