I kept waiting for the UFC to turn up the promotion for UFC 286. After all, it’s a hell of a lot easier to promote the third contest between Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman than their second fight was. There’s actually a reasonable debate as to who will win this time around. Granted, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t spend a lot of time on the mediums that produce large volumes of the types of promotion I’m referring to. Regardless, I saw several advertisements for Jon Jones and Ciryl Gane in the lead up to UFC 285. I haven’t seen any for UFC 286. Perhaps it has to do with the early start time of UFC 286, given the event is taking place in the UK. Perhaps it has to do with the event taking place only two weeks after UFC 285. Most likely, it’s a combination of both.
It’s a shame the UFC did this contest dirty. Usman was on scale to potentially separate himself from the great welterweights of the UFC’s past. Many already had him beyond Matt Hughes. Some even had him on par with Georges St-Pierre. I won’t say it’ll be impossible for Usman to reach the standard of a GSP at this point, but he will need to secure a win here for that to happen. After all, the only fighters who have held the welterweight strap on two separate occasions are Hughes and St-Pierre. As for Edwards, he needs a win to establish himself as more than just a cursory champion who scored a massive upset. Not that it’s a horrible fate; Matt Serra and Holly Holm have become more memorable than several other champions from UFC past who managed to achieve at least one successful defense. But you can be assured both of them would have rather added a defense to their resume.
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Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman, Welterweight
It isn’t too hard to get down to the nitty gritty of this contest. We saw these two collide just seven months ago and Usman was winning the contest in his trademark grinding fashion until Edwards landed his Hail Mary head kick that rewrote the history of MMA. That’s no hyperbole. A title change is a big deal, but a comeback that historic becomes a “Do you remember where you were when...” moment. Regardless, anyone who knows a modicum about either fighter would acknowledge Usman is the superior wrestler by a significant margin, which we were reminded of in the last contest. Usman secured five takedowns and maintained positional control for almost half of the contest. In other words, he was winning until he wasn’t.
To give a more honest take, Usman is one of the best wrestlers in the history of the UFC. I don’t believe he has been at the wrestling disadvantage in any of his MMA contests. However, it could be argued Usman was winning the standup before he was knocked out cold. Take out the ground strikes and Usman still maintained the striking advantage. He still maintained the advantage if you remove the clinch striking. I understand Usman’s standup benefits from the threat of his wrestling. Put Edwards and Usman in a straight kickboxing contest and Edwards is the superior fighter. However, the name of the game is MMA. That takedown threat is real and it plays into how the standup plays out. We know what type of power Usman can unleash too. Only two people have put Jorge Masvidal away with strikes. One was Usman. Only major MMA stat heads can name the other without looking it up. Thus, it’s clear Usman has a tactical advantage in pretty much all the major areas.
The thing is, there are so many psychological issues at play going into the third contest. Usman’s only other career loss came 10 years ago in his second career MMA fight, a submission. He could attribute that to being young in the sport. This is Usman’s first major loss. He’d been to hell and back in his first fight with Colby Covington, but he held on and didn’t break mentally or physically. We know Edwards broke him physically in the first contest, Usman’s brain shutting down his body after suffering severe trauma. We don’t know if the loss has broken Usman mentally. It isn’t just that Usman lost. It didn’t happen in a small show on difficult to find grainy footage. He lost in the most devastating way on one of the biggest stages possible. In today’s uber-viral world, it has been replayed over and over again. Usman can mitigate how often he sees it, but I don’t believe he can completely avoid it. Will he maintain his confidence? Will he be gun shy? There’s no way to definitively know until they step in the cage.
Another talking point has to be Usman’s body. While Usman is undoubtedly a fantastic athlete, it hasn’t been a secret that his body has been falling apart. His knees limit his ability to train. Usman has tied himself to some excellent coaches who have been able to find successful workarounds, allowing him to maintain his dominant form. Usman coming off a loss may complicate this issue. Usman’s competitiveness has never been questioned; no one has accused him of dodging opponents. He welcomed rematches with Masvidal and Covington because some were unsatisfied with the way he won in his first contests with them. Will his motivation to regain his belt cause him to overtrain? Beyond that, could he end up focusing too much on one area so much he ignores other areas? I did say Usman has always been associated with good coaches, so I believe this issue would be mitigated at the very least. But Usman is ultimately in charge of his camp. It’s not like they are around him 24 hours a day either.
Edwards’ confidence is a difficult thing to judge too. Now owning a win over Usman, he knows he can beat him now. Not saying he didn’t believe that before, but he knows it now. That confidence boost could be a boon for him. It could also be his downfall. Miesha Tate fell in love with being champion more than being focused on keeping her belt. In retrospect, it wasn’t hard to see what happened with Tate given all the promotional stuff she was doing after she won the title. There’s a strong case to be made that happened with Usman. Edwards hasn’t been nearly as visible as most new champions, so I’m hedging that he’ll be fine, but it’s hard to say.
There is a lot we know about this contest. Edwards is a more technical striker with underrated power in his fists. Usman is the superior wrestler. That said, Usman is no slouch on the feet and Edwards is a more than competent wrestler and grappler. After all, he was the first fighter to score a takedown on Usman, not a minor feat. Given the way their last fight ended, it has created a lot of uncertainty that we won’t have answers to until they step in the cage. Perhaps something can be gleaned from interviews from both of them, but that has traditionally been a lost avenue, especially when neither fighter is a provocateur along the lines of a McGregor. Weigh-ins can be telling, but this article will be submitted before those occur. I’ve tried to run down all the intangibles that I can here, but I acknowledge that’s all speculation. Going on what we do know, Usman feels like the appropriate pick. While his body is breaking down, that isn’t what cost him. He was coasting and gave Edwards an opening he exploited. Granted, it’s been seven months since they fought, more than enough time for Usman to face a decline given how rapidly that tends to set in. Without a sign though, I’m not betting on that. As I said much earlier in the article, Usman was winning until he wasn’t. Given the mental toughness Usman has traditionally shown, I’m betting this contest will play out in a similar fashion without the shocking finish. Usman via decision
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