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UFC San Antonio: Leon Edwards, the welter fundamental

Jordan Breen reviews Leon Edwards’ sterling performance against Rafael dos Anjos, and relates Edwards to one of the NBA’s great dynasties.

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Saturday night in San Antonio, Texas, a fighter I and many have espoused as the most underrated fighter in the game over the last five years, Leon Edwards, took a bigger step into the limelight and UFC title contendership, thwarting former lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos over five handy rounds. And it couldn’t have come in a better venue.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-San Antonio-Dos Anjos vs Edwards Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Edwards is 10-2 in the UFC. In his career, he’s 18-3, and frankly, should probably be only once beaten: his first stoppage was a lukewarm downed knee disqualification against an opponent he was drilling, and his UFC debut against Claudio Henrique da Silva was a ripoff split decision. The only man to holistically and truly beat the Brummie is Kamaru Usman, who is now the legitimate 170-pound king of the heap. Since his Octagon debut four-and-a-half years ago, he’s flown under the radar, never quite getting the respect on his name that many felt he deserved. His back-to-back wins over Donald Cerrone and Gunnar Nelson helped, but there’s something poetic about him conquering a former UFC champion in AT&T Center that makes it even better.

The AT&T Center is where the San Antonio Spurs play basketball. And, for many sports fans, the Spurs have been a scourge for a quarter decade. Helmed by head coach and President Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have won five league titles since 1999, but did so in a fashion that tended to enrage the basketball fanbase. As an Air Force graduate, Popovich coached his teams with a militaristic rigor. He was, and still is, ruthlessly blunt and instructional with his players, and never shy about shouting down officials. For fans who came of hoops age in the Golden State dynasty era, the Spurs were the antithesis of that. Popovich built his team around tactics and strategy, designed to overcome super-athletes inhabiting the court who could be primary ballhandlers, but also pull up from 24 feet and drain a three, or drive to the hoop and put a would-be defender on a poster. Popovich defined the Spurs in the 1996-97 offseason, when he assumed head coaching duties from Bob Hill and took the reins himself. The Spurs have never had a losing record in the regular season since in almost over two decades.

What made the difference is that the injuries to stars David Robinson and Sean Elliott severely crippled the team and left them out to dry. On the flipside, they were lucky enough to win the NBA Draft Lottery, and select first overall, Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan, who would become the face, however unwilling, of the franchise. I will say now in full disclosure that Tim Duncan is my favorite basketball player ever, largely why I champion fighters like Leon Edwards, and why I feel like Edwards’ dominance over dos Anjos is so magical to me.

Don’t worry, this is still a column about fighting in a cage. Just hang with me for a second or two.

Tim Duncan is one of the greatest basketball players ever and became so by simply defying convention. In an era where fans increasingly wanted alley oops from the three point line, he posted up, and not possessing moves like Hakeem Olajuwon, would just back defenders up as close as he could and kiss it off the glass for a bucket. He wasn’t even a natural basketball player; he only picked up the pumpkin when Hurricane Hugo destroyed the only Olympic-sized swimming pool that the Virgin Islands had in 1989, when he dreamt of becoming what Michael Phelps would be. But, under the tutelage of Popovich, he became almost a literal machine – almost devoid of emotion, save for his incredulous reactions to foul calls – and annoyed fans with his commitment to the most basic basketball techniques and above all else, finding ways to win.

1999 NBA Finals Game 5: San Antonio Spurs vs. New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Journalists would attempt to interview him about basketball, and it was a complete disaster. He would give one-word answers or generous platitudes. He wanted to talk about Dungeons and Dragons and other geeky pursuits that he loved much more than the fact that he dominated on the hard wood. It’s hard to catch a natural nickname in the sports world. It has to be organic, spontaneous and come from a legitimate source. When Shaquille O’Neal called Tim Duncan “The Big Fundamental” because “his skills were perfect,” nothing could be more righteous.

For me, Leon Edwards is “The Welter Fundamental.” Coin this and use it on your Twitter feed. I still see some folks calling Hatsu Hioki “The Iron Broomstick,” 13 years after I coined it on the Sherdog forum. I hope this one has greater resonance, though. He deserves it.

At the AT&T Center on Saturday, Edwards was a testament to in-cage strategy. At every moment of opportunity, he was the first to engage and simply own dos Anjos, a very clever fighter in his own right. We often, and not unrighteously, malign British fighters for their lack of wrestling ability, yet Edwards surprised dos Anjos right from the first round with takedowns. He does all the little things right, most notably his vicious left elbow coming into and coming off clinch breaks, which split dos Anjos’ eye early in the fight. Then, he kept up his jab over the course of the fight to exacerbate the cut.

Leon Edwards is not the perfectly well-rounded mixed martial artist. He has one submission in the last six years over an overwhelmed and beleaguered Albert Tumenov, who he had already boxed his snotbox off. But, you don’t have to be Georges St-Pierre to pull this gig off. You just have to be skilled and smart enough to beat the person in front of you. And, as mentioned, only one athlete to my mind has actually done that to Leon Edwards and he’s got a waist full of gold.

UFC Fight Night: Dos Anjos v Edwards Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Better for the UFC, and perhaps Edwards himself, he didn’t take his career’s biggest moment to push for a title shot. All of us know that the only legitimate 170-pound championship fight in the Octagon now is a showdown between the aforementioned Usman and former interim belted agitator Colby Covington. Instead, Edwards called out Jorge Masvidal, who has also come into his own recently and stepped into the spotlight. This gives us an obvious title fight and a no-brain title eliminator to set up the next challenger. In the Endeavor era of the UFC, the simpler you can make things, the better. This isn’t just simple, it’s perfect and exciting.

Does he Edwards beat Usman, Covington or Masvidal? I’m not so sure. What I do know is that he’ll come out in his southpaw stance, with poise and strategy, and fight like a technician. If he isn’t the best in the world, he’s goddamn sure one of them. He’s the Welter Fundamental.