Kamaru Usman (photo/Getty Images)
UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman relied heavily on his wrestling background early in his MMA career. He has become a much more well-rounded fighter as his career has progressed, but his experience in the world's oldest sport has clearly been vital to his success in the Octagon.
Usman began wrestling as a sophomore at Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas. Despite getting a late start in the sport, he worked his way into contention for a state title as a senior. He defeated Jared Berman of Arlington High School to win the District 13 championship at 145 pounds in what was a wild 16-10 contest.
The two would rematch a few weeks later in the third-place match of the University Interscholastic League (UIL) state tournament. Once again, Usman would defeat Berman and take home the bronze medal. He finished his final season of high school with a 53-3 record.
Following high school, Usman chose to continue his wrestling career at William Penn. The Iowa school is a member of NAIA and multiple-time UFC title challenger Joseph Benavidez also spent time there wrestling.
Usman's true freshman season in 2006-2007 was quite successful. He went 15-3, qualified for the NAIA tournament and was ranked eighth at 165 pounds in the final rankings prior to the tournament. However, his postseason plans were entirely derailed by weather.
Per a report in the Sioux City Journal by Steven Allspach, Penn's 11 qualifiers were traveling from William Penn's campus in Oskaloosa, Iowa to Sioux City. Head coach Gary Garvis had left a day before to attend the coaches meeting, but his wife Laurene Garvis was driving one of the two vans holding the wrestlers. She explained the situation to Allspach.
"It was horrible driving," she said. "Much of the way, it was a white-out condition and every so often the boys had to get out of the truck to guide me through the worst for a 100 yards or so."
Unfortunately for Usman, his van was stopped by highway patrol, and he never made it to the national tournament. Years later Usman's eventual coach at Nebraska-Kearney would allude to this mishap influencing the wrestler's decision to find a new home.
"He was furious," Marc Bauer said. "His high school club coach contacted me and said, 'Kamaru was out of there, he's leaving, is there any way you can get him back to your school?"
Bauer was able to pull it off, and Usman joined the Loper squad for his sophomore season. The team he joined for the 2007-2008 season was already one of the most loaded teams in NCAA Division II. Joe Ellenberger, who would go on to build a 15-2 record in MMA and fight in the UFC, was the starter at 157 pounds. At heavyweight, the Lopers could send out one of the best wrestlers in the country. Tervel Dlagnev had won the Midlands the previous year and would go on to become a three-time World/Olympic medalist.
Usman stepped into the starting spot at 174 pounds, By February, he was ranked third in the country at his weight. He entered the NCAA tournament with a 22-7 record and won his first two matches against Chris Gibbs (West Liberty) and Tyler Tubbs (MSU Moorhead).
In the semifinals, he ran into Albert Miles (Pitt Johnstown) and dropped a 6-2 match. Miles would go on to win the tournament and claim the 174-pound national title. Usman dropped to the consolation bracket where he picked up a second win over Gibbs to advance to the third-place match. There, he scored a 3-2 victory over Josh Shields (MC) to finish third and become an All-American for the first time.
Nebraska-Kearney finished with two champions and eight overall placers. Their team score of 108.5 was a half point more than Minnesota St. Mankato, and they were able to bring home the team title. Dlagnev won at heavyweight for the Lopers, while Brett Allgood also brought home a title at 133 pounds. In the second round of the tournament, Allgood knocked off future UFC title challenger Tim Elliott then of Central Oklahoma.
After an impressive debut season at the Division II level, Usman was not sneaking up on anybody during his junior season. As one of the top returning wrestlers at 174 pounds, he was ranked in the top three for the majority of the 2008-2009 season. In December, Usman had a very impressive showing at the Reno Tournament of Champions.
Despite being ranked second in Division II, he entered the tournament mostly composed of Division I squads unseeded. He won his first three matches before facing off against the tournament's top seed in Appalachian State's Austin Trotman. At the time, Trotman was ranked 15th in Division I and would go on to become an All-American. Usman scored a 4-3 victory and advanced to the finals. Trotman has also made the transition to MMA and is also scheduled to fight this weekend.
Usman had to settle for a second-place finish as he dropped a 6-2 match against Navy's Luke Rebertus in the finals. The loss dropped Usman's season record to 19-5, but he was still well on the way to contending for a national title.
Over the course of the rest of the season, Usman remained extremely active. He eventually entered the NCAA tournament with a whopping 42-8 record. In the tournament, Usman made his way to the finals with victories over Luke Rynish (Wisconsin Parkside), Jarret Hall (MSU Moorhead) and Ross Taplin (Nebraska Omaha).
In the finals, Usman went toe-to-toe with Brett Hunter of Chadron State, but ultimately dropped a 3-2 match. The Rapid City Journal was on-site for the finals and described the match as follows.
"Hunter, who is the school's all-time winningest wrestler with a 133-32 record, won his second national championship by claiming a 3-2 decision over Nebraska-Kearney's Marty Usman during the 174-pound finals of the NCAA Division II wrestling championships. Hunter led 2-1 at the beginning of the third period. Usman chose bottom and Hunter gained over a minute of riding time before cutting Usman loose with 30 seconds to go. With less than six seconds to wrestle, Usman tried to takedown Hunter, but the shot fell short and Hunter Claimed the 3-2 victory, thanks to the point for riding time."
After placing third and second during his first two seasons at Nebraska-Kearney, Usman had one more year to make a run at the national title. For the 2009-2010 season, Usman returned once again to the 174-pound weight class, and he was one of the favorites from the start. Prior to the season, he was named all Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, and he was ranked number one in the coaches poll.
Early in the season, the Lopers had a chance to pull off a major upset over Nebraska. Earlier in the day, future Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs suffered an injury against Central Michigan and therefore could not compete against Nebraska-Kearney. The Division II squad was quite feisty and were within striking distance when it came time for Usman to wrestle at 174 pounds.
His opponent on the day was Stephen Dwyer who was ranked third at the weight in Division I. Dwyer was coming off a victory over fifth-ranked Ben Bennett. Dwyer would go on to finish fourth at the NCAA Division I tournament at the end of the year.
Usman also scored a victory over Bennett earlier in the day, and he was more than game against Dwyer. However, he ultimately dropped a 2-0 match. Dwyer scored an escape and collected 1:53 of riding time on the way to the close victory. Nebraska would go on to win the dual 23-18. That would be the last loss of Usman's collegiate career.
In January, Usman got another shot at Division I opposition as Nebraska-Kearney faced off against Oklahoma as part of the Lone Star Duals. He scored an 11-0 major decision over Ben Bridell, and he was the only Loper to win against the Sooners.
After winning the RMAC and being named the conference's "Wrestler of the Year," Usman entered the NCAA tournament with a 40-1 record.
Usman won his first two matches over Ben Becker (MSU Mankato) and Aaron Denson (Nebraska Omaha) to advance to the semifinals. There he faced off against Chris Barrick of Shippensburg. The match was tied in the third period 4-4, but Usman broke the tie with a takedown and advanced with a 6-5 victory.
His opponent in the finals was Luke Rynish of Wisconsin Parkside. Usman had defeated Rynish three times over the last two seasons, but it was still a tight match. Per a report from the Lincoln Journal Star, "Usman scored a takedown with 15 seconds left in the 174-pound finals to beat Wisconsin-Parkside's Luke Rynish 5-3 and finish off a 44-1 season."
Following the folkstyle season, Usman made the transition to freestyle with the goal of making the 2012 Olympic team. Shortly after his senior season, he entered the University World Team Trials. Usman defeated Iowa's Mark Ballweg and advanced to the semifinals. However, after losses to Jon Reader and Adam Hall, he finished fourth. Despite the fourth-place finish, Usman ended up representing the U.S. at the 2010 University World Championships and finished eighth.
For the next few years, Usman was a regular on the domestic freestyle circuit and picked up wins over future wrestling to MMA converts Pat Downey and Chris Honeycutt. However, he failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials and made his professional MMA debut in November of that year. He joined the UFC in 2015 after competing on "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show and won the title against Tyron Woodley in his 16th professional fight in 2019.