LAS VEGAS — The great heavyweight champion Joe Louis was being outboxed by former light heavyweight champion Billy Conn through 12 rounds of a June 18, 1941, bout, and Louis was badly hurt at the end of the 12th.
Conn seemed on the verge of a monumental upset.
Louis, though, rallied in the 13th and knocked Conn out. At the post-fight news conference, Conn joked to Louis, "Joe, why didn’t you let me have the title? I could have run down to the corner store and told my guys, ‘Hey I’m heavyweight champion of the world.’ Then, you could have won it back from me six months later.”
Louis looked at Conn and said, “How did you expect to hold it for six months when you couldn’t hold it for 13 rounds?”
Nearly 80 years later, that same scenario played out in the main event of UFC 258 at Apex, when challenger Gilbert Burns wobbled champion Kamaru Usman and had him badly hurt for one of the few times in Usman’s career.
Burns instinctively went for it instead of taking his time and trying to break Usman down, and he paid the ultimate price.
“I had him hurt and I went crazy instead of staying with the game plan,” a glum Burns said.
Burns opened the fight with a winging right hand that caught Usman on the side of the head. Usman, who has a legendarily good chin, stumbled and his gloves touched the canvas.
He was hurt and Burns knew it. The plan was to continue to try to break Usman down and not immediately go guns ablazing. But the adrenaline kicked in, Burns went for it and Usman survived before finishing the challenger in the third round.
“It’s the second time I made that mistake,” Burns said. “I made the same mistake against Dan Hooker.”
Burns’ biggest mistake against his friend and long-time sparring partner: his words before the fight. Usman compared himself to NBA legend Michael Jordan in the sense he’ll use anything to motivate himself.
When he heard Burns talk about taking the title from him, it stirred his competitive juices.
“He said so many times that I have something that he wanted and that he was coming to get it,” Usman said, patting his championship belt. “What’s more personal than that? But remember, anything you say can and will be used against you.”
Usman said he expected Burns’ early assault, both because he did it so frequently in the more than 200 rounds they sparred together, and because he felt Burns had to prove “he’s not the little brother.” Burns, Usman figured, would need to come out hard to gain respect.
Usman’s new coach, Trevor Whitman, thought along the same lines. And so he had Usman spar many rounds with lightweight Justin Gaethje, who has a kamikaze style of fighting and would instantly put on pressure.
In addition, he had the quickness they suspected Burns would bring.
“Gaethje was balls to the wall every time they sparred,” Whitman said. “Kamaru said he had to get up to spar with Gaethje. Gaethje just gives him that fire. But I really do believe that Burns is a true 155er. But that is what we were going to face. We were going to face speed and sometimes those harder guys come up and they hit harder, because speed produces power.”
But it was nothing more complicated than the jab which turned the fight in Usman’s direction. He used to throw it off the front foot, but Whitman worked with him to throw it off the back foot and drive through it.
It became another power punch and he shook Burns with it multiple times on Saturday.
UFC president Dana White raved about Usman’s jab, but then again, he raved just about everything Usman. Saturday’s victory was the 17th in a row for Usman in his MMA career and White said he’s starting to creep in on the legendary ex-champion Georges St-Pierre.
“If Usman keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll go down as the greatest welterweight ever and one of the best ever,” White said. “With who he’s fought and who he has to fight, it’s undeniable.”
Usman said he’d like to fight St-Pierre, though he was quick to add it wouldn’t be for the money. He said he’d like to challenge himself because he’s such a fierce competitor.
“I see you out there Georges. I see you still training,” Usman said.
St-Pierre has been out of the game for more than three years and he’s only fought once, a middleweight title victory over Michael Bisping, in more than seven years. It’s unlikely he’s going to come back.
But Usman is doing more than a fair impersonation of St-Pierre, as he’s already knocked off Tyron Woodley to win the title and has wins over fighters currently ranked Nos. 1 (Burns), 2 (Colby Covington), 3 (Leon Edwards) and 4 (Jorge Masvidal) in the welterweight rankings.
It’s almost heresy to suggest anyone is on St-Pierre’s level, but if Usman isn’t already there, he’s getting very close.
He stomped around the cage after finishing Burns shouting, “Put some respect on my name.” He got it from his boss. White couldn’t say enough about Usman.
“People who know fighting know this guy’s the real deal,” White said of Usman.
Burns agreed. Usman, he said, is a lot better than the last time they sparred.
And, we should add, he’s a lot better than just about everyone out there. Put some respect on his name, indeed.
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