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Under slightly different circumstances, the idea of making a fight like Kamaru Usman-Jorge Masvidal 2 next would seem silly. After all, Usman and Masvidal just fought. Usman won conclusively, getting 14 of 15 rounds on the three judges’ scorecards. Masvidal has not picked up a win since. We’re seriously talking about giving a guy an immediate rematch after getting wiped out in his only Ultimate Fighting Championship title challenge? This is the sort of matchmaking that I would normally rip, yet this one seems pretty sensible.
Any discussion about the justifiability of an upcoming title fight has to include an exploration of the alternatives. That’s important here. Jose Aldo’s fight against Petr Yan for the bantamweight title was objectionable, not only because the Brazilian had lost two straight but because there were other fighters that very much deserved the shot. Aljamain Sterling had won four in a row against high-quality opposition when Aldo-Yan was made and won one more against Cory Sandhagen before Aldo-Yan took place. Sandhagen was 12-1 with five UFC wins before the Sterling loss. Both were bypassed for Aldo. Usman, on the other hand, doesn’t have a list of obvious next challengers.
Usman has already defeated the top four and six of the top eight challengers in his division: No. 1 Gilbert Burns, No. 2 Colby Covington, No. 3 Leon Edwards, No. 4 Masvidal, No. 7 Tyron Woodley and No. 8 Demian Maia. For context of how impressive that is, no other UFC champion has defeated more than four of the top eight challengers in their division; the average among the other champions is 2.4. The two top options who haven’t lost to Usman are Stephen Thompson (3-3-1 in his last seven fights) and Michael Chiesa (winner of four straight against Carlos Condit, Diego Sanchez, Rafael dos Anjos and Neil Magny).
Given Edwards’ eight-fight winning streak since he lost to Usman, he is one of the top non-Masvidal options, along with Thompson and Chiesa. None of the three particularly stands out as a choice. Edwards probably has the strongest claim and is Brian Knapp’s pick for the spot, but his winning streak hasn’t been defined by spectacular performances and he hasn’t fought in a year and a half, even putting aside Usman’s previous win over him. The heart of Thompson’s claim is that he’s well-known, he’s won two straight and, at 38 years old, time is ticking on his opportunity. Chiesa has some momentum but could use a marquee win to convince fans he has a chance against Usman.
Without an obvious alternative to Masvidal, it’s worth examining why he merits another shot beyond the fact that he has made himself into a star. The obvious answer is that he took the first fight with Usman on short notice. Certainly, we don’t need to create a precedent where a star takes a big fight on short notice, creating a built-in excuse that then creates a second fight no matter what happens in the first. With that said, what we saw from Usman-Masvidal did suggest a full training camp could make a difference.
Masvidal was clearly at his most dangerous at the beginning of the first fight with Usman. He gave Usman some trouble with his striking, and the first round was the only one he won on any of the judges’ scorecards. Masvidal was visibly tired as the fight went on, which is where Usman pulled away. Usman might well have done the same thing even if Masvidal was fully prepared, given the champion’s remarkable cardiovascular conditioning. However, it at least raises the question, and it’s what Masvidal has clung to.
The strongest reason for making the rematch, however, came from Usman himself. In a compelling, no-nonsense interview after his victory over Burns at UFC 258, Usman made clear he wants the rematch with Masvidal to dispel any doubts about the better fighter. While there’s reason to be naturally skeptical of a fighter lobbying for his highest-grossing potential fight, nothing about the way Usman carried himself or spoke suggested anything about what he was saying was a put on. He seemed genuinely upset at the notion there’s any doubt as to the better fighter and highly motivated to prove his superiority.
When a champion seems disinterested by a challenger, the fight rarely feels compelling. The fights where the champion seems every bit as intense as the challenger are often the most exciting. Think Aldo-Conor McGregor, Wanderlei Silva-Quinton Jackson, Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen. The stakes are higher, and it creates even more motivation in the challenger. With no obvious better option, Usman and Masvidal in a rematch with full training camps feels not only palatable but actually intriguing. The strongest argument against it may be the precedent. Given that, let’s just pretend this was never brought up the next time UFC plans to push an undeserving star into a title fight.