Kamaru Usman improved to 17-1 with a unanimous decision over late replacement Jorge Masvidal to retain his welterweight crown in UFC 251.
The 33-year-old — who was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States as a child before becoming a wrestling champion in university — also made it 12 straight wins to tie lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov for the longest active streak in the sport.
Given Usman’s pedigree, a Masvidal win would have been an upset. But even more so because the bout was only finalized last week after Usman’s intended opponent, Gilbert Burns, pulled out when he tested positive for coronavirus.
The ongoing pandemic prompted UFC President Dana White to seek as safe a place as possible to hold fights and in early June he picked Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, which has been a previous UFC destination.
All fighters, their teams and workers have been tested for the virus that has, according to Johns Hopkins University, killed 565,000 people around the world and infected nearly 13 million.
In a quirk for major fights, the showpiece bouts were held in the early morning hours local time Sunday for the prime time US television market but it didn’t seem to affect Usman.
All three judges gave him a hefty advantage. Two scored it 50-45 while the third had it 49-46.
“Gamebred is the biggest, baddest dude out there right now,” Usman said, referring to Masvidal’s nickname. “I had to prepare for him, switch gears on six days’ notice. I know a lot was made of him taking a fight on short notice but he’s prepared.
“All these guys have prepared for one guy, and that’s me at the top of the mountain. I had to take a mental shift. I trained for Gilbert, I had a completely different game plan.
“Gamebred is tough and he showed it out there. He took a lot of big elbows there at the bottom but he kept getting up, kept fighting and didn’t quit.”
Masvidal — who recorded the fastest UFC knockout last year, in five seconds — acknowledged Usman won “fair and square” but added his “gas tank” was a little empty.
“But I’m still a dangerous man,” said the American, now 35-14. “I’m going to come back better than ever. I’m not going to disappear from this sport without this belt being wrapped around my waist one way or another.
“It wasn’t my best performance tonight but everyone can see I have a dog in me. That dog doesn’t shut up or roll over for anybody. I was very tired at some spots.
“But I was able to dig down and get back on my feet. I’m not happy with my performance but I’m telling everybody I’ll be back strong.”
Both men wanted a rematch. For the time being, though, Usman is keen to return to the US to spend time with his five-year-old daughter, Samirah.
“I need to get back to my daughter,” he said. “I need to sit on my couch, eat some Thai food and watch some Netflix with her. And then watch a couple of (her) gymnastics training and ju-jitsu trainings, and then we’ll start thinking about fighting someone again.”
Elsewhere, Alexander Volkanovski successfully defended his featherweight title by beating Max Holloway — whom he toppled in December to first take the belt.
But the result wasn’t as straightforward.
Two judges scored it 48-47 for the Australian while the other gave it to the American by the same score. White felt Holloway did enough to win.
Russia’s Petr Yan, meanwhile, became the bantamweight champ by stopping veteran Jose Aldo of Brazil in the fifth and final round.
Many onlookers, including White, felt the affair should have been stopped sooner.
“Horrible, horrible stoppage by the referee. It should have been stopped sooner,” said White. “Looks like we have to tighten up our refs and judges on Fight Island.”
Three more events are scheduled, beginning on July 16.