Being the backup fighter – Inside Kamaru Usman’s UFC 228 weight cut

MMA


DALLAS — Kamaru Usman is laying down in his bed inside Room 783 of the Hilton Anatole on Thursday night dreading what the next few hours will be like as he pulls the covers over his body and closes his eyes.

“This is going to be a tough weight cut,” Usman said. “They’re all tough but this one is going to suck.”

It’s a particularly tough weight cut for two reasons. First, Usman is 183 pounds on the eve of a weigh-in where he must be 170 pounds in order to have a chance to fight for the UFC welterweight championship. Second — and this is a new one for the 31-year-old native of Nigeria — Usman is making weight for a fight he technically doesn’t have.

There have been eight UFC main events since February affected by injury, weight cuts or other factors and Darren Till, who faced Tyron Woodley for the UFC welterweight championship in the main event of Saturday’s UFC 228, missed weight by over three pounds in his previous fight against Stephen Thompson. With that in mind, Usman was tabbed for the unique role of backup fighter for the main event in case Till or Woodley did not make weight or couldn’t fight for some reason.

If all went as planned, the UFC would essentially be paying Usman for making weight and showing up to UFC 228 as a spectator.

“It’s tough,” Usman said. “It’s tough dealing with that mentally because making weight is one of the biggest battles for fighters and the reason I do it is because I have a fight where I get to showcase everything I’m working on. So for me not to have that guarantee, it sucks but I’m a professional and this is part of the job.”


When Usman’s manager Ali Abdelaziz shows up to Usman’s room on Thursday night, he wants to know how much weight Usman has to cut.

“More than 10,” Usman says.

“How much?” Abdelaziz asks.

“More than 10,” Usman says again.

“C’mon, I need to know what I’m working with,” Abdelaziz says. “Is it more than 14?”

“No,” Usman says. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to make weight tonight. Let’s go.”

“You’re going to feel like you’re going to die and you might just die…but it’s part of the job.”

UFC weltweight Kamaru Usman

Usman, who immigrated to Dallas with his family when he was 8 years old, then takes Abdelaziz, Greg Jones, his MMA wrestling coach, and Dan Ige, a UFC fighter who also assists Abdelaziz at Dominance MMA, to a nearby L.A. Fitness where he gets on a scale around 8:15 p.m. to confirm what he already dreadfully knows.

He is 183 pounds.

“F— me,” Usman says as he steps off the scale. “Mother f—er. I’m not leaving until I’m 170.”

Usman’s weight cut begins as he rubs his entire body with “Sweet Sweat,” a topical gel that increases sweating during exercise, and puts on a sauna suit underneath his workout clothes. Usman is already sweating by the time he steps onto the gym’s second floor basketball court to get warmed up with Abdelaziz, Jones and Ige.

After shooting around for about 20 minutes, Usman gets on the elliptical in the gym for an hour where Abdelaziz lays out two towels on each side of the machine to pick up all the sweat that is dripping off Usman.

“It takes a hell of a mindset to prepare for something that might not happen,” Abdelaziz said. “It takes a very strong man and a very scary man to be able to do this.”

Usman can barely walk back to the gym’s locker room on his own after he gets off the elliptical. He catches a breath on a nearby bench before heading into the sauna with Abdelaziz. In the locker room, Jones and Ige are setting up a bed made of towels on the floor. When Usman gets out of the sauna they will wrap him in towels on the floor like a mummy before he returns to the sauna. They will repeat this three times or until Usman gets down to 170 pounds.

“The process is called getting the water off,” Usman said. “This is dehydration. You’re dehydrating the body and dehydrating the organs. It’s not the healthiest thing for you but over the years I’ve figured out the human body is capable of that.

“Someone off the street can’t do that. You’re going to feel like you’re going to die and you might just die. There have been people who have died from this but over the years, I know the limits I can push my body that normal people can’t. I knew this was going to be tough but it’s part of the job.”

There are moments during the weight cut where it seems like the normally gregarious Usman is slipping in and out of consciousness. At one point Abdelaziz sits next to Usman, who is wrapped up in towels on the floor, and begins to massage his temple. As the clock in the gym inches close to 11 p.m. Usman slowly starts to push some of the towels off him before Abdelaziz puts them back on. He then helps him back up and takes him into the sauna one more time.

“This is where the battle is,” Usman would say later. “Your body says, ‘This s— is too much.’ It’s literally overheating and you’re continuing to drain water out of it. Mentally your mind is like, ‘If you don’t stop this, I’m going to quit on you. You better stop.’ So you’re having this mental battle with yourself the whole time. There were a few times where I had to take the towels off because it was too hot. I have to lose 13 pounds because if I don’t, I can’t be champion. I have to do it.”

Shortly after 11 p.m. as the gym staff is reminding Abdelaziz that they closed at 11 p.m., Usman takes off the sauna suit he has been wearing for nearly three hours as a gallon of sweat comes pouring out and onto the towels placed on the floor.

“Please lord, be 170,” Usman says. “Please lord.”

“Just prepare mentally for 171,” Abdelaziz says.

“I don’t give a f—,” Usman says. “Whatever it is, we’ll cut a leg off if we have to. We’re going to make it.”

Thankfully for Usman and his limbs, he weighs in at exactly 170 pounds at 11:10 p.m. and has cut 13 pounds in less than three hours. A smile creeps over his face for the first time since he stepped into the gym as he sits back down on the bench in the locker room.

“I’ve gotten so good at this where I know when I’m there,” Usman said. “My body knows my limits. The lowest I’ve been over the past 10 years was 163 pounds and I hurt myself. My body knows 169 pounds is my threshold. Once I’m there, no more. I felt that.”

As happy as Usman is to make weight, he knows that is only part of the battle. The night before the weigh-in is what Usman actually dreads the most. Whatever pain he feels as he walks out of the gym will be magnified as he lays down in his bed and waits for Friday morning’s weigh-in.

“There’s no sleep,” Usman said. “It’s the worst feeling in the world that I’ve experienced. You can’t function. They say the body is 70 percent water and you need that water for a reason. Your eyes need liquid, your mouth needs liquid, your organs need liquid for them to function and you’ve just taken 13 pounds of water out of your body. So you can’t sleep. You can’t close your eyes. I have double vision, I can’t talk, my throat and everything is shutting down. I’m just going to be in pain until the morning.”


Usman was the first fighter ready to step on scale at 8 a.m., an hour before he would be the first one to officially step on the scale at 9 a.m., and clocked in at 169 pounds.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been the first one to weigh-in,” Usman said. “I wanted to be the first one to get it out of the way because everyone was waiting to see what was going to happen next.”

There wasn’t much drama in Usman’s mind when he saw Woodley and Till. He knew both would make weight as soon as he saw them step onto the scale shortly after him.

“Tyron Woodley I knew would make weight for sure because he’s a wrestler and he’s been through that process so many times,” Usman said. “I had a feeling Till would make weight too because I know him and I’ve actually hung out with him before. I know how badly he wants it. He’s just as thirsty for that as I am. I knew he was going to make it.

“I was actually happy for them. I like both guys. I actually talked to them in Dallas. I would like to fight both guys. This is the plan for them, let them have their moment and my moment is going to come.”

Usman believes UFC 228 should have been his moment in his hometown of Dallas. He’s 13-1 in his MMA career with 12 straight wins and the previous eight coming in the UFC. This was his opportunity. It wasn’t meant for Till or Colby Covington, who is expected to get the next shot at the welterweight championship.

Nevertheless, he allowed Woodley and Till to have their moment as he quietly watched from the back of the room as the two fighters faced off during media day and again he watched as a spectator sitting in the second row after the ceremonial weigh-in. He wanted to say something but he was confident his moment would come soon and he wouldn’t want another fighter trying to upstage him when that day finally comes.

“I’m a very respectful guy and that was their moment,” Usman said. “I didn’t want to ruin their moment because there’s already enough attention on me based on what I’m doing here so by saying something, the media’s attention is all on me and how I’m trying to start something and I didn’t want that. I wanted them to have their moment. My moment will come.”

While Usman’s moment didn’t come Saturday in Dallas, he believes it will come soon. When it does, what he went through before his championship fight that never was at UFC 228 will make him that much more prepared for the opportunity.

“If I had to do this all over again, I’d do it again 10 times out of 10,” Usman said. “I’m not going to be that guy sitting at home finding out Till was hurt or couldn’t make weight, knowing I missed my opportunity at fighting for the championship. I’m going to be ready. And when that opportunity presents itself, whenever it is, I will be the champion.”



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