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At UFC 278, Leon Edwards reminded us why we love MMA

Even the most jaded fans knew they’d just witnessed something special, following Edwards’ last-minute knockout of Usman on Saturday night.

Checked out, but not tuned out. That would be the best way to describe my mindset as the fight clock ticked down during the Kamaru Usman vs. Leon Edwards bout on Saturday night.

I doubt I was the only one in that particular headspace when the UFC 278 main event welterweight title matchup marched into its final 60 seconds.

As the fifth and final round opened, UFC commentator Joe Rogan said of Edwards’ dimming hope of becoming a UFC champion, “This is do or die for Leon Edwards… He’s gotta do something big. He’s gotta do something really big. He’s gotta open himself up.”

With that, Rogan’s partner, Jon Anik, threw the discussion to Din Thomas, who was providing additional commentary on the broadcast. The former UFC fighter was blunt in his assessment of what he saw from the challenger.

“If it wasn’t obvious enough, Leon is broken,” said Thomas with 4:09 left in the fight.

The former American Top Team coach revealed that he had come to this conclusion based on what he saw as Edwards sat on the stool in his corner during the one-minute break between the fourth and fifth round.

“He doesn’t give his coach eye contact in the corner,” said Thomas. “When [fighters] don’t give [coaches] eye contact, they’re ashamed and he’s embarrassed right now with his own performance. This is how you know a fighter is broken, and Leon is broken.”

Edwards added that not getting finished and making it to the final bell would be a “moral victory” for Edwards.

With 90 seconds left in the contest, Rogan and his co-commentator—former two-division UFC champion Daniel Cormier—began (to quote Cormier) to write Edwards’ “obituary.” As the clock ticked down to 60 seconds remaining in the bout, Cormier recalled Thomas’ assessment that Edwards was broken. Anik was in the middle of pushing back on that evaluation of Edwards, saying, “That is not the cloth from which he is cut,” when Usman made what might have been his first mistake in 19 minutes. If it wasn’t his first error — it was his largest.

Edwards feinted a short right hand and a left jab to get Usman to move his head — and the champ bit—putting his unguarded jawline directly in the line of fire for a head kick. The impact of Edwards’ shin showered the canvas with a waterfall of sweat from Usman’s head. It also left him a ‘former’ champion before he came to rest, eyes open but unseeing, on the canvas.

Edwards knew the fight was over and the title was his. He didn’t wait for referee Herb Dean to call it. As Dean scrambled to get between Edwards and his downed opponent, the freshly minted champion had already thrown his hands in the air in celebration and stepped away to take his victory lap around the cage.

With his amazing come from behind win, Edwards reminded even the most jaded among us why we love combat sports.

After a rocky start to the fight that saw him drop the first round on all three scorecards, Usman came back to put on a nearly flawless performance. He limited Edwards’ offense to 42 landed significant strikes after the first round, almost doubling up with his own output. In addition, the ‘Nigerian Nightmare’ racked up 9:15 of control time after the first round—along with four successful takedowns.

But MMA is an unforgiving sport. There’s no place to hide inside the cage. A fighter—as Usman seemingly had—can employ an approach that has the exact right mix of attack, aggression and defense and still end up staring into the arena lights before the final bell has sounded.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Usman in that unenviable position, having entered UFC 278 with a 2015 decision win over Edwards, a 15-fight unbeaten streak, five UFC title defenses and the top spot of the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings.

At the same time, it’s impossible to feel a touch of the elation that must have coursed through Edwards. ‘Rocky’ was 9-0 (and one no contest) since that UFC on FOX 5 early prelim loss to Usman in 2015, and seemed likely just 56 seconds away from never getting another opportunity to fight for UFC gold again.

Of course, now, one of the things that makes combat sports wonderful is that fans will get to see these two meet for a third time to settle their score. With that, we’ll find out how resilient Usman can be, and how much heart he possesses. Simultaneously we’ll get to know a whole lot more about just what kind of champion Edwards can be. I can’t wait to see it.