With big fights happening every week and new champions being crowned along with current championship forging their legacy, it’s easy to forget that Kamaru Usman is still the pound-for-pound best in MMA today.
But is it possible for Usman to catch a former pound-for-pound champ and arguably the greatest ever welterweight in UFC history in Georges St-Pierre?
Usman’s next title defense is expected to be booked shortly (possibly against Leon Edwards) to headline a late summer pay-per-view. Can another win as welterweight champion and a 15th consecutive victory in the UFC get him closer to GSP?
This was just one of the questions I’ve been asked recently, and throughout the year, I’ll continue answer your questions about the latest, most interesting topics in MMA. Have a good one? Send me a tweet at @marcraimondi, tweet your questions using the hashtag #LegitimateQuestions or email them to email@example.com.
This week’s column also looks at the potential fallout at women’s strawweight from Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s upcoming rematch, the star potential of Michael Chandler and what it would take for Holly Holm to get a title shot at 135 pounds.
What will it take for Kamaru Usman to cement himself as the 170 GOAT over GSP? — Clint M.
This is a great question and something I have thought about quite a bit. St-Pierre is on just about everyone’s shortlist of the best fighters in mixed martial arts history, and he’s right with Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Khabib Nurmagomedov. A strong case can be made that GSP is the best to ever compete in the Octagon — he avenged his only two losses and returned after four years to move up and capture the middleweight title after a dominant career at welterweight.
All of that is to say, if Usman is to be considered the best welterweight of all time, surpassing St-Pierre, then he also must be regarded as one of the greatest fighters of all time, period. And I would argue that not only is Usman in that conversation, he has surpassed St-Pierre in certain areas. It isn’t easy to compare eras, and counting stats in MMA have never been the end-all, be-all. However, Usman has won 15 straight UFC fights (without incurring a single loss during his UFC run), a streak only topped by Silva’s 16 in a row. That’s a level of consistency that few in MMA could ever hope to achieve. You have to be on top of your game every night and make very few mistakes. Usman has done that.
Another notch in Usman’s column is that it took him a long time to get to the title. He didn’t fight for the belt until his 10th UFC fight. St-Pierre competed for the title against Matt Hughes in just his third UFC fight and lost. St-Pierre was pegged as a big, box-office draw from the beginning and had all of Canada supporting him. The UFC did colossal business with St-Pierre in Canada — and just about everywhere else. He was a face of the company during that stretch — a heavy burden to manage along with training and fighting. Usman didn’t have any such advantages. He had to win The Ultimate Fighter to get into the UFC. He was never pegged as a future star and had to work his way into becoming the standout he is today. Usman’s early UFC run résumé holds up exceptionally well today. He beat Leon Edwards in his second UFC fight and Sean Strickland in his fifth. Both are currently top contenders in their respective divisions.
The one big thing St-Pierre has over Usman is the number of title defenses. St-Pierre has nine at welterweight, stretching from 2008 to 2013, and Usman has five, tying him for second ever in the division with Hughes. An argument can be made that Usman has had the more challenging fights: Colby Covington, Gilbert Burns, and Jorge Masvidal are all tough challenges. But St-Pierre had high-level opponents like BJ Penn, Jon Fitch, Carlos Condit and Nate Diaz. It isn’t easy to stay champion as long as St-Pierre did in a division with the quality of talent that welterweight has always had.
Usman is closer to St-Pierre than people think, but not quite there yet. If he can defend the title twice this year, beating Edwards and, let’s say, Khamzat Chimaev, that would give him seven consecutive title defenses. In that event, I’d be inclined to revisit this conversation. Until then, St-Pierre has the edge.
How would the UFC handle a situation where the winner of Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk 2 is out for a period of time? After their first bout, it seems inevitable. — D. Waters
First of all, Carla Esparza beating Rose Namajunas and the fight going the way it went — lackluster, to say the least — changed everything in the UFC women’s strawweight division. Namajunas losing opened up the door for Zhang and Jedrzejczyk to make their case for a title shot again. Both have lost twice to Namajunas, and a third fight at this juncture wouldn’t have made much sense. So, now Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk at UFC 275 on June 11 becomes hugely important and a possible title eliminator. It’s too bad that it can’t be five rounds, especially now.
And when I say how Namajunas vs. Esparza went had an effect, I mean this: If Esparza won in a far more exciting way, the UFC could have done a trilogy fight immediately. Because the two women were basically at a standstill for 25 minutes, UFC president Dana White made it pretty clear afterward that the promotion would not go in the direction of a third fight between them, at least not now. The UFC also won’t decide on the division’s future until they see how Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk plays out, and that’s obvious.
To answer your question, I think the UFC won’t mind waiting a few months for the Zhang-Jedrzejczyk winner to be ready. Esparza got married over the weekend and is on her honeymoon, so she’ll be out of training for several weeks. A title defense in the fall doesn’t seem too crazy, and I suspect the UFC will wait for her.
If Zhang and Jedrzejczyk are not ready when Esparza is ready, there’s a clear choice to step in: Jessica Andrade. She’s the former champion and stormed back into the women’s strawweight division with a standing arm-triangle submission finish of Amanda Lemos last month. Moreover, Andrade has a history with Namajunas (they’re 1-1), Zhang and Jedrzejczyk. So, if she were to beat Esparza, there would be a pretty compelling story to be told throughout her title reign. And if Esparza beats the stalwart Andrade, it cements her as the top strawweight in the world in a way that her win over Namajunas did not.
Can Michael Chandler become a draw in the ufc? #ESPNMMAmailbag
— Telvin Kipapa (@telvinkipapa) May 12, 2022
It’s funny because I’ve been writing about Chandler and his potential star power for nearly a decade, going back to his rise in Bellator. To me, he checks all the boxes. He’s a good-looking guy with an incredible physique and athleticism who articulates himself well, finishes fights and competes in one exciting war after another. Chandler’s fights with Eddie Alvarez in Bellator are among my favorite in the sport’s history. But for whatever reason, he had trouble moving the needle in Bellator.
I’m still on that Chandler-can-be-a-draw train, even though it’s clear the MMA fandom doesn’t want a white-meat babyface hero like WWE’s John Cena, which is kind of what Chandler is. MMA fans want an edge. They want Conor McGregor throwing dollies through bus windows. They want Nate Diaz posting a picture of him relieving himself at the UFC Performance Institute. They want “Street Jesus” Jorge Masvidal. Chandler is a babyface by comparison, and I hope that his violent finishes, brutal wars and emotional, inspiring interviews will get him “over” big in the UFC, to borrow a term from professional wrestling.
What would it take for Holly Holm to get back to the title one more time? — Ed M.
Well, her chances of doing that went up in a huge way in December when Julianna Peña submitted Amanda Nunes to become the new UFC women’s bantamweight champion. After her dominant reign as champion, Nunes losing opened the door for several contenders, including Holm, whom Nunes knocked out at UFC 239 in July 2019. No one was clamoring for a Nunes vs. Holm rematch after that. But Holm has won two in a row since then, and if she beats Ketlen Vieira on Saturday, she’ll be right there in the divisional pecking order.
Now, Peña and Nunes will have their rematch this summer, and the result of that will determine what happens next. If Nunes wins, there will likely be a trilogy before the end of the year, meaning Holm might need to win one more to become the No. 1 contender again. If Peña beats Nunes again, I could see the UFC booking Peña vs. Holm at the end of the year. Remember, Peña vs. Holm was planned for May 2021 before Holm withdrew due to an illness. So, this is a matchup the UFC has already been interested in.
One of the big storylines coming out of UFC 274 was that Esparza became the women’s strawweight champion again, after a record 2,612 days. If Holm beats Vieira, we could be having a similar conversation about her later this year or next. Holm lost the UFC women’s bantamweight title in 2016 and could have a chance to get it back, a victory that would put her high up on that same list Esparza leads.