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Diggin’ Deep on UFC: Edwards vs. Muhammad - A stronger opponent than Chimaev?

Dig into the main card of UFC Vegas 21, headlined by a streaking Leon Edwards looking to turn away late notice underdog Belal Muhammad filling in for Khamzat Chimaev.

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Leon Edwards, who fights Rafael dos Anjos at UFC San Antonio
Leon Edwards, who fights Rafael dos Anjos at UFC San Antonio
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

While everyone is wishing Khamzat Chimaev the best as he recovers from what appears to be a particularly difficult bout with COVID-19, it may be a blessing in disguise for him that he is effectively dodging Leon Edwards. While Chimaev is certainly an impressive prospect, he is still a prospect and Edwards represents a HUGE step up from the likes of Gerald Meerschaert. So while the fan interest in UFC Vegas 21 took a hit when Chimaev pulled out, most would agree Belal Muhammad presents a stronger opponent for Edwards. As for the rest of the main card, there are some contests that appear to be a viewer’s delight, but nothing that would be labeled as can’t miss. Hmm… maybe that’s why there was such a disappointment when Chimaev was pulled…

Leon Edwards vs. Belal Muhammad, Welterweight

It’s hard to think of anyone who has had a quieter 8-fight win streak in the history of the UFC than Edwards. There was a steady climb in the level of competition that he faced as the streak extended itself, but there wasn’t a high level of flash involved in the wins, only two finishes coming in that time. A lack of finishes doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of dominance as GSP had a streak of seven straight decision wins, but he was already an established star and champion by the time that streak begun. Edwards had a UFC record of 2-2 at the point his begun. Edwards is very good, there’s just a lot of people who don’t know it.

The Brit doesn’t have a weakness. He’s technically sound. He’s a plus athlete. He has KO power. He’s a strong wrestler. He’s incredibly difficult to submit. There’s a reason it’s been a long time since he’s lost. However, he doesn’t absolutely excel at anything either. He’s not the powerhouse wrestler Kamaru Usman is. He’s not the BJJ ace Demian Maia is. He’s not the striking specialist Stephen Thompson is. Perhaps those reasons more than his lack of finishes speak to his lack of media attention.

However, Edwards’ versatility makes him very difficult to prepare for. He can stay on the outside and pick apart his opponent. He can grind them either against the cage or into the mat. There are plenty of small things he does that go generally unnoticed to such as seamless stance switching and almost always getting the last word on breaks out of the clinch.

Muhammad is excellent at the small things too. Given his physical limitations, he has to be. Muhammad isn’t a horrendous athlete, but it has certainly put a visible ceiling on how far he can climb, dropping contests to superior athletes in Geoff Neal and Vicente Luque. Recognizing that his highly technical style will only take him so far if he didn’t tweek it, Muhammad has upped the aggression level in his most recent showing. While pressure has always been a large part of Muhammad’s game, he rarely gave Dhiego Lima a moment to breathe. One notable change in his attack against Lima was the abandonment of low kicks, typically something he’s regularly uses to supplement his boxing. Will those reappear against Edwards? My guess is yes given Edwards was prone to the low kicks of Rafael dos Anjos.

There’s a reason Muhammad is a big underdog. He’s not as athletic as Edwards, nor is he as powerful of a puncher or wrestler. A common defense for underdogs is the “puncher’s chance,” but Muhammad isn’t a one-punch KO artist and Edwards has never been finished. Maybe Muhammad could overwhelm Edwards with volume, but Edwards has successfully been able to stifle previous volume punchers. Muhammad has also been able to wear out opponents with his supreme conditioning, but Edwards hasn’t fallen prey to that in the past. If Edwards wants a case for a title fight, he needs a finish. Muhammad is tough, but he has been finished in the past. I think Edwards finds a way to do the job late. Edwards via TKO of RD4

Misha Cirkunov vs. Ryan Spann, Light Heavyweight

For those of you who are fairly new to MMA fandom, it might surprise you to learn Cirkunov was once thought to be the brightest prospect at light heavyweight in the UFC. While it says more about the prospects of new blood in the division a few years ago than it does about Cirkunov’s actual abilities, there’s no doubt the Canadian has proven to be a disappointment given the expectations that were placed upon him.

To be fair to Cirkunov, those expectations themselves were unfair and he’s hardly a slouch. Part of Cirkunov’s bumpy road can be attributed to his getting away from his bread and butter: wrestling and top control. Given fans tend to respond to spectacular KO’s on the feet, it’s understandable why fighters tend to pursue a highlight reel finish on the feet. Given Cirkunov’s natural power, it’s a bit of a surprise he hasn’t logged more finishes with his fists. The issue is Cirkunov is on the stiff side of his striking. He can counter a bit and packs a wallop, but it’s clearly not his base. He’d much rather close the distance and either score a takedown or operate in the clinch if he can’t get that.

That describes a lot of Spann’s game as well. The lanky Fortis MMA product has proven to be adept with submissions, the guillotine in particular being his specialty. Spann isn’t going to secure too many of those staying at a distance, thus the preference for the clinch, where he can also secure takedowns. However, recognizing that isn’t the best use of his long reach, Spann has slowly evolved into a solid outside striker. Most encouraging has been the development in his power, securing several knockdowns in his UFC run that caught many by surprise.

There are two things Spann is missing that has me leaning towards Cirkunov: brute strength and explosive athleticism. He’s a fluid athlete, but he doesn’t explode in the manner the likes of Johnny Walker did previously against Cirkunov. The brute strength would be used to stifle Cirkunov’s takedowns and/or get out from underneath the submission specialist. When Spann has faced opposition looking for takedowns, they’ve gotten him down. Spann was fortunate they didn’t have the submission skills of Cirkunov. Unless Spann can keep Cirkunov on the outside, his luck has run out. Cirkunov via submission of RD1

  • Perhaps the most curious member of the official UFC rankings in the featherweight top ten, Dan Ige has scratched and clawed his way into that spot. Expect him to do the same to keep his spot. Though a solid athlete, he’s nothing special and he’s not the biggest 145er either. Ige gets the job done on guts and guile. While eating shots doesn’t deter him from moving forward, it’s not like he’s doing so forehead first, showing reasonable defense. Ige utilizes solid angles upon entry, putting together excellent punch-kick combinations and consistently attacking the body. Unfortunately, his wrestling has stalled out as he has climbed the ladder of competition. For Gavin Tucker, the opposite has been true, showing a steady course of progress in his takedowns as his competition has gotten tougher. Much of that has to do with Tucker maturing as a fighter, managing his energy better and improving his timing on his takedowns. On the feet, the Canadian made a hell of a splash in his UFC debut with his dynamism, but has settled down with a more fundamental approach in recent contests, a big part of the reason his energy management has improved. Nonetheless, it’s clearly been effective. Ige represents a BIG step up from what Tucker has faced thus far. With both showing progress in each contest, the most logical pick is to go with the more proven commodity. Ige via decision
  • It’s easy to forget Davey Grant has been on the UFC roster for over seven years, largely because many tend to forget Grant is even on the roster. That’ll happen when you’ve fought on average less than once a year in that time. Primarily known as a gritty grappler, Grant has made huge strides on his boxing in the pocket, enough that he scored a one-punch KO over Martin Day in his last appearance. Given he has a bad habit of getting submitted, perhaps it’s a good thing he has become less reliant on his alleged strength. In the case of Jonathan Martinez, he’s been strengthening what was already his strongest suit in the first place, his striking. Always a flashy striker with a penchant for flying and spinning attacks, he’s used the high-risk maneuvers more judiciously while supplementing it with a jab. He still utilizes a front kick more than the jab, but it has made his flash that much more effective. Martinez has never been known for his ground game, but he’s also improved his spacing and overall takedown defense, making that less of an issue. I still expect Grant to get a takedown or two, but Martinez should outwork the Brit on the feet quite handily. Martinez via decision
  • Manel Kape’s UFC debut was a mixed bag. He fell short against Alexandre Pantoja, but Pantoja looks like a firm top 5 flyweight and Kape had his moments. The problem was he spent too much time looking for the perfect shot, digging himself an insurmountable hole in terms of volume as Pantoja touched him up. Kape is uniquely long for the division, but isn’t so lithe that he can’t muscle his opponent around in the clinch or score takedowns. However, it’s his KO power in a division that isn’t known for KO’s that made him a product many hardcore fans were excited to have touch down in the organization. Then again, he isn’t doing himself any favors by stepping in on short notice for the return of Matheus Nicolau, once one of the brightest prospects in the division before the UFC began purging it’s roster of flyweight fighters. Nicolau showed an impressively rounded skill set for someone as young as he was. Now 28, Nicolau should be in the prime of his career. He utilizes a diverse attack, mixing his shots up to all levels with the occasional takedown mixed in for good measure. He attacks with great efficiency and is sound defensively. However, his chin, while it isn’t weak, hasn’t proven to be made of iron, leaving open a strong possibility of Kape finding the killshot. Regardless, at flyweight, the better bet is to go with the busier fighter. Nicolau via decision
  • I don’t think it’s fair to refer to Eryk Anders as a prospect anymore. At 33 with 10 UFC fights under his belt, it’s hard to believe he’s going to take a serious leap at this point. That doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to expect minor improvement, but the odds are against him developing into the star many saw in him. One thing Anders has improved is his aloofness, no longer floating through fights looking for an opportunity to explode with his incredible burst and power. He’s a handful in the clinch, is difficult to take down, and has improved his combination strikes. Anders is still one of the most impressive pure athletes in the division too. Fortunately for Darren Stewart, he’s not a slouch athletically himself, but he’s going to have to rely on his technique and smarts to overcome Anders. While that wouldn’t have been likely early in Stewart’s UFC run, he’s made enormous leaps and bounds with his punching combinations in the pocket and has rectified many of the mental errors that plagued him at one point. While Anders has become a smarter fighter himself, he hasn’t made the same strides as Stewart. Even if Anders gets his preferrable fight in the clinch, that’s Stewart’s favorite area to operate and the Englishman tends to be more busy with his dirty boxing than Anders. It’s a tough contest to pick, but Stewart feels like the much safer pick. Stewart via decision