Kamaru Usman is a man at the top of the fight game. The best pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC, the welterweight champion has only improved since stripping the belt away from Tyron Woodley. Since then he hasn’t just defeated his challengers, but in many cases gone back for seconds—putting a definitive mark on the division.
Usman’s success is in no small part due to finding a perfect alchemy in his training camps with Trevor Wittman and a year-round workout regime led by a top-tier crew of coaches. Men’s Journal spoke with Usman on his reign as champ, the importance of mindset, and plans for bringing MMA to his birth country of Nigeria.
Men’s Journal: With all the distractions thrown at you going into a fight, can it be a challenge to maintain focus?
Kamaru Usman: There’s a lot of noise going into a fight. I get that it’s part of the business, but I’m usually just looking forward to squaring up in the octagon. The higher up you go, the bigger the audiences and the more pressure and stress. I’ve just come to know that this is what goes with it, and so my focus is to not deviate from the plan.
Every time we’ve seen you fight, you seem stronger and more dialed in. How do you manage to continually improve and adapt?
I came into this game as a wrestler, and when I first started working with my people in Florida it was about adding those other elements to my skillset—starting with kickboxing. They got me to a level where my striking became very strong, and I was capitalizing on every opening for a kick or jab. I found myself getting to a place quickly where I was able to jump into adding more intricate details and fine-tuning those throws. On the grappling side, I’ve been consistently improving with Jorge Santiago since the start. He’s an incredible man and always in my corner.
The next big step was when I decided to start working with Trevor Wittman at his ONX Sports out in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. My foundation was already solid when I came to him, so we were able to look at all the angles and add those sharp little details. Those are the elements that make a whole lot of difference—things the regular viewer isn’t going to see when they watch a mixed martial arts fight. Each camp we’re adding something new to the game and drilling how I’m going to find the mark against each new competitor.
Not only does your striking look great, but your strength and conditioning is impressive as well.
I’ve worked with Dr. Corey Peacock in South Florida for almost every one of my fights in the UFC. I work with him throughout the year and put an incredible amount of faith in him. When I make the journey to Colorado for my camp with Trevor, I continue the work we’ve done with Aaron Porter at Landow Performance in Colorado. They do a great job working hand-in-hand so there’s no lull or loss of focus in my strength and conditioning.
We’ve done a few camps like that and I really like how they’re able to bounce new ideas off each other while keeping in line with what’s really been working for me. That’s important because having been in this game as long as I have there are injuries that I have sustained that I need to be conscious of during training. But despite that, I don’t feel like I miss a beat and have felt as strong as ever during the past few fights. My workouts have been incredible and my body is firing on all cylinders.
Did you always put so much stock in your strength training or was it something that came later in your career?
Not everyone’s like this, but I just love strength and conditioning in general. Going into college I was about 152 pounds soaking wet, and I decided my freshman year that I just wanted to get big. I won’t lie—one motivating factor back then was just looking good for the girls, but once I started I truly enjoyed it. I’d never really lifted in high school at all and started training with a teammate who knew a lot about body building. Six days a week we were in there building up that baseline that I had when I really started to train for MMA.
Even before I eventually found Dr. Peacock, I trained with Jake Bonacci, who was a legendary MMA strength and conditioning coach for guys like Randy Couture. I’ve been very lucky to find trainers who I can put my absolute trust in. I make sure to dedicate myself to the process that they lay out because they’re the best at what they do. The proof is in the pudding. I’m the guy standing at the top.
On the weigh-in podium you always look absolutely shredded. How does proper diet and nutrition factor into this?
At 34 years, I’m starting to see the body change. I’ve come to know what can happen if I go two or three weeks without training or eating the right way. Leading up to every one of my championship fights I’ve been doing a full body composition analysis with Clint Wattenberg who works with the UFC. He knows how I personally like to eat and which foods can be my vices. I make it fairly easy on him because I’ve always eaten pretty healthy—which means he can mostly leave me to my own devices. Just tell me what I should eat a little more of or when I should phase certain things out. I know what I need to stay away from these days, like dairy. He’ll also adjust my carbs or proteins depending on the training that I’m doing or what my schedule is like around a fight.
Any food indulgences you’ll allow yourself on the other side of a fight weekend?
I’m a big fan of Thai food. I love rice and noodles. When I get to spend some time at home after a fight, the first thing I want to do is watch some TV or a Pixar movie with my daughter and order a big Thai meal. I will say I’ve developed a craving for chocolate chip cookies that started after the last three fights. During the off season I’ll let myself enjoy a few of those.
Lots of people look up to you these days. Who were your own big influences at the outset of your career?
Before I was even a fighter there were those great leaders that you just can’t help looking up to. People like Muhammed Ali or Malcolm X. Early in my career, I decided that if I got into a position of power like that I would work to spark positive change too.
Once my journey in the fight game started, first as a wrestler, I looked up to guys who were holding themselves to that higher level—world champions like Kevin Jackson, Lee Kemp, and Kenny Monday. Shifting the focus to mixed martial arts, I started following guys like Rashad Evans, who understood his own ability to inspire and motivate. In this next phase, I’m looking to the guys who’ve been at the top for awhile to see how they’re doing it right.
What causes motivate you right now?
Nigeria is one of the world’s richest nations in terms of resources, yet many people are living with no hope. They don’t know what they can do to alter the course of their lives. Meeting many people during a recent visit, including some high-ranking officials, definitely led me to think about how I can help make a positive change there. Recently I partnered with a company called FIVE-FOUR which is working to do MMA promotions in Nigeria. I’m hoping to give people an opportunity to get into this sport that has changed my life—much like The Ultimate Fighter show was the beginning of my own journey. We plan on hosting a lot of great events with different regions visiting each other—like Nigeria versus Congo, or South Africa. The goal is to eventually take those fighters out globally as well.
But in my mind that’s just the beginning. I think with more attention drawn to the sport there will also be an increased focus on health and fitness because they’re important disciplines that go hand-and-hand with mixed martial arts. I can already see better fitness facilities popping up all over the place, and young people being inspired by the fighters they see rising up the ranks from their areas. It begins with that first step into the gym. Then suddenly they’re going in every day. I’m excited about those future success stories.
At this point, you may have months leading into your next battle. That gives you lots of time to strategize but also to focus on your mindset. Does visualization play into the equation in training camp?
I believe that visualization is everything. If there’s something I want, my journey to it all starts with visualizing it. I have manifested many of the important moments in my life, starting back in college when I wanted to be a champion. I saw how I was going to achieve it, react to it, and even how I would celebrate it. Of course, I always leave room for variable change. You have to. If all you do is picture a combination that puts your opponent out, then what are you going to do if it doesn’t land or he blocks it? How do you adjust? But going into my championship fights, I’ve visualized every moment of them. From the weigh-in to the warm-up backstage, from to the walk out to me holding up the belt again at the end. I’m ready for those things to become reality from the moment I step out.
Speaking of the belt, how do you view it now that you’re the man holding it—and have been for a few years now?
The belt is good to have, but to be honest I don’t put too much weight into it. I was victorious before I got the belt. I was dominant before I got the belt. I don’t need to carry it around to feel like the greatest in the world. I’m only focused on being the world champion and everything that means. And now that I have the belt, it’s not something that I’m worried about defending because I know I’m the best. I’m not defending because that puts you on defense—and I am always on offense.
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