Kamaru Usman improved to 17-1 with a unanimous decision on 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 at university – also won 12 consecutive victories to tie lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov to the longest active streak in sport.
Given Usman’s pedigree, a Masvidal victory would have been an upheaval. But especially since the fight was not finalized until last week after Usman’s opponent, Gilbert Burns, withdrew when he tested positive for the coronavirus.
The ongoing pandemic prompted UFC President Dana White to seek out as safe a place as possible for fighting and in early June he chose Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, which was a former destination of the UFC.
All the fighters, their teams and their workers have been tested for the virus which, according to Johns Hopkins University, has killed 565,000 people worldwide and infected nearly 13 million people.
In a whim of major fighting, the fighting took place in the early hours of Sunday morning for the American prime-time television market, but that did not seem to affect Usman.
The three judges gave him a considerable advantage. Two scored 50-45 while the third scored 49-46.
“Gamebred is the biggest and meanest guy at the moment,” said Usman, referring to the nickname Masvidal. “I had to prepare for him, change gears with six days notice. I know a lot has been done to fight him on short notice, but he is ready.
“All these guys prepared for a guy, and it’s me at the top of the mountain. I had to make a mental change. I trained for Gilbert, I had a completely different game plan.
“Gamebred is tough and he showed it there. He took a lot of big bends there but kept getting up, fighting and not giving up.”
Masvidal – who recorded the fastest knockout of the UFC last year, in five seconds – admitted that Usman had won “fair and square” but added that 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 in one way or another.
“It was not my best performance tonight, but everyone can see that I have a dog inside me. This dog does not close or tip over for anyone. I was very tired in some places.
“But I was able to dig and get back on my feet. I am not satisfied with my performance but I tell everyone that I will be back strong.”
The two men wanted revenge. For the moment, however, Usman plans to return to the United States to spend time with his five-year-old daughter Samirah.
“I have to find my daughter,” he said. “I have to sit on my couch, eat Thai food and watch Netflix with it.
Elsewhere, Alexander Volkanovski managed to defend his featherweight title by defeating Max Holloway – whom he knocked down in December to take the belt.
But the result was not as simple.
Two judges scored it 48-47 for the Australian while the other gave it to the American by the same score. White thought Holloway had done enough to win.
Russia’s Petr Yan, on the other hand, became the bantamweight champion by stopping veteran Jose Aldo of Brazil in the fifth and final round.
Many spectators, including White, believed that the matter should have been stopped earlier.
“Horrible, horrible referee stoppage. He should have been stopped earlier,” said White. “It looks like we need to tighten up our referees and judges on Fight Island.”
Three other events are planned from July 16.