Mohammed Usman’s decision-making process to sign with the PFL was a family affair.
When your brother happens to be Kamaru Usman—the welterweight champion of the UFC and currently one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in all of MMA—you tend to listen, and for Mohammed, when it came time to make a jump up to the big leagues, Kamaru’s advice was invaluable.
Last year, Mohammed, a top heavyweight prospect, signed with the PFL after fielding offers from the UFC, Bellator, and ONE Championship. Usman makes his debut Thursday night at PFL 3 on ESPN and he told MMA Fighting that having his older brother around to provide guidance was a key factor to him joining the league over the other major promotions.
“We sat down and thought about it,” Usman said. “You don’t ever make a decision just to do it, we have to think everything through before we make a decision and it’s a family decision. We actually sat down and worked it out and talked about it and he’s the one that told me it was a great decision.
“I felt good about it, I felt confident about it because I’m still growing in my athletic career as an MMA fighter, so PFL gives you the platform to still grow and the platform that they have and the season format was perfect for me. I really like how they do that and that ultimately decided it for me.”
Yet to make his debut with the PFL after the league had to cancel its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Usman had plenty of time to hear feedback on his decision, and not all of it was supportive. According to him, there’s still such a strong connection between the UFC brand and mixed martial arts that some didn’t understand why he isn’t making the walk to the octagon instead.
“I did kind of get criticism, because a lot of fans that don’t really know fighting just think of UFC as fighting,” Usman said. “They don’t even know, MMA is not even in the equation. I have to explain to them that MMA is what we do. UFC is just the organization. You see what I’m saying? So a lot of people get confused like that. I had a lot of backlash when it comes to the fans, ‘Why aren’t you in the UFC, this and that.’
“But people don’t know this is like any other profession. You go where they’re gonna pay you good. You’re not gonna go just because of the name, like Puma’s gonna give me $10 million and I’m gonna go to Nike just because of the name and they’re gonna give me $100,000. At the end of the day it was a business decision and I’m happy to be here.”
Usman, 32, is understandably a hot commodity as a promising heavyweight with a 7-1 record since making his pro debut in 2017. He’s competed for several notable promotions in his career so far, including Tachi Palace Fights, Victory Fighting Championship, and Titan Fighting Championship. He’s won four straight fights since suffering the lone loss of his career to future UFC fighter Don’Tale Mayes.
His 2020 campaign was supposed to mark the next step in his evolution, but when the PFL cancelled its season, Usman was left adrift. Fortunately, the league allowed him to book a fight with another promotion to stay busy and he ended up returning to Titan FC for a fight in August, where he defeated Terrance Hodges.
“You can imagine, it was tough, it was hard, we weren’t making any money, we weren’t able to fight,” Usman said. “It’s hard, but I was still grateful. The PFL gave me an opportunity to go fight, I went and fought for Titan FC—I think it was only me and Kayla [Harrison] that fought, she went and fought for Invicta—so at the end of the day it wasn’t about records, it wasn’t about anything, it was about me getting that experience and just being in the cage.
“I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I got that experience and it helped me out tremendously. I did 15 minutes that fight and I made sure I did 15 minutes because I didn’t know when I was gonna fight again.”
While Usman wasn’t able to compete as much as he’d liked, he’s stayed sharp with a lineup of world class training partners. After helping Kamaru prepare for a title fight at UFC 258 in February, he stuck around Las Vegas to work with Francis Ngannou ahead of his heavyweight championship triumph at UFC 260.
He’s also spent time working with veteran Jared Rosholt, who was a finalist in the 2019 PFL season. Rosholt lost to Ali Isaev, the current league champion at heavyweight who is part of this season’s field.
“After my brother’s fight, when he fought Gilbert Burns, I stayed in Vegas for about two weeks to train with Francis leading up to his championship fight before I had to go to Colorado for my camp,” Usman said. “So I really kind of saw his work ethic and how hard he was training and the attention of detail he was putting into his training and it really gave me a lot of confidence.
“At the end of the day, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to train with the best. You’ve got to train with the best, you’ve got to feel the best, because you don’t want to get out there and feel something you’ve never felt before.”
Having prepared for his upcoming fight with Elevation Fight Team in Colorado, Usman finds himself surrounded by even more high-level talent, including strawweight champion Rose Namajunas.
Is he feeling any extra pressure being constantly surrounded by world champions?
“I don’t really look at it as pressure,” Usman said. “I look at it as motivation. All these people, I’ve seen what they have to undergo to get to where they’re at and it’s just work. I just really channel it all into just motivation. Motivation, motivation, motivation. All these champions, they just motivate me and I work so hard. I channel all of that. I just channel it.”
Usman could join the ranks of the elite in a hurry if he’s able to conquer the 2020 PFL season, which includes not only the returning Isaev, but former UFC champion Fabricio Werdum and former UFC standout Justin Willis. He opens the season facing the lesser known Brandon Sayles (5-1).
With PFL fighters having to quarantine at a hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., for 17 days ahead of their fights, Usman has had the chance to familiarize himself with Sayles; actually, given that he and his heavyweight rivals are all on the same floor, Usman joked that they’ve all become too familiar with each other.
“You see all these guys,” Usman said. “You’ll end up in the elevator with these guys and it’s just awkward. You’re getting ready to fight this guy, now I’m in the elevator with him going downstairs. I’ve definitely been in there with the guys. I just keep quiet and stay focused.”
“Even the other day in the elevator I’m like, ‘You guys can go and I’ll take the next one.’ Jesus Christ, how many times can you do that in one day? It takes a toll on you, especially when you’re training for this guy, it’s like, why do I want to be in an elevator with them? We’re really in close quarters, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”