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Editorial: Edwards’ win over Nate Diaz says more about our biases than his performance

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For some observers, Leon Edwards caught a break against Nate Diaz at UFC 263. No. He simply got caught.

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UFC 263: Leon Edwards v Nate Diaz
Leon Edwards gets his hand raised after his win over Nate Diaz at UFC 263.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Leon Edwards defeated Nate Diaz by unanimous decision on June 12, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona at UFC 263. Anything wrong with that sentence? Of course not. Not even Nate’s biggest fans are making a case that Nate might have actually won. But the last minute of the fight was a big deal. The pros went crazy for it. And when all was said and done, it was Diaz everybody talked about. Not Leon.

“In a real fight, in the real world, that fight’s a wrap. He was sleepwalking,” Nate said at the press conference. “At the end of the day I feel like he won or whatever, but I feel like I’m the better fighter still, regardless. I feel like the peak of the fight is what matters in the fight anyway, what happened in the end.”

Ah yes, if the only the fight were even more real than it gets. We can posture any butterfly effect more ways than a GI Joe. What does a ‘real fight’ even mean? A fight without a referee? In that case Leon is just dead. Does a real fight mean a fight without time limits? If that’s the case, does Nate even decide to suddenly pressure without a clock incentivizing him? Does a real fight mean ‘no holds barred’ i.e. weapons? We’ve seen that already, and it’s exactly as dumb as advertised.

I don’t mean to attack Nate here. In fact, I think what he’s saying is actually quite thoughtful. He credits Leon for the win more carefully than most fans, pundits, and YouTubers. But he says something specific that I think taps into our broader perceptions of performance: the idea of the ‘peak’ of the fight, and how it’s what matters in the end.

It’s the kind of thing I’d expect Nate to say. For most of his career, Nate has built his reputation on the idea that he may lose a fight, but he won’t be beaten. But why do these narratives tend to latch onto fights where the peak is at the end instead of the beginning, or elsewhere? What if Kazayuki Fujita had rung Fedor Emelianenko’s bell at the end of the round instead of early on? What if Carlos Condit landed that head kick on Georges St-Pierre in the final minute instead of round three? What if Derek Brunson had landed that head kick on Yoel Romero in the final seconds of the fight instead of first several minutes?

Is any of this helpful, as far as analysis goes? Of course not. And that’s the irony. If anything, these moments have strengthened the reputations of the above fighters. If the roles had been reversed, isn’t there a good chance the narrative would be too? Nate showed insane toughness staying on his feet after Leon cracked him late in the fight.

It’s different though, right? If it feels different it’s because that’s just how psychology works. Fittingly for Nate’s quote, psychology calls it the peak-end rule: we tend to judge experiences based on their most intense points. Nate’s late round rally was the most intense point of the fight, so there’s a sense of interpretation about what it reflects, not only in where Nate goes from here, but in whether or not Edwards deserves a title shot.

So what’s there to discuss? In terms of Edwards as a challenger, and Diaz as an aging veteran? Nothing really. We’re biased by the notion that Diaz can outlast any opponent, and biased by the notion that Edwards is sometimes too careful. And so the narrative writes itself: see what happens when you’re too careful?

Except Edwards never landed anything less than 50% of his strikes in each round. He was never in danger of a submission, and seemed to actually have the advantage at times on the ground to support an otherwise significant advantage on the feet. Edwards was never too careful. He was simply deliberate.

Edwards is right when it comes to title challengers. Who else is there? It’s fair to criticize Edwards. If he expects to challenge Kamaru Usman, there’s some caution he’ll need to throw to the wind. But that’s part of Edwards’ charm (if you’re a fan), and his skills. Fights don’t have to have peaks and rallies. They can be slow and steady. The intensity comes from the certainty of getting your hand raised — of victory. Victory is all that matters anyway.