Fight Island — The inside story of Kamaru Usman, his father and a Texas prison

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ACCORDING TO THE handbook of the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, Texas, there are six televisions for the approximately 175 inmates housed in its satellite camp. Televisions are made available from 6 a.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and correctional officers can terminate viewing at any time if appropriate noise levels are not maintained.

There are no formal exceptions to these rules. Prison protocol is nonnegotiable. However, any inmate who served time there from 2013 to 2020 will tell you there was one exception.

Over the past seven years, almost every time UFC welterweight Kamaru Usman fought, the minimum security satellite camp turned into a full-fledged cheering section. All six televisions, which the inmates usually divided, were turned to the UFC broadcast. Just about every inmate packed himself into the television room, leaving the library, dormitory and multipurpose room empty.

The definition of “appropriate noise levels” in the common area took on a new meaning, and it wasn’t rare for a correctional officer to lose track of time and allow the evening to extend past midnight.

“I honestly can’t say there was anything else we looked forward to more,” says Dee Ray, an inmate in 2007-13 and 2017-20. “Nothing could replace that. That was a time when everyone came together — Black, white and Mexican — and enjoyed the festivities. It kind of put us in the arena, so to speak. We didn’t think about what we were going through during that time.”

Those fight nights were special in Seagoville, and Usman never let them down. Usman, who will defend his title against Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, has never lost a fight in the UFC. On the Saturdays Usman fought, the entire prison would go to bed buzzing over his victory and spend days discussing its details.

And at the center of those mental breaks from prison reality was the reason those breaks existed in the first place: inmate Muhammed Nasiru Usman. Kamaru’s father.

MUHAMMED USMAN WAS released from the Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution in February after serving nearly 10 years of a 15-year sentence.

He was arrested in the early hours of a summer day in 2009 at his home near Dallas. His wife, Kamaru’s mother, Afishetu P. Usman, remembers a SWAT team pulling their 20-year-old son, Mohammed, from the entryway as he answered the door. Federal agents took Muhammed into custody and charged him with multiple counts of health care fraud, claiming an ambulance company under his ownership knowingly submitted false claims.

In May 2010 — 11 months after Muhammed’s arrest, all of which he spent detained — a jury convicted him on 14 federal charges. The result was a 180-month prison sentence and restitution of $1.3 million.

A month before his father’s trial began, Kamaru won an NCAA Division II national championship in wrestling for the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Shortly after his collegiate wrestling career ended, Kamaru informed his father of his interest in mixed martial arts and his plan to pursue a professional career.

The conversation took place through visitation glass in a detention center in Dallas.

“He came to me and said he wanted to be a fighter,” Muhammed says. “He had some training video on his phone, and showed it to me through the glass. I told him it’s not what I wanted for him, but I gave him my blessing.”

From that moment, Kamaru’s MMA career moved rapidly. In 2015, three years after his pro debut, he earned a UFC contract by winning “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series. Muhammed was in Seagoville by then, and the prison started to rally around his son. For many, Kamaru was a connection to the outside world as he would meet with other inmates during visits with his father.

“Kamaru gave me something to look forward to,” says David Pettiette, a Seagoville inmate from 2013 to 2020. “It made my time go quicker. It was kind of neat to know his dad, and experience that with someone for six years.”

From 2015 to 2019, Kamaru fought 11 times in the UFC, including his bouts on TUF. Despite going undefeated, he never made a single appearance on pay-per-view. Colby Covington, one of Kamaru’s fiercest rivals, actually used that fact against him during a news conference in 2018. Covington told Kamaru to “stick to basic cable,” because he wasn’t popular enough for PPV events.

Almost no one knew that behind the scenes, Kamaru had asked the UFC not to book him on PPV until he fought for a title and would have no choice. He knew the Seagoville prison camp wouldn’t purchase a PPV for his father.

“There were times it was hard, and I cried about certain things,” says Kamaru, who did not publicly disclose his father’s incarceration until early 2019. “But as weird as it is to say this, all my life I was kind of put in a position to not depend on my dad. Of course I did, but I didn’t need him. I was never one of those kids to say, ‘My dad doesn’t love me because he didn’t come to my wrestling meet.’ I knew who my dad was, and I knew he loved me.”

KAMARU USMAN IS 33 years old, and he has lived almost half of his life without direct access to his father.

Muhammed immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1989, when Kamaru was 2. He initially intended to finish his education in pharmaceutical studies and return home, but he quickly decided he should bring his three young boys to the U.S. instead.

It took Muhammed six years to get his children here. From 1989 to 1995, he did not make a single trip home. The only correspondence he had with his family was via phone or written letters he would give to anyone traveling to his village. He often sent the family money. One year, he sent a Nintendo.

“The kids were looking at it, ‘What is this? What is this?'” Afishetu says. “We had no [electricity]. I told them, ‘Your father sent you this, because this is what you will be playing when you go to America.’ We had to wait two weeks for the lights to come on, but then they watched it and saw the little image jumping. They were very excited.”

Even when Kamaru reunited with his father at age 8, they did not spend an abundance of time together. Still, both say their relationship was strong. When Kamaru showed interest — then dominance — in amateur wrestling, neither Muhammed nor Afishetu attended any matches. Neither was familiar with the sport, and both worried about injury.

When Kamaru tried to explain the sport to his mother, she responded, “You’re fighting people? You want the school calling us every day?”

“My father has only seen me wrestle three times,” says Kamaru, who was 53-3 during his final year at Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas. “My senior year, he watched me get third in the state championships. My junior year of college, at a meet in Grand Prairie, which was right next to our home in Arlington, and then the Division II national championships in 2009 in Houston. That was the last time he saw me compete live.”

Muhammed has seen more of Kamaru’s athletic achievements from prison than in person — and it was Kamaru who ensured that happened. Muhammed never asked him to campaign for bouts on cable instead of PPV.

During one of his first visits to Seagoville, before his appearance on TUF in 2015, Kamaru found out about the television room — learning that his father had access to a television that could air UFC broadcasts. And even though he’d become accustomed to performing without his father in attendance, he thought his father might have needed it at that point in his life.

“If you’re in a place like that, it’s easy to feel like you’re just an outcast and no one cares about you — that you have no one on the outside waiting for you,” Kamaru says. “That’s kind of the stigma.

“So to be able to be on the outside and do something that everyone in that prison could see — because in a place like that, everyone is saying things like, ‘Oh, I used to box’ or ‘My nephew boxes’ — to be able to show them, there was a sense of pride for me that I could provide that to my father.”

THE LAST TIME Kamaru fought on basic cable was in November 2018, when he beat former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos via unanimous decision in Las Vegas. His past two fights — a win over Tyron Woodley for the welterweight title in March 2019 and a successful defense against Covington in December — have been on PPV.

Of course, it was difficult for Muhammed to miss his son’s first two title fights, but when he was granted his release from Seagoville on Feb. 5, the timing, in a sense, felt perfect.

“This was the plan, in my mind, on how I wanted to progress in the sport,” Kamaru says. “What’s greater than beating [dos Anjos] in a main event? Becoming a champion. OK, I did that. What’s greater than becoming a champion? Defending the title as the headliner of a UFC PPV. OK, I did that. What’s greater than that? Headlining UFC International Fight Week in Las Vegas, with my dad being there.

“That was going to mean everything to me.”

In February, it looked as if that plan was coming to fruition. The UFC was targeting a fight between Kamaru and Masvidal for July 11 in Las Vegas. Dee Ray, who was released from Seagoville this year, also had plans to attend. Ray, Muhammed and their wives would go to dinner before the fight, with no worry of a “visitation window” ending things abruptly.

But all of those plans were put on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak. Instead of enjoying his first fight week with Muhammed, Kamaru is hunkered down in a testing bubble in Abu Dhabi. Muhammed will watch his son’s title defense with Afishetu in Texas.

As disappointing as that development was, Kamaru knows it’s merely a delay. His father will experience his MMA career in person.

“At the end of the day, this doesn’t change what’s going to happen,” Kamaru says. “I have to go out there and take care of business. There’s a bigger plan in place. Maybe I fight Georges St-Pierre when this is over in Las Vegas or Rogers Stadium in Canada. Maybe something else. But in some form or fashion, my dad’s going to come to a big one.”

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